An exploration into Iceland’s wild landscape

Iceland is a country that has seen incredible change over the past 10 years. With tourism now being a bigger money-maker than the fishing industry, Iceland sees its fair share of tourists. Going into this trip I wasn’t looking forward to the crowded spots and thousands of DSLRs. Despite me contributing to the many tourists with a camera, I wasn’t looking to spend this trip taking photos of already well photographed spots. Going off the beaten path is something that I look for whenever possible. It offers a fresh perspective and a far richer experience of a location, instead of a car park full of tour buses and a queue of selfie sticks waiting to take a photograph next to a waterfall.

Iceland definitely offered far more than I was expecting. Away from the tourist traps, the island is beautiful, with varying terrain and awesome scenery.

There was a sign in a common tourist spot that spoke great volume, and should be reiterated for those planning to go off the beaten track. It read:

It only takes one set of footprints for thousands to follow.

For this reason I will not be providing the names of some of the locations where my photos were taken. Many were taken in fragile parts of the country where currently large amounts of tourism cannot be sustained. The Island is full of incredible places, many waiting to be explored. If this post inspires you to travel to Iceland, find your own spots and please look after the delicate landscape.


Part 1: A Snowy Introduction

On arrival in Reykjavik, the weather was immediately imposing. Coming out of the city we passed an abandoned car that had swerved off the road, left to freeze in deep snow. The snow drifts and harsh winds were initially quite overwhelming. Luckily the brutal weather didn’t last for too long, and our first dumping of snow was the biggest.

My tiny little tent in the middle of a whiteout. There was something incredibly cozy about being surrounded by fresh snow when we woke up.

The first night in Iceland left my tent covered in a blanket of snow. Despite the tent only really being good for 3 season use it held its own. The fresh snow that fell onto the tent fell down the sides and acted as a wind barrier, which was neat.

Skogafoss: Photographed a thousand times over, but a beautiful waterfall that definitely deserves its fame.

The drive along the Southern section of the ring road is nothing short of impressive. It crosses huge glacial plains which slowly reveal a silhouette of a looming mountain. Occasionally the visibility would improve enough to reveal some of the surrounding peaks, still shrouded in cloud.

Once the road conditions improved, driving became an unbelievable experience. For every kilometer traveled, new scenery and landscapes would emerge. It was overwhelming at first, since we wanted to stop at every opportunity to take in the views. This became a recurring theme on this trip, since the roads are all so picturesque.

Perhaps it’s the details that made exploring Iceland such a great experience. Every road would have something interesting on it. Somehow these dirt piles interested us enough to take a detour, since they were so well placed next to the mountains. It was bitterly cold here, with snow falling heavily and the wind whipping between the dirt piles.

Sunshine!

In a crazy turn of events, we woke up the next morning to blistering sunshine. This was totally unexpected following the last couple of days being so cloudy.

The Southern coast was pretty busy with tourists, something that was to be expected. There were some places that we had to ourselves but so far we had been pretty constrained to only visiting places off of the ring road due to the conditions. With the weather starting to look a lot better, this meant we could venture far deeper into Iceland.

The beach alongside Vestrahorn was to me more interesting than the iconic mountain ridge line. Strange sandy piles of marram grass were scattered across the beach, some up to 6 feet tall. Some of the piles had fishing nets nestled into them.

Southern Iceland has active glaciers covering most of the highlands, meaning the landscape is extremely glacial. Glaciers are fascinating to me, so to see the huge chunks of moraine deposited across the landscape was awesome. Some of the ice was pretty thick so we were able to walk onto the sections that were frozen over. Later that day a huge amount of glacial carving took place on the Eastern side of the glacier, which made it to national news. It would have been cool to witness that first hand, but seeing the power of this glacier it would’ve been a little daunting.

Once again, the details are what make Iceland so interesting. We came across this broken down trailer in the middle of a field which happened to have the perfect backdrop. We think the farmer left it there on purpose.


