Iceland – The land of Fire, Ice and Waterfalls

Twelve days. Twelve people. Three cars. An anticlockwise road trip of 3500 kms in “The land of Fire and Ice”, the third windiest place on earth where weather changes every hour of the day.

When we leave our homes, when we step out of our comfort zones and escape to places we imagined only in our dreams, with bunch of people we never met before, walking in the foreign mysterious land in complete wilderness, in the quest of finding the unexplored version of us, to fathom out what’s in control and what’s not, that’s when we truly realize the gigantic possibility of unimaginable and get acquainted with vivid landscapes of life.

There is a saying in French, “Rester, c’est exister; mais voyager, c’est vivre”, which translates to “To stay is to exist but to travel is to live”. Travel, as it may seem, reminds me of train journey of life. We meet people, sometimes familiar, sometimes strangers. We talk a thing or two, share smile, share meals, share experiences, share wisdom and eventually they leave. We may not see them again. But we have to keep going to reach the destination. The essence and fun is in the journey itself. People we encounter leave a part of them in us, marking our souls forever.

Iceland was no less than a dream came true. A dream destination I had in mind since a very very long time. There are things in your life which are just beyond words. No matter how many adjectives you use to describe the magnificence and grandeur, they always fall short. Landscapes I witnessed were majestic and breathtaking. There were times I literally felt myself being teleported to one of the movies. It was fantabulous to be away from the IT world and witness the gigantic nature, beautiful mountains and humongous waterfalls. A fairyland where we experienced everything, from strong wind to spine chilling cold, from golden sunshine to dark cloudy nights, from incessant rain to misty fog and most importantly lights of the north aka Aurora Borealis. We even had a over-speeding ticket.
Like every good thing, the trip has come to an end. I wish to go back there in foreseeable future in a different season with someone I love, when fall colors will be prominent all around  

The most amazing thing about Iceland is not that it’s the third windiest place on earth. It is that hardly anyone lives on the first two places.

Though Iceland is often coined as The land of Fire and Ice, there is much more to it. Black sand beaches, gigantic waterfalls, lustrous rainbows, dramatic geyser,  hot springs, giant canyon, pristine mountains and the most exciting, northern lights.

Icelandic weather is enigmatic. It’s not the winter that matters much. It’s the wind.

Driving in Iceland can at times be insanely exhausting. Sitting at the edge of seat, with eyes glued out of the window in the fear of missing out untouched landscapes and capturing photos every five minutes until you understand you can’t keep on doing this, is the story of every new traveler there. Every scene is a photo opportunity. It is soul satisfying, breathtaking and refreshing. A day can never be the same in Iceland.

“Infinity”
On our way to the hotel, we stopped the car to capture this narrow water stream leading to the pristine mountain range. Everything in this picture is just perfect. Water resembling a stream of mercury, enough drama in the sky, the warmness in grass and the mystery in mountains.

October was a good time to visit Iceland because of couple of reasons. It was Aurora season. Days and nights were equally long. And there was less chance freezing down to death in cold.

As much awestrucking as Iceland was to me, it has left me wondering if I’ve ruined all of my trips in coming time, because I might have traveled the most beautiful place on earth. Chances are higher that a new location may not astound me the way Iceland did.

People call it Iceland. I call it Narnia.

The magnificence of Iceland lies in its vivid landscapes. Sometimes, it would freshen you up with memories of Narnia, while the chilly glacier would render you speechless reminding you of the epicness of Game of Thrones. It’s like a flight of fantasy has landed right in front of your eyes.

If you are a Bollywood fanatic, you will feel romance in many scenes. Shahrukh’s (aka King of romance) Dilwale was shot here.

“Fairy Pool”
A visit to Iceland is incomplete without this ingredient. Seljalandsfoss, probably the most reachable waterfall in Iceland attracts a lot of tourists because of one reason. It’s the only waterfall where you can walk behind and witness the beauty of the sunshine through its vertically falling crystal clear water.
Resembling the kind of pool where fairies take shower, it showered me with the epicness of Narnia.
It was a very bad day for us. 90% of the time we shot went in removing mist, flying water droplets and avoiding people in the frame. The walk to the spot where I positioned my tripod itself was very slippery and muddy

“Ice age”

Jokulsarlon Glacier is iconic because of its unique and brilliant icescape, giving a feeling that you have set foot in an ice painting. Spine chilling wind, clean fresh air and ice mountains are something you can’t take your eyes off. This beauty was delightful and life affirming. Few scenes of Game of Thrones were shot here.

