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Angels in the Hearts of Men – Iceland Part 5

‘Memorials are for the living, not the dead’

Breathing slowly, exhaling slowly, legs tensed against the slope, hands fumbling in pockets trying to find warmth. Clouds floating by, 1 hour to ‘sunrise’ at 2am. Time slows down as my eyes look left and right to the horizon without my head moving – waiting for that perfect cloud, that perfect golden glow, that perfect moment to capture on a card and then upload to the web. The perfect moment is being in that place though – its not even about the scenery or the beauty of the waterfall. It’s about the inner calm, nothing to do, nothing to think about, just stand and let it wash your soul clean.

Took me a long time to truly realise any of this. Backpacks full of camera gear, long painful hikes, dashing to get filters on to lenses and being disappointed because of poor light/rain and so forth. The joy in taking a photograph is non existent. The joy is in that engagement with the person or that sense of isolation and tranquility after the hike and in the chill wind. There is no inherent joy in a set of pixels. I saw many photographers dashing to a place where they could cleanse their soul, only to rush and dash to get a myriad of shots that will exist for all eternity on a hard drive and never see the light of a screen. I used to be the same. It’s nice to get the shot but its just 10%, maybe less, of the enjoyment of the journey to get there. Admittedly, I don’t feel as glibly arrogant about this when my heart is about to explode as I’m climbing a steep path.

I spent two nights at Kirkujfellfoss, both of them for a period of 6 hours. Probably took 30 minutes to scout the location, 15 minutes to frame and do the technical stuff and then hours of waiting. No phone, no music, no food or drink. Just stand and watch the clouds float by and the water flow slowly to the sea which is about half a mile to the right of the photo.


This place was swarming with tourists – a conveyor belt of coaches turning up and then the scramble to run right to the base of the waterfall and take a selfie. I waited an hour before a slight gap in the crowds and even then I had to photoshop out 2 people from the foreground. You can probably see the large rock about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the photo and about a quarter in from the right hand side. Interesting rock that – I examined it quite closely. I was closer to the falls and started to walk backwards, reframing as I went. Inevitably, everything is slippery given the force of the water and I slipped, falling completely backwards and since i was holding the camera and tripod I didnt put my arms out and hit the deck with a thump, my head just hitting the ground with a clunk but protected by the few inches of my shoulders. I was dazed, seeing stars and feeling very sick as I stood up. I looked down and realised that my head had missed that large rock by an inch. Half a step backwards and I may well not have been writing this blog.

Despite the sheer beauty and raw power of those falls, there is no peace there. Too many people. Let’s be honest though its not about the number of people entirely (maybe it is, hmmm, – more about Fiona the Dutch hiker when i get round to writing up the dolomites bike trip), its about what the people are doing. If there is such a thing as zen and a flow of energy and patterns that can be disturbed, then nature is one place you can see it in action. If people were measured, respectful of the place and not dashing to take their selfie it would be far better. To be honest, I could photoshop the waterfall out and put a fast food place there and the people would have acted the same. Like jumping up and down on the plane, our society has become one of caring about nothing but your own ultimately meaningless and vacuous existence. We are, after all, just meat being shovelled into a grave. (Nods to Mr Lee). I guess it comes down to the reason why we go on ‘holiday’. There’s plenty of places you can go to dash about and get your selfie – why choose these places. They are places for you to soak in the beauty of nature and breathe. There is no benefit in rushing in, selfie, rushing out. Be like me going to an 18-30 resort in order to read Dostoyevsky.

Bruarfoss was different. It is a good 2 hour hike over rough terrain with narrow paths high above the river which, in places, aren’t for the faint of heart. There were about a dozen people I saw in total on the trail over the couple of hours. The river is formed of three sets of falls, bruarfoss, midfoss and Hlauptungufoss (pictured above) and the Bruara river is fed from the Langjökull glacier. It is, I think, the bluest water in Iceland because of the direct feed from the glacier.

A different energy here with the people on the trail friendly and respectful of the peace. The above shot is taken from a rock at the side of the river and there was a lady sitting here who i stopped to chat with for a while. I talked about the beauty of the place and also about how disappointing it was that people had left litter on the trail. She smiled and then told me she came up often to sit and watch the river. I nodded slowly in a fashion that showed how lucky I thought she was to have this close to her. As I said my goodbyes, I asked about the trail and whether the landowner ever got annoyed with people walking up and down and whether a ‘proper’ trail would ever be established. She smiled again, stood up and shook my hand and said it was her land and she didn’t mind as long as people took care of it.

