In August 2013 a group of eight of us visited the endlessly fascinating land of Iceland for a month-long hiking and sightseeing vacation.

The highlight of our visit was a six-day hut-to-hut backpacking trip along the Laugavegur trail between Landmannalaugar in Iceland's volcanic interior to Skógar on the south coast. This hike is well described by Denise Hall, one of our group on this link.

The rest of our time was spent exploring Reykjavik, renting a car to explore all the delights along the "Hringvegur", the ring road around the island. We especially enjoyed Borgarfjörður Eystri, a fjord village in north-eastern Iceland known for its plentiful birdlife and the cornucopia of local hiking trails. We also enjoyed Akureyri, Iceland's second city and a thriving port on the north coast.

Landmannalaugar is interesting in Icelandic history as being situated at the southwestern end of the Sprengisandur, a forbidding desert plateau defined roughly as the area between the Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers. Sprengisandur is an ancient pass - during the time of the Icelandic Free State (ca. 930–1265) it was one of the several important north-south routes that connected remote regions of the island to the Plains of the Parliament, Þingvellir, where the yearly parliament, Alþingi, was held each year at midsummer. In the sagas of Icelanders, it is often called simply Sandr "Sand" or Sandleið, "Sand trail". At its southern end, it was joined with another such route, Fjallabaksvegur nyrðri, running west from Landmannalaugar mountain hot springs area.

Sprengisandu, which means literally sprengi - "to explode" and sandu - "sand". This refers to the fact that there being no food or habitation in this dreaded mountain plateau it was necessary to "explode" (almost drive a horse to death), to cross it as fast as possible before running out of food and water. As usual with uninhabited places in Iceland, the Sprengisandur route was considered to be haunted by ghosts, elves and the like. These themes, the difficulty of passage and the presence of ghosts, are referred to in this famous Icelandic song Á Sprengisandi, written by Grímur Thomsen (1820–1896). The column on the right is a very rough English translation.

Play theme music "Á Sprengisandi (Ríðum, Ríðum) - Songs and Dances from Iceland by ISLANDICA" (1 min 59 sec)

Ríðum, ríðum og rekum yfir sandinn, 
rennur sól á bak við Arnarfell, 
hér á reiki er margur óhreinn andinn, 
úr því fer að skyggja á jökulsvell; 
Drottinn leiði drösulinn minn, 
drjúgur verður síðasti áfanginn. 
Drottinn leiði drösulinn minn, 
drjúgur verður síðasti áfanginn. 

Þey þey! þey þey! þaut í holti tófa, 
þurran vill hún blóði væta góm, 
eða líka einhver var að hóa 
undarlega digrum karlaróm; 
útilegumenn í Ódáðahraun 
eru kannske að smala fé á laun. 
útilegumenn í Ódáðahraun 
eru kannske að smala fé á laun. 

Ríðum, ríðum, rekum yfir sandinn, 
rökkrið er að síða á Herðubreið, 
álfadrottning er að beisla gandinn, 
ekki er gott að verða á hennar leið; 
vænsta klárinn vildi ég gefa til 
að vera kominn ofan í Kiðagil 
vænsta klárinn vildi ég gefa til 
að vera kominn ofan í Kiðagil
Ride, ride, ride over the sand 
the sun is setting behind Arnarfell. 
Round here there are many evil spirits 
because it's getting dark on the glacier 
Lord, lead my horse, 
the last part of the way will be hard 
Lord, lead my horse, 
the last part of the way will be hard 

Tssh, sssh! Tssh, sssh! On the hill a fox ran 
her dry mouth she wants to wet with blood; 
or perhaps someone was calling 
with a strangely dark male voice. 
Outlaws in Ódáðahraun 
are maybe rounding up some sheep secretly 
Outlaws in Ódáðahraun 
are maybe rounding up some sheep secretly 

Ride, ride, ride over the sand 
It's getting dark on Herðubreið. 
The elf queen is bridling her horse. 
It's not good to meet her 
My best horse I would give to 
reach Kiðagil 
My best horse I would give to 
reach Kiðagil
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