Traveling to Iceland

Traveling to Iceland is easy. You just need a plane ticket to the capital city of Iceland, Reykjavik, Schengen visa, warm clothes to withstand the harsh winter and chilly wind and healthy dose of crazy mindset to explore it in full glory.

Planning and Execution (20th Oct – 1st Nov)

I flew from Hyderabad on 20th October, 2017 and reached Reykjavik on 21st. Sequence of flight was:

Hyderabad > Bombay > Amsterdam > Oslo > Reykjavik > Rental Car (Blue Car Rentals)

It’s pretty chilly in Norway. At 5 degrees celcius, dark sky, the wind whistling in unguarded ears and the Icelandair airlines having picture of northern lights carved over its body, this place seems promising.

 

Geyser

Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”) is a fountain geyser in the geothermal area beside the Hvítá River in Iceland in the southwest part of the country, east of Reykjavik. It is one of Iceland’s most famous geysers erupting about every 7 minutes, sometimes 15 – 20 m high.

PS:Shot by my friend Saurbh Chugh in Iceland.

Chasing Northern Lights

Aurora is one of the most beautiful phenomena of nature. The sole reason to choose October to travel was to chase Arctic Lights. And luckily we had Aurora activity 4 out of 11 nights we wandered. Apart from the green color, we were fortunate to see purple band too. You can expect the disappointment and frustration when you don’t see for what you traveled so far the first 4 days. It was spectacular to see the sky bath in northern lights. I had never seen something like this before, the green lights swirling and dancing all around. Vedur app showed good Aurora forecast.

“The day the earth stood still”
Even 23 hours of continuous driving, photoshooting and 2 sleepless nights in a row couldn’t dampen our excitement of shooting Aurora Borealis. That night, sky was beaming with the collision of sun particles and oxygen in the atmosphere. Before leaving Vestrahorn, I captured this picture as a memory that I finally lived my dream. No matter how many more places I visit, Iceland will always remain close to my heart, because now I believe that that green light is real.
This capture reminds me of some extraterrestrial environment and a suited alien preparing to invade.

“Eyesland”
My first day in Iceland wasn’t as fruitful as I expected. I was disappointed with the results I was getting. After hunting down aurora for 4 nights and not having a good sleep for 2 days, we drove to Jokulsarlon glacier for shooting aurora. This was a crazy exhausting day. 23 hours of continuous driving and photoshooting in which we visited the Glacier twice and Vestrahorn mountain thrice. We drove around 60 kms from our stay to witness this beauty. It was terribly chilling cold. Even 5 layers of clothing wasn’t working. But what I saw there is beyond words. The whole sky was illuminated with green lights and the lake under the glacier was showing beautiful reflection.
While capturing this magnificence, a car slowly inched towards the glacier with its headlights on, illuminating the icy peak of the mountain.

“The three elements”
Presenting to you, my most favorite breathtaking capture from Iceland trip. Jokulsarlon Glacier is probably one of the most iconic places in entire Iceland. Mainly famous for ice-peaked mountains, floating ice-bergs and crystal clear water formed from melting glacier. Later, it gained popularity because of Game of Thrones and DIlwale shooting. We drove there at 11:30 PM to shoot the green lights. Spine chilling cold and tough weather. The view was spectacular and literally rendered me awestruck and speechless. For a moment, I forgot that I have to take pictures. Aurora Borealis was dancing like crazy and the sky was bathing in green lights. I didn’t see anything more beautiful than this my whole life.
Challenge:
It was kind of difficult to get the perfect lighting as there were many photographers and tourists lighting up their torches here and there. This picture is the result of multiple attempts and right timing. Northern lights is volatile and it annihilated after 45 minutes or so.

Nights can never be boring in Iceland 🙂

“Green smoke”
Third day of aurora activity in Iceland.
Last night I was watching a mutant TV series where a genetically changed couple were holding hands and green, purple light was coming out. The girl said, “See how beautiful it is. You know, Aurora Borealis is the most beautiful thing in the world”.
Had I not seen the green lights myself, I won’t have understood the essence of what she said.

“The purple band”
Aurora Borealis is probably the most beautiful natural phenomenon on earth. When sun particles enter earth’s atmosphere near poles because of weak magnetic field, it collides with Nitrogen and Oxygen to form dancing purple, blue and green bands of color. Purple and blue bands are seen less often. Out of 4 nights I witnessed Aurora, purple band was seen only once.
I was probably in deep sleep when Nakul knocked the door at 4:30 in the morning. There were signs of some Aurora activity. Vestrahorn was 80 kms away from our stay. We stopped for a while near a lake on the way. The sky was beaming with dancing purple and green colors and the lake was having beautiful reflection.
Aurora is highly volatile. When we reached Vestrahorn, the activity was gone. This was one of few good pictures of that morning.

