When Haukur Suska-Garoarsson, the weathered horseman-proprietor of Vatnsdalur Valley’s Hvammur Farm, passes a certain site on horseback, he always crosses himself.
No wonder. An extinct volcanic crater in the north-west region of Hunavatnssysla, the valley was the location for Iceland’s last execution in 1830, when two farm servants were beheaded for a double crime of passion. A representative from each farmstead was made to attend the execution. No one was permitted to look away.
Iceland is no place for the timid, as my boyfriend Gavin and I were to discover on a five-day adventure on horseback through its gorgeously macabre wilderness.
The landscape in this extraordinary country can be confronting: vast, treeless spaces and soaring mountains. There is no hiding — in particular from yourself.
But we weren’t complaining. We were looking for a physical challenge, so we booked through Unicorn Trails, which specialises in riding adventures. A competent, if basic, rider in my youth, I adapted to the itinerary with ease. Gavin, who had never set foot near a horse, would impress everyone with his determination.
Saddle up: Antonella Gambotto-Burke goes on a horseback tour through the north-west region of Iceland. Above are riders exploring the area’s Vatnsdalur Valley, with a herd of Icelandic ponies
We flew into Reykjavik and stayed a night at the four-storey Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina, a world-leading environmentally certified ‘green hotel’.
Our room was spacious and improbably fragrant (L’Occitane everywhere). With its palatial bathroom, thick sheepskin rugs and serene views of Faxafloi Bay, it left Gavin, a music producer who works in garage-like recording studios, on the cusp of grateful tears.
Outside, the strings of lights connecting the low, brightly coloured wooden buildings stood out like pearls against the sky. The North Atlantic was black and as still as a mirror.
Early next morning, Hvammur Farm’s driver, whose name I misunderstood as Stinky, arrived to take us to the farm, a three-hour drive north-east of Reykjavik, where we spent four nights. Looking me dead in the eye, he said: ‘I have five children and 13 grandchildren, and that makes me the richest of men. Wear a seatbelt.’
Seventeen other riders, mostly women under 30, piled in and we travelled under fish-pale skies through tundra broken only by granite mountains and the occasional red farmhouse (bright colours help them stand out against the snow). The air smelled like flowers.
Gavin and I were assigned our own room, others shared. The large, well-stocked kitchen became a hub — the food was simple and excellent, and they catered to all sensitivities (coeliac, dairy intolerance and so on) with great charm. At nights, Haukur played the guitar and we all sang along to songs about drunken men, horses, and elves — thoughtfully, English translation lyric sheets were provided.
Antonella flew into Reykjavik (pictured) and stayed a night at the four-storey Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina, a world-leading environmentally certified ‘green hotel’
Through the rides, we were given a deep insight into the lives of traditional Icelandic farmers.
As our horses were selected for us — a matching of human and equine natures, if you will — the experience was bespoke. The days began at ten, when we would be assigned our horses, mount, and head off.
For three to six hours a day, we would be herding 100 or so horses for 12-24 miles from farm to farm, pausing only for lunch and to change horses.
The rides, while relatively straightforward in terms of terrain, were challenging. Beginners are strongly advised to take lessons before flying out and to pack jodhpurs, riding boots, gloves, beanies, parkas and warm, tight undershirts that can be layered. We rode over black volcanic sands, swam in blue waters with seals near the Hvitserkur rock and stared, awed, at the Hvammsfoss waterfall.
The high point was herding horses, in the protective clothing kit provided, through Lake Hunavatn. Knee-deep in those rippling, silver waters on horseback, I was overwhelmed by wonder.
Late one afternoon, I watched as Gavin gradually slid, like the hand of a clock, under his mare, who patiently waited for him to emerge.
As part of the tour, Antonella swam in blue waters with seals near the Hvitserkur rock (pictured)
He’d been bouncing in the saddle as stiffly as a boiling egg, gripping the pommel so tightly that his hands were claws.
Out of solidarity, I dismounted. Neither of us realised we were on the threshold of a marsh that would have to be navigated on foot. I took a step and, surprised to find my rubber riding boot sinking, fell flat on my face.
It was at this point that we began to laugh so hard that I fell backwards into another puddle. On our last night, Gavin and I spent a number of hours in the hot tub, wearing woolly hats.
Neither of us had experienced anything like it: enveloped by absolute silence and pristine air, the shadow of the dark granite mountains to our right as, above us, the ghosts of early Northern Lights dispersed like pale green smoke in the sky.
We felt renewed.