ON HORSEBACK IN ICELAND
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In the Land of Leif Ericsson
I sat down sheltered by the prow-like structure that supported a weather-beaten statue with robes blustered by the wind, a Viking helmet on his head, intently looking out over Reykjavik. On the inside of the bow I read:
DIscoverer of vinland
the United States
to the people of Iceland
on the one thousandth
anniversary of the althing
It was a late afternoon darkened by clusters of clouds that defied breaking up as the wind was pushing them across the sky. I had wandered up the hill topped by Hallgrimskirkja, the cathedral above the city. On the square in front I had found immortalised Leif Ericsson – as we spell his name.
Leaving my hide-out, I allowed the wind to drive rain drops into my eyes, while I contemplated the town that I had done some sightseeing in. Not too long ago, this had been a small settlement, as may be expected of an underprivileged land. Now, since Iceland has become one of the wealthier European countries,*) possibly owing to its abundant sources of geothermal energy and a flourishing tourism industry, Reykjavik booms. Most buildings are only a few decades old, there is a new National Museum, a modern National Gallery and everywhere stand statues of important Icelanders. The nation has developed much pride and self-confidence.
I looked up into Leif’s stern dark face. Perhaps he wasn’t just looking down but farther, towards the sea, still braving the elements, as he would have done in his real life, when he ventured, in 1000 AD, as far as Northern America to what he called Vinland, most likely nowadays’ Newfoundland. However, he did not settle there and returned to his home in Iceland.
I was about to embark on a venture of my own, to ride on horseback through this Nordic island with its volcanoes and glaciers, fiords and hot pools, geysirs and waterfalls. Tourist brochures boast, that Iceland has more sunshine hours than California. However, sunshine does not always go with warm temperatures and on this gloomy afternoon I experienced neither - and it was August!
How did I get the idea to explore Iceland? A long time ago, I had attended a talk of somebody who had done this on horseback and his fascinating slides had got stuck in my mind. Only recently had I come across the advert of an Icelandic company that specialises in horse trekks. Ignoring my scant riding experience, I had got hooked.
An introductory talk earlier that afternoon, when we were told details about the trip, had raised further doubts about my abilities and hence the wisdom of exposing myself to an unfamiliar experience. It helped little that my riding mates played down their own prowess, like
“Oh, I have hardly been riding since I was a child,”
“Don’t worry! I don’t ride my horse often,”
“My wife is a competent rider; by comparison I’m just a novice.” (By the way, the wife was one of us!)
*) Soon after I wrote this, the world-wide recession sent Iceland tumbling into an almost unreal economic collapse!
Reykjavík – Thingvellir – Gnúpverjahreppur – Fossnes Farm
Our group was quite a mixed one, different nationalities, ages, and walks of life. As it so often happens, such groups may congeal better than homogeneous ones. And so it would turn out in our case. We were picked up from our Reykjavik guesthouse by minibus for a transfer further inland to the farm where our guides and horses were waiting. On the way we were to see Thingvellir, the most important National Park.
Travelling across a wide plain with low hills, we approached Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. The atmospheric mood was characteristic for Iceland: a dark sky with heavy clouds, the distant hills tinged a hazy blue. Deep green pervaded the empty land dotted with rocks and the odd flock of sheep. Houses were rare; little wonder, since the total population of Iceland is only 300,000 distributed over an area of 103,000 square kilometres; besides, most people live in the South, i.e. in Reykjavik and surroundings.
The terrain appeared to be similar to the volcanic plateau in my home country New Zealand and wherever the thin cover of plant and soil material was broken, the volcanic underground became instantly visible. What I found different were the houses that cropped up now and then, Scandinavian homesteads, with their dark reddish-brown walls and surrounds of stones covered with lichen and mosses.
We stopped at Thingvellir’s visitor centre and followed the path that leads a short distance to the edge of the escarpment. It’s a weird cliff, volcanic and ruptured with sharp edges and wide cracks. There is a beautiful view of the lowlands with Thingvallavatn and the mountains behind.
