Aurora Borealis Hunting

January 2013

Day 1 – So it was an early start… something that is akin to all Epic Trips at one point or another. I could not really sleep anyways so I got up at 03:30 instead of 04:00. I got some something to eat and then finished packing my bag and headed into Limerick to collect Paddy at 05:00. He was finishing his lunch for later in the day and then we were out of there. We drove through Limerick and made it out to Shannon for just after 05:30 and parked up. The weather was fine and there was not a lot of cold in the air – it was showing 10 degrees C on the car on the way out. We dropped off our bags at the Aer Lingus desks and then headed up through security. Here was something strange – in order to get through security we had to take everything out of our camera bags – I have never seen the likes of it before. Luckily we were in no rush but it was really wierd to be asked to remove all the cameras and lenses. Anyways, we got through security and then we headed to the waiting area for flight EI380 to London Heathrow at 07:30. It was only 06:00 when we got there so we relaxed for a bit and chatted and got something to eat. We headed down to gate 06 at 06:45 and got a seat and waited for them to call us by row number. We were in row 10 so we were near the end before we got called. We got onto the plane and got our gear up into the overhead bins and settled down for a snooze on the way across to London. The crossing was nice and short with a bit of a delay around London due to congestion. We had to circle for around 10 minutes. We slept for 40 odd minutes and were on the ground around 08:50 then in Heathrow.
We grabbed our gear and headed into the terminal – we had to collect our bags and check them again at the Iceland Air desk when we were going through. There was no one at the desk when we got there so we got some breakfast – round two – and then the desk was open shortly after 10:00. We dropped off the big bags ok and then had to weigh in the carry on items. This was the first time that I actually had to weigh in the gear before going on the plane and when you have cameras and lenses your bag tends to be a bit heavier than the standard bag. Mine was coming in at around 16kg seemingly but the nice lady on the desk let it go this time – but it was a concern. The flight was not full so we were ok today but I would have hated to see what would have happened if the flight was full and they wanted me to check something. Anyways we headed through security – not having to take anything out of the bags this time apart from laptops etc – and then headed into the holding area. Pa bought a point and shoot camera in Dixons and charged up that for the trip and we waited around then till the flight information was updated on the screens. It was around 12:20 before they updated the information for us and told us to go to gate 5A for the onward flight. We refilled our water bottles at the water fountains near the toilets and then boarded the flight and headed to Reykjavik. Again I slept on the flight for 20 minutes and then got something to eat and watched some of the videos promoting the country and capital. The flight time was 2 hours and 35 minutes. We collected our bags and headed outside the airport and got the bus into town. Flybus was the operator and it took approximately 45 minutes to get to the train station. We grabbed our gear and walked the 1km to the accommodation for the night – Apartment K. We checked in and dropped our bags and got the gear and went out for a walk to get our bearings and get some air. We walked around the shopping street and up to the church Hallgrimskikrja – there were still some christmas lights on the streets also. We walked along the main shopping street – Laugavegur – and then down by the harbour before heading back to the apartment and getting something to eat and watching some tv and going to bed. It was pretty cloudy now tonight so there was not much point in us trying for some Northern Lights viewing – plus we did not have a car. It was dark from around 17:00 and would remain that way till 10:00 the following morning

