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MY ICELAND: Sprengisandur

One of the best-known folk songs in Iceland is Á Sprengisandi [On Sprengisandur] – a song that every man, woman and child in Iceland learns virtually in the womb. The lyrics tell of a man who is crossing Sprengisandur sands in the central highlands on a horse [in the old days, obviously] and who cannot wait to get across. The lyrics are filled with strong imagery, superstition, apprehension and fear of the unknown: among other things the narrator describes the sun setting behind a particular mountain, thinks he hears a shout in the distance and wonders if it is a dreaded outlaw stealing a herd of sheep, and speculates that the queen of the elves – whom he absolutely does not wish to meet – is putting the bridle on her horse and is about to set off across the sands. The song ends with him declaring that he would willingly give his best horse to be in Kiðagil right now – where the route ends.

When I was a kid, those lyrics fired my imagination. I thought about them at length and the mood and atmosphere of the sands – as described in the song – totally got under my skin. What I found most eerie and chilling was the name of the sands: Sprengisandur. The literal translation of sprengja is ‘explode’ or ‘burst’ and when a horse was sprengdur it meant that it actually died from exertion, i.e. its lungs burst. In other words, Sprengisandur derives its name from the fact that horses could die from exertion when crossing the sands, simply because their owners drove them so hard in order to get across.

I found this absolutely horrifying. I remember having conversations about it with the adults around me … I had a lot of unanswered questions, such as: if the horse died on the sands, didn’t that mean that the rider was stranded, which sort of defeated the purpose?

Anyway, those sands have existed in my mind’s eye since I was little, and I have always wanted to see them. That finally came to pass this week, when EPI and I and EPI’s father drove across Sprengisandur in my father-in-law’s SUV. In the brilliant light of mid-summer it was far from the ominous and sinister place I’d imagined as a child. In fact they were incredibly impressive. As someone remarked to me today, being there is a very special experience, one that can’t really be envisioned, nor adequately described.

Meanwhile, it was not difficult to imagine what it would have been like to cross them in a bygone era on horseback, in varying conditions – it would have been frightening, not least because of the sheer size of the area and how long it would have taken to get across on horseback. To say nothing of if the weather changed – for much of the distance there is not so much as a rock behind which one can take shelter. Or if a fog suddenly descended – you’d lose your way in an instant.

There seem to be no such worries today, however. Possibly what surprised me the most about the sands was the number of cyclists and hikers we saw en route, and especially how many people were going it solo. We saw far more people on foot and on bikes than we saw cars, for example. EPI mentioned that he once met a bartender in Amsterdam who spent his days in a smoke-filled bar, save for one month a year when he went to Iceland to hike out in the wilderness – and always alone. Perhaps that was him we saw, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Who knows!

IT SEEMS LIKE IT’S BEEN SUNNY FOR WEEKS
Until today, when it finally rained. Buckets. It was windy, too, and suddenly it feels like fall is on its way. The summer is so short in this country, blink and you’ll miss it. Right now it’s 13°C [55F] here in the capital, the sun comes up at 3.33 am and will set at 11.31 pm.

[This post is filed under MY ICELAND.]

UPDATE! Professor Batty has left a link to YouTube versions of the song Á Sprengisandi in the comments below. The one he links to has both the Icelandic lyrics and a rough translation in English under ‘more info’ next to the video. There’s also a version that has the Icelandic lyrics pop up as the song plays.

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  • Dorothy Gale July 13, 2008, 2:29 am

    Soooo, how far is the road paved now, from Gullfoss to Hveravellir? All the way?
    Thanks!

  • Trevor July 13, 2008, 4:39 am

    The pictures are beautiful, I’d like to visit there some day. The song is beautiful too.

  • Joerg July 13, 2008, 9:18 am

    Dorothy Gale:
    The road from Gullfuss to Hveravellir is the Kjölur (or Kjalvegur) route, not Sprengisandur. We drove Kjölur in summer 2006 in our rental car (a Toyota Yaris) which was quite an experience. Back then it was still all gravel road, but at least without any fords (unlike Sprengisandur). I heard they were considering to make Kjölur an asphalt road, but I don’t know if they really started doing so.
    Alda: Your pictures make me want to visit Iceland right now. Such an amazing and wonderful landscape. Maybe next year…

  • alda July 13, 2008, 12:58 pm

    Dorothy Gale: Nothing to add to Joerg’s comment.

