I’m rather fond of Scotland. I don’t go there nearly as much as I ought to, mainly because it’s such a hike, but every time I’ve been I’ve discovered something new. Whether it’s the tranquility of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, the stark beauty of Glencoe or the nordic history and diverse bird life of Shetland, it’s got pretty much everything. Continue reading North of the border
I’ve been posting these photos up all over my social media feed lately; these are images I’ve made in Photoshop from photographs I have taken during my many visits to Iceland over the years. Ever since the first time I went to Iceland it has struck me how the landscape can be represented by bands of colour, from the green of the aurora in the sky through the white snow-capped mountains and glaciers, the bare black rock, the green (or brown) of the grass and the black sand beaches that lead into the deep blue-grey of the north Atlantic ocean. Continue reading Impressions of Iceland
Modern Iceland has a population barely exceeding 300,000 people. The vast majority of Icelanders (over 200,000) live in Reykajvík and the surrounding conurbation, which consists of Mosfellsbær to the north, and Kópavogur, Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður to the south. The next largest town is Akureyri, in the north of the country, which has a population of around 18,000, with the rest of Iceland’s population distributed throughout towns, villages, hamlets and farms scattered around the coastline. The interior, also known as Hálendið (the highland), is utterly uninhabitable, and impassable by all but the most rugged 4×4. In winter, the four routes through the middle of Iceland are closed to traffic completely.
The extremely low population density means that road maintenance, which is funded by taxpayers, is prioritised towards the more populous regions, and it is not uncommon to be driving towards a remote lake, waterfall or settlement and find the road surface suddenly deteriorate into a pitted gravel surface (heralded by the warning ‘Malbik Endar’). Recent years have seen a huge rise in tourist visitors to Iceland, however, and many of the more popular destinations are now serviced by fully surfaced roads.
Despite its low population, Iceland has a booming music scene, which reaches far beyond the much feted Björk and Sigur Rós. Something in the education system, possibly combined with the island’s isolation, means many people use music as a form of self-expression, and the parochial nature of even the capital means musicians don’t need to look far to find like-minded individuals with whom they can form bands. Another consequence of the lack of people means that many bands share members, and it’s not uncommon to see the same musician appear with two or even three separate bands at various times.
The annual Iceland Airwaves festival, held in venues across Reykjavík in the late autumn, has in recent years grown exponentially into one of the world’s foremost musical events. Acting as a showpiece for primarily new and up-and-coming artists (from home and abroad), it is a great way to acquaint oneself with the local musical talent, as well as discover some newer bands on the verge of greatness (Florence and the Machine and Elbow are two bands who rose to international recognition on the back of Airwaves appearances). Some idiosyncratic choices at the 2011 event (namely Sinéad O’Connor and Yoko Ono) made many people question the festival’s commitment to new music, but the general feeling from people who attended was that it was possibly the best thing they’d been to, ever.
Winter in Iceland is an unusual time of year for people used to less polar latitudes. It’s common knowledge that through the winter solstice you get very little daylight at all. Even in late February the sun rises above the horizon for just 9 hours, and given that Iceland is further to the west than the UK, yet still uses GMT, the ‘day’ is shifted so that you get more daylight after midday than before. This also gives rise to a more regular ‘midnight sun’ during the summer months that would otherwise not occur, a sly marketing trick, I think!
Iceland’s main international airport sits at the western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, near the town of Keflavík, and is named after Leifur Eiríksson, the man credited by many with discovering the Americas (though he named them Vinland). First time visitors, who have been informed by their departure airport that their flight is to Reykjavík, are usually in for a surprise as there is a half-hour journey by road through the barren lava fields of Reykjanes before they finally reach the capital.
I had met a young couple on the plane who, despite being well-travelled, had not visited Iceland before. I envied them their first visit to Iceland, an experience that can never be repeated. Instead, I picked up my rental car and drove myself to the capital, where I was meeting Inga, who had very kindly arranged my accommodation for the week in the 4-star Radisson 1919 hotel right in the middle of town.
Once settled in, I helped myself to one of the town’s, and possibly the world’s, best hotdogs. ‘Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur’ literally means ‘Town’s best hotdogs’ and is aptly named. If you ask for ‘eina með öllu’ (‘one with everything’) you get a bun with onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade sauce smothered over a perfect hotdog sausage. As traditional Icelandic food goes, it’s not quite up there with dried fish or fermented shark, but if it’s good enough for President Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me. (In fact, Slick Willie only wanted mustard on his, so if you ask for ‘the Clinton’, that’s what you get!)
