But those flights don't leave Iceland when I need them to leave, nor do they arrive when I need them to arrive, so I stayed home...and payed a lot more. With that I chose, consciously chose, to drive the entire southern length of Iceland and camp in freezing temperatures on purpose.
Now, I admit that camping in sub-zero temperatures is an art that I have not yet mastered; it requires a delicate balance between not freezing to death and not asphyxiating to death. But, I am happy to report that despite the wind at the tongue of Skaftafellsjökull, I secured my tent with rocks (because the ground was too frozen for stakes) and slept a good 5-6 hours before getting sick of the fact that I couldn't feel my toes. It's not the fault of my sleeping bag (it's Big Agnes, rated for 15 deg F/-10 deg C) but rather the fault of my poor circulation.
Anyway, the South Coast has kind of a bad reputation for being the "tourist coast." When the tourist boom happened in Iceland (and is currently happening now) the tourists did not have convenient opportunities to evenly distribute themselves around the island so unfortunately, businesses anticipating a tourist boom in the East Fjords, Westfjords, and the North did not necessarily get the slam that the Reykjanes peninsula, the South Coast, and the Golden Circle did.
So, the South Coast (Suðurland) is where we send everybody because there are, like, a billion waterfalls and it is where the glaciers are most accessible. Because of this, the glacier tours all go down to Suðurland. Most Icelanders and most RVK locals will avoid Suðurland like the plague because we really don't want to deal with a ton of traffic on the Ring Road (okay, there's really no traffic in Iceland. But imagine being stuck on a two-lane highway behind somebody going a hot 50 km/hr with too many curves and too many cars to pass...ugh, not my idea of a pleasant afternoon drive) or people who don't know how to drive in Iceland under certain conditions (the weather can be awful) or visitors who are rendered utterly flabbergasted by the one-way bridges that make accessible the otherwise impassable glacial moraines.
With that, I had people back in RVK requiring that I check in occasionally just for traffic accident reasons alone (fair) as I'm not driving a lot anymore, and sometimes tourists (and occasionally locals) drive like they're on fire. Luckily, though, I picked this past weekend because the weather was so good and the roads were completely dry so I figured I'd be okay.
I left RVK on Saturday morning and arrived at Skaftafell around 2PM, where I did a quick hike up to Svartifoss. Svartifoss is a beautiful basaltic waterfall; it's interesting because the basaltic columns that form from slow-cooling lava are falling as well as the water. So, you get kind of a fast-moving waterfall and the slow-moving, indistinguishable falling of the basaltic columns. Well, indistinguishable until they succumb to gravity and crumble in chunks at once.
After that, I went up to the glacial tongue Skaftafellsjökull, and although it was super windy, I was able to walk around on the ice for a little bit because I brought my ice spikes. Up there, I discovered a couple of moulins, a little ice tunnel and a little bit of crevassing; I didn't go very far because although I was not alone, I was by myself and I didn't want to unnecessarily risk my own life. I did wear a climbing harness just in case something happened, and on top of that, I was checking in with Salóme back in RVK who knew my whereabouts and would be able to alert me if weather conditions ended up taking a dramatic turn for the worst. Conditions followed what had originally been forecast, so I enjoyed loads of sunshine for the first time in a while.
After I got off of the ice, I went to set up my tent and, as I said before, secured it with rocks because it was so windy. The campsite at Skaftafell is nice because they know that their worst wind comes from the East (we were getting the Northeast wind) and so they have planted a bunch of small trees and shrubs to help break up the wind a bit. Since the sun went down around 7PM, I didn't have a whole lot to do; there are not any serviced buildings in the area in the wintertime (it's a National Park) so there really wasn't anything to do. So, I did actually write a couple of paragraphs about elevation-dependent sliding laws and stress balance in glacier models, which I thought was pretty appropriate because I was literally sitting at the foot of what I was talking about. That was nice, but after a while I couldn't feel my fingers so I settled in and eventually drifted off.
