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.

 

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