Icelandic Horse
Icelandic Horse

Day 2 – So we got up after a good nights sleep – the apartment was nice and we got up and grabbed a shower before heading out to a local supermarket and grabbing a few bits and piece for breakfast. At 10:00 we were back at the apartment and cooking some breakfast. We finished up there at 11:00 and instead of getting a taxi to the car rental place – the original plan – we called them from the accommodation and asked them to come and get us. They said No Problem and were there a few minutes later. We headed over to Herzt and got our car at 11:30 and were on the road at 11:45 for the South Easy and Vik. We got a VW Tiguan – plate KD Y66. The jeep was well equipped now – Sat Nav, heated seats, full electrics, cruise control and only 1200km on the clock so new to boot. We headed out of Reykjavik and started driving through the rain and wind to our destination for the night – some 400 odd km from where we were. We drove through all sorts of weather from heavy rain downpours to clear days and nice light – the temperature never got into double digits though and went as low as 2.5 degrees C at some stages and we could clearly see snow and ice on the hills and mountains that we were driving through. We were on Highway 1 for the main part of this journey – first heading to Hella which is located about 90km away and across the inlet and on towards Vik – about 180km from Reykjavik. Hella is a much bigger place compared to Vik – where we stopped around 14:15 and got some food in the grocery store. We were back on the road then at 14:30 and heading towards Guesthouse Hali which was located about 12km on the far side of the Glacial Lagoon. We passed by some other glacier formations about 70km from the final destination – Skaftafell being the main one – but the weather was really bad so we said that we would stop on the return leg – and it was getting dark besides. The overall journey was 390km from where we collected the car that morning and we arrived at 17:15 in the evening – it was well and truly dark at that stage but we had arrived at Jokulsarlon safe and sound. This area is part of the Vatnajokull National Park. We checked into our room for the night – room 16 – and then cooked something in the kitchen area and watched some tv. The plan then was to chill out for a bit and get some sleep and head out around midnight down to the lagoon to see if there was any Northern Lights activity about the place. There is definitely a need for the heavy winter gear here as there is a biting icy wind that blows throughout the area that drops the perceived temperatures by a few degrees.
We cooked in the kitchen area in the house later on and then chilled out a bit before deciding to head out for some aurora hunting later. Pa slept for a bit as he was tired from the days driving and I watched Taken 2 on the ipad with the headphones in before waking Pa and heading out around 11 back to the Glacial Lagoon. It was very dark out but there was a low lying cloud and mist in the air as well so we were at nothing in heading down there really. There was nothing to see apart from a few street lights and the odd truck heading to some far off destination. We headed back to the guesthouse and went to bed around 01:00. There was no point in getting up again later in the night as we were not going to be able to see anything.

Glacial Lagoon
Glacial Lagoon

Day 3 – We got up this morning at 08:30 and got some breakfast in the canteen. It cost about 5 euro extra on top of the lodging bill but it was worth it. We got a continental breakfast and then headed back to the room to get our gear ready. The morning was really dirty and wet and not at all appealing for heading out to take some landscape shots. We left the area at 10:30 and headed east towards Hofn. The roads were really quiet and there was not a lot of cars on the road at that hour of the morning – or later on for that matter. We came upon some caribou on the road alright as we came around a bend on the way to Hofn – and tried to get some pictures of them but the light was so bad it was next to impossible. I was pushing 2500 ISO on the Mark IV and I could not get a decent shot unless the caribou were stopped. I used the 1D X with the 70-200 and had to push a similar ISO in order to get 1/200 @ f2.8 for a shot. We continued on towards Hofn and arrived there later on in or around 12:30. It looked like a fishing town for the most part with some wading bird locations on the outskirts of town. We parked up and walked around the place and then got some diesel for the jeep – cost was 256.9 ISK per litre. We headed back towards Hali and the weather seemed to be picking up. There was some nice landscape shots tentatively appearing through the clouded areas at stages but nothing really emerged. We got back to the accommodation without incident around 13:45 and I headed out for a run at 14:00 with the sheepdog. We did 10 miles and he even had the energy to chase some cars in between. I got back to the room and grabbed a shower just after 15:00 and the sun was setting at 15:30 when we were getting a late lunch. It did not look like there was anyone else in the house with us for the night at this stage. We grabbed our gear and ran outside and got a few shots before the sun finally disappeared – it was the most sun we had seen since we got here on Tuesday. We headed back inside and I slept for an hour and got up around 18:00 and then started to look at getting some food. There was no one else in the place with us so we cooked something and watched some tv and chatted. We headed out around 21:00 and the weather was dry – we went back down towards the Glacial Lagoon – still having not seen it in daylight since we arrived. We arrived there but there was cloud and rain and nothing to see so we headed back in the Hofn direction. Unfortunately the rain was following us around the place tonight so we did not get anything useful this night either. It was back to the room and watched something on tv and went to bed around midnight.

