A Night Of Adventure

Quite unexpectedly, Night Of Adventure turned out to be one of my greatest achievements to date.

[Photo: Jools Whitehorn]

I’d been worried about all sorts of things: concerned that, as Lois Pryce later put it, it might turn into “a novelty women’s thing”; afraid that we simply wouldn’t find enough interesting female adventurers, and would have to fill in the gaps with people who didn’t really deserve to be there. Or maybe no one would buy tickets. Perhaps, in my role as MC, I’d accidentally find myself trotting out tired old cliches like “girl power” (eurgh), or “anything they can do we can do better”, when the whole point of this event was not to show that women are different, or superior, but simply to demonstrate that they are as adventurous, strong, intelligent, funny, resourceful and ultimately human as anyone else on the adventure speaking circuit – good enough at what they do that their gender needn’t really come into it.

And as it turns out, the only person who mentioned gender was me (ahem), in my opening and closing addresses. The rest of the time, as several audience members remarked, we all forgot we were at a ‘women’s’ event, and just enjoyed the fantastic range of speakers. One of the Hope & Homes staff, who’s been to just about all the events since Night Of Adventure was founded in 2010, said it was the strongest line-up yet and, casting my mind back, I’m not surprised.

Almost by accident, we ended up with eleven speakers whose ages ranged from 8 to 50+; whose travels had taken them from the humble Welsh mountains to the Gobi Desert and the South Pole; whose adventures had varied in length from a couple of hours to four years. They had cycled, motored, walked, climbed, ridden, skydived, snowboarded, paraglided, kayaked, sailed, caved, coasteered, and camped in all kinds of weird and wonderful places. Several of them were record-holders, and several more have published books, or are writing them.

Some of the photographs they showed had me covering my eyes in fear – most notably Emily Tolhurst’s pictures of kayaking the Channel (which she did when she was fourteen), and Holly Budge’s of skydiving Everest. Others, such as Hannah Engelkamp’s struggles with her recalcitrant donkey, as they walked the perimeter of Wales, had the whole audience howling with laughter.

So in the end there was no need to make any patronizing final address about what certain special women can achieve when they really put their mind to it. It was enough to acknowledge the eleven exemplary human beings that stood before us, and to thank them for inspiring us to be stronger, to try harder, to live better and to pursue our own adventures, wherever they might take us.

I couldn’t be prouder.

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EDIT: Actually, yes, I could. I’m very much aware that we had an exclusively white line-up. I tried very hard – and ultimately failed – to find any adventurous people of colour to speak at the event. But I’m sure they must exist. If anyone’s able to help me out with links, leads, suggestions and collaborations for future events, please get in touch.

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Valley of the Cold

The other night, sheltering from a blizzard in Reykjavik’s youth hostel, I ran into the only other cyclist I’ve met on this trip – a cheerful Bahraini entrepreneur called Yassir, who made it his New Year’s resolution to travel more, happened to watch The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, and booked a passage to Iceland the very next day. He turned up on the east coast with a backpack and a brand new bike, having never seen snow in his life, and with no idea what he was letting himself in for. His holiday didn’t seem to have gone quite to plan (predictably, he covered more miles on buses than he did on his bike), but if nothing else, he appreciated the break it had given him from running his own business (he’s just sold one, and is about to launch another), which he said had taken up almost every waking hour of the last six months.

I knew what he meant. We compared notes on the joys and pitfalls of self-employment – neither of us would have it any other way, but we both confessed to a lack of work/life balance. I don’t even feel this term really applies to me – most of what I do (riding bikes and writing stuff) is ‘life’ rather than ‘work’, and it seems merely coincidence (and luck) that I get paid for enough of it that I don’t need to do anything else. There never comes a point in the day, or weekend, where I decide I’m going to stop doing work and get on with the rest of my life, because I don’t really have much of a life outside bikes and writing. Even when I go to the pub, it’s usually to talk about bikes or books with one of my equally unoriginal friends.

I’ve no real complaints about this state of affairs – I am constantly and gleefully grateful to have somehow stumbled into a life where I get to do almost entirely as I please, all the time. But it does make taking a break more difficult than just booking my annual leave and getting on a plane to Majorca. Talking to Yassir about how I’ve spent my last two weeks, I realized that my most reliable escape route lies in finding loopholes in my ‘normal life’, into which I can disappear. And in Iceland, I managed to disappear very effectively.

One of the manifold advantages (and also disadvantages) of bikepacking is that the amount of kit you carry has to be whittled down to a bare minimum. When I cycled across Asia I had four panniers, plus a tent, a barbag and a daysack full of spare food strapped onto my rack. To some extent this was necessary (after all, it was a long trip, and I had to carry all the kit I’d need for several seasons on the road), but I did end up erring rather too far on the side of caution (most of the 7kg of tools and spares I brought went unused). But on this trip I was limited to only a framepack – there was no room for luxuries, and even the category of ‘necessities’ ended up being ruthlessly redefined.

