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Sunday, 15 August 2021

Walking In Iceland 5: to Skaelingar

links to: introduction - previous day - next day

Another extract from the journal: Neville and I are on an organised walking tour in Iceland, backpacking with ten others and a walk leader. We spent all day yesterday cooped up in a hut because of gale force winds and hailstones. Not the best start to the walk.

Sunday 28th August 1977

The morning begins with light drizzle, but yesterday’s impossible wind has gone. The day gradually improves until by evening there are sunny periods.

At last, some walking!  After yesterday’s forced incarceration we are moving from Sveinstindur to Skaelingar, a trek of about ten miles. We set off up a long hill. I find myself easily at the front, with lots of stamina after the summer in a canning factory. Twelve-hour nights spent cleaning machinery have boosted me from student infirmity to super-fitness.

A small group we now refer to as “the bridge school” shoot off ahead, almost missing a river crossing and change of direction. I keep in sight of Paul, the walk leader, as he is the only one who knows the way. “If they’ve got the energy to go off in front, they’ve got the the energy to come back,” he mutters. Moral – don’t go off in front. 

We come to a steep slope down to the edge of a lake. The surface resembles ball bearings on a corrugated iron roof. I descend rather more quickly than intended. Neville watches hopefully, camera at the ready, but my canning-factory hardened hands control it without injury. Later I tread carelessly and fall, bruising my hip, which does not bode well for restful nights. After then dropping behind the front runners for a while, I put on an hour’s sustained speed to catch Paul and the bridge school just as we near the hut.  

Skaelingar

How superb it is compared with Sveinstindur. In fact, Skaelingar is two huts. We use the smaller one for cooking and eating as it is draughty but with a wooden floor. The other hut, the stable, is palatial, with a comfortable mossy floor, so we use it for sleeping. There is plenty of room to spread out with wide spaces at both sides of your sleeping bag to avoid second-hand bad breath. Water is available from streams running into the nearby River Skaft. I even wash my hair in the evening sun. The cold produces a force-ten headache.

Rock pillars at Skaelingar

All around Skaelingar are strange, knobbly pillars of rock, many of them hollow. They can be eight feet high and three or four feet wide (2.4m x 1m). According to local folklore, they were left from a war between trolls. They were actually formed underwater by lava seeping up from a lake bed, possibly as recently as 1783 when volcanic activity created a temporary dam.  

As well as better weather, the climate has improved socially. Everyone now gets on like old friends. It is a well-educated middle-class group. In addition to me and Neville, there are three chemists, a factory inspector, a landscape architect, a Brussels translator, a medical researcher, a personnel administrator and two other students one of whom is a mature teacher trainee. Paul, the leader, also did languages at university. Three are in their thirties, the rest of us in our twenties.

The landscape architect works for the Forestry Commission. What a break for him: an island with no trees.

The only girl in the group, Debbie, is here with her boyfriend, Dennis. She must be finding things very awkward. As I round the corner of a lava pillar, I see her with pants down. I quietly retreat.

One of the chemists has been calling Dennis, ‘Des’, having misheard his name when Debbie said what they are. Being cautious, I hadn’t been calling him anything. I’d thought she said their names were Debbie and Dilys

Some gentle teasing is starting to occur. The four we call ‘the bridge school’ seem completely unaware of anything beyond the cards. Someone suggests they need a portable card table that folds down from the back of a rucksack so they can play as they walk, oblivious the wonders of the surrounding landscape.

When it emerges that four of the group are from Manchester, someone goes into a long story about being there and watching vandals shave the paint off parked cars. “What, with a razor blade do you mean?” someone asks. “No, with an electric one,” someone else suggests.

Thrown together like this in remote, overcrowded huts, it is becoming clear there is plenty of scope for for getting on each other’s nerves. One good way to irritate others is to pontificate erroneously about chemistry in front of three professional chemists who cannot get a word in edgeways. Another is to bullshit about languages in front of linguists. Sveinstindur does not mean ‘pig mountain’. But the best way of all, bearing in mind that in the dark we only have a weak camping light, is to wear a reading torch that straps to your head and blinds everyone you look at. 

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

35 comments:

  1. Which brand of shampoo did you use when you washed your hair and where did you plug in your hairdryer? You certainly got to see some very remote parts of Iceland. I think I would have been happier seeing it on my own or with just one other person - not in a group like that. I am already looking forward to Part 6.

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    1. Head & Shoulders. It would have been much more difficult then without a guide because little information was available about routes and safe places to cross rivers. The tour company founder, Dick Phillips, had to discover much of this himself and Paul the walk leader had learnt it from him. Paul also had a complete list of electricity sockets in the Icelandic wilderness where you could plug in your hairdryer.

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  2. Just as well your huts were spacious and the views fine. Your company sounds......tedious.

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    1. They probably thought me tedious. Actually I enjoyed talking with everyone at some point on the route. It is something I like about group walks today - talking as much as walking.

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  3. Oh dear - I just had not thought of the rest of the company - perhaps it is better to just let yur wonderful photographs show us the fantastic sceenery.

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    1. As said to Andrew, above, they were OK. There were always opportunities during the day to find your own space. One of my favourite sayings: I don't like annoying people.

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  4. Tasker used Vosene Medicated as we all did *Back Then* (as Tone Blair used to say, one of his cringing Americanisms).
    What did you expect him to use? Toni and Guy?
    I suppose you used Timotei, Yorky? Ye liked the blonde girl in the ad.

    Whenever I visit a lady's bathroom, I aye check out the shampoos, odd behaviour for a chap who is, er, tonsure challenged.

    Shampoos are an index of the world I no longer understand, and the brand names are as utilitarian as John Stuart Mill.
    *Hairstory New Wash*.
    Ye can't get plainer than that, can ye?

