Discovering the Westfjords of Iceland

I was on a camping and hiking trip through the outback of Iceland so that is why my post took a while and will be quite long. Two couchsurfers (if you don’t know this great hospitality and travelling platform check it out: www.couchsurfing.org) joined me, one American, Greg, the other Swiss, Anselm. We rented a car and drove through the Westfjords of Iceland. I made a lot of pictures on this trip, and by relating to them I’ll try to tell you a bit more about this little, isolated island in the North Atlantic.

 

“Sadness in their eyes, love in their heart, eating a carrot”

Why not start with horses? As soon as you leave the inner city of Reykjavík you will see them everywhere, little and big herds, in every color you could imagine a horse in. But they are all about the same size, because that is special in Iceland: they have only one breed here, the Icelandic horse. Its height ranges from 12.3 hands (128 cm stick, meaning measured to the point where the back turns into the neck) to 14.3 hands (148 stick, find out more here), which is generally considered pony-size. But as you would deeply insult an Icelander calling his horse a pony I’ll stick to referring to it as a horse. And: they are obsessed about their horses.

Having only this one breed I like to compare with the absurd idea of only having the German Shepard dog in Germany. There are so many different breeds of horses but the Icelanders have very strict laws in order to keep their breed clear and healthy. No other horse is allowed to enter the island. Any horse gear that you might want to take with you on a vacation here has to be professionally disinfected by a vet and in order to enter the country you need a piece of paper that confirms that. Also – any Icelandic horse that leaves the country is not allowed to ever come back. The English Reykjavík newspaper “Grapevine” (I’ll write another post on the newspapers in Iceland, as this is an interesting topic on its own) wrote recently about the Icelandic horse overseas: “In my mind’s eye I see Icelandic horses standing on a hill, staring back home to Iceland, with sadness in their eyes, love in their heart, eating a carrot. As far as anyone can tell, horses generally have no opinion in which country they exist. They want food, shelter and companionship from other horses, and the opportunity to run about. Icelandic horses do not even seem to mind if the other equines in the vicinity are abnormally large.” Maybe I should mention that this article was slightly ironic. In any case, the Icelandic pony – sorry, horse – is an important mammal on the island. And: they are pretty. We met lots of them on our trip.

 

Is 40°C warm water what you need to get an Icelander talk?

That the Icelanders are not necessarily the most talkative nation I already mentioned. But what you read when you start getting interested in Iceland is that they start talking in the hot pots. That’s where they talk about politics, families and everything else. Funny enough, the first and only random conversation I had so far with an Icelander (plus: he started it) was in a hot spring a bit outside of Reykjavík. I must clarify though that this was an Icelandic-American. Greg suggested going there the first night (it’s close to a little village called Reykjadalur) and camp somewhere close the hot spring. It was a small hike up a mountain, about 45 minutes, and that was when I started to understand how the Norwegian settlers hundreds of years ago considered ghosts, fairies and gnomes living in nature. There is a small river winding down the path while you climb up the hill, the earth is steaming, it smells of sulphur and some natural built basins of the river shine in bright blue color due to the natural chemicals from deep inside the earth that float in it. The hot springs themselves are way too hot to swim in them, so you have to follow the stream up to a point, where a creek from the mountain brings enough water to it, so it cools down the temperature to anything between 35° and 42° Celsius. And that’s where we take off our clothes, hop into the river and float around, enjoying the warm water and the cool air at the same time. That exact day was full moon and we arrived late – so I can add to one of the most amazing things I’ve seen a moon rising above the mountains in Iceland while sitting in a hot spring and exploring the hot and cold streams in the water. Through all that beauty of the moment we forgot that we’ll have to hike back in the darkness, which was indeed an adventure on top of that.

Back to Icelanders’ chattiness I must say that I cannot approve the claim that they get chatty in the pools. Today I went to swim laps in a swimming pool in Reykjavík (I was a bit shocked it was an open-air pool) and after that I relaxed in the hot tubs (starting at 36°C and ending at 42°C. I must say, 42°C is damn hot!) and the steam bath. But no one started a conversation with me. Maybe it is me?

 

Rain, rain and… rain

Yes, it is cold here and yes, it rains a lot. I mean a lot. Barely any day passes without liquid coming from the sky in every state of aggregation and you can imagine how a camping and hiking trip looks like under those circumstances (although I must say we had the most sunny and beautiful hike in Ísafjörður – and the little rain that came down made us see a complete (!) rainbow over the valley from the top of the hills). After the first night everything is moist, your clothes, your shoes and your tent, the car starts smelling funny just as all that you have on you. But for some reason this weather was not discouraging, we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. I have the feeling it is because this weather just fits here. It feels right. You get reimbursed by the breathtaking nature and the hundreds of horses and sheep that you see on your way who show you how to accept those nasty conditions: stoically. And if the wind hits you so hard that you barely manage to move just keep going. You’ll reach your destination eventually. We had lunch in an emergency shelter painted in screaming red on the top of a hill, prepared Couscous (our main food on this trip) next to a bridge and made the best coffee you could ever have in the morning on a campsite close to a village called Flókalundur in the Westfjords which was forgotten by god himself.

 

There is so much more to tell. But I guess this is a good junk of writing and pictures to digest already, so I’ll tell you about the Icelanders and their obsession with their language another time. Last Monday I met Brooks Walkers, an American photographer who I got to know through a mutual friend from Berlin. Going to and living in Iceland for 20 years now he told me some interesting details about those people and I’m looking forward to sharing this. Cheers.

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