It was with a determination to find this mysterious Iceland of the sagas that I landed at Keflavík airport late one Friday night in mid August. My head was full of Laxdæla saga after reading it on the flight, and my rucksack was full of more sagas, a copy of Lonely Planet, a road atlas, a bird guide, a few changes of clothes, some emergency food, and a warm but bulky sleeping bag. Strapped to the outside was my tent, and I was going to need it very soon, because I knew all the hostels in Reykjavík were fully booked until Sunday. So I ignored the buses outside the airport and set off on foot into the night.
With hard walking and a very lucky lift I arrived not too long after midnight at a campsite on the very northwesternmost tip of Reykjanes Peninsula, outside the little town of Garður. The campsite lay right up against the sea, between the old and the current lighthouse, and the few other tents on the site were mostly positioned along a thick sea wall of large rocks for shelter. It was windy and cold, and I wondered how my limited wardrobe would cope in several weeks time in the north of the country, with conditions this bad here in the south in mid August. It was still very cold the next morning when I got up at six, but as the sun came up the temperature improved and the clouds rolled away, leaving a beautiful day behind them.
I walked several kilometres back through Garður and along the road towards Keflavík; there was no traffic except for jeeps with golf buggies on trailers heading the other way. A couple of hundred metres over the bare moorland to the northeast the coastline ran parallel to the road, while on the other side the moor stretched away to the horizon. It was punctuated by occasional low ridges and patches of some thriving green plant that looked suspiciously like an invasive weed, but was for the most part bleak and bare except for moss and a thin scattering of struggling grass. My attention was caught by a large number of wooden frames standing a short distance away on my right, which I guessed were for drying fish on.
This was the first indication of a traditional industry that could have supported life on this peninsula before the Modern Age. The fields around Garður, such as they were, all had horses in rather than cows or sheep or pigs, and the Icelander who drove me to Hafnir on the west coast of Reykjanes pointed out his dozen horses in a field on the edge of Hafnir. What did he use them for? “Riding,” he replied. In the rest of Europe this might seem pretty excessive, but in Iceland keeping horses has little to do with post-industrial prosperity; for many it is a natural part of life. Reference to almost any medieval saga reveals that despite the strong association we have with vikings and the sea, the early Icelanders were effectively a horse culture.
Horses were used all the time for travel and shepherding, for popular entertainment by making stallions fight at prearranged gatherings, and sometimes they fulfilled a spiritual or religious role as well. In the saga named for him the chieftain Hrafnkel is set on a dramatic course of ups and downs after killing a servant boy who had ridden without permission his prize stallion, which he had dedicated to the god Frey. This obsession with horses seems to have survived ever since, and in fields and on hillsides all over Iceland you will see countless Icelandic horses, a breed they protect fiercely, and which as a result is more or less unchanged from its early medieval ancestors.
Hafnir has a more tangible survival from the settlement period in the form of a partially excavated longhouse from about the year 900. It is one of a few pieces of evidence for medieval occupation of this bleak corner of the countryside, another being a reference to a journey around Reykjanes taken by a family of beggars in the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm. However, the poor land quality and exposed coastline must have meant that it was always a region where few people lived, and the land becomes even less hospitable beyond Hafnir, where I headed next.
In the world of tourism Reykjanes Peninsula is famous (apart from the Blue Lagoon) for its bubbling mud pools and steaming springs, the most dramatic of which are at Gunnuhver in the far southwestern corner, and Krysuvík, where a turning off the coastal road eventually leads cross country back to the main road into Reykjavík. I spent the next few hours visiting these sites and the sea cliffs beyond Gunnuhver, and arrived footsore, tired, and happy, in Reykjavík late that afternoon. I will let photos describe that journey, and you will have to imagine the sulphurous reek and ferocious steaming and bubbling sounds of the mud pools.