Ride-Along Revival Of Iceland's Ancient Sheep Migration
The Nordic country's annual sheep transfer is a generations-old tradition that has returned to fashion since the financial crisis, a chance to discover the Jökulgil River canyon and its surreal landscapes.
SOUTHERN ICELAND — With one eye on the sky and the other on the river, seven people on horseback — four men and three women — set off early in the morning. After a few hundred meters on stony plains, they find themselves knee-deep in water. The Jökulgil River gets this high only at the end of summer, when the Torfajökull glacier has had time to melt from the (relative) heat. This time, its level has risen again because of the same persistent rain that hammered the roof of the refuge all night long. Barely an hour after our departure, a pickup truck and its trailer are stuck in a sandbank, requiring a rope to pull them back up to the bank.
It should be said that this isn't really a road, or even a path. It's the bed of a winding river that becomes progressively narrower between strange, multicolored hills. To reach the depths of the Jökulgil valley, one of Iceland"s best-preserved secrets, a robust four-by-four vehicle is required to cross the torrential streams.
And, most importantly, it's necessary to do this on the one day of the year where the valley is open to vehicles: It's known as the Réttir, the country's traditional sheep roundup, or transhumance.
On this autumn Saturday, whose timing is determined by an ancient lunar calendar, the region's farmers, shepherds, volunteers and a handful of nature enthusiasts step into the canyon in single file. The weather is biting cold and generally accompanied with wind and rain.
King of the mountain
Heading the annual pilgrimage is Kristinn Gudnason, the region's most famous farmer who's nicknamed "king of the mountain." It reflects the universal respect for this man, who knows the local climate, animals and people better than anyone. Gudnason made his first Réttir at 14, the minimum age, and hasn't missed a single one since. The 2015 edition was his 52nd. Thirty years ago, he was chosen to be the guide. He forms the groups, between young and experienced shepherds, good hikers and skilled horse riders, men and women. He designates the summits and small valleys towards which they will conduct their research. He never raises his voice, but each one of his gestures is an order.
Réttir is a secular tradition. In early July, all of Iceland's farmers release their young sheep on the upland pastures. They retrieve them two months later, as winter approaches. Or sometimes even later. Two years ago, a severe storm blew over the region a few days before Réttir. The mountains were white with snow, and finding the sheep in these remote areas was complicated. "In 2007, we lost hundreds of animals in the snow like this," Gudnason says. It's a painful memory, a reminder that nature is the only master of these latitudes.
Located in Iceland's southern mountains, in a region shaped by volcanic activity, the Jökulgil River flows in an ocher, red, yellow and even blue-tinted mineral world. Some bright-green moss can also be seen. In the distance, hot springs release their white smoke. During a brief sunny spell, the Torfajökull's ancient ice sparkles. Those on horseback look tiny at the foot of the huge cliffs, which almost seem to belong to a fantasy comic.
In mid-morning, the convoy stops for a coffee break. A strange 1953 orange ambulance serves as a mobile canteen. At the wheel is Olgeir and his eternal woolly hat. More than a senior participant, Olgeir is an institution. This year, he wore a jacket over his woolly sweater full of holes, proof that the weather is really bad. As a result, the number of curious people here to discover this forbidden valley is more moderate after having grown for a few years. Good.
Blond and vivacious, like a sort of princess among ogres, Dora Kristinsdottir is the daughter of the "king of the mountain." She has 130 sheep grazing in these hills. She leaps between the gorges, passes over streams, gathers the animals without showing a single sign of weariness. She doesn't seem to mind the raindrops falling around her eyes. She knows all too well the country's motto, "If you don't like the weather, wait for five minutes."
She's carried by the moment. "I love this day, for its spirit of solidarity and friendship," she says. "But you just need to climb a hill and you feel alone, lost in the surrounding vastness. We need to stay close to this rough nature. It's our culture."
Memories around the campfire
This Réttir has gathered some 20 of the region's farmers. But there are also professional shepherds who are paid 120 euros for the six days ("just enough to buy a pair of hiking boots," says Siggi, a professional saddler and Réttir regular). There are also about 60 volunteers. Some take a week off work to be part of the adventure. "It's a rare opportunity to see these landscapes, but also a kind of duty and a pride to perpetuate these traditions," explains Maja, a talkative German who moved to Iceland out of love for the country and for a man.
And what a man! Actually, he's more like a mountain. The type that could almost hold a sheep in his hand while picking his teeth with a stake. His smile would scare children away, but he truly has a heart of gold.
At the twilight of an exhausting day of trekking, these bon vivants take over a refuge in the mountain. They share lamb ribs, a few potatoes, stories, memories and beer. The youngest keep their eyes out for a hypothetical aurora borealis in the hot springs. And it's like this across the entire country, where about 150 of these seasonal migrations happen in the uplands. "I'd rather cancel the Christmas holidays than miss Réttir," says Thordur, who just rolled out a blanket across his bed. "There's no place where I feel more at home than in these mountains."
Dora recalls 2008, "when Iceland lost its mind, when our economy was shaky, and we never saw so many volunteers." She says Réttir is a tradition that grounds people, gives them a sense of meaning. "Here, everyone is equal in the face of weariness, rain or snow." She heard her father recount the times when shepherds slept under tents. Only horses could go into the Jökulgil.
"Our family has been living here for five centuries," explains Gudnason. "We've been doing this transhumance for 10 generations. "The region used to have the reputation of being haunted. And people thought it sheltered outlaws." He smiles a little, then pauses for more impact. "Which was the case, of course."
The next day, the convoy travels 30 kilometers to pick up the animals in the neighboring valleys. And so forth until the next Thursday, when 4,000 to 5,000 sheep will be given back to their owners. Children, as meticulous as they are happy, love to be part of the sorting. They fearlessly grab hold of the animals by the horns to lead them to the pen that corresponds to their farm. The closing day of this Réttir takes place at the Afangagil farm, at the foot of Hekla volcano, which Gudnason has seen erupt five times. But no, he says, he's never thought of moving somewhere else.