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FREE REIN IN ICELAND

A horseback tour through the country’s barren wilderness is an adventure like no other

- by ANTONELLA GAMBOTTOBU­RKE

When h au kurSuska-Gar oars son, 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 fiveday 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.

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). Wi t h 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.

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. 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.

TRAVEL FACTS

UNICORN TRAILS ( unicorntra­ils.com, 01767 600606) have packages for ages six and up from £1,079pp, including three nights all-inclusive. Doubles at Berjaya Iceland Hotel ( icelandhot­elcollecti­onbyberjay­a.com) from £150. Gatwick to Reykjavik returns with easyJet from £59.98

 ?? ?? Saddle up: Riders explore the Vatnsdalur Valley, in the north of the island, with a herd of Icelandic ponies
Saddle up: Riders explore the Vatnsdalur Valley, in the north of the island, with a herd of Icelandic ponies

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