Aurora near Hella
Aurora near Hella

Day 4 – So we got up around 08:00 this morning and grabbed a shower and headed up to get some breakfast. The place was really quiet and there was only one other couple in there before us. We got our food and headed back to the room to finish packing and get on the road. It was 10:00 when we checked out and headed back towards the Glacial Lagoon – the sun was starting to show through some breaks in the clouds so we were hopeful that we might see something nice this morning. We got up to the Lagoon and drove in but there was a heavy mist hanging over the mountains behind them. We drove back across the road to the beach, parked up and headed down to the waters edge. There was biting wind out but overall it was not too bad. We did get caught in one or two showers – where we headed back to the jeep to let them blow off – and then resume our photography. Once piece of gear that I forgot was my camera cover – when the rain came it got quite wet.I know that some cameras are weather sealed and the Canon 1D series are one of them but I still did not like leaving it out in the rain. We continued shooting and the wind broke up the clouds some more before we left the place so we got some nice images of the glaciers on the black beach before heading west back towards Reykjavik. The lagoon itself is impressive and we saw some chunks of ice floating out to sea from the channel but it would look a lot more impressive just before the start of spring or summer I think when the mist and could are not so prominent. We also saw a seal swimming up and down outside the lagoon outlet at one point. We packed up and hit the road at 12:00 and then headed for Skaftafell which was some 70km away from us. The roads were quiet and the weather was actually quite nice – compared to when we headed out this way a few days ago. We could actually see breaks in the clouds and blue skies and the sun on the tops of the mountain peaks covered in snow and ice. We stopped at the glaciers and took some more images before continuing on towards Vik – another 130km from us. We got there without incident – the only issue being that the sun was blinding us as we drove into it. The land and area through which we drove is really impressive and flat – stretching on for miles and miles. There are huge sections of black sand or ash and there was other sections where the land is covered with a soft covering of some sort of green moss type substance. We got down to Vik and posted some postcards and then headed onto Hella which was another 90km away. We got there just after 16:00 or sunset. We found the hotel and check it – the place was small and quiet where we were staying – so is the town. We bought some food in the local Supermarket and cooked that in the cabin – Number 14 – and then chilled out for a bit. It is a nice place for Northern Lights viewing but unfortunately the weather or the forecast for it were not set to be a high number tonight. We said that we would check anyways when we were going to bed and see if there is any activity in the night sky – the cabin is remote enough that the only light is from us and there was no one else staying in the area that we could see.
Approximately once an hour we would head out and have a look – the easiest way to test was to take an exposure and see if there is anything in the sky. It was not until 21:00 that we thought we saw something with the naked eye. There was a faint hint on the horizon behind Hella. We confirmed it with an exposure and then headed for the jeep and started driving. We headed out of town towards Vik on Road number 1 and about 2km out we turned off to the left and started to climb. It seemed perfect – a nice quiet road, gaining altitude and leaving the town and its light pollution behind. We stopped a few miles up this road and set up our gear and started to take some photos. They say that you need the three C’s when looking for the Northern Lights – Cold, Crisp and Clear or Cloudless – well tonight fit all those requirements. The sky was covered with stars, the roads were freezing and it was freezing when we left the cabin. We started testing shots and exposures and tried to get the best setting for the images – ranging from 15 sec to 30 sec exposures. Once we got our night vision it was amazing to see the Northern Lights low to the north of our position dancing across the sky. We moved up and down the road and across to another road and down to Hotel Ranga to see what the views were like. There was a low lying cloud over Hella and it was casting an orange glow over the sky – the Northern Lights moved across that way at one point so it was hard not to get it into the images. We headed back to the cabin around 00:30 when a bank of cloud had started to move it. All in all we were really happy and had gotten some nice clear images from earlier in the night. Time for bed.

