Arctic Adventures

It’s amazing to think about the far-reaching effects of the tourism industry in Iceland. We’re a tiny country, 103,000sq.km and only 306,000 people, but this year, around a half a million tourists came and scoured every corner of this country, seeing more in 1 week than most Icelanders see in a lifetime of living here. You notice this on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street where everyother person passes you speaking a different language, and also on highway 1, the ringroad around Iceland littered in rental cars and some serious campervans shipped over with Smyril’s car ferry from Europe.

Working with Ishestar riding tours and also at the Radisson Hotel in Reykjavik, I get a sneak peek into the lives and plans of some of these tourists, fulfilling life-time dreams of traveling in Iceland, riding horses over snow-topped mountains, icecaving in glaciers, and photographing active volcanoes. There’s a tour company called Arctic Adventures that specializes in all the most extreme types of sport tourism, including snowmobiling, 4x4ing, river rafting and white water kayaking. I went with some river guides and Arctic Adventure staff from Drumboddstadir down a class 2 river, experiencing Iceland as totally adrenaline-filled tourist and enjoying the feeling of taking a vacation in Iceland.

they use old American school buses to transport kayakers and kayaks to the top of the river

I was with Frikki, a doctor who river guides in the summer but also happens to be the chairman of the Reykjavik Hunting Association, so we were on our way to the east for the reindeer hunting trip. He knew all the staff at Drumbo, and we kayaked until nightfall, pulling our kayaks and canoe out of the water well after 10pm. We stopped in one gorge to do some cliff jumping, 5m into the glacial river in our dry suits that didn’t keep us so dry but did bob us like stuffed scarecrows back to the surface immediately. That night we ate chicken masala and tapped into a bottomless keg, exchanged shoulder massages and then went into the sauna together where swimming suits are banned. I discreetly wrapped myself in a towel, but tried very hard to remain casual as 3 naked men posed like Troy all around me.

The next day we drove north to Skagafjordur, where a glacier river called Jokulsa has a west and east arm both great for kayaking and river rafting. We joined a tourist group and took 2 rafts down the class 4 east river, and drifted through the intimidating rapids with names like the Green Room, which was more of a 4+class rapid. We made it through the 3 drops and boiling currents without flipping, but watched in horror as the second boat tipped on the first waterfall and everyone got sucked under and dragged out. Paddles went flying and the safety kayaks had to rescue all the stranded souls, but eventually we were all in good enough spirit to go cliffjumping again.

kayaking is a pretty colourful riversport

We stayed at the staff house again, grilled a few hamburgers, and crashed on the couch. The staff there were from Canada, England, Nepal, France and Guatemala, creating an international hostel vibe in this remodeled barn in the middle of farm country. We were a few kilometers away from Varmahlíð, and stopped at the natural hot pot Fossalaug on our way north. We continued roadtripping our way East, driving out from Skagafirdi to Akureyri through Olafsjordur and Hofsos, stopping in at Frikki’s uncle’s farm to have the best smoked arctic char I’ve ever tasted. We were invited in for coffee and cake, and got to peek into the private life of farming. We also visited his aunt, glimpsing into her arts and crafts life out of a remodeled warehouse where she harvests down feathers from eider ducks and turns them into the clothes as soft as clouds.

To get to Iceland and go on your own Arctic Adventure, its pretty easy to find cheap flights here.

 

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The Íshestar Egilstaðir Tours

a turf hut, which used to be a sheep-house which we used for dining in and storing our saddles overnight at Fjallaskal

The horse trip season in East Iceland was only 6 weeks this summer, with 4 groups arriving for weeklong trips. I flew between Reykjavik and Egilstaðir between trips with Air Iceland, and thoroughly enjoyed the scenic flight over Þinvgallavatn, Hekla, and various different glaciers, still dusted black with Grimsvotn´s volcanic ash. The first trip started July 4th, and the highlands looked as if it was still early may. Snow still covered the ground, with grey skies, brown grass, moist earth and dismal signs of life. Not even the swan pairs you normally see in the snow-melt graced the ponds, and to believe

The first Fjallaskál we stay at, a mountain hut without electricity or running water as it looked on the first trip

reindeer and foxes could survive there was difficult. We delivered a few rolls of hay in the day prior to the trip, and the thermometer read only 3 degrees Celsius. I had heard the summer was better in the east, typically warmer and sunnier, but the temperature hovered around only 6 degrees or 9 degrees most days, though we barely had any rain or wind
The trips have 15 or 16 guests, 5 or 6 staff, and 65 – 75 horses. So 21 saddled horses and their riders follow a loose herd of 50 horses, up over mountains and across wetlands with very few roads or fences, and travel over 250km in 6 days riding anywhere between 5 – 12 hours a day. However we don’t ride straight – we stop to change horses once or twice a day, we stop for lunch and cookies and coffee, and we stop to rest the herd, let them graze or drink. Then we have to stop when people fall off, which has happened on every trip, including every staff person. Horses change between the trips as some fall ill, lame, or just too old, tired or prized to come again.