As the sky darkened I decided to head for Setljarnarnes, the northwesterly point on the small peninsula on which Reykjavík sits, to see what the aurora was up to. When I arrived, there was a pale green arc in the northern sky, but little movement. I sat in the car for a few minutes to wait, and suddenly, I saw a portion of the arc start to brighten and move. It wasn’t long before the aurora started to put on a real show.
A Brazilian man who was there too seemed very agitated by the whole thing. He asked me if that was the aurora, and when I confirmed that it was, seemed to be overcome with emotion, thanking me passionately, as though I had personally laid on the aurora for him. He saw that I was taking photographs and ask if I’d help him do the same, but when he fetched his camera from the car, I had to inform him that his compact point-and-shoot wouldn’t be capable of the long exposures necessary. He seemed decidedly crestfallen by the news, but brightened up quickly enough when his attention returned to the celestial light show.
With aurora pictures sorted, what was I to do for the rest of the week? I had been hoping to capture some more photos with perhaps one of Iceland’s famous waterfalls in the foreground, but I knew I’d be at the mercy of the elements, and had probably been extremely fortunate just to capture what I had tonight.
Sadly, on closer inspection, the picture above is still slightly out of focus, something I only discovered once I uploaded the images onto my laptop back at the hotel. So I was going to have to try again at some point if I was to get the headline-grabbing images that I wanted.
Part one in a series of posts about Iceland.
I always find it hard to articulate why it is that I keep returning to Iceland. I’ve been to some amazing places in my time; the Lake District, New York City, Barcelona, the Cayman Islands, but none of them has quite the same effect on me that Iceland does. I’ve seen the same in other people, so I know it’s not just me – as a rational, scientific thinker I hesitate to use spiritual metaphors, but this volcanic north Atlantic island does seem to have something about it that bewitches people, meaning that every time you go, you just want to return even more.
What doesn’t help is that the locals are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever encountered, and having made friends with several of them on Twitter, and met them in real life in my last few visits, I now have what feel like family ties pulling me back each time.
In February 2012 I travelled to Iceland for the eighth time, third time within the space of two years. The aim was two-fold; to go on my own and hence be free to get up at ungodly hours and stay up until ungodly hours, and to try to capture the aurora on camera, something I had singularly failed to do in all my previous visits.
My previous visit, in which I was photographing the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011, was actually only the first time I ever got to witness the aurora first hand. I was walking on the harbour front in Reykjavík with Tim and James, my two colleagues from The 405 who were covering the festival with me, when we saw what looked like a cloud move in an unexpected way. We knew straight away what it was, and the three of us spent the next ten minutes staring into the northern sky with our mouths wide open as solar particles bombarded the upper atmosphere, ionising oxygen atoms, which glowed like green and pink cosmic curtains gently blowing in the solar wind.
So from that moment I determined that the next time I went to Iceland I’d do my best to capture this spectacular phenomenon on camera.
A brief introduction
Iceland is one of the most recent additions to the Earth’s geology. It was formed around 20 million years ago by volcanic eruptions at the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, known as the mid-atlantic ridge. As a result of its relatively young age, it consists almost entirely of volcanic rock, and signs of the huge gash in the earth’s crust are everywhere, in particular at Þingvellir National Park, (‘Thingvellir’), site of the world’s oldest democratically elected parliament.
For many millennia Iceland was covered by glaciers, leaving behind magnificent fjords as the ice retreated. Nowhere are these more in evidence than in the far north west, where the Western Fjords sit like antlers on some strange mythical beast swimming in the north atlantic ocean. Remnants of the ice age remain in the shape of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull (the water glacier), and several smaller cousins, including the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, named after the mountain range that overlooks the Westman Islands to the south (eyja = islands, fjalla = mountains).
Iceland was first named by the viking explorer Flóki Vilgerðason, who took the nickname Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki). He suffered a very cold winter at Barðaströnd in the Western Fjords, and as the drift ice floated up the fjords he named the land Ísland (literally, land of ice). The name stuck, and even to this day gives the impression of a much harsher environment than actually exists on a land benefitting from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
The Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson is widely considered to be the first person to have settled on Iceland for good. The story goes that he threw two pillars into the sea as he approached the island, and followed the coast until he found them on the northern edge of the south-western peninsula now known as Reykjanes. He named the area Reykjavík, which means bay of smoke, after the steam rising from the land due to geothermal activity which can still be spotted in places throughout Iceland today.