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
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.
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
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.