behind the herd, forming a perfect head-to-tail line up

The trip journey also changed from week to week. On the first week, snow and snowmelt prevented us from riding over the wetlands to Sauðárkofi, a primitive mountain hut near the dam. We also couldn’t drive to Vatnajökull for a glacier walk planned each tour, so we drove to the dam.
On the last day of the trip we drop back into Fljótsdalur, the valley where we

riding over some leftover snow in August

start, from Laugafell – a mountain at the end of the valley. Its up in the highland area where Snæfell is, the highest mountain outside of a glacier at 1836m, and where Vatnajökull National Park begins. This area is also home to the infamous Karahnjúkardam, the biggest hydro-electric power station of its kind in Europe and a source of contention for many environmentalists.
The trip journey also changed from week to week. On the first week, snow and snowmelt prevented us from riding over the wetlands to Sauðárkofi, a primitive mountain hut near the dam. We also couldn’t drive to Vatnajökull for a glacier walk planned each tour, so we drove to the dam and over the locks with a hair-raising drop down to what used to be a raging glacier river. However, we always try to ride the same way, and if its not weather conditions that divert us, we simply get lost. Herding 50 horses over rivers and ravines trying to find the path again is tricky, especially when Denni is always directing me to follow the track and without a track we make new ones and often reach a fork in the road that no-ones really sure which to take except Denni. Then there’s a difference between horse tracks, sheep tracks, and road tracks, so sometimes the hoof prints leave the car tracks or the paved road becomes a dirt road and its impossible to pay attention to where you’re going, what your horse is doing and where the herd is trying to go, and synchronize this all with the same end destination. We have walkie-talkies between the herd leader and herders, but trying to get it out of your pocket, hear and speak into it while riding and yelling at a herd proves difficult. Somehow, we always make it to where we’re going, with all the riders and horses, so that means its been a good day despite how many falls, turns or hours it takes.

riding at the front of the herd, towards Snæfell, along the easily visible horse tracks in a rocky desert

 

Austurland: East Iceland

Returning to Iceland only gave me one day in civilization before flying directly to Fljótsdalur, a farm-filled valley in East Iceland where reindeer roam freely and sheep crossings are the only form of traffic control. The human population is less than a couple hundred, but there are hundreds of horses and more than a couple thousand sheep, nestled on either side of a never-ending glacier river that carved out the valley eons ago. Some farms have been abandoned, standing almost as lonely as the ones still inhabited, and unreliable cell phone service enforces the feeling of being left behind from the outside world.

Egilstaðir, the farm where I stay

Ironically enough, the farm I’m staying on has the fastest internet I think I’ve ever used, but still my phone roams endlessly. Im staying in a house built in 1940, full of antique clocks, furniture and décor from each the last 3 decades. There’s an iron made in 1815 and a grandfather clock from the turn of the century that has a hand-written clock face. There’s a phonograph from the

hand-written clock face

1920’s, and tons of nick nacks from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, many of them horse-themed. The room I sleep in has a very narrow, wooden bed, a horse lamp and some new toys from my friends’ 11 year old daughter.

I only stay here the two nights per week – the night before the horse trips start, and the night after the 6 days trek has ended. Its extremely cozy, with that natural feeling of home even though I had never been here before this summer. It’s the furthest functioning farm in the valley, with a couple abandoned barns a few kilometers deeper. A border collie named Leo wanders in and out of the house, keeping the sheep away from us… or us away from the sheep, I’m not sure.

It’s commonly said the weirdest and most creative people in Iceland come from Egilstaðir and around the east, like the famous Icelandic painter Kjarval. My friend that lives here, aka the big boss of the horse trips, is leading these Ishestar highland riding tours for the first time this summer, but has been guiding horse trips all around Iceland each summer. He can miraculously catch and ride any horse, even while holding (and snapping) a 2m  whip, and sometimes rides with his dog. He must be some sort of an animal whisperer, since Leo only listens to him and the animals seem to let him do whatever Denni wants to do to them. He’s got bright blue eyes and disheveled hair that suits his film-maker identity he holds during the winter. He also has his quirks, a man of few words who knows horses really well but still forgets their particular names, having confused some for others, mistakenly caught (and ridden) the wrong horse, and then not having a clue who one or two even are. He almost accidentally bought the wrong horse, when he realized the farmer was trying to sell him the spastic brother who happens to look almost the exact same. He’s soft-spoken almost all the time, except for when yelling at his dog and the horses since they don’t always listen exactly to his whispers.

