On to Gullfoss


Olive stays for a few days at Kárastadir. She sees no other visitors and wonders if maybe hardly any visitors come. However, she is told that she is early in the season and, soon, the Germans, Danes and Americans would start arriving. They´d do the usual round of Geyser, Gullfoss and Thingvella, then go home. Hearing that, she decides that she should visit Gullfoss and Geyser before the tourist hoards arrive.

The distance is 70 miles. She´ll have to make the trip by horse. Her guide, to her dismay at first, is the farmer´s thirteen year old son. It´s been arranged for them to stop overnight at a farm thirty miles away.

The day starts out fine but soon turns to drenching rain. (Sound familiar?) It’s obvious Olive isn’t all that impressed by Geyser. She’s more concerned that it is five o’clock and she hasn’t had anything to eat since breakfast at 8:30. She and Sigurdur stop at a farm and the farmer’s young wife provides them with “delicious home-made biscuits and little cakes”.

Off they go in a blinding rain. Sigurdur loses his way but they come across a local man and he points the way. Eventually, they reach the farm where they are to spend the night. “The farmer’s wife spoke a few words of English; she had big blue eyes and wonderful long plaits of corn-coloured hair.”

“My hostess helped me off with my dripping oil-skins and led me to my room. It was outside in a wooden outhouse. The farmer’s wife brought me four boiled eggs, quantities of black rye bread and butter and hot milk, after which I felt better and slept soundly in spite of the howling tempest outside and the torrents of rain beating against the window and on the corrugated iron roof of the shed.”

“The ride to Gullfoss and back would be about fifteen miles, but having come so far I could not turn back now, so I put on my oilskins over my riding clothes, donned my sou’wester and, after a good meal of coffee, stewed lamb, gravy and potatoes—green vegetables and fruit are unobtainable in Iceland—I felt ready for anything.”

They reach Gullfoss. Both she and Sigurdur are overawed by the falls. They stay at a different farm house on the way back. Olive has a bit of an adventure because the farmer’s wife goes with them. She is herding six horses. Olive gets to ride one and they all race together over some moorland. The farm wife’s destination is a spot where some labourers are working. Olive has lunch with them, tries out some Icelandic words and one of the labourers tries some English.

They reach Kárastadir around 7. P.m. A few days later she leaves Kárastadir with fond memories. She gets a ride on a freight lorry for the sum of 3 Krónur. “I had a seat by the driver in his little enclosed wooden box, and my luggage went on behind with several sacks, some scrap iron and three men; the latter were very jovial, they sang songs and handed round peppermints to all, including myself. There was also an attractive little puppy which I nursed on my lap.“

The kindness of Icelandic hosts is mentioned time and again in travel accounts that span more than a hundred years. That kindness is well captured b Olive‘s last words about her stay at Kárastadir.

“The farmer’s wife and some of her children came to the road to see me off. She gave me her photograph and some rosebuds off a little plant she had been trying to grow indoors; and, with a sweet smile, begged me by realistic signs to write to her from England. I was quite sad to say good-bye to her, for the whole family had been so kind and hospitable. They could not do enough for me, and nothing was too much trouble.”

Kárastadir: 1929


“On June 26th, 1930, Iceland will celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of her Parliament at Thingvellir. Thousands will flock to the plan for the celebrations, and among the visitors will be many Icelandic settlers from Canada.”

“At the foot of the mountains overlooking the lake, and about half an hour’s walk from Thingvellir, is a farmhouse where it is possible to stay very comfortably, and I determined to spend about ten days here for sketching and exploring the beauties of the place.”

And determined, Olive certainly is. Remember, she is traveling alone, a woman in 1929, knows no Icelandic and has just a book of Icelandic phrases to use to tell people who she is and what she needs. She gets to the farm, not by horse, for things have changed, but in a truck.

“The distance from Reykjavik is only about thirty miles, and as there is now quite a good road it is possible to motor. I got a seat in a timber lorry that was going in that direction. My suitcases and hold-all were wedged in between various packing-cases, and I sat in front between the driver and an elderly countrywoman who was travelling in my direction. We first had to collect goods in various parts of the town; this took some time and it was nearly 7 p.m. before we got away.

