Iceland was going to be a different travel experience: this was obvious from the moment I landed at the airport. My clothes, especially my shoes (in this case my riding boots), were meticulously inspected for suspect dirt, and I was interviewed about my previous whereabouts. Locals want to keep their autochthonous flora and fauna uncontaminated, and their pristine landscapes unsullied.
That was fine with me. I had followed the instructions about sanitizing my gear before arrival, so the government inspection didn’t faze me. I was ready to “Yo, yo”, the Icelandic expression for vamos or “let’s go.”
Svandis, our tall, blonde Viking of a guide, loved urging us to Yo yo. She meant that we should mount our assigned horses and get ready to follow the herd, “the herd” being 77 free-running horses that set the pace each day for our weeklong trek through the heart of Iceland.
Riding in the wilderness behind a herd of horses is an experience unique to this country. No matter how good a rider you are, no matter how many places you visit on horseback, you won’t find treks anywhere else in the world that operate this way. Only in Iceland will you travel with dozens of domesticated-but-loose horses as you explore a lunar landscape punctuated by volcanoes and geysers. It’s a heady feeling to start the morning behind77 equines as they cross a slatted wooden bridge, their hoofs clattering like a stampede, and then turn your own mount — totally psyched — to follow them.
That is what brought me to Iceland one summer to do the country’s most classic horse trek — Kjölur –with Íslandshestar(formerly Ishestar), Iceland’s most venerable horse trek organization. The Kjölur route took us more than 220 kilometers from the south to the north, through ancient lava fields and between volcanoes, a route with historic, cultural, and sensorial significance.
Why we moved with a herd, rather than a few tethered animals as back-up, has to do with the nature of Icelandic horses AND the nature surrounding them. Horse treks for experienced riders in most parts of the world include a mixture of three gaits: walk, trot, and canter. Icelandics have a different formula: tölt , tölt , or tölt.This gait is peculiar to Icelandic horses; faster than a trot, the four-beat tölt is theoretically much smoother . . . not that my bruised, battered, bloodied buttocks could tell the difference by the end of Day Two.
Tölting, when mastered, enables you to move quickly and comfortably over volcanic, rock-strewn road-less countryside. But it does tire the horses. Therefore Ishestar brings enough extra animals so you can change your mount once or twice a day. (This happens only on their multi-day tours encompassing long distances and challenging conditions).
Travel with a free-running herd would not be possible without the friendly, willing nature of the Icelandic horse. Their character has been refined over the course of 12 centuries, aided by the fact that this is the ONLY breed of horse in the country. Their energy, even temperament, and amiability have garnered enthusiasts all over the world . . . including the 11 riders in my group.
Although most of us had come as “singles”, and our ages ranged from mid-20s to early 60s, we got along very well. That was fortunate in light of our sleeping arrangements. Our overnights were usually in mountain cabins with communal sleeping arrangements and few showers. We lined up for those showers, since daily tölting left our clothes covered with fine brown powder or thick dark mud. Still, the facilities were clean, with flush toilets and rolls of paper in the bathrooms, plus clean floors (since we must remove our shoes always before entering homes in Iceland) and electricity in the cabins. I had expected more rustic lodges, outhouses, and no hot water at all.
I was also prepared for bad food, cold weather, mosquitos, and rain. But dinners were unexpectedly good. Asa, our cook, was also our co-host: our herd of horses belonged to her and her husband Hjalti. She plied us with Swedish-style dishes like fish cakes and barbequed lamb from Hjalti’s farm. The two of them sang for us several evenings after dinner — she a sprightly soprano, he a sombre baritone.
An unusually cold spring had killed all the mosquitos, and a warm June invited t-shirts and suntan lotion instead of k-ways and thermals. Although it rained briefly for an hour one afternoon and we were buffeted by freezing winds one lunchtime, the cold weather followed us but never quite caught up So all in all, we were lucky about the weather as well as the food and company.
The scenery the first few days of the Kjölur trail does not vary dramatically: slate or lava grey gravel, distant mountains hosting theLangjökull and Hofsjökull Glaciers,glassy lakes, icy streams to cross. On day three, in the middle of the country, we slept in a rustic cabin at Hveravellir, a geothermal area in the highlands, where we indulged in a hot bath under the Midnight Sun, with cold beer served as we soaked. The latter part of the trek is more colourful, with boggy mounds of dark earth tufted with lichen, grasses, low-lying shrubs, and occasional wildflowers.
Always the play of light and dark in these empty spaces — with no trace of civilization — exerts its own fascination. The stories Svandis told us, and the songs she sang to us, about Icelandic trolls and bandits and folk heroes added colour to the monochromatic landscape. Her accounts were so vivid that it came as no surprise when she told us she was an actress by profession, and did the horse treks only during her summer vacation.
We crossed three rivers on our fourth day. I was riding a horse named Kvistor that afternoon and, as it happens, Kvistor LOVED the water. He was as excited as a schoolboy as we tölted along the riverbank of the first river. As soon as we headed in, he became Mr. Grand Prix Gelding, zooming past one horse after another, happy as a clam.
I was clam-happy too at that point, since a staff member had loaned me a pair of goggles the day before. The first few days had been painful for me, a contact lens wearer without adequate protection from the dirt kicked up by almost 100 horses. Had I known, I would have brought my own, but I could not have imagined that black lava rock would produce such copious quantities of stinging, burning, blinding dust. My fellow riders were untroubled by it but I suffered.
You need a high tolerance for more than dirt. The hours in the saddle are long, up to seven a day, most of them over bone-jolting terrain regardless of the smoothness of the tölt of an individual horse (not all horses have butt-friendly tölts). You need a high tolerance for unpredictable weather and the uncertainties of horse riding in general.
But if you are an experienced rider AND curious about Iceland, there is no better way to see this country. Spectacular sceneryviewed from feisty little horses and, if you are lucky, a fantastic guide like Svandis to fill in the blanks make for an unforgettable eight days. Yo-yo. Let’s go. What are you waiting for?