Icelandic travel g uide: 1900

It’s 1900 and you have read in the local paper that the first electric bus is operating in New York City. The United States Census reveals that there are now 70 million people in the country. There are regular headlines about the Boer War. The Boers are winning and are doing dastardly things. Industry is forging ahead even in the most unlikely places. The first through passenger train goes from Cairo to Khartoum. Just think of that. What will happen next? What will happen next is that the Boxer Rebellion escalates but, more importantly, the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs is organized in Philadelphia.
The Boers quit winning and the British troops start winning. The Boers surrender. That’s a great relief. There’s a fire at Buckingham Castle. Women in Germany, trust those Germans to have something like that happening, are demanding the right to sit for university exams. The Boxers keep being unreasonable. They kill hundreds of European citizens including the German ambassador.
It’s too much. It’s time to go somewhere for a holiday where you won’t be drowned in unpleasant news. Somewhere different. Off the beaten path. The kind of place where there won’t be any current newspapers. The kind of place that will provide conversation over dinner for the coming winter.
Iceland. That’s the place. No one is getting up a rebellion there. It’s a country of geographic wonders and Viking settings. The current populace is made up mostly of sheep farmers. None of them are given to violence. It’s reasonably priced. It’s not far away. Because of the steamships, there are regular ship schedules from England and Scotland now.
Why not? Iceland it is. But how do we get there and what will we need? That’s the question. Well, it turns out that Geo. V. Turnbull & Co., of Leith, have just the thing for two shillings and threepence. It’s the improved 2nd edition of advice for people planning on going to Iceland. Can it be trusted? Of course, it can. Mr. Thormundur Gudmundsson, Iceland’s most famous guide, or so the author says, has read over the book and made helpful suggestions. Iceland’s most famous guide. Mr. Thormundur Gudmundsson. Any chance, he’s a relative of yours, dear reader?
“Look, dear, Mr Thormundur’s guide has come by post and it has all the advice we need. There are general hints, what a lady should take, a sportsman’s needs, clothing, boots, waterproofs, maps, fishing tackle, flies, and advice on excursions, there are short ones and long ones. They’ve even got advice on shooting. Fancy that. There are lots of birds. They’ve even got the schedule from the Faroes. I’ve always wanted to spend a day or two at the Faroes. They are supposed to be quite quaint.”
The introduction is quite reassuring. The weather, the reader is told, is much like Scotland’s except fine and drier. There is little darkness. If the traveller goes later in the season, the Aurora Borealis is magnificent. There’s no need to go to a great expense since all that is required are a couple of flannel shirts, some woollen underclothing, a good stout Mackintosh, and a few absolutely personal necessities since pack ponies are the only means of transport.
 “It’ll be a walk in the park. It says the Icelanders are reserved but affable. Like us. Like Englishmen and some of them can speak English.”
Except, except, when the reader keeps reading, the sunshiny suggestion that a trip in Iceland will be no more difficult than a train trip to the English countryside, seems to come apart.
There is in this booklet, the best description I have ever read of what is needed for the boxes that will be carried on the backs of the pack ponies. This may seem trivial. It is not. These boxes are critical to any trip. There are no wheeled vehicles. There are no roads. Some farms can provide accommodation. Some cannot. Some have tents. Some do not. Everything needed for the trip will need to be in boxes on the backs of horses, boxes that will be plunged into bogs, that will be dragged through morasses, that will be drenched during river crossings,  that will come loose when they are knocked against large chunks of lava.
Every traveller comments on, curses these boxes, the packing and unpacking of them, the constant unbalancing that requires stopping, the damage that results if the boxes are not made perfectly to withstand endless shocks and immersions.
“The sportsman must provide himself with a pair of travelling boxes specially constructed for Icelandic travel.” That’s what the booklet says. The traveller must bring the boxes with him. No buying them in Iceland. There’s not much wood and it is of dubious quality. The skills of the carpenters are unknown. There may not be sheets of zinc or metal hinges.
Since the boxes must travel on the back of an Icelandic horse, they can be no longer than 2 feet. It is absolutely essential that the boxes be waterproof. The interior should be lined with 24 gauge zinc sheet. That’s about the thickness of strong brown paper. The boxes must be tested to see that they don’t leak.
Why is it so necessary? It’s because “A stumble over a boulder on the part of a pack-pony is a possibility, nay, a certainty sooner or later in the driving of loose ponies through the rivers one is compelled to ford daily by travelling in many parts of Iceland. Waller, in his charming little work “Six weeks in the Saddle,” says—“To see your pack-horse calmly seat himself in 4 feet of water, and hear the sea (he was fording at the time a shallow inlet) pouring gallons into your travelling boxes, is not calculated to enliven even a good-tempered man.”
Imagine everything you need in these boxes, clothes, food, tents, toiletries, everything, and a horse sits down in 4 feet of water and, if the boxes are not built properly, the water pours in and your bread that you’ve brought from England turns to inedible mush, your clothes are soaked and there is no fire beside which to dry them, your shotgun shells dissolve (those shotgun shells you were planning on using to shoot birds so you’ll have fresh meat). Prevention is better than cure, and a most effectual preventative is the zinc lining.
Pay attention. You are going to Iceland. You are going to ride over lava fields, lava deserts, bogs, heaths, rivers, for two weeks. There are no inns, no restaurants. Farm houses have only enough fuel to cook a meal. There will be no roaring fire to warm and dry yourself beside. If the food in your boxes gets wet, you’ll be getting black bread, skyr, dried cod and sour butter from the farms. If you are lucky.
“The boxes should not exceed the following outside dimensions, and be made as light and strong as possible – 2 feet long, 14 inch’s deep, and 10 inches wide. The wood should be well-seasoned pine, an inch thick. The side, bottom, and ends, and likewise the lid, should each be of one piece of board, not two pieces joined together, and the sides and ends should be dovetailed together at the corners, not simply nailed. The lid should be arched to throw off the rain, which will be done by affixing a piece of wood, with the upper edge rounded, to each end of the lid in such a manner that it overlaps the end of the body of the box. The boxes should each receive two coats of paint or, better still, varnish, and they will then be complete, save the lining and the fittings.”
Remember that first advice about how easy a horse trip around Iceland will be. A walk in the park. A piece of cake. If that is the case, how come the boxes have to be made from inch thick pine? Made of one piece of board with dovetailed corners? If the weather is going to be so wonderful, how come the lid has to be arched to throw off rain?
Personally, I’d be getting a bit nervous about now. “Delightful” and the instructions for these boxes don’t quite seem to go together. The instructions for these boxes would give me pause. However, it is 1900 and Iceland is an adventure. They say there is excellent salmon fishing and hunting.
Still, the instructions for these boxes are not finished. You’ll get the rest of your instructions in episode 2
(Quotes from Handbook To Iceland, Douglas Hill Scott, 1900).