Part 2: A Sunny Introduction to the East Fjords

As we delved deeper into the East, the weather continued to clear up and started to have completely clear skies. The landscape became crystal clear, with every peak and ridge line being visible. The steep cliffs and awesome headlands became even more prominent after every corner we took.

Somewhere between Breiðdalsvík and Stöðvarfjörður. The sunset tones lasted for hours.

Flutters of Aurora

After finding what seemed like a perfect camp spot opposite the Breiðdalsvík pinnacles, I received a notification on my phone to say that if the sky was clear at my location the Aurora Borealis would be visible. We promptly packed up our stuff and headed to a spot on the next fjord across, in hope of catching a glimpse of the lights.

A fluttering Aurora display is a sight like no other. The streaks of vibrant colour scattered over the East Fjords were simply magical. My travel buddy Dima took the shot on the left as I was soaking in the lights and didn’t want the camera screen to detract from my experience. I was in total awe.

Temperatures reached -12°C in the East Fjords that night. Thankfully the double sleeping bags worked their magic and insulted my body heat quite well. Unfortunately the overnight oats didn’t survive the night, and were iced up in the morning. Opening the tent door to the steep mountains in the East Fjords was incredible, the pinnacles on the opposite mountains being especially prominent.

Before entering the road to a mountain pass, we stopped off alongside a huge industrial plant. After a little research, we found out that it’s an aluminium smelting plant making up a large chunk of Iceland’s GDP. This explained why the roads in the area were in such great condition.

We came across this cool little hut sat at the edge of the fjord, which housed a few old car parts. There were some old burnt up cars alongside it too. A little strange for it to be right next to the water, but some things in Iceland are probably best not explained.

High Passes

Since the weather was so good, we had hoped to be able to finally climb some mountains. We got ourselves to an awesome Ski slope near Seydisfjordur, that had some trails leading to the surrounding mountains. We had heard that Seydisfjordur was the ‘hipster’ place of Iceland. Unfortunately there wasn’t much evidence to support this other than a few locals with tattooed eyebrows.

We kitted ourselves up, raring to go. Unfortunately the snow conditions weren’t ideal. Some might call them ‘a little sketchy’. We decided it was best to put off any summit attempts until the conditions got better. The area provided a great chance to take in the landscape, with only the occasional sound of a snow plow in the distance. It was pretty divine.

Thank you East Fjords, very cool.


Part 3: Distant Highlands

Northern Iceland is a strange place. It’s extremely wild with lots of crazy volcanic land-forms scattered everywhere. There aren’t many people living here and there isn’t much wildlife to be seen. It’s desolate and empty.

Inside your car seemed like the only comfortable place to be in the North East. Either side of the road were frozen lakes or a peculiar volcanic feature. Just before reaching Myvatn we came across some fumaroles. They smelled like the worst fart imaginable. Adding to this, the area was super muddy. However, it was a really interesting landscape to see, and something that didn’t look like anything from our planet.

After getting out of the slightly strange and eerie volcanic bit of Northern Iceland we took a couple of detours to check out the coastline. In search of a hot spring we found some very friendly horses. We had a quick cup of coffee, an insightful discussion about the tourism boom and afterwards they had a good lick of the car bonnet.

Geothermal Tomato Greenhouses

En route to our camp spot for the night, we came across a pretty unique sight. Lines of greenhouses were lighting up the snowy landscape, looking like something out of a bond film. On closer inspection, the greenhouses were growing tomatoes. Catching them at dusk was a little dystopian, likely an ideal setting for a murder mystery TV drama.

The Pristine Troll Peninsula

After finding some summer hiking routes on the troll peninsular, we found one hike to a lake that didn’t seem too demanding to undertake in winter. The terrain was mostly gradual with a ridge line that looked worse from the base. The trail and its markers were covered in snow, so we just went along the fastest route to the lake. As expected, the lake was iced over and covered in snow, but it was a beautiful hike nonetheless and rewarding being out in the mountains.

