S. E. Waller is a young English artist. He doesn’t have much money but is determined to go to Iceland to sketch and paint the scenes of Njal’s Saga. He has had some hard riding before he reached Eyrarbakki but he finds there wonderful accommodation and kind hosts.
With his three horses and his guide, Bjarni, he leaves for Oddi which is thirty miles away. However, because of the bogs and heaths, the need to cross a river, the distance they have to travel is sixty miles. It becomes the hardest journey they have had so far. Bjarni nearly is killed when he rides into some quicksand. However, his horse manages to thrash his way out of it.
The river Thjórsá is in flood. It is so wide at this time of year that it takes them more than an hour to cross it. It is hard to imagine today what it must have been like to travel where there were no roads, only trails, over land so treacherous, filled with hidden dangers, that, time and again, a local guide had to be hired to show the traveler how to cross a river.
They start the crossing of the Thjórsá by going from sandbank to sandbank. To make matters more dangerous, most of the sandbanks are under two or three feet of water. The horses wade and even swim for twenty minutes to get to the middle of the river. Here they stop on a gravel bank that feels like it could suddenly disintegrate. They are now surrounded by water. Ahead of them is deep water, a half-mile wide.
The melting snow in the interior has turned the river into a torrent.
In the distance, they can see a boat coming toward them. Some drovers are bringing over a herd of horses. As the boat and horses come closer, he can hear how frightened the horses are as they swim across the current.
Once the boat arrives, they put their saddles and baggage. They tie ropes to the horses and Bjarni takes two ropes and Waller takes the other. Waller’s self-confidence is not increased by Bjarni saying that horses are often lost while crossing a river.
They reach the other side, after which they have to cross two smaller rivers on their own. They left Eyrarbakki at half-past twelve in the morning and don’t reach Oddi until half-past eight at night. Waller is delighted that the priest has some good pasture and allows the three horses to graze there.
Waller says, “The little house at Oddi was exceedingly comfortable, the food good, the bed clean, our host kindness itself. All this we were very grateful for; but to make the evening complete, I found, to my intense joy, a Shakespeare lying in a dusty corner. I had brought no books with me, fearing they might tend to idleness, so that, on discovering this treasure, my delight was great.”
Rain pours down during the night. He hopes that the morning will bring clear skies but, instead, it is still pouring rain. Since there is little he can do, he tries to learn some Icelandic. Bjarni helps him learn some Icelandic words. He says, “I made desperate efforts to talk with the son of our host, who was physician to the district and had spent some years in Copenhagen. He was exceedingly good natured over my blunders, and produced a Danish-English phrase-book, which helped us along considerably.
“I shall always remember the kindness of both father and son. They begged me to stay a week with them, an invitation I was very sorry to refuse. When leaving on the Friday morning, Sr. Jonson positively refused to allow me to give compensation to any member of his household.”
On Friday, the weather is good so Waller decides to stay at Oddi all day and travel at night. All morning he works on a sketch of their white horse, then a view of Thryhriningr.
Their next destination is Kross, on the extreme south coast.
The hardship, the danger, the weather, the dangerous river crossing, are nothing exceptional in Iceland in 1874. These were the conditions everyone encountered. People buying and selling horses or sheep experienced these difficulties. Farmers and their families, t heir workers, faced these conditions on a daily basis.
In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses, goes searching for sheep. He gets caught in a blizzard. “but still the blizzard assailed him with undiminished fury when he reached the next ridge, clawed at his eyes and the roots of his beard, howled vindictively in his ears, and tried to hurl him to the ground….he forced his way at first with lowered head against the storm, but when he reached the ridge above the gully, he could no longer make any headway in this fashion, so he slumped forward on to his hands and knees and made his way through the blizzard on all fours.”
In Indridason’s novels, the main character Erlender is obsessed with the loss of his younger brother in a storm. He realizes that with the bogs and quicksand that his brother could simply have disappeared and his body would never be found.
In 1810, Mackenzie says that he had begun to ascend near several craters larger than any we had yet seen. “While examining some of the fissures, we found the remains of a woman who had been lost about a year before, and of whom there had hitherto been no tiding. Her clothes and bones were lying scatttered about; the bones of one leg remained in the stocking. It is probably that she had missed the path during a thick shower of snow, and had fallen over the precipice, where her body was torn to pieces by eagles and foxes.It’s astonishing how the Icelanders find their way during winter across these trackless deserts.”
The weather, in every traveler’s book, is front and centre. It determines what can and can’t be done. It brings good grass or no grass, a full belly or starvation. There is no escaping it. Even if people are at a farm, it imprisons them just as it imprisons Waller. Once a journey has begun, it can, as with Bjartur, bring the traveler close to death or to death itself.
A ten day journey, sleeping in churches, farmhouses, tents, even in good weather , was demanding. As Waller discovers, as-the-crow-flies meant nothing in terms of the distance to be covered for bogs had to be skirted, rivers crossed where there were ferries or fords.
No wonder Icelandic families were used to getting up at any time during the night to provide refuge for a traveler. Their farm may have been the only place of shelter in the area. When Bjartur finally makes it to Brun, it is night, everyone is in bed, but the farm wife hears someone groaning, hammering on the door. They go to the door with a light and Bjartur topples in. He’s covered in ice.
This is later in the season but the weather that Waller and many others describe during June, July, August, can be a deadly. That makes the welcome that Waller has had at Eyrarbakki and Oddi all the warmer, all the more appreciated, all the more remembered. What feels better than to be safe in a warm house as a storm rages outside
(Quotes from Six Weeks in the Saddle, S. E. Waller, 1874)
Waller gives the priest’s name as Sr. Jonson but there are many Jonsons. Nor does he give the name of the priest’s son who is the doctor for the district. If anyone reading this knows who these two were, would you please write to let me know. If they are relatives, I’d like to hear about that.