Skalholt Church
Skalholt Church

Day 5 – Today we got up to be greeted by cold and rain – the temperatures were hovering around 0 degrees C and the rain was falling as sleet or rain at time – a bit like Ireland for the way it was changing its mind – weather wise. We packed up the car and headed off towards Selfoss and the Golden Circle. Selfoss was about 30km from our position and we passed one or two cars that were off the road due to ice so we took it easy as we headed over towards our first point of interest – Skalholt church. We turned off road 1 and headed North on road 30 and turned left up there onto 31 and Skalholt church. We passed by some greenhouses on the way that were heating several large vegetation farms as well as some geothermal plants. We took some images at the church and headed on then to Reyholt and then on to Geysir. This is a geothermal area that is quite active and has several geysirs that are displayed all day long . The main attraction at this area is a geysir called Strokkur that – according to the information is active every 7-8 minutes. When we were there however it was more like 2-3 minutes and it was erupt. Pretty impressive. Just bring some rain gear for your camera etc. It is reported to shoot hot water into the air between 25 and 25 metres tall. Geysir is said to erupt and shoot streams of hot water 70-80m into the air however it did not erupt when we were there. We headed on from there another 10km down the road to Gulfoss and the waterfalls. We took some images here and then headed back towards Selfoss – approximately 71km away. From there we went back to the accommodation and got something to eat. The rain was back in on the way home and the temperature was dropping again . We got back and ate and then watched a show and checked the sky every hour or so. However tonight we saw nothing – back to cloud and no rain . We went to bed and checked the sky during the night when we woke – to find that it was snowing but still no clear skies.

Photo time
Photo time

Day 6 – So a light fall of snow was on the ground and the place was white – everywhere. Looked really nice now and there was no real cold there – no wind chill effect in place. We packed up the car and headed down to check the internet for the forecast tonight and get on our way. There was no one in the restaurant so we left the key in the room and headed off around 10:30 in the hope that we might see a bit of sunrise somewhere along the road to Selfoss. Alas that was not meant to be – the roads were fine even though they were covered in snow and ice – there is a lot to be said for Winter Tyres over here. We took it handy on the drive up to Selfoss – about 30 minutes – and then turned off onto the 34 and down towards the coast – about 10km away. The roads were less travelled here but overall not too slick. We were on a scouting mission for tonight in the hopes that the sky would remain clear and we would get some Aurora activity. We headed south along the coast road and stopped off in a few places as potentials for later on – there was a definite increase in the wind chill due to being so close to the waters edge. We found one or two locations but they were a bit far to travel from Reykjavik but we marked them in the GPS on the car just in case. We drove up to Grindavik and got some fuel for the car and something to eat ourselves and headed out the road to a local pitch and putt location and had some lunch around 14:00. We had driven out of the cloud cover at this stage and were in the sunlight now – even though it was still cold out – something like -1 degree. We meandered our way back around to the 44 Keflavik Airport for around 15:30 hours and decided to head out the 45 coast road to a town called Gardor – north of Keflavik Airport by about 10km. It was the northern most point on the headland and hopefully there would be no light pollution later on if we ended up there. We scoped out the area and headed out to the lighthouse and looked around . The place reminded me a bit like Kilkee in Ireland – lots of mobile homes around the place and small and quaint. We headed back to Keflavik and saw a sign for Stafnes lighthouse – I had noticed some nice images of the lighthouse there on 500px earlier in the year so I mentally noted the turn off and we headed back to the capital and found our accommodation. It was around 60km from where we were and the journey time was about 1 hour. It was Sunday so there was not too much traffic on the road thankfully. We got in and checked in without any delay to the apartment and dropped off our bags. We headed up to the local Bonus store and got something to eat and came back and cooked it and watched a movie. Then we checked the gear for later on and the weather at http://en.vedur.is and relaxed. The weather is great for showing the cloud cover and the Aurora forecast and the rain prediction for the coming hours and days. Generally we found it really accurate with a 24 hour window and tonight it was predicting clear skies and good Aurora activity. We headed out from the apartment at 20:30 and drove back to Gardor about 1 hour away. We could see the Aurora out the window on the way out – even with the strong light pollution. It was hard to keep going and not pull over and take some photos but there was too much light pollution in the area. We got up to the lighthouse and we happily taking images at 21:30 when a huge Aurora activity came over the lighthouse where we were. We only needed the shutter open for 5 seconds here and we were getting some great activity on the images. Unfortunately the lighthouse is active and very strong and throws a lot of spill light into the shots. We stayed here till 22:00 and then decided to try and find Stafnes and see if that was any better. We drove down the coast road and headed to Stafnes – about 8km from the turn off so probably 10km from where we were shooting. The road was nice and quiet – remote – and we were searching for some foreground interest in our journey down towards the lighthouse. We could see it lighting up the place at times but it did not seem as strong as Gardor. We nearly missed the turn off to the place but the GPS and keeping an eye out for places to shoot saved the day and we were down at the lighthouse with 20 minutes of leaving the other place. We set up our gear again and realised that this lighthouse was active was three sweeps and then went dormant for about 5 seconds and then active again for three sweeps. This allowed us a big of time to expose and time our shots to get the lighthouse in the images but not emitting light. All in all now we were happy. We were shooting with a 24-70 f2.8 Mark I lens, a 16-35 f2.8 Mark II lens and a 50mm f1.4. We had another spike in activity at around 23:00 when we were at the lighthouse and it was pretty spectacular. There was a small church about 2km back up the road and I wanted to shoot there so we headed there shortly after 23:10 but the light was too strong in the surrounding area of the church. There was however an old farm shed nearby that we availed off for the next hour as we took some more images of the Aurora Borealis. We were both running off adrenaline at this stage from the viewing but decided to make a call and head back to the apartment. We were happy with the images on the cards according to the camera’s LCDs so we drove back and headed to bed – tomorrow was the last night and we had some sightseeing of the capital yet to do. We got back to the apartment shortly at 01:00 and called it a night.