At the bottom of the craggy wall there is a knoll called Lögberg, from which, since 930 AD, laws were issued and judicial matters decided. This is the birthplace of Althing, the world’s oldest existing National Assembly. At that time, there was no central executive body, making this a unique republican system. From 930 to 1798 Althing convened annually at Thingvellir around mid-June, attracting not only chieftains but also farmers, merchants and craftsmen. In 1262, when Iceland pledged allegiance to the Norwegian Crown, Althing rendered executive power to the king, while maintaining its legislative authority. In 1918, Iceland was recognised as an independent and sovereign state within the kingdom of Denmark, obtaining full legislative authority, but leaving foreign affairs to the Danish Crown. It was also here at Thingvellir in 1944, that the Republic of Iceland was proclaimed. From my vantage point I could not quite verify where Lögberg was, but it didn’t matter. One can’t but feel the awesome atmosphere of the area, a place that commands respect.
The trip further into the country continued to appeal. Streams meandered through dales, breaking the monotonous green with their brilliance, reflecting surrounding light. Strangely, in Iceland there seems to be always light, even on overcast days. I think, it’s because of the prominent sky, vast and flung wide open. Despite the low rounded hills, we could see for many kilometers. At precious few moments the sun came twinkling through the dangling blanket of slow-moving clouds, whitening them and casting slivers of gold on ponds in the pastures. Some of the hills stood there like ramparts, letting loose eroded rocks and shingle that ended up scuffling with the ascending luscious grass.
Rather unexpectedly, the terrain turned unruly, heaving our road up and down, flinging it left and right and dipping it into bubbling streams. After a last climb, the farm house of Fossnes appeared, in a commanding position overlooking a plain skirted by a distant hillside, a glistening river drifting languidly in twists and turns just in front of it.
Fossnes – Hvítárdalur – Fossnes
“So, what is your riding experience, Joe?” Fridberg, the grey-haired head guide with the friendly face asked me.
I was seated in a cosy corner of the farmhouse to be questioned, like everybody else.
“We need to know, how to look after you.”
Franziska, the pretty young assistant guide across the table looked at me expectantly, not adding any comment.
I confided that I had been on horseback several times, even on different continents, but only for a few hours at a time, at intervals of several years.
“But I’ve taken some riding lessons on genuine Iceland horses two months ago – and I’ve done regular muscle training an hour every day up till now,” I explained, hesitantly.
“You wouldn’t have any physical or physiological problems, would you?”
“I had an operation on my left knee last year, but I think I’m fine,” I confessed.
“We’ll give you an easy horse,” the guide answered, reassuringly.
It would turn out to be a nice horse indeed, but not keen to overtake other riders. After the first day I coyly asked for a faster horse which I got. It was a handsome stallion with the name Lysingur, energetic and obliging, but rather bumpy at slower paces. The horse he would alternate with was a lovely mare, called Blesa. She was fast, smooth to ride and would almost guess my intentions. She would become my favourite horse.
Fossnes was one of the farms with stables and corrals for the horses that would be our companions. We would change horses once a day, making sure we would not overtire them. Sometimes we would even leave the horses at one farm, returning to our accommodation by minibus and coming back the following day to pick them up and continue where we had left off.
Right after the interviews we went to the stables where we got helmets, saddles, bridals, and saddlebags. Saddling the horses was up to us, but our guides and the horsemen did the final checking. We took off for a two and a half hour ride across farmland, crossing streams and riding up and down hillocks. It was our first taste of moving through the terrain that is often uneven. I believe, most of the horses’ energy goes into concentrating on where and how to step. However, when the ground is smooth, the horses are keen to trot, canter, tölt, or gallop. The tölt is the special four-beat gait of the Icelandic horse. Its sequence of foot falls is the same as in walk, just much faster. At least one foot is on the ground at any one time, so that there is no period of suspension – and that means smoothness.
I was pleased to find that the ride did not affect me uncomfortably, so my training prior to the trip was paying off. There were some gravel roads and trails that seemed to lead to nowhere, perhaps to one of the lonely homes. Most of the time there was just the sky and the land and some distant hill. We were starting to experience the atmosphere of this almost empty land. There was the wind that cooled us and the horses, taking away the heat created by the riding energy. There was the feel of the terrain right through the horses’ bodies into ours. There were the earthy scents, the dust that, at times, drifted into nose and mouth, the splashes of churned up water at river crossings, the drizzle of rain. Feeding the senses with real impressions is the outstanding difference between reading a travel story or watching a documentary, however good.
