Its just like a mini Antarctica, only closer!
OK I feel I have to explain the swear words when referring to the photography class arriving. I taught photography to degree level for about 8 years until recently so its a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. What I do have a problem with though is some of these photo tours organised by people who have just completed a photo tour themselves and think ‘I could/should/must do that’. Thats not the case here but when I also ran photo tours in Tenerife (yeah yeah, pot and kettle) it was all organised in advance, the students were kept to a certain area of the hotel and we set up in fixed reserved locations. Its not like we just planked ourselves down in front of Joe Public and started to commandeer the place, which is something I have seen a lot of happening back home and to a certain extent here in Iceland. Certainly if you have paid to reserve a spot go ahead but if you have no respect for your fellow travellers you can fuck right off!
A case in point was over dinner, the group leader set up his tripod at the dinner table and was taking an inordinately long time setting up to take a few photos of flickering candles. Why he couldnt just fucking move them to the corner or put on a different lens is a mystery to me, unless of course it was due to some ‘look at me’ syndrome. What he failed to recognise was that there were also other people staying here who werent part of his group and were tired after a long day and just wanted to sit in the common room with a coffee, chat to people and watch the sun not go down.
I tend to find these groups over populated with middle aged wannabe alpha males with a gear fixation or engineering/teaching background. Oh fuck Ive just realised thats a great description of me! ;-
They tend to know more than the tutor (which having seen some of the tutors, wouldnt be hard) and think that because they have paid, that they should dominate any tutiledge and group discussions. Of course thats where a good tutor comes in and makes sure everyone gets their fair share and the more introspective members of the group also get some airtime and dont feel left out.
Speaking to two of the group later that evening who were feeling left out, felt their gear was inadequate and werent getting the airtime I felt their pain. I know from my own experience its a hard one to manage and particularly in my previous field (postal and online tuition) it tended to attract those who wouldnt really be suited to a group environment. Dont get me wrong Im not getting at the people, Im getting at the ones taking their money and not either having the experience or worse, caring about the group mix and dynamics.
When I was doing the overseas training we had a cameras away policy over dinner and had people actually sitting talking, swapping stories (usually mine!) and imbibing some of the local hootch in the bar to the wee hours. Quite sad to see splits in groups that early and 10 people sitting huddled over laptops at night sitting in a room with huge picture windows a glacier on every side and not quite midnight sun.
Its what I see more and more and I tell people on my courses to use the camera in their eyes first and foremost. I took a lot of photos at Geysir around the Strokkur geyser and in every single photo either everyone or the vast vast majorty were looking at the event through a camera screen or eyepiece. Now again you might say the pot calling the kettle black but its sort of my job to get the shots but with everything I do my research, go and see it for myself then get the shots and with something like strokkur, have a little ‘me’ time whilst watching the endless cycle of people getting off coaches, walking to strokkur, waiting with camera to eye, taking photos, walking back and exiting via the gift shop. Other than the smell of sulphur and occasional tourist getting a roasting because they got too close (or as I saw ignoring the scalding water sign and putting their hand in to see how hot it is).
I remember when I rounded Cape Horn it was a crappy day and although you could make out the cape and rocks in the mist it wouldnt be a great photo but even so I thought it was one of those times that it was better to experience with my own eyes than through a viewfinder.
I sat and chatted with the guest house owners to the wee small hours, they owned a Safari company in Kenya so I relayed part of my Kenya story. They work 3 weeks about with both companies, bit of a change from Kenya to Iceland and vice versa!
My room was in what seemed like a converted shipping container in the grounds of the house. They didnt actually live there but in another house nearby and this whole house and that one were the guesthouses. Later in the trip one of the guesthouse owners said that the converted containers were popular when the tourism exploded in the last couple of years, they fulfilled a shortfall in holiday accommodation on the island and were so popular that some hotels were being built using them as a prefab technique.
Considering this was the first non-shared room this trip and both the outside door and the window had complete steel shutter sun blinds it was the first time I had seen total darkness since I arrived. I cant tell you how good that felt.
I was down early for breakfast and the guesthouse owner let me tuck in early. I suspect it had a lot to do with me looking hungry but also probably to avoid ten tripods being set up around the table to take photos of how the food was laid out.