    Trevor: nothing to add to that, either!

    Joerg: glad they had that effect. Thanks. 🙂

  • Professor Batty July 13, 2008, 5:27 pm

    There are some YouTube versions, very stirring.

  • Rozanne July 13, 2008, 5:45 pm

    Yet another instance of Icelandic folklore that is quite terrifying. Wow. I’m glad that you finally were able to put your fear of Sprengisandur behind you.

    So did you see any equestrians among the hikers and cyclists? It would be kind of cool to see if people actually try the same mode of transportation as in the song.

  • Asta July 13, 2008, 8:03 pm

    Hi Alda! I’m one of those who always read your blog but have never commented 🙂 Just a few facts about Sprengisandur: It’s the largest desert in Europe. It is the largest black desert in the world. People frequently travel across there on horseback, but better equipped now then before 🙂 I traveled across there with my family as a child and I have to say it was quite dreadful! Three kids cramped in the back of an SUV all arguing and to us,nothing to see but endless sand 🙂 I’m sure I’d enjoy it more if I went now as an adult.

  • Sigga July 13, 2008, 9:21 pm

    You had fantastic weather ! great photos – ofcourse, what else can be expected! I went in 1987 by bus, had crap weather, had the worst tour bus guide… in the end my icelandic friend and I (the only Icelanders on the bus apart from tour guide and driver) forced her to teach the foreigners á sprengisand and explain the text… I think we made their trip.. When all you can see is fog and if you went outside the bus the wind was ready to blow you half way cross the country we figured the least she could do was give them and indication of what they were not seeing. Hope it´s ok that I send the link of you photos to some friends of mine that are thinking of doing this trip later this summer. thanks for another great post too.

  • alda July 13, 2008, 9:50 pm

    Professor – thank you for that link. That particular version also has the text in both Icelandic and English under ‘more info’. Also, the sort of Japanese cartoon-looking one has the text pop up during the playing. Both are really good versions, I think.

    Rozanne – yes indeed, we did see some equestrians, although they were clearly not as hard done by as the riders in the song. At that particular moment they were being fed, and quite nicely too, by the looks of it! 🙂

    Ásta – hæ og velkomin! Glad you decided to comment – I didn’t know Sprengisandur was the largest black desert in the world … thanks for the input!

    Sigga – lol, that’s great! OF COURSE the tour guide should have told the tourists about the song. – Yes, we had fantastic weather … we rushed off just as soon as we saw the forecast was good. And as for the link, send away!

  • Stine July 15, 2008, 10:24 am

    I was lucky enough to be able to cross Sprengisandur in the summer of 1995, with a group of Icelandic friends. It was absolutely awe-inspiring, I can honestly say I will never ever forget it. The sheer loneliness of the place is staggering. But it is oh so beautiful, and we were of course singing the whole way. And now I just want to go back. I’ll have to dig out my old photo album tonight, I think.

  • skugga July 15, 2008, 7:15 pm

    Sigh… I still remember all the words of Á Sprengisandi. It was of course the song most sung on all the riding tours I was doing in 1991 – 1998 (13 times Kjölur, no Sprengisandur at all). But – there’s one song which is much more in my heart (and still makes me sob…): Maístjarnan.

  • Alison July 20, 2008, 1:52 pm

    I too have just come back from the Central Highlands, end of June/beginning July 2008. We rode from around Selfoss to Kjerlingafjöll, 235 kms in the saddle, in 6 days. It was amazing and your pictures just remind me of it all. It’s hard to take many photos from a fast horse’s back. One day I would like to try Sprengisandur, except with maybe an in-the-know local guide. Great photos, great place. The last place in Europe for adventures probably. Regards, Alison

  • Guðmundur Pétursson April 10, 2010, 12:54 am

    This is not a folk song. The music was written by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns and the words by Grímur Thomsen.

  • L.Respondek July 20, 2011, 8:56 pm

    How many rivers have to be forded on the Sprengisandur Route? How deep are the rivers or streams? We shall be driving a Toyota Land Cruiser. Any tips and advice would be welcome. How long does it take from Landmannalaugor up to Fossholl in the North along the F 26? Or to Akureyri? Can anyone give me the required information? Many thanks.