What’s the perfect way to relax after a day in the mountains? An infinity geothermal pool overlooking the ocean of course!

We started off in search of a swimming pool so that we could use their shower facilities and hopefully smell a bit better afterwards. Somehow we managed to come across the most picturesque swimming pool in Iceland, where the sun was setting over the ocean when we arrived. For two smelly campers, something so luxurious did not seem very natural. It felt as though we were in a travel magazine advert. The modest architecture and steaming geothermal pool made for a divine experience. The Icelanders enforce a clean pool etiquette that involves washing thoroughly before taking a dip. The pool was a joy to use.

With our bodies refreshed from the geothermal pool and The Blaze blasting from the car’s speakers, this sunset drive was definitely a high point.


Part 4: To the West Fjords!

Travelling to the West Fjords is something we definitely didn’t plan for. After reading horror stories of storms that left people stranded in Ísafjörður, avalanches that wiped out villages and road conditions only meant for 4×4’s, we had mostly ruled out the West Fjords, deeming them too much of a risk. Since our weather had been pretty good the past few days and the forecast was looking positive, we decided to head to the West Fjords anyway. Best decision ever.

We set up camp on the outskirts of a little village in the Westfjords, which would act as our safety location. It was a beautiful town, which had an enormous church towering in the center. The village was also the first with a decent road layout, meaning it was actually possible to navigate without getting lost. It seemed as though we were entering heaven, in fact it might have been heaven. There was a summer campsite that had their facilities open for winter travellers in case the weather closed in. Our first night was super windy, which meant boiling water in the freezing temperatures wasn’t what you’d call straight forward.

A jetty close to our camp spot

We ended up staying here for two nights since there were facilities to wash our dishes and even heated toilet cubicles. Yes, heated toilet cubicles. It was incredible.

On our second night at the campsite we figured out that the water source was powered by the geothermal energy and the hot water tap in one of the toilets came out boiling. This elevated our cooking abilities to entirely new levels and a lot of food was eaten that night.

This Lada 4×4 was owned by a local who was catching fresh oysters off the beach. His glove box was kitted out with Vodka and a few shotgun shells.

Despite only spending a short time in the West Fjords, we got to see some of its many hidden delights. Waterfalls were scattered everywhere and steep cliffs simply took my breath away. This area of Iceland felt completely different to the rest. It was calm and relaxing, which would have likely been a different story had the weather turned in on us.

This is the first time I’ve taken the Yashica Mat 124G on a trip with me. (Her name is Matilda, or Matty for short) Square crop makes composing shots far very intimate and I found that I spent more time being critical about the scene. All the square photos from this post were shot with the Yashica and all the others with my trusty Fuji X-E2.

The town of Bíldudalur nestled in the fjord

With only a couple of days left until our flight home, we couldn’t risk getting stuck in the Westfjords. Since the conditions were still good we made the most of them and progressed towards our next destination, the Snæfellsnes Peninsular.

This is shot from an easily distinguishable mountain famous for being in Game of Thrones. Every photo you will see of this mountain is from next to the car park at the base. Climbing to the top of the mountain was far more rewarding than the car park view and we got a perspective that many others don’t get to see.

Western Iceland has an absolutely stunning coastline. There are plenty of coastal walks that wind through caves and sea stacks on the Snæfellsnes Peninsular. This side of the Island is perfect for sunsets, with the open ocean allowing for some beautiful tones.

After some long days and cold nights, relaxing on a black pebble beach with the sun setting on the rocks provided some time to reflect on the trip. It had been epic, with scenery you can’t find anywhere else.

The final shot on my roll of film. Not a bad way to end.

I’d like to think this shot had some conclusive story behind it, conveying the way that tourism is ruining Iceland’s natural landscape. In reality this is just a digger in a perfect setting that caught the setting sun at a nice angle.

“Now that’s a vibe.”

We doubted you, but boy oh boy did you deliver. Thanks Iceland.

Benjamin Davies

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