 

The sheer power of skogafoss is something else – especially because you can (if you want) get right up to it – provided you don’t mind getting soaking wet. The air is laden with water even at several hundred metres away which meant constantly wiping off the camera and lenses. The nearby waterfall, seljandfoss is the one you can walk behind but I got no usable shots – far too many people and insipid skies meant little chance for anything even half decent. From a purely photography angle, summer is obviously not the best time to visit – you don’t get the northern lights and you have to be very lucky to get any form of good light at sunrise or sunset because of the near 24h daytime. It would be good to return in winter but that would need a whole host of arctic clothing and 4×4 vehicles so would lend itself more to a guided tour – particularly as I would want to get into the highlands. One for another year. The advantage of summer is of course that you can drive around without worry and temperatures (in the North) are still just above freezing. Most days were 10 degrees or so before wind chill but were noticeably colder in the evenings. I watched a video yesterday of 2 guys wild camping on the glass wall at a temperature of -25 degrees. There is an appeal to that for me, perhaps one day.

Gulfoss waterfall, Fuji XT2, 10-24mm

You’ll see photos below of the many other waterfalls spread across Iceland – the most dramatic are in the North along bumpy gravel roads which are real bone-shakers. All of them are easily accessible with only short walks from the car parking areas. There is little more I can say about them – the ground shakes at some of them due to their force and they are all a sight to behold but there are only (for me anyway) so many waterfalls you can look at before you yearn for something different. Gljúfrabúi Is a little different as you have to walk over rocks through deep water to get inside the cave where it falls. Not an easy task and I imagine there has been a lot of injuries over the years.

Let’s talk about something different with the photos as a backdrop for some random musings (which of course will be a first for me). Was there a point throughout this series of blogs to make so much of the respect of tourists (myself included), selfie culture and blatant disregard for nature? Some will think I’m just a grumpy old git, others may agree with my sentiments, others will think its labouring a point. Maybe all of them are true to an extent. However, the reason I have laboured the point is that in my simplistic view of the world, there is a real imbalance. Let’s have a bit of context…in August 2019 a funeral was held in Iceland, one month after I flew out and the headstone read:

”Bréf til framtíðarinnar
Ok er fyrsti nafnkunni jökullinn til að missa titil sinn.
Á næstu 200 árum er talið að allir jöklar landsins dari sömu leið.
Þetta minnismerki er til vitnis um að við vitum hvað er að gerast og hvað þarf að gera.
Aðeins þú veist hvort við gerðum eitthvað

You wont be able to read Icelandic but it doesn’t matter – I’ll get to that in a bit. The disturbing part of this funeral is that it is a grave for one but with 16 others dug at the same time for the remainder of the family who will all soon die unless they get help.

Godafoss waterfall, Fuji XT2, 10-24mm

Death is an odd thing – especially  given the vicarious way in which we tend to live our lives, viewing tragedy from afar and watching death as we drive on the virtual road from self righteousness to mock pity, leaving a cry emoji as we go. Like most things, we only wake from our slumbers when it crosses our doorstep and as we close our eyes from the comfort of our cocoons, we don’t see the monster at the door or if we do, we pull the duvet a little higher.

Gljúfrabúi, Fuji XT2, 10-24mm

This digital world is an amazing thing provided it doesn’t become your world. It can enrich your life…or imprison you within a set of walls that will drive you slowly insane like the dolphins i mentioned in an earlier post. What’s perhaps more disturbing is the effect on death. We are used to seeing the smart bombs, the explosions, the terrorism, the riots…and we are desensitised slowly to these horrific things. Death, of anything or anyone, is something that happens on TV or on our 5” LCD screen with a dozen commentators deploring it and a dozen praising it or explaining it away. It isn’t just the death caused by bombs and bullets that we become desensitised to. We seem to be getting used to a never ending news stream of floods, fires and other environmental tragedies. I saw on the news the other day that fires with a front of several hundreds of miles were sweeping through Australia. The horse men are drawing near and they’re not on metal steeds.

“Don’t look at me like I am a monster,Frown out your one face But with the other, Stare like a junkie Into the TV ”

There’s always that desire to believe that there’s something better to come before the footsteps fade away down the dimly lit social media prison. Can we break free from the shackles of modern living? can we take a second to stand on the top of the mountain and just breathe rather than instagramming it and running to the next thing which might get more likes and treading on everything in our path. Will we take a step back from the endless pictures of war, famine, death and destruction and think for a second rather than hitting share post? In short, will we wake up and remember?

Kirkufellfjoss, Fuji XT2, 10-24mm

What about that funeral and translation I referred to earlier? Well, here is the translation of the memorial plaque that was laid in August 2019…

 

“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it”.  August 2019, 415 ppm CO2

 

It used to be a glacier but its no longer there, the place used to be called Okjokull but is now called just Ok since jokull means glacier. 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the highest level in 800,000 years and the remaining 16 glaciers set to disappear before your great grandchildren pass away. Their children by then wont be able to take these photos. Sobering thought.


Godafoss, Fuji XT2, 10-24mm

Here endeth the sermon and the Iceland blog. Next up, back to motorbikes, mountain passes, strange weather and near death experiences (several of) in the Dolomites, Alps and all the countries in between . See you soon, take care x

 

Credulous at best, Your desire to believe in
Angels in the hearts of men
Pull your head out of your hippie haze
And give a listen, Shouldn’t have to say it all again”

Vatnajokull, soon to be Vatna if nothing changes.

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