“For some distance we climbed the rough desolate, lava-strewn country bare of all vegetation, with a background of mountains streaked with snow. At one point we came upon a stout and cheerful peasant woman seated on a rock by the wayside smoking a cigarette, and with a bundle beside her. She was waiting for the chance of being picked up by a passing car and given a lift; for these lorries, of which there are quite a number in the vicinity of Reykjavik and in other places where there happen to be possible roads, are eagerly sought after by the country folk, who frequently make use of them as we should use a motor-bus.”
“Somehow or other the driver managed to squeeze the stout new-comer between himself and me. We were now four on the front seat, and how he managed to find space to drive with the newcomer’s arm around his waist—for there was no other room for it—I can’t imagine! In addition, several youths had perched themselves on the packing-case behind. We continued on our bumpy way, for the road, although superior to many Icelandic roads, was plentifully supplied with big pot holes. Finally, some miles farther on, the stout lady and the youths left us, evidently for some farm near. They shook hands several times with everyone all round, and I was careful to remove my glove first in the approved fashion, for an Icelander always does this. I had already come to the conclusion that a good motto for those visiting Iceland is: “When in doubt shake hands.” It is always necessary, for instance, to shake hands with your hostess after a meal, during which she often waits upon you herself.”

“About 9 p.m. we came in sight of Kárastadir, the farm where I was to stay. It was away over moorland some distance from the road and built under the shelter of high hills that towered up behind and were streaked with newly fallen snow.

“The lorry driver dumped my luggage by the roadside and, after vigorously sounding his horn to attract the attention fo the farmer, he shook me warmly by the hand and continued on his way. I could see some figures running about by the farmhouse and, after waving to them, I left my suit-cases where they were and started to walk across the fields over the rough cart track that led to the farm. Soon I saw a man and two children hastening to meet me. To my relief, the farmer, for it was he, spoke a word or two of English and, after giving me a courteous welcome,he went off to fetch my belongings while I made myself acquainted with the rest of the household. There was the farmer´s wife, a tall, fine-looking woman, very shy and silent; an old granny; and another woman, who helped with the cooking. There were also at least eight children, the youngest about eighteen months. After they had all, one by one, shaken hands with me, I was shown to a tiny bedroom with a clean boarded floor, a table with a basin and jug, and the bed with its usual mountainous eiderdown covering.”

And, so, there you have it, Olive is off on another adventure.

She has heard about how beautiful Thingveller is, wants to see it, sketch it, visit the famous booths described in the sagas. She hasn’t had to ride a horse from Reykjavik to Thingvella. Instead, she’s got a ride in a lorry. The local people haven’t had to ride horses over moorland but are able to get rides on passing vehicles. There is a road and, although it is generously supplied with potholes, it is still a road. The isolation has begun to be conquered. Farm workers aren’t trapped for years on end on a farm. They can get to the big city (although Reykjavik isn’t very big, yet) and be in touch with city life. The stranglehold of isolation and poverty and the power of the large landowning farmers is gradually giving way. Reykjavik may not be Paris but it provides a look at a world where there are jobs, where you might have an option to be something other than an indentured servant.

There is the chance, both for the farm family who provides Olive with lodging and meals, and for the guides she will hire, a chance to make some silver, currency instead of butter or wool.

Silver means that money can be saved, foreign goods bought, passage bought, the luxuries that were available only to the wealthy purchased. Get a copy of Björn G. Björnsson´s book, “Large Turf Houses” (www.salka.is), and look at the interior pictures of Bustarafell or Glaumbær. The interior shots at Laufás make clear the kind of things my ancestors didn´t have. The living room picture with the table and plush chairs, the ornate lamp, even the use of so much wood on floors and walls. (If you are not going to Iceland, then check with Tergesen‘s bookstore in Gimli, Manitoba to see if they carry Björnsson´s new books.)

If Ketill and his father, Valgardur Jonsson, had this kind of house, they´d have stayed in Iceland instead of emigrating to Canada in 1878. However, 51 years have passed. Jonsson has been long dead. Ketill is 69. By 1929, much has changed in Iceland. One of those changes is the opportunity to get jobs off the farms, to escape from some of the draconian laws that controlled anyone who didn´t own a farm. However, all those who owned farms weren´t rich, money was hard to come by and tourism, although more possible because of steam ships, roads and motor vehicles, is still a trickle and the farmer where Olive stays will have been glad to add her silver coins to his purse.