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A Tourist-Free Destination in Iceland

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Tourism is like quantum physics. Every observer affects the events observed. And with the number of observers, the intrusion intensifies. So, where do you go to avoid mass tourism and see original, unpolished events? Here's my example: Iceland.

Last week I attended the sheep roundup in northern Iceland, near Varmahlith, and experienced the luxury of a destination without tourists. Iceland is a country of fish and sheep and horses. Half of the population of just over 300,000 people lives in the southwest of the country, in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Drive away from the city, preferably in a sturdy four-wheel drive, and you find yourself in a wilderness of rocks, vulcanoes, moss and overwhelming skies.

The few people living along the northern coast fish and raise sheep and horses. In spring they let the sheep and horses run free and when autumn comes it is time for the annual sheep roundup. That's quite an event. For days the men and women ride their small icelandic horses through the mountains, looking for sheep and driving them home.

Sheep are extremely simple. They seem to have only one reflex in response to whatever disturbs their peace: they run away. That makes driving sheep home relatively simple. All you need to do is get behind them and yell. Or scream. Or honk. Or, if they happen to look your way, wave at them. They'll turn and run.

After three days the farmers have driven some 10,000 sheep into a corral and that is when the fun starts. Every sheep is marked with a label, a cut in the ear or a tape around a horn, so that each farmer can recognize his own animals. In batches the sheep are driven into the core of the corral, where men, women and children are waiting to catch their animals and push them into fenced off areas before loading them onto trucks to take them home.

This is a feast. The grown-ups catch the sheep, young boys and girls just ride them for fun. Even babies are taken into the corral to familiarize them with this happy chaos. At the end of the day, when the work is done, the bottles are passed around and it is party time. I shot this video to show what it looks like:

I counted maybe ten foreigners at the event, all of whom had come to ride along and help. The event is now food for individual observers, for anthropologists, but I wondered what it would have looked like if this had not been on the polar circle, but in Germany, Switzerland or Montana. There would have been parking lots for tourist buses, a grand stand and food stalls. In Iceland there were no facilities at all; not even trees or bushes. Wonderful.

But this too will inevitably change. Magnus Sigmundsson, who runs a local horse riding and rafting company, told me that the region needs more tourists, although he realizes that this will change the nature of what is now still very much a village festival. But I'm sure that at least for the next couple of years the people of Varmahlith will still regard foreign visitors as guests, rather than tourists.