Pearls of the East: Egilstadir riding tours

Eastern Iceland is an epic place to have horse trips. There is so much open space and unchartered territory to roam with a herd of nearly a hundred horses, and you only ever see a road or fence when we’re down in the valleys between highland passes. We’ve run into reindeer on all of our 3 tours so far, and the last week has been over 20 degrees and sunny every day. Our herd is nearly 100 strong and we´ve got all sorts of new and young horses to try out. Some are crazy, some are wonderful, and some we still haven´t dared to try.

letting the herd pass

The first tour we had was a 6 day tour from Fljotsdalur down to Stafafell near Lón. On the way back, we added a few extra days and had a 9 day tour to return the herd home. It was a very special tour, not only because it was longer, but also because we had our first guest from Greenland, our first guest from Singapore, and 6 male guests. We spent 2 days riding in and out of Getihellnadalur, sleeping in tents at the end of the valley. We had one day of rain, which we cut short and took a boat trip to Papey island. We got a little lost on our way over the highland because it was white-out fog, and after circling on ourselves once because of the snow and lakes in our way, we ended up changing the way down through another valley.

swimming with horses

The regular Egilstadir tour has also changed a little, for the better as well, and after trying out the new way and a couple new accommodation places, we ended with a swimming with horses day in Sudurdalur. The next tour leaves tomorrow, and the last one ends mid August, so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for the weather like we’ve had to stay, and for our long days to go by quicker as the threatening sunset time keeps creeping earlier and earlier each day.

The Sheep round up in Eastern Iceland

I went directly from Holardalur to Fljotsdalur to chase more sheep. The round up area in the east is probably ten times bigger than the valley in Skagafirdi, and we were looking for a couple thousand sheep over a 3 day mountain ride.

Hallgrimur riding with 3 hand horses

We started in Skridaklaustur, the same farm where all the horse trips start from, and rode up from the valley into the mountains. We were about ten riders, each riding one horse and holding 1 or 2 extra, and I learned very quickly its quite difficult to ride with 3 horses over the swamped ground and crossing ditches and rivers. Some other riders started from deeper in the valley and another from the other side of the mountain in Jokuldalur, and we rode all day alone looking for sheep and chasing them towards the mountain hut where we’d all meet.

After a 14 hour day, we somehow did all make it to the hut, with all our horses and the tired sheep. For dinner we had lamb soup, a welcoming meal after eating dried fish and drinking vodka all day.

On the second day, most of the sheep had crossed the river that leads us down the other side of the mountain into Jokuldalur. We had the river on the right side and a mountain on the left side of us to help funnel all the sheep together into a massive, crying herd of white fluffy mass. Some sheep that didnt get the memo stayed on the wrong side of the river, and one farmer on a 4×4 had to spend the whole day chasing 5 or 6 sheep down the harder way.

the stupid gill I had to climb

Lucky me spotted 3 sheep standing in the middle of the river gorge on a huge piece of broken-off cliff, so I took a nice long hike straight down to the bottom of the gorge, and literally crawled on my hands and feet up the loose-gravel cliff. I took with me Tyra, a 6 month old border collie puppy who probably did more harm than good. She kept fighting me over foot space on the narrow sheep track we were following down, and would stop dead in her tracks if the leash got tangled between her legs. If I took her off the leash, she would stop, stare and cry at me. I certainly couldnt carry her as I had to keep grabbing at the ground with my hands for balance. When we finally got close enough to the sheep to see them and try to yell at them, they just ran further up the cliff, and it was me who had to go fetch them. It was times like this when I wished my eye sight was a little worse, so that I wouldn’t have spotted them and noone would have known these three stubborn sheep weren’t in the right place.

One day I spotted two sheep as far as my eyes could see and started riding nearly 5 km over the flat marshy ground towards them. When I got closer, half an hour later, I realized it was 2 swans and made a mental note to self: not all white things are sheep.

At the end of the second day, the sheep arrived in Klaustursel, a famous farm in Jokuldalur that has a petting zoo complete with reindeer and foxes. We had a traditional Icelandic christmas meal – smoked lamb leg and creamy potato stew, and drank even more vodka and beer. We sorted out which sheep belonged to that valley that night and the next morning, and the rest of the sheep had to be ridden back over the mountain to Fljotsdalur where we started.

funeling the sheep to Klaustursel

The last day was less lonely, since we rode in a massive herd together – 1000 sheep, 10 riders and 20 horses, but moved quite slowly. We lost one and two sheep here and there, those too sick or old to keep up. It was always a difficult decision to make, when to stop chasing them, pass them by and just say goodbye.

riding the sheep from Jokuldalur to Fljotsdalur

My hand horse on the last day was a young, newly trained horse called Freyr that nearly managed to kill two of us on the trip. The first day he threw one of the riders off, Lilja, and she had three massive, blue/black bruises on her back and ass. After this, he galloped off and went missing for an hour until me and Hallgrimur found him in the middle of nowhere. Then, of course, Hallgrimur (the farmed from Skridaklaustur, who owns most of the horses from the horse trips) decided I should ride him the rest of the trip, since Hallgrimur has a weird way of showing his affection to me by giving me crazy horses. Freyr was always getting tangled up with the second horse I was riding or holding, and he doesnt know how to stand still but he’s very good at rearing up. He tried to rip 3 of my fingers off at one point and managed to tear a chunk of my index finger and sprain my ring finger by tangling my hand up in his reins as he reared away from me, the entire weight of his body pulling on my right hand for a good 2 seconds! Hallgrimur thought it was funny, laughed, and cleaned my bloody hand with some vodka before bandaging it up with electricity tape.

The final sorting happened on Saturday, at Skridaklaustur farm in an old stone-walled round corral. It was the busiest I have ever seen the valley, with cars and people crowded everywhere, and even when it started pouring rain, all the farmers and their kids and very extended families kept on sorting sheep.

sorting sheep in rainclothes at Skridaklaustur

The drowning “baaaah” rang in my ears days after the sorting was finished, and I’ve still got black and blue bruises on my legs from all those gnarly sheep horns. Its hard to believe that now, one week later, the smell of horse and sheep is completely gone, and even the dirt on my fingernails has completely disappeared. Its hard to convince people I really was manhandling sheep in eastern Iceland one week ago, as I sit in the sun in Munich mentally preparing for yet another Oktoberfest night, so Im glad I still have the bruises as proof.

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.