Sheep Herding Icelandic Style- not for the faint hearted!!

So I was lucky enough to meet the lovely brother and sister, Anna and Jon, whose grandparents have a farm called Eyjardalsá in Bárðardalur, a 45 min drive from Akureyri. I was invited to go sheep herding (after begging to come ride a HORSE- never call them ponies- you will be sent to the airport and banned from ever returning)  with them and have a non-tourist experience of riding in Iceland. An opportunity I could not resist!!

There were a few small details to overcome:

  1. It was to be on Sunday and the ferry boys like to sleep in so you have to order it- and the earliest they will leave is 9am.
  2. The farm is 45 mins east of Akureyri, the ferry lands another 45mins west, so the only option is to hitch from the ferry.. all the way towards the farm, and they could collect me once I was closer.
  3. Some locals joined us on Saturday evening, and we had a great time… till 3am, so on Sunday morning, I was not feeling incredibly fresh.
So my first attempt at hitching after a good 1/2hr walk was with a lovely chap who had a rifle and a large dead goose on his back seat. He had been hunting since early morning- he had done an exchange in Sydney a year ago and was great company… the Islanders like a spot of hunting. He dropped me off along the highway (which was incredibly empty), and after a bit more thumb waving and a few cars passing, my next lift was a guy off to fly fish for Salmon. He dropped me into Akureyri where I spent a little longer on the corner of a service station trying to get a lift… eventually a lovely couple picked me up who were going to a farm right near where I was heading… and they told me endless stories about trolls and elves.. there seems to be a strong belief in the folk lore here!!! I was pretty amazed to make it to the farm, in a fairly expedient manner.
After a quick cup of tea it was action time. We were doing a 2nd round up, the main herd had been taken off the mountain and we were to collect stragglers… I thought it sounded a lovely gentle adventure… how wrong I was. We took off across the paddock and I had my first experience of the lateral gait the tölt, and started up the mountain face… not long in it was time to dismount- so we could save the horses for sheep chasing (a point I should have considered as a warning) after huffing and puffing we eventually made it up some incredibly steep terrain- all i could think about besides how out of breath I was; was if I trip over there is a long long long way to roll down!!! Perfect hangover cure- climb a mountain.
So in these wild mountains all was quite relaxed till we eventually see a sheep and Jon said  “you get those ones herd them along the gorge, I’ll get these and find you later- they might run,go fast and just follow them- head away from the sun” …
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About now I would like to point out that I have done some fairly wild riding, galloped across the Namibian desert with horses falling in quicksand, been chased be elephants in Africa, but 2 hours on the fluffy 12h Icelandic pinto on my own chasing sheep in the mountains of Iceland was one of the most terrifying activities I have ever done. The first 1/2hr went reasonably well, my horse was just following the sheep at a good pace and we seemed to be doing ok, managed to collect a few extra sheep- and was actually feeling quietly confident…. I was focused and unconcerned about where i was going or where I had come from. And then it was as though the sheep realised they were being chased by a rookie and turned rogue….and it was game on…. we were winding along a river gorge, previously mostly on the flatish (very debatable) area above the sides of the gorge… we had already gone at quiet a pace over those weird boggy bumps- which I was quite sure most Australian horses would’ve broken a leg in. It was from this point I had one hand permanently in the mane and one of the reins. Happy the very sweet and happy Collie dog had joined me – again realising my in experience he thought it appropriate to guide me… the sheep appeared to jump off the edge of a cliff… and reasonably enough I paused… before following, Happy ran infront of me looked over the edge popped off, popped back up a few seconds later as if to say why aren’t you following?? And then off we went, over the edge…. we traversed the cliff wall, which, lets say was not vertical, but it was not a hill or slope of any recognisable form… my horse wanted to move swiftly along here- and only when I took a small pull did i realise why- we ended up on our side sliding down the side of the mountain for about 5m… I had jumped off as she had fallen… so we both slid a bit… I had a dressage whip, gave the poor horse a tap as we stopped sliding and jumped back on as the horse got traction. Her heart was pounding, as was mine. From that point, no half halts, pulls- if she said no to where I pointed her- I completely concurred. Up and down the gorge through bog, massively steep areas of mud we went, jumping down 3* crevasses from a stand still, across these weird open cracks which seemed incredibly deep, and it just seemed relentless, no area was nice easy footing… it felt like it was all out to kill me… I was still tailing these damn sheep… not as close as I had been as they had had less “oh shit moments”; where are the photos you ask?? At no point was I feeling secure enough to take a hand off either reins or mane to document this experience, and it wasn’t until till we had climbed down and up the ravine for the 15th time that the sheep took a particularly insane route that I finally pulled up. Realising it was about 2hrs since I had seen the others… and there was no sight of anyone anywhere, I decided to head to the highest point of the mountain and abandon my sheep who had also all split up to make my task more enjoyable -they had more chance at survival than i did!! I should say Jon had given me a walkie talkie- but I seemed to be too far out of range for it to work.. so I had no means of finding out where they were. The seemingly endless mountain which was part bog, part crater landscape- all was super mushy after an unseasonably wet summer and full of these massive crevices. The earth would just open up infront of you about every 5 meters, like huge chasms. After waiting 1/2 hr on top of mountain I set out back in the direction I had come from – and eventually saw him silhouetted on a ridge line a long long way away.On our way back down the hill we came across a couple more sheep, which we managed to drive down to the neighbouring farm and into the sheep shed. Lets just say I am looking forward to eating lamb!!!!!!! These sheep had become my sworn enemy!!!
My brave little pinto mare with the heart of a lion had lost two shoes in our adventure. It was definitely worthy of my adventure pants… infact I think they could happily retire at this point from adventure activities as this was enough for me. Tolt was cool and the horses (ponies) were the bravest sure footed little legends I have ever ridden- they canter/bounded across boggy mogul fields happily with never a waiver. Jon and Anna were marvellous and quite entertained by my mild panic, needles to say I had a blast and am looking forward to another ride- and next time sheep I am now aware of your devious nature and it will be game on!!
So tomorrow and the next day I  doing a safe and organised tour. No hitching, no ponies and no fucking sheep!! (excuse my language!!)
Enjoy the photos and I am sorry I wasn’t brave enough to take shots of the ravine and all the terrifying terrain!! I couldn’t help but think of the man from snowy river…. ponies farmhouse-1

“And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony—three parts thoroughbred at least—
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry—just the sort that won’t say die—
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.”

from The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Patterson

My nemesis….

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