Majestic Waterfalls

It won’t be an overstatement to say that Iceland is full of hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls. And each of them is unique in its own sense.

“Waterfall of the Gods”
There’s an Italian painter, named Jean-Albert Carlotti, and he defined beauty. He said it is the summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing needs to be added, taken away or altered. I couldn’t agree more with Carlotti when I saw this waterfall.
The Goðafoss waterfall is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. The water of the river Skjálfandafljót falls from a height of 12 meters over a width of 30 meters.
Godafoss is not very tall or powerful; but admirers point to the separate cascades forming an elegant semicircular arc, the swirling patterns in the blue-green (or sometimes brown) water, and the strange bubbliness of the surrounding lava.
Godafoss is closely connected with one of the most important event in Icelandic history, the conversion to Christianity from heathendom or “the old custom” in the year 1000.

“Waterfall of the Gods – Part 2”
The top angle of the famous waterfall. I am in love with vibrant colors in the frame.

“Devil’s eye”

The first day in Iceland started with shooting 3 beautiful waterfalls. Brúarfoss was eye catching because of its blue-ish water and looked like a giant devil’s eye. The weather was just perfect and sky had a bit of drama.

“The destroyer Part 1”
Gulfoss is the largest waterfall in Europe. Standing there on the edge and witnessing the power nature holds to destroy anything that comes its way, can’t be explained in words. Even big apartments could have fallen apart. Taking this picture was extremely difficult. Wind was whistling like hell. Water droplets and mist were all around. I had to take my glasses off to see the camera LCD and continuously keep on wiping it to avoid any droplets in frame. Slippery stones and muddy trek further bumped up the challenge. Out of around 15 shots, I got only this one which looks slightly better. It was kinda once a lifetime opportunity to witness such beauty.
I showed this picture to my friend and first thing that came to her mind was:
“It’s serene, but gloomy. It’s beautiful, but dangerous. It’s infinite, but alone.”
I couldn’t have explained it better.
Such is the beauty of a photograph. It lets you imagine as if you’re standing right there, seeing with your eyes.

“The destroyer – Part 2”
Another angle of the Gulfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. I liked the way water was falling down with huge force, generating mist smoke.

“Misty path”
Another misty waterfall from Iceland. Dettifoss waterfall is present in Northeast Iceland with 44 meters fall height. The sky was dull and had no drama when we visited there. I like the mist being formed when the water strikes the rock with force and the misty path beyond.
I missed Selfoss Waterfall due to lack of time which is situated close to it.

“Dreamland”
This is not just a picture. It’s a feeling. Capturing this scene was the toughest thng I did in Iceland. 2.5 kms of steep trek in chilly wind followed by another 500 meters of trek down. By mistake, I chose the wrong path to reach there which made it even more challenging. I had never seen rocks that slippery. It was hard to stand still at one position and take sharp picture. It was getting darker every single minute. Returning from there was one hell of a task. Luckily, my tripod came to rescue acting as old man stick. I was literally praying for life that evening. One of the biggest challenge to shoot waterfall bed is that it is hard to know the depth of running water. First step, it is 5 inches and the next, it might be 1 feet. What I like about photography is that if put efforts, it rewards you well.

“180 degrees of miracle”
Skógafoss is another beautiful waterfall in Iceland. What makes it more charming is that when sun shines over the horizon, it forms a rainbow across the falling water. Seeing the thick stream of crystal clear water fall from a height of 60m and colorful 180 degrees rainbow was eye-popping. Since, it is just few minutes walking distance from car parking, this waterfall sees a lot of visitors. I had to wait for quite long to capture the half rainbow with no people. Due to the hide and seek nature of the sun in Iceland, the rainbow kept on eloping every now and then. The rainbow was clearly visible only when closer to it, which means inviting more mist.
To be honest, this was the most beautiful rainbow I’ve witnessed in life.

Challenge: Visitors, mist, Intermittent rainbow

PS: As a matter of fact, part of Gerua song was shot here 🙂

“Big bowl”
Seeing this picture still gives me chill. It was one of the windiest evening in Iceland. Wind strong enough to tremble legs, leave alone the tripod. While standing on the edge to capture Aldeyjarfoss, I was in constant fear to not fall down. I liked the big bowl shape of this waterfall.
No matter how good a picture is, it’s not worth your life.