We returned for afternoon tea and sat in the farmhouse’s thermal pool. Even the sun came out and flooded the land. The pool was too hot for everybody to enjoy it. However, after dinner the temperature had dropped and it was good to relax muscles and bones getting them ready for the coming day that would be harder than today, but also would let us see more interesting scenery. We would not just be honing our riding skills, or just sightseeing, we would also be filmed by professional photographers for a magazine article.
An Exciting Day
Fossnes – Hvítárdalur – (Fossnes)
(Fossnes) - Hvítárdalur - Gullfoss – Geysir Guesthouse
Iceland has changed! Yesterday a deep blue sky extended from horizon to horizon, the sun drenching my jacket which I would still keep on, in case I should fall off the horse. Today our good fortune with the weather continued and we expected another day of gentle riding.
Starting out from Hvítárdalur, where we had left the horses, our trip started innocuous enough. When we arrived at Hvita, a mighty river that poured down a jagged gorge, we descended and led the horses across a bridge. While riders and spare horses regrouped on the far side of the bridge, I hurried to take shots of the river. It had chewed its way through layers of lava, leaving banks with varying steepness and sharp crumpled tops.
I happened to ride in front with some other companions, when shouts reached us from behind. We were to stop; there had been an accident. A horse had tumbled, partly landing on his rider. The person riding behind had been so startled that all he could utter had been: “Are your sandwiches OK?”
(We used to make up our own sandwiches for lunch and store them in our saddlebags). The “fallen woman” had suffered only minor bruises, but the horse was bleeding from his mouth and had to be exchanged.
The mental image of a horse blundering forced itself into my mind, when our trail led us closer to the river, at times only about a foot away from the edge of vertiginous, almost vertical, cliffs. One stumble by the horse and it along with the rider would be gone. I was frightened. As soon as I had the chance to move further away from the cliff, I did so but came to regret this too. I found myself traversing a rocky hillside with loose chunks of rumpled lava.
Instead of evening out, the ground steepened until I realised that I couldn’t carry on. Turning round was out of the question, because of the 45 degree angle of the slope. I had to go straight down. In my desperation, I turned my stallion downhill, gently talking to him, calming him and begging him to find the best spots where to step. Slowly and gingerly Lysingur moved on. I had to lean back so much that I was almost standing perpendicularly in the stirrups. Having made it to safer ground, I just about embraced my horse thanking him, much relieved. When I, later on, commented to Fridberg on the scary ride, he just smiled: “At least you won’t forget it.”
“Horses can stumble, as we’ve noticed today.”
Fridberg just shook his head slightly, but Franziska muttered: “That fall just before was not the horse’s fault.”
I came closer to the giant fracture in the earth. Already from afar, its seething innards heralded it. I knew what I was going to see: Gullfoss, one of the largest and most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. We had left our horses in a corral close to the visitors’ parking lot. Sightseeing was only permitted on foot. The top lookout revealed the extent of this natural marvel. Gullfoss cascades in two plateaus. The upper one is 11 metres and the lower one 20 metres high. The ravine into which Gullfoss cascades is almost 70 metres deep and 2.5 km long.
Climbing down the path to the rocky terrace at midpoint between the plateaus allowed me to experience the enormous power of the tumbling water. The mist was now boiling right above me, as if creating rain from a deep blue sky. Sunshine wove the pearly colours of a large rainbow into the spray. The thunder deafened any other sounds. I stood there near the edge of the fall, slowly getting drenched. I watched and watched - and found it hard to take my eyes off the spectacle.
After a quick lunch, we carried on to our lodging in Geysir, the place that has given all the world’s geysirs (or geysers) its name. Right away, after we had attended to our horses and checked into the guest house, I hurried to wander around the thermal area which lay slightly elevated with a wide-angle view of the surrounding plains. The original geysir now only plays at long and rather unpredictable intervals. However, not far away is Stokkur, a geysir that explodes, with various intensity, every five or ten minutes.
