Iceland has been a mainstay for the movie and TV industry for a very long time. What put it on the map as a global tourist destination were shows like “Game of Thrones” and movies like “Interstellar,” “Prometheus” and my favorite, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
Of course, the volcanic eruption from this relatively small island that shut down air traffic over Europe in 2010, helped too.
I wish I could say that I’ve wanted to go to Iceland since before it was “cool.” But I too fell for the dramatic landscapes and “wild” nature that I saw on the big screen. Plus, the fact that it is one of the top three safest places in the world makes this an easy decision.
Planning the trip
My latest trip (fifth) had one purpose, to photograph the most recent eruption that started just 30 miles from the capital, Reykjavik. The eruption started in March 2021 but the country was closed to travel due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As soon as they opened to vaccinated tourists in April, you better believe I booked my ticket! I was hoping that the eruption would last until I had a chance to see it in person; live camera feeds are available 24/7.
Having been there before it was easy planning, but, for any first timers, everything runs as you would expect, and is a well-oiled machine. Except the weather. It changes constantly and one would be remiss if they didn’t plan with that in mind.
A lover of solitude, I plan trips during the shoulder seasons. My first trip took place during the summer — also peak season for Iceland. That had its own surprises, not the least of which was the almost 24 hours of light. A little confusing to the circadian rhythm, but interesting. This allows for more adventures. The summer of 2021 is not a “normal” summer though, with little to no crowds.
Having seen the “touristy” sites that most are familiar with on previous trips, I immediately planned a tour with Troll Expeditions to get the lay of the land with the new volcano, Fagradalsfjall. One can never be too careful with lava and volcanic gases that can be deadly. It’s best to go with experts your first time, even though the Icelandic authorities keep a very close watch on the site and issue regular updates with safety in mind.
Unfortunately, that tour did not take me to the view that I was hoping for, the caldera. Lava had overtaken the viewing hill making my dream inaccessible, at least for the time being.
A change in plans
While disappointed, I wasn’t by any means disheartened because even though I had been to other sites, there is always plenty to see in a place like Iceland. Even seeing some sites for the fifth time, it never looks the same, which is awesome for a photographer.
Traveling along The Ring Road
Road tripping in Iceland is about as easy as it gets. The Ring Road goes around the whole island not much you can do wrong there. There are a lot of gravel roads that you can take, but be sure to be aware of restrictions on your rental vehicle. They are very strict on gravel chips and especially damage to doors as the wind can catch doors and literally bend the hinges.
Camper vans are all the rage but I have yet to go that route. You can almost park your camper anywhere as long was you either get permission, if it is private land or if it is specifically signed otherwise. Four-wheel drive vehicles are also available if you plan on taking the gravel road less traveled.
Numerous tours that will take you all the way from walking on glaciers to going into an extinct volcano. All plans, hotels, guesthouses, tours, etc. can be made online and I have never had any issues using a site like booking.com to make plans. For as remote as it seems, I had cellular reception along any major road and in town centers. This comes in very handy when looking for directions or booking your night’s stay.
My plans, or lack thereof, consisted of driving and hiking in an area of interest and then when it was time to head to civilization, book the night in what was available nearby. Be careful of dinner plans though as it is easy to have to go to bed hungry if you don’t plan accordingly. Places had been closing early as they are still opening up from having been shut down for almost a year and a half due to Covid-19. This will likely have changed by the time you read this, although the services available at gas stations are pretty good.
Gas for your vehicle requires pay at the pump with a credit card and a PIN — no debit cards. The pumps are available 24/7 but there may be no attendant at the station, so plan accordingly. I hardly ever let myself get below a quarter tank of gas. All in all, Iceland is a very road trip friendly place as long as you are aware of where you are and know where you are going (road conditions, weather, etc.).
Back to the purpose of the trip — Fagradalsfjall
Although my first trip to the volcano site did not make my dreams come true, I did manage to get some cool lava flow and field shots. But feeling the heat, smelling the smells and watching the movement of molten rock was truly mesmerizing and awe inspiring.
In Iceland, the saying goes that if you don’t like the weather, wait a little and it’ll change. The same goes for conditions at the volcano site. On the evening before my return home, the live feed showed a new potential site to view the crater, and you better believe I was in my SUV and headed to the site. Having a good idea of where to go due to my previous tour, getting there was easy. The hike this time around was challenging though. The valley I was in just five days before was now a lake of molten and partially solidified lava. Seeing the crater involved extensive ridge walking and endurance.
The views were even better than I could have imagined. Seeing fountains and waterfalls of lava erupting from a gash in the landscape is not comparable to anything you’ve seen. My view wasn’t close by any means, but the power on display made the distance acceptable.
Conditions were not ideal for photography, with 25 mph sustained winds, driving rain and temps in the 40s. But it was worth whatever I could get.
You can see plenty of amazing images and video online from this once in lifetime event. But experiencing it in person is beyond words. The eruption could end next week or it can keep going for years — even decades by some estimates. Would I go again to get the images I have in my mind’s eye? DEFINITELY!
Editor’s note: We welcome this guest post from Michigan-based photographer Joshua Joshua. Joshua is willing to travel anywhere and everywhere to get the shot. Landscape and nature photography is. his passion and retirement plan. Sony made it easier for. him to hike and carry good equipment, without breaking his back or neck. Joshua enjoys the process of going from planning to shooting to printing, and mounting his work. See more of his work on Instagram.