I woke up around 2AM because my feet got really cold, so I rubbed some heat back into them and fell back asleep. I woke up again around 4AM, listened to a bit of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and then around 5AM I got up, threw everything into the car, and headed out.
Since it was still so early, it wasn't quite dawn. To kill some time, I stopped at two glacier lagoons: Fjallsárlón (literally Mountain River Lagoon) and the famed Jökulsárlón (Glacier River Lagoon.) I managed to experiment a little bit with night-time (well, I guess dawn-time) photography and braved the wind to see if I could take advantage of the moonlit ice.
I had a couple of hours before my destination would open up, so I went down to Diamond Beach thinking I'd be pretty much the only person there. I was, for a second, and all of a sudden around 7:15 AM, a bunch of people started to show up. An entire tour bus even came, and then I realized that I was bearing witness to the "sunrise crew" for Diamond Beach. So, these were going to be professional photographers, and there I was with my Google Pixel and my adventure camera that I had bought second-hand from somebody on Amazon.
Side note - it's a great camera; it's an old Canon DSLR and I got it because it can take decent low-light photos. I live in Iceland so I need northern lights photos, and this is why I bought it. It has served me well; it did great in Africa and very well this past weekend, but it isn't fancy or even clean. It has been sand-blasted by Iceland and safari-dusted by Uganda, so it really kind of paled in comparison to all of the professional-grade gear that I was watching these visitors unpack.
All of these people with tripods and telephoto lenses headed down to the shore and I decided to just go ahead and join them, find my own diamond, and photograph that until the Sun came up since I had time to kill.
Diamond Beach is a place where the icebergs that are calved from Breiðamerkurjökull arrive back onto the black-sand beach so when they're washed up, they can often have rounded corners or interesting shapes from tumbling around in the water. They are often made of very clear ice, and if they aren't so clear, then they have pronounced crystallization features or ash intrusion lines through them which is very cool. The black sand offers a bit of a contrast to that clarity.
I found some smaller, very clear pieces which were nice to photograph as the Sun was rising, as well as some larger, internally broken chunks which refracted the light in interesting ways. As the Sun came up, the light changed and the waves were crashing onto the beach so it ended up being quite a spectacular thing to experience.
After that, I went ahead and drove to Höfn and made my way down to the beach down there, to a place called Stokksnes. Stokksnes is a place I've been wanting to find for a while. Because of my overreaching suite of hashtags, I assume, Instagram often markets to me other photographers who photograph Iceland. I am not a professional photographer; I just have a decent phone camera as far as phone cameras go, a relatively creative eye, and I live in a place where...the photos just take themselves. Nevertheless, Instagram associates me with Iceland and so loads of professional photographers of Iceland end up in my feed.
One of them was featuring the place where I went yesterday, and because this person is so well followed, they do not usually geo-tag their posts whereas I do. I have fewer than 1,000 followers so I feel that there is no danger in my geo-tagging locations. But, I understand why they chose to do this; it's because once people see something on Instagram, everybody goes there and it gets ruined. This is kind of what's happening to other parts of Iceland; the argument can be made that social media has had a large presence in the Icelandic tourism boom which is both a good thing and, sometimes, not so great.
So, this person chooses not to geo-tag their photos; however, I figured out where it was based on looking at a map of Iceland and rationalizing to myself where a place like this would be. And, it turned out to be Stokksnes.
Stokksnes is about 10 km outside of Höfn and it is a privately owned farm area. It's just...really precious, and I think you should go, and I think it's okay to for me to say that you should go because, again, my following isn't huge. Those of you who are coming to visit me generally go wherever I go anyway, so it's alright.
I looked this place up just to orient myself with what to expect because a lot of attractions in Iceland are privately-owned; they're not public land. Since they are private, the land owner has the right to decide what to do about that. They can decide to charge for parking, they can decide to charge admission, they can decide that everything is free but that there are certain opening hours...things like this.
