From vast glacial tundras to thundering waterfalls and horizons ablaze with purple gloaming, Iceland is home to some of the most striking landscapes on earth. The perfect muse, then, for adventure photographer Simon Buxton, who joined Flash Pack on a whirlwind trip to the Great Unknown. Here’s his photo diary in a land of natural splendour (warning: may cause serious wanderlust)
All images: Simon Buxton for Flash Pack
“Gulggavedur!” said my Icelandic friend when I told him I was heading to his ancestral home for an adventure. “In January we call it window-weather!” referring to Iceland’s harsh winter climate.”Glorious to observe from inside, less so to experience in the flesh!” Not the ringing endorsement I’d hoped for.
As an adventure photographer, Iceland has been on my to-do list for years but for some reason or another I’d always put it off. It’s not as small as people think – double the size of Sri Lanka – but with only just over 1% of the population, it’s safe to say it’s fairly empty.
A sole ringroad loops around the island providing connectivity to the capital, but much of fjordlands and its wild central mass of gnarled valleys and sprawling glaciers remain untouched and hard to reach. In short, there is endless wilderness and little else.
Descending into Reykjavik, the plane punches from pure sun and soft clouds into a windswept and icy world. Rough frigid waters yield to white fields dancing with spindrift. On the bus from Keflavik to the capital, jet black cliffs loom to the west in the wintery halflight, teasing of the island’s fabled ruggedness beyond.
Proximity to nature here cannot be understated. Even in the capital, just five minutes from the main shopping strip Laugevegur, the misty harbour (from which Reykjavik gets its name) looks out over a chain of snow-capped peaks set against a blazing sunset which lingers when at such high latitudes.
Despite its remoteness, Reykjavik still manages to be painfully hip. Cool bars are jammed with chiselled Scandinavians escaping the cold, and live Coltrane wafts out of a small pub nearby. Gastronomy on par with the rest of the Nordics is easy to find, and the Flashpacker group has a stand-out meal, getting to know each other before we spend the long weekend together.
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We don’t linger in the capital for long. Early the next morning, we load our bags into the minibus and set off for Thingvellir National Park, where drifting tectonic plates form a narrow gully called Almannagja that can be traversed on foot. Our guide is Ragnar, a knowledgeable young local with a wonderful habit of making every sentence sound like a line from a Viking saga.
The drive in is magical. Like the sunset, dawn light lasts for hours, a photographer’s dream. With a full moon hanging overhead, stubby mountains on one side shift from electric blue to rose; on the other, a river of soft fog flows slowly through a valley below.
The wind picks up and weather turns as we head towards Gullfoss, one on the country’s largest and most powerful waterfalls. Occasionally, silhouettes of Icelandic horses appear by the roadside, shaggy with winter coats and huddled together for warmth.
Normally you can hear the waterfall well before you see it, but the roar of Arctic gusts drown out the torrent as it cascades into a deep ravine below. Today, simply getting to the viewing platform is tricky. Fine mist has turned the path into sheet ice, leaving tourists defenceless as they are blown around like sailboats by gale force winds, clinging desperately to guide rails for support.
Although the weather threatens to cancel snowmobiling, a cheer goes up when we trade wheels for a snowcat and begin climbing towards Langjokull, the country’s second largest icecap. It’s still early but the light is already fading, our neon orange snowsuits contrasting sharply with the purple gloaming.
We set off of skidoos towards an ice cave tucked behind a sharp peak just visible in the twilight. Riding is physical, requiring the driver to lean their bodyweight into each turn and so there’s a real satisfaction to carving tracks in the powder snow. As night falls, a string of headlights stretch off into the distance, pockmarking the otherwise featureless landscape.
After a few hours in the saddle, I’m glad to trade the bitter cold for hot chocolate, and after an hour of windy roads and black ice, a comfy bed at a family-run Hotel Laekur near the south coast.
Even though it’s mid-morning, we arrive at another glacier, Solheimajokull, just as the sun starts rising. Juan, a Spanish guide from Seville who speaks perfect English with a disconcertingly strong Icelandic accent, shows the group how to attach crampons and use ice axes for the hike up.
For most, it’s their first time on real ice and pushing their limits of adventure, so he checks their bindings thoroughly to ensure no one is swallowed by a crevasse.
On the way up, Juan points out that just 30 years before, the glacier’s snout reached the car park; it’s now a 30-minute walk away. Climate change is a major concern here. We wend our way around huge lumps of pure blue ice formed under enormous pressure over hundred of years.
With all pockets of air expelled, striations of lava are visible deep within, a natural timeline of a volcanic past. Carefully avoiding several huge crevasses on the way up, the ground levels off once we’re up on the glacier tongue proper.
The sun has only just peeked over the ridge, providing some welcome warmth and bathing the stunning vista below in light.
Crampons off and ice axes safely stowed, we head towards the vast black sand beaches of Reynisfjara near Vik. Lone stacks stand sentinel just offshore, like long black fingers reaching out from the ocean depths, and the group busies themselves finding every conceivable angle for selfies at the spot where Game of Thrones was filmed.
We’re told to be careful of ‘sneaker waves’ – waves that sneak up on you, duh – a fanciful concept until we realise they actually do. A selfie-stick waving tourist gets totally drenched when a rogue wave creeps far further up the beach than it’s meant to.
We pass by two more waterfalls en route back to Hotel Laekur for a second night. Skogafoss is wide and muscular, flanked by 60-metre high icy cliffs, where months worth of frozen spray has built up. Seljalandsfoss feels taller and more graceful, a narrow chute which catches the moonlight and becomes a solid plume of white under my long exposure.
Back at the hotel sipping wine in the open-air hot tub, we’re all keeping our eyes peeled for the quintessential Nordic crowd-pleaser – the northern lights. Our hosts tell us it’s unlikely, but we hope that dumb luck might deliver us a show. Peering through the thick cloud of steam, someone finally spots a glimmer of green, which slowly grows in scale and intensity to form a billowing luminescent curtain of colour, dancing over the hills in the distance.
Not content that our Iceland experience is yet complete, Ragnar has prepared what he describes as a “rrrreal trrrrreat”: a taster menu of local specialities, starting with chocolate liquorice and culminating with a grand finale of rotten shark and a large shot of local spirit. Just the smell from the open container makes me gag; two from the group vomit. Apparently it’s not for everyone.
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Our brief tour around the island’s southwest draws to a close with a visit on the final day to one of its most popular attractions: the Blue Lagoon. After two days of relative isolation amongst the grandeur of wild Icelandic scenery, the lagoon’s baby blue pools, full of tourists, are a bittersweet reminder that real is fast approaching.
As we talk through the highlights of the last few days, it’s clear that for those who have little time to plan their own adventures and no-one readily available to share them with, bespoke trips like this provide an excellent opportunity to travel socially and care-free, and to access destinations that otherwise might be a bridge too far.
For me, whilst it wasn’t as adventurous as the battlefields of Iraq or jungles of DRC that I’m used to, it was the perfect excuse to tick off a destination that I’d been putting off unnecessarily. You never know when you might not get another chance, so I’m very glad I took it.
And one thing is for sure: I’ll be back.
Want to follow in Simon’s footsteps, and lose yourself in a land of limitless beauty? Hike the crevasses of Sólheimajökull glacier, bathe in the Blue Lagoon and test your snowmobile skills with a chance of seeing the Northern Lights – all in one action-packed weekend. Find out more right here.
See more about Simon Buxton’s photography on his website here