    I clocked Hairstory in the bathroom of a beautiful single Irish lady who works in I.T. She also had Davines Solu and all kinds o' Hair Balm.

    She told me she was making her confession in church, and when she received absolution, the African priest drew aside the curtains and asked for her phone number.
    African priests have a penchant for tall single redheads.
    Maybe that's why they are over here. Just saying.
    Haggerty

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    1. I'm not sure that "Head and Shoulders" was sold in those days. I understand that it is good for tackling dandruff though this is not a problem that has ever befallen me. Maybe he used an Icelandic brand as recommended by Magnus Magnusson.

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    2. A lady friend bought me Philip Kingsley Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, which she said can only be ordered online.
      It smells of that Pear Juice you can buy in Waitrose.

      Call me the Quare Fellow, but I like the smell of Polytar (Coal Tar) Solution.
      It takes me back to the days when I had nits.
      Ye'll no get nits in Iceland, laddie.
      Haggerty


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    3. You could get Head & Shouders then. It seems forever I've used two in sequence: Vosene medicated followed by Head & Shoulders, but I would only have taken one on that trip because of space. However, I am often tempted by the extensive exotic selection my daughter keeps in the bathroom. I don't know. I post incredible pictures of Iceland and all you want to talk about is hair washing. Have you any hair left?

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    4. Iceland is sublime.
      Haggerty digressed as only Haggerty can.
      Let's get back to hailstones and Lava Pillars.
      We shall hear no more of Debbie doing what any girl must.
      Nobody ever went to the lavatory till James Joyce.
      Hamel(d)

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    5. When you're rambling in the Icelandic wilderness, it's important to feel confident about the way you look. With "Head and Shoulders" you're head and shoulders above the rest.

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    6. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

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    7. I am sure you are kind to animals, Neil, but you have narcissistic tendencies which Haggerty, plodding auto-didact that he is, does not possess.

      It is you, Neil, who brought up the subject of shampoo, whether Head and Shoulders or Timotei, it hardly matters in the scheme of things.
      Did you by any chance miss your vocation as a shampooist in a Sheffield ladies' hair salon? What larks !
      Soupe Spoon

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  5. Those huts and the various landscape pictures look so… I don‘t know, the word that comes to mind is otherworldly. I have never seen anything like it.

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    1. It's a strange landscape. You can't quite believe what you are seeing.

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    2. PS: I have remedied the picture issue on today's post on my blog.

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  6. Your description of the nightime second hand bad breath and the force 10 headache brings it all vividly to life.

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  7. I am enjoying these posts on Iceland. The landscape looks as if you were hiking on another planet. The hut appears to be part of the landscape almost like a hobbit house. I find it interesting when you put a group of strangers together for a length of time. I like to sit back and watch as the various personalities come out. Invariably there is always one that constantly tries to outdo everyone else in his stories or knowledge. It can be a good study of human nature as well as nature.

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    1. There were green landscapes later but yes it does look a bit like some of those pictures from mars, except for the water. I suspect the kind of personality that always has to say they have been somewhere or done somewhere better is probably compensating for their own insecurities.

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  8. Okay, am I the only one hear who spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what Sveinstindur actually meant. I got nuthin'. Tasker, clarification needed.

    One of the funniest people I ever met told about being a young hippy and living in an old house with a bunch of other folks and how every morning he would go out and wash his hair in the icy spring. He also mentioned that it gave him a splitting headache. I said, "So why didn't you STOP washing your hair in the icy spring every morning?" No one had ever asked him that question before. More importantly, I don't think he had ever stopped to ask himself that question.

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    1. So did I. Stindur seems to mean 'stand' but google can't translate the svein. But I've just realised that the "kofi" marked on the map (see last post) are shelters - they are the huts we stayed in - but google can't translate kofi either. It prefers to mention the secretary general of the UN.

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  9. This is a grand story. Don't stop until the end.

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  10. I'm just enjoying the photos and the walk. What a strange landscape and definitely Hobbit style hostels. Being somewhat anti-social I would have taken the trip with half a dozen people maybe.

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    1. There wasn't much choice about the travelling companions. In those days it was either a Dick Phillips tour or nothing because it would have been to difficult and possibly too dangerous to do it yourself.

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  11. From your writing, it is easy to imagine a disparate group sitting around the hut...each trying to find their place in the group by either pontificating or watching. A little social science experiment in the making. Looking forward to future posts.

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    1. My main concern was keeping warm but I wonder if Paul the walk leader saw similarities between all the groups over the thirty something years he led these walks.

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  12. Are there still guided walks in this region today (as in this century)? I'd love to know if those earthbound huts still exist like that or have been upgraded with modern 'comforts'. Even at my age i think I'd prefer the one you experienced, and I'd love to touch those rock pillars.

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    1. Look up "Utivist". You can get to most of these places much more easily now in off-roaders and the huts are better equipped. I'm hoping to do a 'then and now' post to finish this series.

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  13. Group holidays can be make or break depending on the people you are with. We had a sailing holiday that was such good fun, a really happy experience. On the strength of that we booked another. What a difference. Everyone else on the boat was French and very distant. I spoke only French for the entire week. (We were sailing the coast of Turkey.) It was merde!

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    1. La première semaine a l'air amusante, la seconde un désastre.

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  14. You talk of a really interesting part of the personal relationships in the expedition and all some want to talk about is shampoo. I sometimes wonder about folks. I enjoyed the relationship situations developing. “If they’ve got the energy to go off in front, they’ve got the the energy to come back,” he mutters. Moral – don’t go off in front. I shall use that with relish.

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    1. YP can be droll. You'll see later that friction developed between the fast and slow walkers.

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