Aurora Chasing: Part III

Continuing the diary of my attempts to capture the aurora. Part one is here, and part two here.

Over the next few days I set out on various routes achievable from the capital in a single day. The weather forecast for pretty much the whole week was showing as constant rain, but as they say in Iceland, if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. Indeed, I was blessed by mostly fine weather for much of my time on the road, and occasionally by air so clear that I could see mountains several kilometres away without a hint of haze.

The aforementioned Reykjanes peninsula (or Reykjanesskagi to give it its full name in Icelandic) has recently seen the completion of a fully surfaced road stretching along its southern extent, from Grindavík in the west to the ferry port at Þorlákshöfn in the east. I headed towards the latter town from Reykjavík on a route that passes through the high altitude Hellisheiði pass. It’s not uncommon for the weather in the pass to be very different from that in the city, and so it proved as the light drizzle in Reykjavík gave way to a snow-covered landscape with ice on the road and cloud everywhere. The descent towards Hveragerði is a steep, winding road where you have to be exceptionally careful not to lose grip, especially when it is slippery. Driving down this route gives one a clear indication of just how dangerous driving in Iceland can be if you are not careful, and this is on one of the best roads there is.

Þorlákshöfn is one of two terminals for the ferry service to the Westman Islands. The other, Landeyjahöfn, is further east, and recently took over as the primary terminal as it allows for a much shorter crossing. Þorlákshöfn however remains active as a backup for when ferries are unable to take the shorter route. The community of villages and farms nearby gather at Strandarkirkja, a small wooden church, typical of rural Iceland, built right on the coast. It is separated from the beach, where the bitterly cold sea meets harsh volcanic rocks and black sand, by a wall of rocks which was still covered in a dusting of rain-washed snow.

Strandarkirkja, a small church near Þórklákshöfn in southwest Iceland

I walked over some slippery steps, supporting myself with the aid of the freezing-cold metal chain handrail, to explore the textures on the beach, as the tide was quite low. Seaweed, basalt, black sand and shallow water channels provided variety and interest. Back by the church, a statue by Gunnfriður Jónsdóttir called Landsýn (Land in Sight) looks out over the ocean, and there was a line of snow up the figure’s back indicating just how strong the wind had been recently.

The slippery path over the sea defences at Strandarkirkja
Lava textures on the beach at Strandarkirkja
Black sand on the beach at Strandarkirkja
A crack in the lava on the beach at Strandarkirkja
Landsýn (“Land in Sight”), a statue by Strandarkirkja

Further west lies the sleepy fishing town of Grindavík, where the Grindavík Ice Company provides crates of ice for the local fishermen. I’m used to seeing ice out in the wild in Iceland, but the stacks of ice-filled containers outside the company’s bright red warehouse was a less familiar sight! On the way to Grindavík the road passes some extremely odd shaped volcanic structures, one of which looks like an octopus emerging from an roiling ocean that has been frozen into solid lava.


If you continue further still, the road heads to a hot spring area called Gunnuhver, where a ghost called Gunna is said to have caused much perturbation until being tricked into falling into a hot spring. The cold weather meant that the steam from the hot springs, with its now familiar (to me) eggy/Marmitey smell, overwhelmed the whole area, leaving the bubbling mud and boiling water invisible. However the wooden walkways through the area disappeared into the steam in a wonderfully gothic way.

The wooden path at Gunnuhver disappearing into the steam

Turning north, back towards the international airport at Keflavik, one crosses the fault line that lies between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Those ever resourceful Icelanders have built a ‘bridge between the continents’ at one point, where you can stand above the ever-widening crack as the two plates move apart by a few centimetres every year. The gap is filled with black sand and not, as some might expect, boiling lava, which means you can walk beneath the bridge as well as over it.

The bridge between continents – North America on the left, Eurasia on the right

As I headed back towards Reykjavík, I took a detour past Kleifarvatn, a lake which in 2000 began to drain away slowly, after a fissure was opened up by an earthquake in the area. Even now it’s possible to see how far it has receded as there are vast black sandy areas between the edge of the lake and the rocks by the road. Interestingly shaped chunks of ice had formed at the edge of the lake, and tyre marks left by some no-doubt bonkers 4×4 contraption had part-filled with snow, making shapes that in places resembled writing in some foreign script.

Ice shapes on the edge of Kleifarvatn
Snow and tyre tracks at Kleifarvatn

Back in Reykjavík, I visited Perlan (The Pearl) to grab a shot of one of my favourite views of the city. Heavy bands of cloud overhead ensured there would be no aurora viewing tonight, but they did help to provide some impressive light over the bay.

View of Reyjkavík from Perlan. The large church is Hallgrímskirkja, Hallgrímur’s church, whose design was influenced by the basalt columns common throughout Iceland.
Late sun over the bay at Reykjavík, seen from Perlan

After some food, and once it was completely dark outside, I headed down to Harpa, the concert hall by the harbour, to photograph the light show created by individual strips of light contained within each cell of its pseudogeological façade. You can watch a video of the display here.

Reykjavík’s amazing dynamically lit concert hall and opera house, Harpa.
The green and red lights dancing across the façade were reminiscent of the aurora
The display went on all night, as far as I could tell.