I noticed the split in the group was more noticeable this morning with two of the group sitting outside with their coffee so I went out and joined them. They were getting left behind with all the technical talk and the wish to get lots of milky seas and waterfalls and the like and just wanted to take photos. Something a lot of group tours miss out on is the actual pure enjoyment in making and taking photos bit. We had a long chat about the art of photography rather than the science before I headed off via the dwarf rocks and across the massive ash flats towards vatnajokull national park.
The internet travel forums are full of horror stories about travelling in hire cars across these flats. If the wind picks up and its dry its the equivalent of sandblasting the car. Locals of course listen out for the weather forecasts, something that tourists may not be aware of and first thing they know is that they get hit with a couple of grand respray bill.
The expanse of the flats is just amazing, as is the road across it. At the other side theres a car park with some metal bent from the previous bridge washed away in the last eruption. Of course after you have travelled across you read the bit about being designed to fail under the worst conditions because its cheaper to rebuild to a lower spec than to build to the highest spec only to find out it does work or only to find out the definition of highest spec has just been redefined!
Note to self to check the weather forecast for the way back tomorrow!
I checked in at Vatnajokull park centre to check the times of the glacier walk tomorrow. I didnt book any trips because I wasnt sure when Id make it back down again and didnt want to miss it. The glacier walk take you right onto the glacier where batman begins was filmed, although they only went up to the side and the base when the lake was frozen. The start position for the tour is where it was filmed. They supply all the gear and although Ive been to glaciers before and have even been in one a couple of times Ive never walked on one. Although judging by all the comments, safety notices and briefings theres probably a good reason for that. The glacier walks is a relatively new thing here although because of the explosion in tourism a lot of the stuff here is in its infancy.
I headed off to the Jokulsarlon glacier lake which was another hour or so up the road. Once again I saw the crowds of tourist jeeps parked off road at what looked like a huge bank of stones which happened to be the glacial moraine for the lake. I parked up and climbed the hill to see something akin to what I saw day after day in Antarctica. Im using the A word again but its hard not to make comparisons but if I hadnt been to the white continent this would really have been one of the coolest places Id ever been.
I got back in the car and headed off to the visitors centre at the lagoon for some lunch. It was fairly busy and the centre was quite functional with good food at reasonable prices. No overpriced tourist tat here, no award winning multi million pound white elephants in this part of the world, just exactly what you need from a visitors centre, food, drink, information and the odd bit of tat!
I gave the zodiac cruise amongst the icebergs a miss because, well, you know the story by now but Id say if you dont fanncy travelling to the bottom of the world, this is as good as you will get without going there.
The icebergs here have that black ash tinge from various eruptions which does make it unique. Having been used to pure blue and crystal clear icebergs in the other place, seeing black and striped ones here was a novelty.
There was one brave couple here getting their wedding photos done. I assumed they werent local and I suppose if you are going to travel half way round the world to get wedding photos done, theres no better place. Poor girl had just enough time between taking the jacket off and starting to freeze to get one or two shots per cycle!
Id bought my brother a bottle of Cognac in duty free on the way in to Iceland and he wanted a photo taken of it somewhere ‘Icelandic’. Falling short of an actual lava flow this was it. I did check the whole lava flow thing but there hadnt been one in almost a year. Damn, must try harder.
Across the road from the visitors centre was the black sand beach famous for the icebergs washing up on it. The lagoon was only formed recently by the glacier retreating from the sea so to avoid the icebergs coming off the glacier, down the lagoon and out to see taking the bridge across the road with it, a weir was built which blocks most of the large bergs from going through the channel so they melt or break up into smaller pieces and these can get washed up on the beach and can create some really beautiful but ephemeral pieces.
I parked up and headed down to the shoreline to be met with an array of builders crack arses of photographers bending over tripods getting soaked creating ‘art’. I received a volley of snorts and snarls of derision when I picked up a piece, turned it around to the light and lay down and shot through it. I was only doing it for badness. I dont know if the derision was for the man made intervention or for the fact noone else had thought of it. Of course the whole reason why they are here is man made, from climate change causing the glacier to retreat to the weir and channel which causes small pieces to wash up in this particular area. I guess the irony is lost on a lot of people.
Looking around the beach I realise I should really have shares in tripod manufacturers and neutral density filter manufacturers or at very least do an apple and create a patent for that particular photo, long after the fact. (of course if someone who reads this does that it just proves theres no honour on the internet and thats why I’ll never make a million)
Theres only so many photos you can take of pieces of ice sitting on black sand but if someone wants to pay me a couple of grand Im sure I could create a day course out of it. Id start it off by hauling a huge cool bag down to the beach, open it up and shout ‘heres some I prepared earlier!’. Only kidding. After I finish writing this Im off to search ebay and alibaba.com for chinese manufacturers of fake icebergs and black sand….