I ended up leaving Reykjavik without my laptop, without books, and without even a notepad. All I had room for was the map, squeezed in alongside several days’ worth of packet soups, porridge oats and cheese (because there are no shops in the Icelandic interior). It would be, I decided, an interesting social (or rather, antisocial) experiment – not only to cut myself off from the outside world for a while, but also to leave behind anything that might provide distraction or solace from the world immediately around me, and to remove the temptation to carry on thinking about all my worldly obligations – all those emails that need to be sent, events that need to be organized, obligations that need to be fulfilled.

And it worked a treat.

Following Emil’s directions, I rode north-east out of Reykjavik, following the tourist buses to Þingvellir, where I spent the night snuggled up at the edge of the American tectonic plate.

I spent the following day cycling round Lake Þingvallavatn, partly because it was so heartstoppingly beautiful; partly because I was nervously procrastinating Kaldidalur. I still found some pretty good ice.

And some spectacular views.

And there were almost no people to share them with me. One of my most striking impressions of Iceland is the contrast between its gigantic landscapes and the tiny scraps of civilization scattered amongst them. What’s marked as a village on my map will often just be a house or two. And even these are few and far between. Much as I enjoy being on my own, the sense of being such a very very long way from any other human being was almost vertiginous. Even though reason told me that I had enough food and tools to survive for a few days without human contact, and a mobile phone in case anything did go wrong, I instinctively missed the fleeting comfort of passing cars and wayside petrol stations; of the occasional conversation and company they usually offer me when I’m touring.

But after 24 hours of this, I felt my mind beginning to unfurl itself like a flower. Stepping back into the familiar rituals and routines of touring was like slipping into a fast-flowing river in which I’d swum since childhood – of course, the water will be different every day, but its rhythms, its rapids and its rockpools will be the same as they always have. Like the streets of London, which are paved and piled with the memories I’ve written and rewritten as I rode along them, the process of hunting out a hidden campsite in the Icelandic hinterland, putting up my tent, and cooking my dinner took my mind back to similar wintery campsites in Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran, so completely that there were moments where I’d forget which country I was actually in – much like that watershed morning two years ago when I woke up in an unfamiliar bed in central Iran, experienced that moment of disorientation all travellers know so well (‘where am I?‘), but then noticed that it no longer contained its usual note of panic. I was content not to know, to take as long as I needed to to remember, and perhaps to fall asleep again before I did, because, after all, I was somewhere, and the previous day I’d been somewhere else, and the following morning I’d be somewhere else again. As I remarked at the end of China, whereas most travellers try to capture ‘a sense of place’, I seem inadvertently to have cultivated a sense of placelessness, or rather, a curious transcendent feeling of all places being contained and echoed in each other, much as I found reflections of every other city I’ve known and loved in Istanbul, and much as I now cast my eyes over the rolling golden-brown expanses of Iceland, and felt exactly the same way I did when approaching the centre of Turkey, now over two years ago.

[Another bike, in another country.]

The following morning I ate my porridge sitting on the ramparts of Þingvellir: perched on the edge of a continent, watching the sun come up over another, and illuminate the tiny farmhouse in between that is the official summer residence of Iceland’s prime minister. (The previous evening I’d cycled round it and peeped through all the windows – a far cry from the iron gates and body scanners and security guards at the end of Downing Street.)

And then – enough excuses! – it was time to tackle the ‘impassable’ road up to Kaldidalur. It branched off from the main Reykjavik road, and as far as I could see it was clear of snow and flawlessly tarmacced. But right in the middle of it was a large red-and-yellow sign saying

ÓFÆRT
IMPASSABLE

I eyed it nervously as I sped past, with no real idea what conditions might make a road ‘impassable’. I pictured snowdrifts higher than my head, and wondered how far I and my snowbike would get before I either had to turn back, or ended up so irretrievably stuck that I’d have to call out the mountain rescue. The road (still tarmac) wound around the northern end of the valley, deteriorated into gravel, and then reared up ahead of me, getting steadily gravellier and icier as it snaked off into the mountains.

I struggled up towards the pass, cast a final, wistful glance back towards Þingvellir, and then plunged down the other side. And, as often happens when you cross a mountain pass, I found another world.

Or, rather, just another part of the same world. Because the exhilaration that coursed through me as I crossed this vast, empty, undulating, snowy brilliance was in the same key as that I’d felt as I rode out of Soltaniye towards Hamedan: a swelling chorus of elation, with a minor note of fear.

[Different country; same feeling.]

Both days I’d been transfixed by the beauty that surrounded me, but also frightened by the cold, the isolation, and by not knowing what would happen to me if I failed to reach my destination before nightfall.