Denni, the horse and dog whisperer, his daughter Soffia, and Leo

Denni is from this area of Iceland, and happens to be related to almost everyone in the valley, so the riding tour is a bit of a family affair. Horses from ten or more farmers that are all his uncles and cousins and second and third cousins make up the herd of 70+ horses we ride with, and each farmer has his own quirky story. There´s Baldur, who has the longest sideburns I´ve ever seen, who lives on a farm full of turf houses and usually smokes a pipe. There´s another guy who´s super active on facebook and uses his manure-spreading tractor as his profile picture since its his pride and joy. There’s Jón, the former big boss of the horse trips, who always abides by the rule ´its always 5 oclock somewhere,´ which, unfortunately, eventually lead to his demise. There´s a farmer who owns a hobby farm, a kind of a petting zoo, full of the usual aves, dogs and sheep, plus some pet reindeer and arctic foxes. He speaks with a glottal, rolling “R” that makes you second guess if he’s trying to speak Danish, but its just regular Icelandic that’s slightly more difficult for me to understand. He met his wife by sending a picture of his kitchen window-view many years ago to the local midwife school advertising “this is what you could have.” One very lucky girl responded positively and now spends her time making arts and crafts out of reindeer leather on their farm, probably staring out that very same window.

 

Murchison Falls: Worth it?

I had heard about Murchison Falls in epic travelogues from authors like Ryszard Kapuscinski, that it was beautiful and difficult to get to. I didn’t realize until after going that it’s recently been extremely dangerous, but becoming more secure. It was supposed to be quite easy, according to local advice and the travel company we booked with, but turned out to be quite the adventure. My travel companion for the trip shares the story from his point of view, for my first ever guest blog post. Enjoy!

Murchison Falls in Northern Uganda

Katrin negotiated a van and a driver “who knows the park” to take us on the “two a half hour drive” to the Falls, from the hotel where we overnighted in Lira. Adding chill time at the Falls, and the short drive on to Masindi we thought we were looking at about five to six hours, easily enough time for us to catch a bus on to Kampala. After a rough few weeks backpacking alone and some trust issues arising, it was a good day for Katrin to defiantly declare “nothing is going to stress me today!”

An entire air-conditioned van to ourselves was luxury beyond imagining after being matatu bound for several days. Put twenty people in a minibus designed for fifteen, add luggage (occasionally living), a preacher, a whole lot of dust, and continuous stops; and you have a classic matatu experience. Two hours later we arrived at the park to discover some fees that we had been assured did not exist. Not a big surprise, just an expected inconvenience. But TIA (“this is Africa”), so we laughed it off, since it was only a few dollars, and the Falls were only a trivial half hour away. When we arrived at a park hotel soon after, things looked a little different.

not quite the falls, but a pretty comfortable resort in the middle of a jungle

Consultation with the hotel map revealed that we were nowhere near the elusive Falls. We were at the far end of the park and faced three hours driving to get there. It was too late to pull out. We had paid for the day’s car hire and all of that money was back at the hotel so we had no means of recovering it. We decided to push on, the driver wilting a little at our annoyance.

The driver bribed a military officer who approached us as we slowed over a bridge, preferring expedience to argument and grinning a “This is Uganda” over his shoulder. Shortly afterwards he started driving suspiciously slow along a clear section of road. Given his proclivity for speeding this was rather strange, and I asked him what he was doing. “There are people around here who sell cheap fuel”, he said enigmatically over his shoulder. Translation: there are people around here who have no fuel, i.e. us. It didn’t take long before the engine cut out. He then proceeded to try and start it. Repeatedly. Katrin thought he might be signalling the “cheap fuel people”. I was slightly more cynical.

Suddenly the driver hopped out of the van and flagged down a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi). Momentarily distracted in conversation, it took a while for us to notice that he was attempting to siphon petrol out of it. “What does he think he’s going to do with that?” wondered Katrin, disparagingly. Obviously the fact that our vehicle ran on diesel did eventually occur to the man because suddenly the boda-boda was upright again, with him on it. “I go fetch fuel”, he said, driving off. Naturally confidence in our experienced driver was waning at this point. Refuelled, it didn’t take long for him to strengthen his case with a juddering fishtail across a dirt road.

Katrin was tight as a spring, accumulated travel travails eroding her tolerance, the recurring problem of worthless information delivered with confidence taking its toll. Barely recovered from typhoid, there was little that could faze me, but as the hours went by even I started to feel like we were on a road that would never end. It was a shock when the road opened into a parking lot with a large wooden sign proclaiming “Murchison Falls.”