“Rainbow land”
The first day in Iceland started with witnessing Öxarárfoss waterfall. This might look very ordinary now, since you have seen far better landscapes, beachscapes and Aurora pictures of Iceland. But believe me, the moment I saw white water singing and gliding down the small rocks, I was awestruck.
Did you notice the small rainbow on the right of waterfall? 🙂 PS: The vignette you see on the top-left frame is the result of wrong choice of variable ND filter. I realized it on the third day of my trip when It had already screwed up several of my captures.

Beaches and Black sand

“Fire and Ice”
It was one of the brightest day in Iceland. While sun was playing hide and seek, we had our tripods dipped inside the black sand for stable capture. This place is famous for big floating ice-bergs. A bit risky because of crazy sea waves, and the ice-bergs.
This picture is unique, because it shows the 5 elements of the nature ( EARTH, FIRE, AIR, WATER, & SKY)
The warm color in this picture symbolizes hope. No matter how dark your day might be, sun will always shine and darkness will annihilate.

“The plane wreck”
This picture is perfect example of how film industry is helping bloom the tourism and making the life difficult for photographers at the same time. This location peaked popularity right after Shahrukh shook his legs with Kajol in Dilwale’s Gerua. Due to extreme popularity, cars are not allowed to park nearby and we had to walk 2.5 miles to witness this beauty. As a matter of surprise, this is the first picture from my trip that is not gloomy and depicts that Iceland oftentimes sees the sunshine in early winter.

In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur, in the South Coast of Iceland. Fortunately, everyone in that plane survived. Later it turned out that the pilot had simply switched over to the wrong fuel tank. The remains are still on the sand very close to the sea.

The scenery of this white abandoned DC on the totally black sand is quite cool and surreal and the landscape around is pretty amazing too. The sight is actually like from a science fiction movie and is of course a photographer’s paradise in every way.

“Dreamscape”
An escape from a normal day to mysterious fantasy dream. That’s what this picture is all about. Reporting from Diamond beach, Iceland.

“No man’s land”
While flying from Norway to Iceland, I read a PDF which had a page on Dyrhólaey. The first question that itched my mind was, “Does Iceland have a place like this?”. The moment we set foot on that small peninsula after a visit to the black sand beach, Vik, I saw those ghost stones standing tall at a far away distance, with white waves continuously hitting it as if they were trying to destroy and carry with them.
This picturesque view reminds of the famous scene from “Harry Potter and Half Blood Prince” where Harry and Dumbledore go to a cave to fetch Horcrux.

“The hugging stone”
This is another picture from Dyrhólaey, famous black sand paradise. If you take a close look at the stone in the front, you will feel that it resembles a couple with their faces close and getting ready for an intimate, yet beautiful dance, like Kizomba.
I saw those ghost stones standing tall at a far away distance, with white waves continuously hitting it as if they were trying to destroy and carry with them.
This picturesque view reminds of the famous scene from “Harry Potter and Half Blood Prince” where Harry and Dumbledore go to a cave to fetch Horcrux.

Setting foot in Game of Thrones

North of the wall – Part 1

Kirkjufell mountain is probably the most famous location in Iceland. If you have seen Game of Thrones, you must be knowing why. This location was shot in season 7 in North of the wall.
Just 10 minutes drive from our stay and 10 minutes of hiking, witnessing this beauty was a treat to eyes. I always pictured a dark mood in my mind while thinking about this location. Iceland is the third windiest place on earth and Grundarfjördur showed us the power of nature. The hardest wind I experienced in my life. Our legs were shaking, keep aside the camera and tripod. It was tough to get a longer exposure. I also broke my camera there because of wind.
My dream shot was to capture aurora dancing above the “Church Mountain”. But due to wind, cloud, rain and void of luck, I couldn’t get it.

North of the wall – Part 2

Another angle of Kirkjufell mountain

“The church mountain”
While returning from Kirkjufell mountain in wind-chill weather, we saw this beautiful lake beside the mountain which was showing nice reflection. We decided to pay it a visit later that day. It was around 5:30 in the evening that I got to capture the heavenly sky, the church mountain and the lake in the blue hour. It was getting darker with every passing minute.
Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. This photograph renders me with peace, as if I am in some other world, serene and solumn. It reminds me to stand as calm as that mountain and hold strength to face tough winds. The beauty of strength is that neither the sky is high enough nor the ocean deep enough.

Iceland Itinerary

If you are planning to fly to Iceland, this (will be adding soon) itinerary might be helpful.

Car and Hotel booking

We rented Kia and QashQai from Blue Car Rentals and booked hotels through booking.com.

