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Iceland, Northern Lights, Skaftafell, Vik

Rain, Rainbows, and The Elusive Northern Lights

Many people have asked me why I chose to travel to Iceland, specifically at this time of year, and initially, one of the main reasons I wanted to travel here was to have the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights. We had been closely monitoring the weather forecast since leaving Reykjavik, hoping for clear nights, and Carolyn had been checking a website that actually included a northern lights forecast. It wasn’t looking too promising. However, we were pretty certain that we had seen a glimmer of glowing green light in the sky last night before the impending rain set in, so we remained optimistic…

The small village of Vik

We woke up early to a dreary and windy morning in Vik. After a hearty breakfast and couple cups of coffee at Nordur Vik Hostel, we decide not to let the sideways rain keep us inside anymore, so we pack up the compact car and backtrack 15 kilometers west to Dryholaey, a secluded black sand beach, known for its epic views of the tall rock formations that jut out of the ocean in neighboring Vik.

We hope to get some good photographs in the early morning sunlight, but the weather has different plans for us, and after nearly getting blown off the cliffs at Dryholaey (literally) we jump back in the car, bless the heated seats and head back to the main road. In a matter of minutes, the rain clears and the surrounding hills are bathed in a warm golden light. We look up to a beautiful full rainbow in the sky ahead of us. Iceland is continuing to amaze me. We drive back through Vik and are able to see the surrounding landscape in a new light.

From Vik, we drive a couple of hours through never-ending moss covered lava fields. The green carpeted lava is contrasted with a brilliant blue sky, and Jokulsarlon glacier sits majestically in the background. This scene rolls on for miles. We pass the occasional village, which might be comprised of a cluster of homes, but for the most part, we are in the middle of nowhere.  We arrive at Skaftafell National Park with intentions of hiking to Svartifoss, one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls, but we needed some fuel first. Unfortunately, there’s not much to choose from in the way of food, so we drive 5 km further to a gourmet gas station cafe. Lunch consists of rye bread, camembert cheese and pepperoni slices, all purchased on site. This type of lunch is not unheard of in this part of the country, where restaurants and cafes are scarce, but it may cost you as much as a gourmet sit-down dinner in Reykjavik.

We head back to Skaftafell and begin the 90-minute round trip hike to the falls. We are blessed with clear skies and the light throughout the entire day is like end of day light. Since the sun never fully rises, the light is soft and illuminating – a photographer’s dream – and another great reason to travel to Iceland in the off-season.

Svartifoss is not the tallest or most powerful waterfall I’ve seen in Iceland, but the surrounding rock formations are what make it unique. The waterfall cuts through the middle of teeth-like rock formations that look like they give way into the center of the earth, a very visually intriguing setting.

Svartifoss Waterfall in Skaftafell National Park

We begin our hike back down and decide to take the park ranger’s advice to stay in Hali, a place she says is a “nice village,” where we can find a guesthouse and a good meal. Hali can’t be found on the map, or in the guidebook for that matter, but we go with the friendly ranger’s suggestion. We’ve been lucky so far today, and we’re putting it out there that the good karma will continue. We are also being overly optimistic about our chances to see the northern lights later on.

We spend the afternoon driving parallel to Jokulsarlon, and about 5 kilometers from Hali, we spot the glacial lagoon, which is just breathtaking. We have plans to explore in the morning, so we continue to Hali to get there before dark.

Contemplating some light reading.

Hali is a unique place. It’s tough to even call it a village, so let’s just say it’s a farm. It’s the birthplace of Porberger Porbarson, an important literary figure in Iceland. To commemorate his works and honor the place where he was born, a museum and restaurant have been constructed. Appropriately enough, the outside is built with larger than life books, which represent his collection of works. We get checked in and sit down at the restaurant for a meal of locally caught smoked Arctic Char, complete with Chilean sauvignon blanc.

After a couple of glasses of wine, we decide to check out the sky again, and we are pretty certain that we can see a glow from behind the fjord in the distance. Since there is currently a new moon, we know there’s no moonlight and there are no surrounding towns to speak of, so we grab our cameras, bundle up and head back to the glacial lagoon. When we arrive, there are a few others camped out hoping to get their epic shot of the green glow, but slowly, one by one, people start to leave.

We take a few shots though, and what you can’t see with the naked eye, you can definitely capture with a camera lens. A soft green hue is growing in the sky above. A few moments later, a friendly Japanese traveler walks over to where we are and says that if we climb over the hill, we will have more complete views of the lights. We take his advice and set up camp with three others. Teeth chattering and trying to operate our cameras with frozen hands, slowly, we begin to see a light show unfold. What starts as a green ribbon of light across the sky, slowly turns into a row of four or five peaks that shoot up from the fjord and disappear into a star-filled sky. It’s subtle but it’s there, and the longer we stay, the more adjusted our eyes become. We are able to capture our first shots of the northern lights! Giddy with excitement, but beginning to feel the cold, we head back to the car after about two hours and blast ourselves with heat all the way back to Hali.

Aurora Borealis, aka The Northern Lights, viewed from Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon

We toast the day with the last remaining sips of wine. What started out with wind and rain, ended with an epic day of  rainbows, waterfalls, glaciers and…the Northern Lights! Three days in, and I’m not sure how Iceland can get any better!