So, a whole lot of people were complaining on the internet about how the land owner was this unfriendly person who would chase you down if you didn't pay 800 ISK (~$8) admission, and was super rude, and to me...I took that with a grain of salt, because people will complain about everything while hidden in the trashy corners of the worldwide web.
By contrast, when I arrived, I found the land owner to be just wonderful. He has it set up now such that there is no need to chase anyone down anymore, because he has the access to the beach gated off and the gate can only be opened with a ticket that has a QR code...so it's actually really brilliant. He is usually around from 9 until 18, and there is a little cafe there where you can go to pay the admission fee and get some snacks. I am not trying to pay $8.50 for a mocha, but you can if you wish!
On the property, he has access to a little Viking village that was used in a film as well as a hiking trail that goes all the way around the mountain that descends to the beach. You may access all of these things with the admission fee. The mountain descent to the beach was the reason I wanted to see this, because it's absolutely beautiful.
So, I thought that he was really nice. I went in and ordered a muffin from him, paid my 800ISK for admission and 500ISK for the muffin, and without any prompting from me, he went ahead and explained to me where everything was, where I was at that moment, where I could go to access the Viking village, and where I could drive to get a little bit closer to the beach. He explained that there had been some storms and that it may be hard to access, but he noticed that I had a 4x4 vehicle so I should be able to pass over the sand drifts without a problem. I thought that this was very kind and attentive to me, his guest and customer.
I think you should go; he's not rude and he's not unfriendly, and I think he's doing the right thing by charging $8 per person. If you own a farm road in Iceland on which visitors are constantly driving, it's going to keep breaking and it's going to require constant upkeep and constant construction. In order to keep your land accessible, you would need to charge admission for something. He even offers facilities, so for Iceland, it's not a bad deal.
I did end up driving down to the beach and snapping a few photos, but it was crazy windy and I got sand-blasted the entire time. I was super glad that I had purchased Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP) insurance for my rental...kinda wish I could have purchased SAAP for my poor raw face. But, SAAP is something that you should always get with your rental vehicle, especially if you're traveling in Suðurland due to the sandy moraines and high winds. My car was sand-blasted on several occasions, and according Blue Car rental agency this morning, everything looked fine to them when I returned it and I wasn't held responsible for anything. The deductible is pretty high for SAAP; the premium is not bad, something like $15/day, but the deductible is $900 through Blue. So, if something had gone terribly wrong, I could be held responsible for $900 worth of damage. My guess is that this $900 deductible has to do with worst-case scenario volcanic activity, though, which there was none; a good thing, too, because if there were, I probably would have died in a glacial flood since my tent in Skaftafell was pretty close to a drainage floodplain of the volcano underneath Öræfajökull.
But, Stokksnes is absolutely gorgeous. It's stunning and it's worth a visit; I'd like to go back and spend some time hiking around the mountain but I wasn't feeling up to it yesterday. My knee is acting older than 27, my body was pretty sore from the previous day, and it was super windy and freezing so it's probably a better trip for another time.
On the way back to RVK, I stopped back at the glacier lagoons so that I could snap some daylight photos as well. Since it is the end of winter, the lagoons are doing well; they're not completely frozen and there are plenty of icebergs to see that are nice and blue in the sunlight.
There are a couple of ways to do Suðurland: one is the way we did it last May when we did #fosstour2k17 and visited about a billion waterfalls because the weather was far too horrendous to go up onto the ice. But this weekend, I did a more rustic, more freezing and windy tour of Suðurland because since it was so sunny, everything was clear. This is the clearest I've ever seen the South and it's been breathtaking; I've lived here for 18 months and I have not seen views of Suðurland like this before. I've never seen it so consistently clear and I've never had good visibility of the glaciers all the way down the coast, so this was an absolutely wonderful weekend to do this. Even though I've taken a weekend of writing away from myself, hopefully this was just what I needed to continue cracking away at the thesis this week.
Bottom line: I very much enjoyed my weekend on ice. And I still haven't been to that famous plane wreck yet...but I had, I think, a much more fantastic adventure.