The evening light deepened the opalescent colours of the thermal pools and rivulets. Steam wafted and sulfurous odours hung in the air. The sinter-glazed ground appeared to be thin enough to break and was, in places, cordoned off, though stepping over the flimsy barriers was easy enough. Stokkur suddenly blew up, sending a little boy running for safety. Compared with most New Zealand thermal areas, the extent of this one was modest. However, Geysir is just one of many such places scattered all over Iceland.
A Night to Celebrate
This night was set aside for partying, because the following day was an easy riding day, allowing late revellers to sleep in. The next day would also be the last day for half of our group, for those who had opted for a shorter tour. At dinner we celebrated the fiftieth birthday of one of our mates with a candle-lit cake; some vodka appeared as well. I need to explain that it didn’t come out of a saddle bag; our excess baggage had followed us by minibus. Fridberg introduced us to dried shark meat which most of us were unable to eat because of its overpowering smell and taste.
It was a long evening with singing and entertainment. We were encouraged to perform an act that related to our country of origin. The German girls acted out the poem “Erlking”, about a father riding home with a dying child who is spooked by gnarled riverside trees. The French showed the hunting down of a fictitious mountain animal with legs on one side shorter than on the other. So it can only run on hillsides in one direction. When scared front on, it turns, by necessity falling over and becoming easy prey. I had kept my action a secret, as everybody else, but had aroused curiosity by insisting on taking my riding whip with me and securing the cooperation of Fridberg. I was planning a “powhiri”, a Maori “welcome or “challenge”.
I explained that this age-old ritual was still being performed in New Zealand, not only on the “marae”, the Maori meeting place, but also when overseas dignitaries were visiting. I pointed at Fridberg, explaining:
“The “challenge” is always directed at the leader of a party. In the olden days, the appearance of foreigners could mean either a raid or a friendly visit. To find out, a warrior would be sent to the entrance of the marae. He would challenge the leader with a spear, frightening grimaces, and contortions of his poked out tongue. The visiting chieftain would be expected to remain completely unperturbed. If on a friendly mission, he would pick up a plant cutting eventually placed before him. If he didn’t, this meant war. If he did, the women in the background of the marae would start chanting their “karanga”, the welcoming song. Friendly welcomes would also include the “hongi”, noses touching each other. If Fridberg should pick up the flower I’ve picked for this occasion, I’d have to apologise for being unable to include the “karanga”. However, I shall do the hongi with each of you. Just give me a few minutes to change into a warrior. By the way, the whip symbolises a spear.”
I returned with my whip, clad only in my sarong (lava-lava), a piece of clothing tied around the hips, and challenged Fridberg. He remained so completely calm that from now on I called him “the great warrior”.
Franziska ran away; she didn’t like my ferocious behaviour.
To the Top of Haukadalsheiđi
Geysir – Haukadalur – Haukadalsheiđi – Geysir
I went to bed at midnight. Then I woke up sporadically, because of the commotion and the ebb and flow of debates in the hallway. Once I heard a loud thud followed by a curse. In the morning my room mate had a bruise on his head and I had to wake him for breakfast. He then preferred to take the day off. Fridberg said it wasn’t unusual that patrons made this a rest day, since it was a relaxed riding day with the following night spent again at the guesthouse.
It turned out to be another brilliant day with hardly a cloud in the sky. We were riding into the highlands over easy terrain. I was riding Blesa and enjoyed our faster than normal pace. It was here that I had my first longer gallopping experiences which I found exhilarating. Unfortunately, I began to notice a kind of clanking noise that slowly but surely became more frequent. I rode up to a horseman and mentioned this.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “you’re hearing a bird; some of them make such noises.
But the clanking would not stop; it became quite obvious to me, that it had something to do with either my horse or my gear. I approached the horseman again.
“You’re worrying too much. You may have this noise in your head,” he suggested. Since I definitely did not accept this explanation, he agreed to check out Blesa’s hooves. Indeed, one of the horseshoes was coming off.
