I found out about Heiðmörk’s existence from Bart (as an aside, I found out a lot of things from him, many of them NSFW and not suitable for this blog). He said it’s going to be a nature reserve, people-free, and look awesome. Heiðmörk delivered on each count.

The comment I read about God using Iceland to make a beta version of a whole different planet, then sort of getting over the idea and leaving it there to attend to more important matters… Heiðmörk is the only proof you need to know it’s true. It looks like I imagine Mars to be. Except more interesting, and with that magically clean air. My book takes place between 1885-1920, and I can’t imagine people who were often losing toes and fingers to frostbite, or found hardly any fodder for their horses got super excited about the quality of air, or beauty of places as Heiðmörk. In 2018, it feels like magic.

Let me try and give you an idea of the scale. A small idea, because we didn’t have fisheye lens.

And here is what I was looking at:

Iceland in late spring and summer (although technically, of course, April 18 was the first day of Icelandic summer…) is covered by lupines. Billions and billions of relentless lupines. Seeing the same place without them made it almost scarily different. That feeling you get when you bump into a friend, and he’s lost his long hair, replaced the leather jacket with a suit, got botox, sold the motorbike and bought a Mercedes, and his girlfriend is no longer Natasha with the dreads, but Amal with the suitcase. You know it’s still your friend George, but you keep on being tempted to ask if he is sure it’s him.

Here, for comparison, is a random photo of Heiðmörk in June 2017.

The entirety of Heiðmörk is 3,200 hectares, and apart from all the Mars landscapes it now is the home to a pretty impressive forest, more about which in part two. But I can’t resist telling the anecdote anymore. Helga Maureen’s father, when faced with the perspective of being forced to live in a country with trees in it, said grumpily “I don’t know why they have to put dem forests everywhere! Now with all those trees you can’t see the landscape at all!”

In general Iceland is a place where I want to go simply so that I can hide from people and not see any of them. In Heiðmörk there quite a few people, but I didn’t mind too much…

We went horseriding at a completely different spot, but this would have been perfect. Imagine being on a horse, peacefully (if painfully) trotting through Mars. My list for next visit is already filling up, and we won’t be able to afford another visit until someone finally buys all my internal organs from eBay.

Before finishing part 1, here’s a look at something. The colours and shades of lava are incredible. You can see them on those pictures. Not much Photoshop had been used, other than bumping the exposure and fixing some of the burn-in of the sky. And I am posting this photo without a single bit of Photoshop below. All those lava colours exist in the nature. Some create gradients. Purple, orange, red, brown, black, grey, yellow… This alone is sufficient proof for me that nature felt extremely generous, and perhaps a tad tipsy, when creating Iceland.

“Yeah, I’ve got all those colours… how do I pick just one or two… oh what the hell, I’ll just give them EVERYTHING”.

“But what about other countries, mom? They like colours too!”

“I told you not to call me mom. It’s MOTHER Nature. Also, bugger ’em. They can do with grey and brown. I like this spot particularly.”

In part two, coming soon, I will introduce you to a proper Icelandic forest… and the photo books… and the calendars… but let’s not get carried away. Yet.

The first waterfall we encountered was accidental. We went to Guðrúnarlaug, and as we were bathing in the hot tub, Husby pointed something out.

We had no idea if this six-year-old sized beauty had a name, but it was just a bonus to being able to be completely alone, bathing in a hot tub surrounded by snow. It gave us something to listen to.

The second one you have already seen – it was a little bonus that came with our trip to Snæfellsnes. Because why not? Iceland is generous like that. This one has a name: Bjarnarfoss.

But why settle for two when you can have four and are greedy AF?

I am all scientific and shit, researchy and hermity (and authorsy and writersy). But there were touristic places even I had to visit. When we came here last year, we’ve walked through a large chunk of Þingvellir, but didn’t quite get to the end of one of the paths. This year I found what was at the end of that path, and it just so happened to be a waterfall: Öxarárfoss.

In order to get there, we had to walk through a path made largely of snow, ice, and black ice. Very little sunshine and warmth gets that deep between the rock walls. (As you might know, Þingvellir served to film The Wall for Game of Thrones series. It really is that size.) By the way, the green water really was green, and I didn’t know why, but all I wanted was to sit there and be. And I got my wish. We got there early, ehmm… for our standards, and were lucky enough to avoid most tourists.

This is the end part of the path, and I mostly took this photo to prove we survived.

On our way back to the car we found out how lucky we were to go early, because we bumped into the content (i.e. tourists) of two buses. I helped an old lady not to fall on one of the icy rocks, and she smiled, and so did I. But then we had to stop, because we encountered two girls…

“Ermagerd Kareeeeen it’s slipperyyyy!!!”
“Noooo Janet I can’t, I am staying here!!!”

(I barely resisted the urge to say “that’s fine, humans die quite fast without food and water”.)

“But Kareeeeen!! Help meeeee!!!”
“I caaaaan’t!!! OMG!!!”