Get that Schengen Visa (Check list)

Iceland falls under Denmark Embassy. I applied for visa on 20th September, got call from the embassy on 25th and Visa was delivered to my address on 29th.

Documents required to apply for Visa:

  1. Flight booking
  2. Hotel booking
  3. Transport booking (Car rent)
  4. Travel insurance
  5. NOC letter from office
  6. Tour itinerary
  7. 2 photographs measuring exactly 3.5 cms x 4.5 cms
  8. Color xerox of all pages (including blank pages) of passport
  9. Salary slip of 4 months
  10. Employment letter
  11. Bank statement of 6 months, signed and stamped by bank
  12. ITR return of 3 years
  13. Leave permission from office (NOC would work here)
  14. Cover letter requesting Embassy for Schengen Visa, depicting your reason for travel

What to carry?

  1. Passport
  2. Waterproof gloves
  3. Good quality thermals
  4. Waterproof and windproof jacket
  5. Down jacket or vest
  6. Fleece jacket
  7. Long sleeve shirts
  8. Outdoor/hiking pants (waterproof recommended or quick dry)
  9. Good quality wool gloves and hat
  10. Hiking boots, better if they are waterproof.(No sports shoes)
  11. Gumboots
  12. Dryfit T-shirt: another piece for layering
  13. Poncho
  14. Woolen socks and cap
  15. Swimsuit : There are many hot springs and if time permits, you may go to Blue lagoon or secret lagoon
  16. A reusable water bottle, no need to buy water in Iceland, just fill it up from any stream or tap
  17. Medicines : Bring in your necessary medicine like crocin, or any other cold medication
  18. Power bank
  19. Electric Kettle
  20. Food (Noodles, Soup, Ready to eat vegetables)

Camera gear

  1. Camera
  2. Wide angle lens (preferably f2.8) for waterfalls and northern lights
  3. Zoom lens (70-200mm) for close landscape/portrait shots
  4. Sturdy tripod to withstand strong wind
  5. Remote cable for camera
  6. ND filters (10 stop and 6 stop)
  7. GND filter
  8. Extra batteries (at least 3)
  9. Rain cover
  10. Cleaning kit
  11. Memory cards (128 GB)
  12. Card reader and External Hard Drive
  13. Battery charger

Tips:

  1. Dress in layers to insulate you better (4-5 layers)
  2. Rain protection for camera is must. A lot of mist flies around waterfalls.
  3. Pack wisely and light, with all your essentials, don’t take more than one suitcase/bagpack and one Camera bag
  4. Food: Reykjavik is 8th most expensive city in the world. Food in Iceland is costly and it would be good to carry some food. Many Bonus outlets are there in Iceland where you can purchase things that can be cooked easily.
  5. Get shoes with good grip for hiking
  6. Time lapse and night shots eat a lot of battery
  7. Before going out, check Vedur for aurora forecast and cloud movement

Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. More than anything, I would like to go there again. Because going there won’t make you a spendthrift junkie for sure. If you ever get a chance to go there, don’t miss it. After all, who doesn’t like Narnia or Game of Thrones or pristine landscapes. Reasons are endless. 🙂

My photography work

I was short on gear in this trip. I felt the void of a full frame camera to reduce noise and a 10 stop filter to cut more light. Gear I carried:

  • Camera: Nikon D5300
  • Lens: Tokina 11-16 f2.8,Nikkor 35mm f1.8, Nikkor 50 mm f1.8
  • Filter: B+W ND8 filter, CPL filter
  • Neewer Carbon Fiber 67″/170cm Tripod
  • 64 + 32 GB SD, 4 camera batteries, 500 GB HDD, Card reader

If you liked my photography work, please follow my social media profiles. There are many more pictures which couldn’t fit here. As much as I wanted to put all of them, I also didn’t want to explode the post. Each of those pictures has a story of its own.

Aashish Barnwal Digital Canvas

Aashish Barnwal Instagram

Thanks to the acquaintances who served as the best travel buddies and who later became friends to cherish for years to come. I learned many things both from photographer’s perspective and as a human being. Not in any order: Nakul Sharma, Abhinav Pratap Singh, Hymakar Valluri, Saurbh Chugh, Sharadh Srivastava, Divisha Srivstav, Hiran Mayee, Florence Chemarin, Heena, Zurich Shah, Eric Follows

Special thanks to Nakul and Abhinav for making the trip memorable. It was worth each minute. You can contact Nakul for his Iceland trips.

Travel while you can. As Nakul says:

Job can wait, Travel can’t!

Copyright © 2017, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

One Comment, RSS

  1. Kamal Tanwani January 22, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

    awesome work dude 🙂

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