Id both overestimated the distance to my next hostel and also underestimated how quickly the weather would cloud over so I stopped off at the hostel, put my milk and stuff in the fridge and headed off up to Hofn for some food. Hofn was my turning point in the journey and it wasnt until I got there that I realised I probably could have pushed on and did the whole ring road of the island in my time this week. I didnt really regret it because the weather was turning and the two days back were to be pretty miserable so Id taken my time on the way out to enjoy all the spots and get some decent food. Rushing through just to clock up the miles would have ben no better than just getting a coach tour.
I had a list of the top three restaurants in Hofn but it was Sunday and they were all closed. Now I know what people visiting Belfast have to put up with. Then again Hofn has a population of about 2200, Belfast about 150 times that!
I spoke to a Canadian couple who were wandering around lost looking for somewhere to eat as well and I told them Id found a community centre but it only had one sandwich on display and it looked like it had been there for a very long time.
We chatted for a while and they gave me some other places to try but again mostly closed.
I figured Id have to bite the bullet and tuck into that final pot noodle and cup a soup back at the hostel but I found a wee cafe on the road out of town. It seemed a popular place although it was the only place open which might explain it. It did serve seafood fresh off the boats and I applied for a small loan to pay for my langoustine sandwich. I dont think Ive paid that much for a sandwich before, still it was a very nice sandwich, just glad I didnt order any wine or Id need to change that loan to a mortgage!
I was joined by the Canadian couple Id seen wandering earlier and they confirmed that other than the supermarket and one manky hot dog in the service station across the road, this was the only food in town. They looked at the menu and realised that in Canadian terms dinner for two with wine would indeed require a mortgage. Still what are you going to do?
The food was excellent, let me say that again, the food was excellent, something Ive said a lot on this trip. You may know I love my seafood and that comes from doing a lot of sea fishing back home and everything here was very fresh and cooked to perfection. The money doesnt really come in to it when you get food that good.
I headed back to my hostel, far too early but with the weather closing in and nothing else much to do out here there was nothing else for it.
Most of the folk in the hostel were hikers or birdwatchers. I chose this hostel because of the rating and like most of the accommodation on this trip, it was in a beautiful spot truely in the back end of beyond with the nearest food over 50km away. This would have been the ideal spot for those night sky shots I planned taking before I got here. Before I realised it wouldnt be night again until August!
Ah well. Most folk here were in bed early and I wasnt that tired having done very little today. Besides which I was in a six berth bunk room and I was last to arrive so I was in a top bunk. Now I havent been in the top bunk anywhere since I was about 10. In fact the last time I was in a top bunk I was 10 and it was christmas eve morning. I fell out and broke my arm. Christmas Eve spent in casualty getting my arm in a cast. My dad had the patience of a saint. I think I both learned it off him and that Christmas morning when I opened up my meccano set and tried to make a dumper truck with one arm. The guide said an hour to 2 hours and 22 hours later I finished. Does take some time when you have to get someone else to hold the bolt when you try to screw it in with your one good arm.
Im not the most graceful of people and having not worked off the extra weight I put on while on tour with the band in Canada last September I did think that my arse was not going to fit through the gap at the top of the ladder on the bunk bed. Im sure the small child it was designed for would fit through easily but I did think that calling out for help and a lubricant at 1am in the morning might either be the best call of the trip or the worst…
I dont think I woke everyone in the room up but I figured Id get up earlier than everyone else and get the fuck out before they know it was me who did wake them all up. They were probably all off for a 50km yomp over mountains or something and needed their sleep in case they fell down a crevasse never to return.
I did swear quietly and in an english accent just in case.
Being prone to kidney stones and having had some surgically removed earlier in the year and having similar treatment lined up for the week I get back from here I was drinking a lot…
So at 4am I couldnt hold it in any longer and squeezed my sorry ass back down through the steps and swearing in english again I wondered how the hell I was going to get back into the room after relieving myself of at least one of my three litres drank that day.
I need not have worried because it appeared everyone was up anyway when I got back, certainly all the snoring had stopped. Maybe Id better leave about 5am just to be sure.
I was up early and tried to speak in French to anyone who would listen, I think I got away with it.