Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Highland Horseback Excursus (and a Mention of Grettis saga)

Horses in a makeshift corral somewhere in the Icelandic Highlands

Time to break the silence that has reigned over this blog the past couple of weeks by posting a short update about my recent activities... I'm currently in town (Reykjavík, that is) and getting over the shock of being catapulted into urban life after an exhilarating 7 days on horseback, touring with Sigurður Björnsson's Riding Iceland outfit (Siggi also organised the highly-recommended Njáls saga horseback tour I participated in in June, see post of 6th July 2011). 

The trip was over the central Icelandic  Highlands, mostly following the centuries-old Sprengisandur route from the north-east to the south: a distance of around 300 kms. It's impossible to travel across the interior for most of the year -- and even in the summer the conditions can be difficult. The weather can be unpredictable and the logistics with regard to feeding the horses required for such a trip have to be worked out carefully...bags of hay planted in strategic places in advance, since there is almost nothing for the horses to graze on otherwise for long stretches.

Grettir Ásmundarson
(as depicted in a 17th-century
Icelandic manuscript)
We set off from Bárðardalur: a long, shallow valley in the north which is mentioned in the saga about the outlaw-hero Grettir Ásmundarson (Grettis saga), being the location of one of Grettir's several troll/monster combats. Grettir hears of the destruction being wreaked on farms in Bárðardalur and travels there to relieve the locals of their trollish troubles. One particular farm, at Sandhaugar, has suffered attacks by a mysterious troll-woman on two consecutive Christmases, with first the farmer and then a farmhand disappearing. Grettir arrives at Sandhaugar on Christmas Eve, carries the widowed wife and daughter from the farm together on his arm over the swollen river so they can attend the Christmas service in church, and waits back at Sandhaugar for the monster's annual. A huge wrestling match inside the house ensues; the fight spills out of the splintered house and continues all night, with Grettir finally managing to chop off the troll-woman's right arm on the edge of a great chasm. She plunges into the chasm and disappears behind a waterfall. After Christmas, Grettir decides to return to the place of the troll-woman's disappearance in order to see what is behind the waterfall and to prove the veracity of his account of the fight, which has been doubted by the local priest: the priest accompanies Grettir and agrees to watch the top of the rope Grettir uses to let himself down with.

Grettir dives through the waterfall and finds a great cave which is lit by a log fire and contains an enormous recumbent giant. Grettir seizes a pike and attacks the giant, spearing him in the stomach so that his guts spill out of the cave and into the river beyond the waterfall. The priest assumes the worst, abandons his position, and after finishing off the giant, Grettir is forced to haul himself back up the rope...taking with him the bones of two men he finds in a bag. He deposits the bones in the church, together with a stick on which he has carved two runic verses describing what had happened. Grettir is hidden by the people of Bárðardalur that winter, and heads out to the island of Drangey in Skagafjörður in the spring -- where he eventually loses his life...more on this to come in a future post.   

Trusty packhorse
And so back to the horsetrip...We stayed in isolated mountain huts and sheep-round-up shelters, sometimes travelling with minimal kit loaded onto a couple of packhorses, at other times with a well-provisioned car meeting us at pre-arranged locations. We were 8 riding, with a herd of nearly 50 horses: this many because it's necessary to change horses regularly (every two hours or 20 kms or so) on account of the terrain being so challenging. I will never cease to be amazed at the stamina,  strength, and willingness of the Icelandic horses -- and their physical beauty. There can be few sights more captivating than riding at the back of the herd (the horses follow those mounted up front, running loose, and are driven on and rounded up when necessary by the riders at the back): the long string of them, all imaginable shades of rich colours with thick tails and manes flowing free, trotting ahead into the far distance. Or, when the mist rolled in one afternoon, the sight of them disappearing into the enfolding greyness, so that from my position at the back, after a short time, it wasn´t possible to see more than 2 or 3 horses ahead.

Horses grazing at Eyvindarkofi
It was mesmerising as well to experience the Highland landscapes in this way and at this pace: to watch far-off mountains come into closer focus, appear and disappear as we rode over plains and up and down hills. Through monochrome valleys that were punctuated by shockingly vivid stripes of neon green moss fringing streams or rivers; over vast stretches of flat compacted rock inlaid with the tiniest growths of stubborn hardy-leafed plant; the central glacier Hofsjökull to our right in the west, and the great glacier Vatnajökull to our left in the east; the sudden appearance of lush meadows strewn with wild flowers where the ruins of a remote shelter built by the 18th-century outlaw Fjalla-Eyvindur can be seen;  the rainbow-tinted Kerlingarfjöll mountain range appearing to the south-west of Hofsjökull, with the peaks of the mountains Loðmundur and Snækollur highlighted by evening sun. And the round ringing clop of horses' hooves as striking dry rock after crossing a river or stream.

Tomorrow, back up north for a reunion with the Embulance (abandoned in Eyjafjörður while four wheels were exchanged for four legs); a bit of autumnal sheep-rounding up next weekend, and then back on the saga-steads trail...summer break now officially over here, so more sagas and saga-related reports here shortly.  
Two greys on a plain

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