If they could speak in emojis, they would. But finally they managed to balance themselves a meter further, thus allowing everyone else to move at least a bit. And this was when I realised I was a bloody hypocrite. Because Karen and Janet were tourists, but so were we. We paid to be in Iceland, but so did Karen and Janet (and when you know the prices of those tourist trips, I bet you they paid much, much more). It is not illegal to act like a twatwaffle just because you are surrounded by a place that is holy to many people. It is not illegal to squee and be drunk, offensive, obnoxious in front of statues, waterfalls, or mountains. But I didn’t want Karen, Janet, and all other people to be there. I wanted to be able to sit in front of Öxarárfoss and listen to nothing but its roar. This is not how tourism works. (I have a certain idea what I’m going to do next time, though. It’s based on the fact that in the summer it never gets dark in Iceland.)

Iceland is currently so popular, their unemployment rate is 2.2%. Anything below 4% is generally considered people who don’t want to work for various reasons (not: can’t, but don’t want). In other words, Iceland has practically minus unemployment. This is caused by the amounts of tourists. The repairs of the roads, the attempts to create public transport more refined than a bus network in Reykjavik – all for the tourists. But the tourists also damage the country. They yell “Kareeeeen!!!” in it. And the fact that I am judging them like the Harry Potter hat doesn’t change the fact that they kept the economy not just afloat, but booming in the recent years.

When we went to Gullfoss I expected the worst, people-wise. But most of the people, even kids, kept quiet. Although there was a chance they were yelling. I was busy. Because Gullfoss is enormous, and it sounds the way it looks.

This is probably the most touristic place we’ve seen. This photo might not look so impressive. But look on the left. That’s the road. Then look at the blue dot. That’s a full-sized human person.

Gullfoss has an official site, which states:

The water plummets down 32 meters in two stages into a rugged canyon which walls reach up to 70 meters in height.

I can absolutely believe that. Although at some point I lost the ability to say how tall the canyon was. It was just…gigantic.

One of the things that draw me to Iceland so much is that the nature doesn’t give a shit about you. You’re just a bit of it. In so many places (I live in Amsterdam, enough said) the nature seems to have been conquered, at least until a hurricane starts tearing trees out of the ground, throwing them at cars, killing people. Not so in Iceland. This waterfall’s safety measures again extended to miserable rope hanging a few inches over the ground. If you want to die, the waterfall seemed to say, suit yourself. Just don’t expect me to care.

Can you believe in 1907 there was serious danger that this incredible, terrible beauty would have been turned into a power plant by an English businessman? Read more here, but I would like to thank Sigriður for almost single-handedly ensuring that this wouldn’t happen. A sculpture of her likeness can be seen at the entrance, and Sigriður fits the place.

I left with enormous respect. For Sigriður, for force of nature, for the fact that all those places just…exist. And when we dispose of mankind by pressing Larger Red Buttons That Actually Work, or just drown in emojis, Gullfoss will still be there, roaring, impatient, angry, and not interested in any of us, whether it’s Karen, Janet, Chad, Husby, or me.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Stjarna (my new girlfriend, pictured) is not a pony. Icelandic horses are small, compact, strong, have incredible endurance, lots of patience, and ability to cross very rough terrain. Which I experienced.

In my novel, Gunnar the blacksmith is an owner of a horse called Karl. Karl is – guess what – small, compact, strong, patient, and very strong-willed. Karl is also kind of self-driving, which allows Gunnar to get in the saddle, sort of doze off, then wake up when they arrived in town. This was a part of in-person research that really worried me, because reading about horses while never having been on one didn’t fill me with confidence that I will be able to accurately describe the experience. Therefore I made a decision which was, no joke, very difficult. Because I suffered two spine injuries almost three years ago. I spent most of 2016 in so much pain I could barely move, building piles of pillows to keep me at this one exact angle where the pain was least excruciating. Towards the end of 2016 I gave up on the idea that I would ever have a pain-free life, and decided to end it. I didn’t. Instead, on January 1, 2017 I started work on the novel.

Getting on a horse, for me, brought risks different to those it had for others. While the injuries are as “fixed” as possible, I still occasionally require heavy painkillers, and some parts of my back have most probably degraded due to the fact it took way too long to diagnose the actual problems. I knew what I was getting into. I knew there would be price. I hoped it wouldn’t be too high. But at the same time, you only live twice, and I felt my previous life ended in 2016. Having considered all this, I decided I would take a ride, and booked one with Laxnes Horse Farm. I had no interest in their day tours, I only wanted to experience the Icelandic horse.

On our way I started getting somewhat anxious. Like, “I wish I brought a diaper” anxious.

“Are you OK?” asked me one of the guides, handing me a helmet.

“I’m terrified, ma’am,” I answered truthfully.

“Why?”

“Because I just realised horses are living creatures.”

I am a child of the city, trying to make sense of living in nature. There’s nowhere I would rather live than a log cabin far away from people, but I still shriek when a spider finds its way towards me. And the problem with a horse is that it doesn’t have a steering wheel, set of pedals, or buttons.