He shook his head: “Nothing we can do about it, before we come home. Blesa will lose this shoe eventually. You just have to make sure you avoid rocky patches as much as possible.”
We arrived at a mound so steep that we had to get off and lead the horses. I found the ground so uneven that I, admittedly, more clung to my horse than guiding it. The top of the mound did not offer enough room for all riders, so that we took turns to admire the view. Before us, a virtually featureless grassy plain extended towards the horizon – there, distant, but clearly visible in pure, sun-doused air stood a massive mountain range topped with shimmering layers: the large glaciers of the Iceland high country.
We lunched and lounged at a beautiful grassy spot near the edge of low forest. It was hot enough to strip and have a bath in the close-by stream. I then was the first to get ready and to saddle, because I wanted to ride ahead to video our group. I had chosen a spot on higher ground where I had an unobstructed view of the picnic area and the trail leading away from it. There I dismounted, allowing Blesa to feed on the tall grass, and got my camera ready. Regretfully, my companions did not ride at a particularly exciting pace. They disappeared, rounding my vantage point and then reappeared above me which gave me another chance for some more interesting footage.
The trail back to Geysir was winding through low forest and scrub, crossing a few rivulets. It was so soft that Blesa, although having already lost her shoe, moved fast and with ease. It would have been an impressive sight filming us, breaking through the bushes, cantering and tölting and kicking up dust that envelopped us in a dazzling orange cloud.
Geysir – Tungufellsdalur – Kaldbakur – Fossnes
Fossnes – Kaldbakur – Hrunakrókur – Fossnes – Reykjavík
We farewelled our companions who had booked the shorter version of this trip. Ruefully they got into the minibus that would take them back to Reykjavik. On at least one occasion, Franziska had mentioned that she liked the last two days most; they would be more scenic albeit more demanding than the first days.
When we were riding out of Geysir towards the high country, the sky was blue, the trails dry and hence dusty. First we followed roads through open country that had a few gloomy volcanic hills strewn in. I was riding Lysingur near the rear of the group and inhaled a lot of the dust the other riders were churning up.
Slowly, the plains gave way to the high plateau with gorgeous views of wide green river-soaked valleys that separated smooth dark-grey hills. Clouds amassed above the gentle peaks; dark patches alternated with sporadic sunshine. More and more often did I find myself in front of our group. Trying to escape the dust would have been one of the reasons. I also needed to nudge Lysingur into the more comfortable cantering or tölting. The reason for the comparatively slow speed of our group may have been the fact that the herd, now enlarged by the horses of our past companions, was driven ahead of us and we did not want to interfere with it. As a result I had to stop frequently to wait for the others.
At lunchtime we found a spot behind a ledge where, protected from the wind, we could munch our sandwiches and drink the pure Icelandic water we carried in our drinking bottles; even the sun broke through the clouds now and then. Walking around to take photos, I had to take great care in order not to twist an ankle; the ground was very lumpy with pits covered up by vegetation. I again couldn’t help admiring the horses’ skill to step their way through this terrain.
In the afternoon I was riding my beloved Blesa. When crossing creeks with steep banks, I used to let her trot down and, with impetus, lunge up the other side. However, this one time she jumped. Completely unprepared for that, I found myself behind the saddle, frantically trying to slip back into it. This didn’t work and down I went. Fortunately, I did not hurt myself; I didn’t even have any marks on my body, as was established on inspection in the hot pool that same evening.
Despite the lengthy ride, we covered about 40 kilometers, I still felt very comfortable in the saddle towards the end of the day and Blesa spirited and strong enough for tölts and gallops. The cooler temperatures helped the horses. In the late afternoon, it also started to drizzle, but not so much that we needed wet weather gear. I almost felt sorry to see the end of the riding day nearing. Our goal was the highest farm in Iceland, though probably not higher than 200 m above sea level. Farming in higher altitudes is, allegedly, uneconomic, because of the climatic conditions there. We left the horses at the farm and were taken by minibus back to Fossnes for dinner and a soak in the pool. It was a relaxed evening and I could even write an e-mail home saying that I was still OK.