Murchison Falls is more a fissure than a waterfall, the whole of the Nile forced down a narrow crack. Its as if the earth decided to close its fist on the river. The water, so serene and steady before, lashes in fury like an enraged reptile. Our arrival was celebrated with bottlecap shots of Kenyan cane; a spirit probably better suited to fuelling 4x4s than drinking pleasure. Katrin takes her cane about as well as a four-year-old takes root canal without anaesthetic. To her credit, that doesn’t stop her instigating its consumption.

changing the spare tire

While we wandered around the Falls, the driver discovered and changed a flat tire. He also realised that we were not going to manage the 50km to Masindi with the fuel light already on. We decided to chase diesel further into the park, following a cryptic Shell sign. Fortunately we met another car and were informed that the Shell was 18km away on the far side of a river ferry. They were able to point us to a resort that fixed the tyre and sold us some fuel. Subsequent to the service, the driver informed me he had no money to pay for the repairs.

About 10km down the road, the driver looked out of the window at the newly repaired tyre. “Flat”, he muttered. He then began to accelerate, despite the horrendous noise of the tyre being snakebitten by the rims, as its “too dangerous” to stop in the park with dark falling. In the face of increasing dissent, he finally pulled over, straight into a muddy ditch. When I told him he was going to get stuck he denied it, but belied his certainty by gunning the engine, tyres spinning, mud flying. Eventually he responded to our collective shout of “stop”.

I got out to have a look and was barely clear before the man threw the van into reverse. Clods of clay flew past my face as I absentmindedly ducked, my mouth probably lucky to avoid snaring a missile the way it was hanging open. Mud from the rear tyres hammered into the inside of the car as Katrin desperately grabbed at the sliding door in the violently rocking vehicle. The van careened back, carving a muddy path of devastation. I honestly thought he was going to roll it – scenes of trying to extricate the two from a rolled van flitted across my vision. Eventually the vehicle shuddered back onto the main track, the right front tyre now ripped so badly that one side of the rim was actually resting on the ground.

The driver was quickly out and down next to the tyre that looked like it had

mud splattered all over the open door

been through a cement mixer. He didn’t say a word. I walked toward Katrin, struggling to hold it in, and failing. I exploded into crying, choking laughter. Eight ridiculous hours into what should have been an easy trip with “an experienced guide”, it was just too much. When my sanity returned, and Katrin’s had been slightly contaminated by infectious hysteria, we inspected the mud-spattered interior together, grinning. Meanwhile the driver discovered that the spare tyre had somehow ended up flat after the tyre fixing pitstop. He also discovered that his mobile phone was missing. It was already the 6pm park closing time and light was rapidly failing. A night in a dangerous section of park (where you aren’t supposed the leave the vehicle) was starting to look like a real possibility. The driver constantly warned us no stay close to the car, and we’re not sure if it was in lieu of the buffalo or the Lords Resistance Army.

Happily another group arrived in a 4×4, and after assuring the driver that using their spare tyre (which was at least 2inches taller than the upper wheel guard on the van) was not a viable option, they kindly offered to give us a ride into town, bringing along the spare tyre. Once in town the driver asked us to pay for more repairs and enough fuel to get back to Lira. Having already paid almost twice what we had been assured this would cost, for value that would have been questionable at half the price, there was absolutely no chance.

The driver looked dejected with his flat tyre when we left him in town – no phone, no money, no plan. I gave him 20 000 shillings, unable to walk away in clear conscience. “God bless you”, he said earnestly, bobbing his head sadly. “I am so sorry about this”, he added. I looked down into his small brown eyes. His right iris looked like it was melting in the top left corner. Four teeth were missing, and the remainder did not look particularly permanent. Incompetent though he was, the responsibility for the days’ events ultimately lay with his employers, and I could not help but feel sorry for him.

We wandered around town looking for accommodation, the last bus to Kampala long gone. In the first place we tried, the landlady deftly kicked a slipper over the huge spider that ran across the floor as she opened the door to the room. She didn’t have anything big enough for the four-inch drain cockroach that followed. Now, this didn’t really inspire elation in me, but I was reluctant to be caught being the priss. I looked sideways at Katrin and asked, “Too much?” She walked across to the en-suite. Two more monster cockroaches stared up at her, “Too much”, she agreed. Eventually we found a rather nice place, our willingness to cheap it somewhat eroded by the long day. The evening was pleasant, casual conversation over beer and local staples, but the upbeat camaraderie had peaked and given way to tiredness. Getting into bed I couldn’t help but think of the driver alone in town and wonder if he had found a better deal than the cockroach den we dodged.