Day 7 – We got up at 09:00 and headed up to the Hallgrimskirkja Church which was 5 minutes walk from our location . The symbol of Reykjavik was designed by Guojon Samuelsson – one of Iceland’s greatest architects. Its construction began in 1945 and the church was hallowed in 1986. You can enjoy a magnificent view from the 73m high tower for the low cost of 600kr – approx 4 euro. We headed up there around 10:10 to the tower – got the elevator to the 8th floor and headed out to look out over the snow covered capital. The view was impressive but be warned – the ice is biting and will cut through you. We decided to wait till sunrise cleared the mountains behind the capital – with was around 11:10 that morning. I setup my tripod early and got a good spot and waited. There are bars over the windows but no glass so once you can get your camera in close enough and have a wide angle lens, you can take some nice images of the place. I chatted to some other like minded travellers about the Aurora show the previous night and then all of a sudden the place was packed with tourists for the sunrise. I grabbed my shots and packed away my gear as my finger tips were frozen from taking shots in the biting wind – definitely bring a cable release with you if you are going up there. We headed back down and walked back to the center and the apartment and got something to eat. After lunch we headed out walked down to the Austurvollur Square – from this square you can visit the Icelandic Parliament and Reykjavik Cathedral. We walked around and took some images and then headed over to the Pond. Most visitors pass along its shore as it is situated in the city centre next to the City Hall. Tjornin has long been a favourite spot for bringing young children to see and feed the ducks, seagulls, swans and geese that reside here. During winter, the lake usually freezes over but hot geothermal waters are pumped in to defrost an area for water birds. We headed back to the apartment via the souvenir shop and got some trinkets for the journey home and then called it a day. We got some fuel for the car, a pizza and a movie and called it a night as we were up early the following day to head home. Overall a quite successful trip now.

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