The following morning our minibus took us back to the highland farm so that we could continue our trip. It turned out to be quite an exciting day. It was at times drizzly, but I didn’t need to don my wet weather gear, which was just as well, because I couldn’t stick my legs into the trousers. I was up against the same problem as before the trip when I found myself unable to buy wide enough riding boots.
“Proper riders don’t usually have such strong calves,” I learnt.
I ended up with XXL zippered bootchaps over my normal hiking boots.
Some of the views of the mountains and hills and valleys, all craggy and rugged, would have been nice to film, but riding and photography do not go together well. Some great vistas eluded my camera. By the time I had fished it out from my saddle bag and readied it, I would be left behind and would need to hurry to catch up with the bulk of the group. However, I was able to organise a short film of us tölting past Franziska who had agreed to use my video camera.
The riding through this magnificent scenery was challenging because of the occasional steepness and ruggedness of the terrain. The riders have to stabilise themselves, rely on the horses and make sure the animals are not in any way irritated. We descended steep slopes where the rugged trail dropped unevenly in jumps and turns, with large boulders in between. On two occasions we had to get off the horses and lead them down, a demanding task even for us. These difficult passages alternated with places where we could ride faster. Riding Lysingur in this territory had made me quite tired already at lunchtime when we arrived at a farmyard where we changed horses. I was pleased to mount Blesa again.
Down we bore into wide open spaces to a big river, the Stóra-Láxá. There were stretches where we could go exhilaratingly fast. While the day before I would have gone on with pleasure, this day I did not mind reaching our destination, again another farm; I was weary and so was my horse.
After a good afternoon tea at the farmhouse and a farewell from our guides, a minibus took us back to our guesthouse in Reykjavik. It was nice that we, the remaining six riders, could meet up in town for dinner to spend a few more hours together.
The Blue Lagoon
Going east from Reykjavik, traffic passes through an amazingly stark, denuded plain of irregularly shaped rocks blanketed with mosses and lichens, riven by ditches, gaps, cracks and fissures. The terrain looks even more forbidding than any we had encountered on our tour.
Embedded in this plain is a steaming lake, the best part of which is fenced in and made into a thermal spa. When I entered and looked out through the large glass panes of the main building, I saw many heads bobbing up and down in the blue, milky liquid. When bathers stepped out, they immediately started running to wherever they wanted to go. This did not surprise me. The outside temperature wavered around chilly 10UC, aggravated by wind and rain. I realised the good luck with the weather we had had virtually till the end of our tour yesterday. I was now on my own, had a day to spare before leaving Iceland and wanted to soak out of my body the cold that was invading it tenaciously.
The water was a tepid 37U to 38U C and shallow enough to wade in it. Pumps hidden in the rocky edges obviously responded to thermostats. Some women floating their heads on the opaque surface had slapped disgusting cottage-cheese-like cream into their faces. Eventually I found out that troughs with ladles offered slightly granular thermal mud, while notices above them praised its benefits for the skin.
For patrons wishing to enjoy higher temperatures, there were also saunas and steam baths. A cordoned-off area of the pool was reserved for open-air massages administered on floating water-beds, perhaps a rather frigid pleasure on a day like this.
By the time I had returned to Reykjavik, the acquired warmth had left my body again and I looked with admiration at some young people that were in summery clothes. There were even girls with bare shoulders. Admittedly they were diving in and out of venues, but nevertheless..! The town was full of life, because it was “Culture Night”. Bands played on a stage in the main square, there were indoor concerts, museums and exhibitions were free of charge.
I was particularly intrigued by an archaeological find thanks to excavations for a new building. It is a dwelling with a yard and outhouses, dating back to the early settlers in Iceland in the 10th century AD. The peat blocks used as foundations of the dwelling have been painstakingly preserved, using a chemical reaction initiated inside the blocks. Dioramas display the countryside and the activities of that era, utensils and weapons found in the vicinity are assembled in show cases and interactive computer images allow observation of the construction method used for this ancient dwelling.
In the new Art Gallery a friendly custodian invited me to attend a recital of songs by a young female artist. I needed to apologise for leaving early. I had to catch an airport bus for a midnight flight from Keflavik to Frankfurt and Vienna.
© Joe Paul - October 2008
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