The Wild Wild East


the first group, on Eyjabakkajökull

I rode 4 tours with Íshestar this summer, around the Eastern fjords and valleys, and up to the highlands around Snaefell mountain in Fljótsdalsheiði. I guided the first tour with 10 guests, a nice mix of Dutch  German, Swedish, Belgian, English and Australian male and female riders. Last year we sometimes had groups of only 16 women or 14 German speakers, and few young riders, but this summer, there were riders even younger than me. Last year, the first tour began July 4th, and then the highland was a muddy grey swamp land, only just beginning to recover from the snow cover, but this years first tour was at the end of June, and summer was already full blown with green vegetation, sunny skies, and dry ground covering the highland. Once in a while we still encountered soft ground, and had to invent creative detours to avoid a domino effect of horses disappearing down into the slush. This was Susy’s greatest fear, and she could only get past these points by dismounting or riding with her eyes closed. Christian had absolutely no fears, and requested to ride only the crazy ones which he handled just fine, even with rodeo bucks, slipping bridles, and disappearing into the herd a few times. Some of the stronger riders rode stronger horses, which they slowly tired of having to hold back, so me and my horses ass became a useful brake. Between rides, we played in other ways; we had an epic snowfight on the glacier and went skinny dipping into a few glacial rivers.

The second trip was an exploration experiment, a staff tour for us to take to figure out a new way and familiarize ourselves with another highland region. We were 4 staff, with 16 horses, which

Denni and Arna with half the herd in hand

we rode with all has hand horses. Its difficult enough to maneuver some highland terrain on one horse, so being 4 horses wide and trying to balance the pack horse as best you could over the terrain was difficult, to say the least. We had packed our tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking supplies for 5 days, and even brought rope and poles to make temporary fences for the herd, but these things were rarely cooperative in staying put on the pack horses backs. We set off on the first day very late, leaving at 7pm and assuming the late night sun would be sufficient to light our way. But, then we got hopelessly lost and stuck in thick fog cover, so finally at 3 am we were forced to stop in the middle of nowhere and wait for clear skies in the morning. We were in a damp, rocky place, with almost no grass for the horses, it was freezing cold, and we realized our stove didn’t fit the primus so we couldn’t cook our food or heat up any water.  We set up the tent for the three hours we waited there, but maybe slept 1 hour each since we were so cold and hungry and worried the horses would run away. Arna actually thought at one point she was freezing to death.

At 6 am, we set off again, and rode nearly 16 hours, dozing off on our horses as we descended into the wrong valley. We stopped once we reached greener pastures, for the horses to finally eat and for us to pass out in the sun for a warm, well-deserved nap. We rode all the way out to the coast, splashing along the beach, to round the fjord into the next valley we were initially trying to find. Fossdalur is a valley of a hundred waterfalls, with one very nice farmer who let us stay in his guest house and use his electricity to cook our food.

With this refreshing revitalization, we set off again over the same dreaded highland. After leaving 2 lame horses behind, we made it to Geitdalur after another long day without any fog or mid-night cold. There we camped and were able to scrounge up enough birch wood to make a campfire for cooking water on. Another day of riding finally took us back home, with some exhausted horses and our battered selves, and we could enjoy the week off before the next guests arrived.

The next trip was a pack tour with 12 guests, a 6 day trip with 5 pack horses to carry our 2kg of luggage each. Most of our food and camping supplies also got carried by pack horses, but we had

the pack tour

one truck sometimes dropping off tents or food refills along the way. We rode a new way, further north past Jokuldal and to Saenutasel – an old turf house farm. From there we rode to Laugarvalladalur, a geothermally active valley with a hot waterfall to shower under.  The third day was the most interesting, as we rode with our horses, pack horse and herd of 40 loose horses over the Kárahnjúkar dam – a narrow bridge creating the boundary wall for the controversial hydropower plant built in the middle of the highland.  The next days we rode almost the same way home, but circled the base of Snæfell and rode on the other side of Norður dalur back out into Fljótsdalur. We camped our last night and celebrated our last riding day by letting all the extra horses run free, and the truck support took all our packs so no rider held a hand horse.

The last tour was an extra long 9 day tour, a 300km trek from Höfn in Hofnarfjorður, over Lónsheiði and through the Fossdalur and Geitdalur paths we paved on our staff tour. We rode in and out of the dramatic south east coast, with glaciers or the ocean constantly painting our background. Highlights included taking whole herd for a gallop way out in the sea (through a shallow tide) and almost losing the entire herd in a glacier river as they tried, unsuccessfully, to take a shortcut home.

the herd swimming away!

The riding trips I took in the east this summer can all be summed up in one word: adventurous. Whether it was the beautiful landscape, changing elements, or pioneering sense of exploration, all the trips were full of (sometimes challenging) surprises and I couldn’t imagine any better way to experience the wild wild east other than by horseback.

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