Ída a cozy homey guesthouse with splendid views to the regularly erupting hot spring Strokkur. Snug and comfy rooms, a charming lounge, a dining room with stable view and sweet little cottages make their place a rural paradise! Lots of farm animals roam about and around 200 horses call Kjóastaðir their home.
But who are they – these cheerful and incredible popular hosts of our new tours?
Ása was born in the Dalarna district in Sweden. At 17 her desire for adventure took her to Iceland – a place she didn´t know much about at that time. But it didn´t take long until she had fallen madly in love with her new home country and much of this was thanks to Ljómi – a sweet cream coloured horse with white mane and tail. „He taught me everything“ Ása says and it is obvious that he is still important to her. “There's no love like the first.” as the proverb goes! Ása said that horseback riding in those days was much different from today. Instead of training and competing people rode between farms in the evening after milking the cows. “It was so much fun, we just rode to the next farm and then when we said good by the farmer would ride with us to our home, then there was coffee and of course we then had to accompany him as well back to his farm! Nights were endless due to the midnight sun and thinking back: We never needed to sleep in those days!”
One of the things that she remembers also very vividly were the rides to Murneyri – a now abandoned competition ground on the banks of the glacial river Þjórsá. “Everybody rode there, not just those competing, I mean practically everybody: Old people, kids, women who usually never rode… everybody! Often we were a group of 30 or 40 riders who would go together”
Many days have gone by since and today she and Hjalti take guests from all over the world into the Icelandic mountains. Short comfortable rides to the natural wonders of Geysir and Gullfoss and authentic highland rides with a herd of free running horses right across Iceland have been their speciality. “I just love to be outside, I love nature and wildlife and I love to see the big smile and happy faces of our guests when they come home after a long thrilling ride! They are tired but filled with such happiness. Their faces covered in the dust of the highland but the huge smiles – I will never get tired of this. I kind of relive my own first rides through their eyes again and again!” Ása says.
“I want to give our guests a genuine experience. We don´t just sell riding tours – we sell original experiences and happy memories! I myself still get butterflies in my stomach when I see the herd of loose running horse taking off in the morning. To see them, to hear them and to feel their excitement when they gallop out of the paddock towards the trail … I mean it there a more beautiful sight?”
It is obvious that Ása “lives” her job – it is not only a job, it is her lifestyle!
“Next to the riding my other passion is cooking! I just love to cook, to find new recipies, make up my own food creations. Iceland has such wonderful natural food – it is a paradise for every “foodie”. For the tours I go and meet the local farmers, I hand-pick my tomatoes myself in the greenhouse, I trade my lamb meat for organic grown vegetables with my neighbors in the community. I want to know what I and my guests have on the plate”
But what about Hjalti?
Hjalti was born at Fossnes farm close to the beautiful Þjórsárdalur Valley. “In fact I was born in the very house” he says with a smile! “In those days most of the babies were born at home at the farm – the distances were long, the roads were bad and the weather unpredictable!” During his childhood Fossnes Farm was a dairy farm. But there were also horses and sheep. So he lived the life of a typical country boy. “I was probably just 2 or 3 when I first sat on a horse” he remembers. “My grandad used to babysit me and when he had to fix the fences – long fences! – he used to set me on a horse and lead me from place to place telling stories, teaching me the names of the birds, flowers and mountains. Not seldom I would fall asleep on horseback while we were wandering along the fences” Hjalti laughs. “I remember he used to tie me to the horse with a rein or something so that I wouldn´t fall off while I slept!” Of course in those days it was very common to ride bareback, saddles were a luxury.
“I got my first saddle as a confirmation gift, that was quite common in the old times to get a saddle for this special occasion. But we lads almost always rode without saddles in our childhood – I remember that we were sometimes given a sheep hide to sit on if we were to go on long rides to collect the sheep from the mountains! Boy, that was luxury!”
Like many young men or teenagers of his generation his first long ride was to ride into the mountains to collect the sheep in autumn in the year he was confirmed (13-14 years of age). That was always a very special and long anticipated milestone in every young country person´s life! At about twenty Hjalti started training horses but instead of taking the youngsters into the Round pen or on the oval track like we do today the young horsemen took their horses on “training tours” into the mountains. “We would ride with 20-30 horses, most of them young, maybe between 5 and 8, and we would go for rides between the nearest mountain huts, sometimes for 3-5 days. The youngest ones would just run along to learn from the older ones.” These tours were actually quite basic. Food and other provisions were transported on horseback and the meals were very simple – dried fish and “flatkökur” rye bread and smoked lamb. But no beer – because then beer wasn´t allowed! Beer wasn´t allowed in Iceland until March 1st 1989 since called “beer day”.
Soon he became a respected wilderness guide and took many Icelandic and foreign guests into the remote Arnafell and Fjallabak areas.
In 1992 he started to operate his own riding tours. He started taking guests along the Golden Circle, on Sprengisandur, along the Fjallabak trail and into Landmannalaugar. There have been many happy guests from all over the world who have joined him and his family on these tours. In the meantime he has travelled at least 178 times (!) over the Kjölur Trail which led his friends to call him the “King of Kjölur”. Undoubtedly is he the person who knows this area better than anybody else – well, maybe apart from Fjalla-Eyvindur, a famous outlaw of the 18th century who Hjalti deeply respects. Hjalti actually played an important role in the theater play “Skugga -Sveinn” which is based on the life of Fjalla-Eyvindur. Could you get a more suited actor? Next to acting, Hjalti also sings in a famous man´s choir and when he and Ása start to sing a Duet on the riding tours up in the mountains we can sure promise you that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Of course, we can´t leave him without asking him about his most favorite horse. Did he have a favorite one – he must have ridden hundreds if not thousands.
“There have been many good horses in my life and I loved and respected them all. But the one who towers probably above them all is Stormur, son of Högni. He was so powerful, courageous – a bit mad in his youth but the most trusted companion in his later years you could ask for. My little son, Bjarni, rode him when he was just 8 or 9 years old. I knew he would take care of him, even in the middle of a glacial river. He was so reliable, surefooted and never ever gave up. I especially remember one certain tour, when we were with a group on Sprengisandur Trail. And there was so much water in the rivers especially in the Eystri- Arnavatnskvísl. The water was high and crazy and I feared for my guests. So I took each and everyone by my side and rode with them over the rider – back and forth. And Stormur, this amazing horse, crossed this dangerous river 11 times – never hesitated - he had a job to fulfill.”
And with a goose bumps on our skin we end this interview and look forward to many happy rides with these extraordinary couple!
In 2017 Ása and Hjalti will join the Exploring Iceland Team and will operate following tours:
Across Iceland in between the glaciers – Kjölur Trail - Northbound
Across Iceland in between the glaciers – Kjölur Trail - Southbound
Horses & Waterfalls – Comfort Ride
Geysir-Gullfoss Cottage Riding Adventure
Will you join them?
Text/Interview: Meike Witt