I had the steering sort of explained, and tried to do it. Stjarna gave me approximately 10% of her attention. Yes, she reluctantly turned left or right when I pulled at the reins, but that was about it. I could sort-of-kind-of make her stop, but there was no way she would start moving when I wanted her to. (This, by the way, is incredibly useful research for my book, because obviously Gunnar’s horse is going to be exactly like this.) At one point, the guide’s horse was ready at the gate, and Stjarna – again, unprompted – positioned herself right behind. Then the gate opened, and we started moving. “I guess I decided to go first,” I announced into thin air, hearing some shrieks behind me. Husby was nowhere to be found, and later told me his horse (uhhh… Indiana Jones) decided to go last.

(This is Stjarna thinking “I am SO over this, can we go home yet, because I hear Netflix calling my name”.)

Without a warning, we started moving faster, going from the “pffft this is so easy” gait to “OMG I MIGHT DIE” gait. (I think that’s called “trot” which is somehow mure humiliating.) More shrieks followed, and some of them might or might not have come from me. But that was still OK. Even when we were going downhill and I was as relaxed as an average statue. Until we got to a nice stream.

“How funny,” I thought, looking around. “We can’t go either left or right from h–”

Stjarna LOVED water. She loved it so much that while most horses picked the shallowest spot, she decided to get herself thoroughly cleaned. Well, herself and my boots. The inside of my boots. (The farm offers riding boots, but you have to ask for them. I was kind of expecting to be babysat like an American that I’m not, so I didn’t ask.) I could feel her horseshoes slipping in the water, and I prayed for my life.

Somehow, we survived. One of the guys’ horse was in a mood to, eh, horse around a bit. The guy would sometimes shout “I guess this is goodbye!” or “I see I decided to take a break”, as his horse – just as self-driving as Stjarna – did whatever it felt like doing.

I said to one of the guides that I was doing research, and this was the most exciting research I have ever done in my entire life. I felt fantastic. Grin hadn’t left my face for a second. We got to a spot where we took a break, I got off the horse, back on, then again, and I was super pleased that it was actually something I could do – I was half-expecting that I would need two bodybuilders and a wooden box to get on a horse, then end up sitting with my face towards the horse’s back.

(I think both Stjarna and me blinked at the same time.)

The way back was exactly the same, except faster. The tour takes 1.5 hours during the winter period, and 2 hours outside winter period. I’m a greedy bastard, so I was all like “I want two hours! Give me my extra half an hour!” and oh yes, I got that half an hour alright. Except both Husby and me ended up looking greedily towards the direction we expected the farm to be. Trust me, two hours is enough.

When we arrived back, I thought, well – now that I am a super-experienced rider, I’m going to park Stjarna WHERE I WANT. Hella no. She picked a spot next to another horse, and decided to stay there. “I guess you’re staying there,” I said in a resigned voice.

We went inside for a coffee. As our hands, bums, legs, and other parts continued to shake, we were invited to grab some coffee. When I asked who shoes the horses, I found out it was the guy helping us recaffeinate, Haukur. Immediate BFFing followed. And this is where I’m going to go on a tangent, which always irritated me in books. A lot of authors don’t bother researching blacksmithing in the slightest. Sharpening swords with hammers. Hitting the iron and making sparks fly around. FYI, that means the iron is burnt, and you can throw it away, unless you’re forge-welding, which is not what one does with swords. Because in books blacksmiths always make swords. Unless they are making gleaming horseshoes.

This is what actual horseshoes look like.

I suppose this…could be called gleaming in some sort of light? I asked Haukur whether he was using any finishing at all, but no, this was just standard low-carbon steel. A horseshoe lasts between 6-8 weeks, at which point it generally gets replaced. Similarly as with tires, all shoes need to be more or less at the same degree of being worn out, so you don’t replace a worn out with a new one. Therefore the shoes generally get used twice, giving them a useful life of 12-16 weeks. The funny thing is that once they are actually being worn by the horse they become somewhat gleaming, because the soil and rocks tear off the rust.

I’ll stop now.

I am not a t-shirt buying sort of person, but I bought one before you could as much as blink. I SURVIVED THIS.

The day after every single bit of my back hurt so bad I had difficulties breathing. As if my ribs became too tight, and stopped the lungs from properly expanding. It had been very different to say “yes, I am ready to suffer”, rather than, you know, actually suffer. The second day I could breathe again, as long as I spent most of the time sitting. Today is day three, and it’s getting much better. Knowing the amount of pain I would go through later, I would have done it again in a flash. In fact, had it not been for the (uhem… TMI coming) fact my bum is bruised, I would be doing it today.

I ran… er. I crawled towards the sofa to quickly make notes about the ride. I will still need an actual rider to take a look at this part of the novel so I don’t end up with the equestrian equivalent of “the blacksmith making gleaming horseshoes”, but the biggest problem is that I am completely in love with Stjarna, even though it doesn’t seem reciprocated at all.

To finish it off… they look very authentic, but I think I should clean them a bit, whaddayathink…?

I love doing research, even if it hurts for days.