A Breed Apart Iceland: The best way to see this extraordinary volcanic landscape is astride a descendant of the Vikings' steeds.

July 12, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

An arctic tern coasts by at eye level. Against the blue of sky and the black and purple of distant mountains, its feathers glisten in the sun like snow. It rides the wind, tilting to catch invisible puffs and downturns. Then, as I watch, it swoops toward the dark rocks below.

Oh, boy. Sometimes it's best not to look down. The horse I am riding is picking her way along a curving trail that forms a narrow, slanted shelf on a mountain created by a volcano. Though she plants her hoofs neatly between stones the color and shape of cooling charcoal briquettes, each step loosens bits of gravel that rattle down the slope and ricochet off the boulders below, falling, falling until they're tiny, black specks and then ... are gone.

I suck in my breath. Half my brain signals, "Danger. Danger." The other half, transfixed by the sight of a meadow gleaming in the distance like a tiny emerald and a glorious, white, foamy waterfall rushing down the mountain, flashes: "Get the camera!"

Caution wins. The click of a shutter could startle my horse with genuinely dire results. Plus I can't take a picture. I'm too scared to let go of the reins. "Look straight ahead. Look straight ahead," I repeat to myself. "Isn't that what they tell mountain climbers?"

It seems to work: I can feel my heart slowing. Besides, the horse in front of us really is a beautiful animal. Dappled white and steel gray with a silky silver tail that brushes the ground, it, too, is sure-footed and strong. Its rider is from Australia and is one of the four other tourists inching along this rocky ledge. The group also includes three riders from the United States (counting me) and one from England, and as our mounts pick their way around the canyon and down an alarmingly steep slope, I think about the reasons we've come here - to Iceland.

Strangers until united on this three-night, four-day horseback riding expedition, we're all searching for adventure, great scenery and horses, horses, horses.

The ride is organized by Eldhestar, a farm southeast of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland where nearly half of the country's 265,000 residents live. For four days we're being led over hill and dale, through rivers and lava fields by Susan Carlsson, a Swedish horsewoman of great humor and patience who has spent her last four summers guiding tourists-on-horseback.

The experience is a horse lover's dream: Each day we're in the saddle from five to seven hours and cover about 20 kilometers. At night we leave the horses at mountain farms and are driven back to Eldhestar. In the morning, we return to hit the trail again.

By the end of the trip, there's no question that we've found all that we were looking for, plus had the pleasure of facing the physical rigors of hours of trail riding - and surmounting them. (OK, I admit that I had moments of real doubt.)

The trip is neither inexpensive nor for the luxury-lover, but by its end I understand why horseback riding long has been popular among Icelanders and now represents a growing segment of the tourism industry here.

Glaciers to hot springs

Iceland is just plain cool, and I don't mean the weather. This is a land of extraordinary and disparate sights from glaciers and hot springs to black lava fields and dark green fields of moss so deep and cushiony that you literally sink into them. And as we ride through mountains and meadows, and meander along icy rivers, I spot black-and-white arctic terns, brown-speckled ptarmigan, harlequin ducks and white-tailed eagles.

Geologists think of Iceland, an island that's about the size of Virginia, as just an infant. After all, it is only 16 million to 20 million years old. It sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge - the point at which the European-African and American tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of about an inch per year. That means the island is being slowly torn in half, and volcanoes spew magma from deep within the earth that fills the crack to overflowing - then hardens into an earthen crust.

The result is a land of peculiar and fickle beauty: Increment by it, Iceland is getting larger, and its growing pains manifest themselves as volcanoes, earthquakes, weird bubbling, boiling hot springs and geysers. In the last few centuries, Iceland has experienced some form of volcanic activity every five or so years. Some are minor - and have been dubbed "tourist eruptions" - such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Hekla. Or a 1963 eruption which began in the ocean floor near the Westmann islands and created a whole new island that is now called Surtsey. Others cause horrible destruction; in 1973, on the island of Heimaey, lava buried about one-third of the town.

One week before I came to Iceland, say the Eldhestar guides, there was an earthquake that ranked 5.3 on the Richter scale. And on the day that I landed at Reykjavik airport, there was another, smaller earthquake at the farm, but its lesser tremors weren't felt in the city.

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