Date: 4 November 2015.
Location: A little horse farm, near Gullfoss, Iceland.
My mum and I drive through the crisp Icelandic plains and over a tiny one-lane bridge. I make her stop so I can dash out with the DSLR to take a photo for the orange and purple of the slowly dying sun is reflected in the stiller parts of the eerily pale glacial blue river.
We have spent the day looping Iceland's Golden Circle: Thingvellir national park, Geysir and, finally, the beautiful Gulfoss waterfall. It's rained five times and we've seen at least that many rainbows. I bought a sheepskin and fell over in a waterfall. It's been a good day.
Now, instead of heading back to the Nordic-chic safety of our Reykjavik hotel for our last night in Iceland, we're trying something a little more adventurous and out of the way. Very out of the way. We're staying at a remote horse farm near Gulfoss.
It's four in the afternoon and evening is drawing in close as we pull up. Krissa, a ruddy Icelandic woman in gumboots and fleece, greets us and ushers us into our little guest cottage. A fuzzy little Icelandic sheepdog with an unpronounceable name nips at our heels. A fat cat watches us from a windowsill. The cottage is divinely cliché: it's cosseted in wood panels and furs. The two bedrooms are tiny and inviting, the beds made up in Scandinavian style with the crisp white sheets and duvets folded peculiarly. We adore it instantly.
Mum settles in. I follow Krissa for a tour of the farm. In the brightly lit stables it's warm and smells like hay and hair. Twenty mares look down the aisle at us. Their shaggy manes partly obscure their big brown eyes and the braver one whinny for attention. Enchanted, I step forward to touch the closest horse and Krissa throws an arm out before me just in time — heavy black shapes speed past with a clatter of hooves and gallop out the door. Krissa's husband has at that moment released four black mares for their evening run. They will run a 10 mile circuit, she tells me, and come back for a brush down and bed. In the meantime I'm introduced to each remaining horse, one by one. This is Dýrmætur (Icelandic for darling). She has won three national titles. This is Gjoska, whose name means 'volcano ash'. She's Dýrmætur's sister but hasn't won any titles yet. Poor Gjoska. This is Skaði, named for the goddess of winter. She's new to the farm and so she's sharing a stall with Hildur because both seemed lonely. We go down the whole line and back up the other side, not missing a single horse. I'm touched by Krissa's live for her equine inmates. Then it's time to visit the stallions but, first, we need to bring them in from the paddock. In what I've begin to appreciate as no-nonsense Nordic style, Krissa hands me a set of reigns and matter-of-factory suggests we divide up the task. Bewildered, I dumbly accept an armful of leather and wonder what the hell I'm supposed to do with it and how the hell do you catch a stallion? It's around this point — in a semi-dark field that's already crunchy with evening frost, coaxing a giant black Icelandic stallion into his bridle — that I come to conclusion that I could not be further from home. It's wonderful. Half an hour later when the job is done, Krissa smiles at me and asks: 'Do you want see the foals?' Well, obviously. I feel like this is my reward and beam as I say yes. She leads me into what used to be a huge entertaining parlour, complete with chandelier and long bar. It's been converted into a storage room. The bar is heavy with dusty trophies from horse shows. One wall holds reigns and saddles. There's a huge bucket of horse feed in the middle of the room where the dining table should have been. We fill our pockets and head down towards the field. By this point Krissa's husband has returned and, after a quick look at me, he mutters something to her in gruff Icelandic. She nods and says to me. 'Are you sure you want to come? Your shoes…?'
I glance down. My boots are Timberland, fashioned of sturdy leather. However, they are apparently still embarrassing city-slicker footwear.
'Oh… these are fine!'
'You will get muddy. We will go other way.'
I mildly protest but we take the long — dry — way down to visit the foals. There we dole out treats and she introduces me around again: 'Katla, daughter of Urður sister of Dýrmætur.' (Family disappointment Gjoska doesn't get a mention). The shaggy-headed foals snuffle around me and are generally and gratifyingly adorable. However it's now dark. I've started to shake in the bitter cold and my naked hands hurt.
We walk back. Krissa hands me a pint of fresh milk and sends me on to the cottage with a promise to knock on our door should the northern lights show. The prospect of the northern lights excites a childlike restlessness in me. If we're very lucky, they may start around 9.30pm. However, we're due for snow which means clouds which means no lights. I'm firmly told not to get my hopes up — but it's far too late for that.
My mother and I snug into our cottage. We dine on gift-shop salads that we'd picked up at Geysir having been informed that there was no supermarket within 60km. It's so very quiet. We have tea. I start to write about how much I like Iceland.
At 7.30pm I glance out at the dark countryside for inspiration. It's perfectly black. Or… it should be. But its not quite perfect. High in the sky are three green smudges.
'Are they — is that?'
My mum glances up from tapping on her phone. 'Mm?' She returns to her email.
'I know it's silly but that looks like…'
'Mm? What's up?'
But I'm sure now for the smudges have started to stretch. Heedless of the cold, I dash outside onto our little porch without an explanation. The frost bites at my toes and my fingers and I just don't care.
I'm frantic with excitement.
High, high above me the three green lines are quite clear now. They're brilliantly green, blurring blue at the edges. Then they start to dance. Mum joins me on the porch. I rug up and settle a little. Then we watch the northern lights put on a show. They stretch across the whole roof of the sky, fluorescent green and lively. I'm speechless and so is she. It seems like a miracle. I lie on the freezing grass and watch in silence. The display goes on for only about twenty minutes before the clouds rush in. We go inside, utterly awed.
Neither of us wish to stay up for long after that and we soon tuck ourselves into our respective beds. However, I can't fall asleep without checking to see if, maybe, the magical lights have come back. The weather bureau says that the electromagnetic storm is now at level 6 (of 9) and if only the sky was clear the show would be like fireworks.
But, no, the clouds have come in thickly now. I snuggle into bed with my book. At 1am I rug up and check once again but there's nothing to be seen but dark clouds. At 3am I wake and tiptoe out to check. Not only do I see nothing, but I'm spooked by the remoteness of our little cottage and creep back to bed. At 5am I wake again. This time I hear rain pattering down and don't bother to lift my head from the pillow, let alone stir from my warm nest of heavy blankets. At 10am I finally wake with intention — due, no doubt, in part to the aroma of the coffee that mum has put on — and find that it is snowing. Fluffy white confetti flakes are falling silently on the horses and the fields. The resting volcanos in the distance have been dusted with white.
I smile. And wonder if there's more coffee.