August, 2003

 By: J.C. (“Chips”) Chester

During the last week of August, the Class equestrians, consisting of Messrs. Collins, Jiranek, and the author, rode over the vast, desolate landscape of western Iceland. Our ultimate objective was the hot-spring-fed lake of Landmannalaugar, to which the rest of the tourist population is bussed in large numbers.

This was definitely not a venture in the luxury category – like last summer’s ride in Estonia. There we stayed in inns and hostelries and were even treated to post-ride “saunas” on occasion. Instead, we slept in rather basic wooden huts – 18 to a room – and in sleeping bags. Our “bathing” consisted of one hot soak in Landmannalaugar  (Bob and Art enjoyed a

second one early the next morning while Chips slept) and one plunge into an ice cold stream. There were no showers at any stop along the way until we returned to our home base – the farm belonging to our generous hosts, Jon and Nicole Benedilisson at Hella (which is pronounced Hetla).

Much of the landscape we traversed was similar to what the astronauts found when they landed on the moon. Or so it seemed. Iceland, the “land of fire and ice”, actually has relatively little ice, despite its location just south of the Artic Circle; the gulf stream evidently keeps temperatures moderate – with lows in the winter just below freezing and highs in the summer about 70degrees Fahrenheit. The country has experienced much fire, however, in the form of active volcanoes that tend to erupt on the average of once every five years. And the erupting process has been going on for centuries. The last major eruption occurred in 2001 on snow-capped Mt. Hekla, which we passed on horseback. As a result, one passes through vast lava “deserts” – either plain or moss covered – and by craters, which are either empty or filled with bright blue water. Colorful rainbows are common and, by the way, having a raincoat is always handy. (We were extraordinarily lucky in this respect, as it only rained on our first day in Reykjavik and last day at the airport in Keflavik).

Two things are lacking in Iceland: (1) cell phones that reach the US and (2) trees. We were told that in the eastern part of the country there is a concerted tree-planting program sponsored by the government in cooperation with local farmers. Such a program did not exist in the areas we visited.

And Arthur Collins was unable to contact his office in Stamford, Connecticut for a full week. It should be noted, however, that the fact his business is thriving is not necessarily derived from that lapse.

Iceland boasts an ancient history and culture, as well as the world’s oldest parliament. Its original settlers were farmers and warriors fleeing the royal tyranny of

Scandinavia in even pre-medieval times. Along with these refugees came the distinctive Icelandic horse, which is currently a purebred descendent of its Viking ancestors. Although small in stature (about 13 plus hands), the Icelandic horse is strong and hardy. It will hold any weight and has an unusually friendly and gentle disposition. Kicking and biting are strictly out of order. Aside from the usual three gaits of walk, trot, and canter, it can lapse into two additional gaits: the “tölt” and the pace. The tölt is especially advantageous (especially for someone with a sore knee, like the author), as it is similar to the single footing of a Tennessee walker. It provides the sensation of “floating” while being firmly seated in the saddle. Above all, it exempts the rider from posting to the trot, which is not recommended for arthritic knees and joints.

Icelandic horses like to travel in close-knit herds or packs. We always had a number of totally loose horses accompanying us and they always seemed to know exactly where they were going and often stayed close to the riders and their mounts. Many served as substitutes, as we usually changed horses after lunch for the afternoon ride.

Of the approximately 287,000 permanent residents of Iceland, some 15,000 are foreigners and about half live in or near the capital, Reykjavik. In the summer, the number of tourists in the country exceeds the resident population (about 300,000) and most are from Europe. Tourism is

therefore an important industry, and Icelanders are uniformly friendly, welcoming and unassuming. They are also remarkably wealthy, at least those who live in the capital area. We were told that the average monthly income is in the neighborhood of $3,000.00, although all citizens are heavily taxed to support an extensive health and social welfare system.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Icelandic landscape is the plethora of geo-thermal hot springs all over the country. The natural hot water is so plentiful, in fact, that approximately 95% of the homes in Reykjavik are heated with water that is piped in at low cost. (The whole winter heating bill approaches $400.00). Aside from the therapeutic waters of Landmannalaugar, there are such facilities as the Blue Lagoon, located not far from the Keflavik airport, which specializes in geothermal skin care. The water is supposed to contain minerals that help cure such conditions as psoriasis – with the additional application of white silica “mud." We also had an opportunity to visit this facility on the evening of our arrival.

Other natural phenomena are less welcome: Just 2 days prior to our arrival, an earthquake hit an area not far from the Blue Lagoon. Fortunately, no one was injured, although the quake measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. Iceland is, in fact, a land of contrasts: It has been called the “most isolated nation in the

western world” and yet its population doubles with the influx of visitors. Its charm or drawing power struck us as similar to that of the arid, mountainous landscapes of northwestern Patagonia. “It grows on you” is the favorite cliché, and it has a definite appeal for those who are drawn to uninhabited regions.

And where we traveled there appeared to be more horses than sheep. That is perhaps our most perceptive observation and highest recommendation.




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