The road wasn’t completely impassable – there were jeep tracks, that I followed even when the road itself was invisible, but I didn’t see another person or vehicle all day. Kaldidalur was unlike any other road I’d ever taken. Sometimes the road was corrugated like a BMX track.

Sometimes it was a solid river of ice.

Sometimes it could barely be seen.

Sometimes it was visible for miles.

And finally, just as the sun was sinking below the hills and my muscles were beginning to tremble with exhaustion, I rolled carefully down the final hill and along the frozen river valley towards the tiny hamlet of Husafell. I stopped briefly, as I passed the red-and-yellow sign saying

ÓFÆRT
IMPASSABLE

to take the photo that would have been hubristic to take at the start of Kaldidalur, and which you’ve seen already, of course, but I can’t resist sharing it again.

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On scaremongering

Well, I went looking for snow, and I found it. Miles and miles of deserted mountain roads, invisible save for a few jeep tracks, and without a single person or vehicle to be seen all day.

I have the lovely chaps at Kría Cycles to thank for this. One of the first things I do when settling into a new city is make friends with my local bike shop – because bike shops for me aren’t just a place where you can buy things and fix things; they’re also a general haven of reassurance. I realized this when I was preparing for my big trip, and spending every Saturday hanging around in Brixton Cycles, occasionally asking them to sell me something, or show me how it worked, but mainly just wanting them to tell me all their horror stories, speculate on the things that could go wrong, and then teach me how to fix them (often in wildly unorthodox ways), explain how I could stop them happening in the first place, and ultimately assure me that it was all going to be fine. (And it was, as well you know.)

I’d decided to ask Kría’s advice on where to go, having rethought my plan to ride straight round the ringroad from Seidisfjörður, since a) this would be mostly tarmac, b) it would also be very windy, and c) I’d have the sea on my right the whole way, sometimes with very little room for error should I be knocked off course by a gust of wind or badly driven juggernaut.

But asking (or accepting) advice is fraught with difficulty in enterprises like this – as I’m always saying, it’s very hard to judge how accurate someone’s advice is, because it will always be moderated via their own experience (subjective; often exaggerated), and their assumptions about mine (subjective; usually underestimated). A few days before I set off I received a rather patronizing message from an Icelandic gentleman who told me outright that what I was planning to do was impossible. Of course, statements like this can be a red flag to a bull where I’m concerned, but I’ve never quite stopped doubting myself, and while part of me smugly recounted my past experience, and told myself that he had no idea who he was talking to, another, more anxious part of me wondered whether he was actually right. Yes, I have some experience, but no, I’ve never cycled through Iceland in winter. Sometimes when people tell you something’s impossible, they really mean it.

I’ve also observed that, even when people have accomplished something themselves, they tend to err on the side of caution, remembering how difficult it was, and, perhaps if only for their own peace of mind, warn others off attempting it. I’m guilty of this myself. I’ll admit that I’m rather pleased my younger sister’s decided not to cycle in central London, even though I do so myself on a daily basis. I think embedded in this attitude, is an inherent, paternalistic distrust of other people’s ability to look after themselves. ‘I did it, but it was hard, so I’d rather you didn’t try it without me around to protect you.’

But in Reykjavik, I was lucky to meet Emil.

When he’s not working at Kría, Emil spends most of his time exploring Iceland on two wheels. He and his team completed the annual race around Iceland in under 42 hours, he’s recently built a website introducing offroaders to all the backcountry trails of his homeland, and he’s irrepressibly passionate about Iceland’s endless potential for solitude, hardship, and wide open spaces. I couldn’t have found a better person to ask.

Emil made me a coffee, got out some maps, and we both spent the next hour exclaiming over how exciting it was to have two weeks ahead of me, a gorgeous new bicycle, and all of Iceland to explore. He traced me out a route that passed through Þingvellir (Iceland’s great rift, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly moving apart), and then cut north along a tiny mountain road called Kaldidalur, closed to traffic in winter, that skirted the edge of the highlands, and cut in between two icecaps before descending into a river valley 70km to the  north. Excitedly, he pointed out a tiny track that would take me up onto one of the glaciers, and suggested that I might even ride right over the top of it and down the other side, though I should probably try and meet up with one of the tour guides, who take their clients up onto the glacier in super-jeeps, and ask them where the crevasses were.

I didn’t brave the glacier in the end (there’s always next time), but otherwise I followed Emil’s route to the letter, and had a wonderful, exhilarating, inspiring ride. I’ll give you a full report in due course, but right now I have other fish to fry. I rolled back into Reykjavik two days ago, exhausted, filthy and grinning from ear to ear, and made a beeline back to Kría, to thank Emil for his advice, and ask him where to go next. So he helped me plan out another route (as well as getting carried away with all my/our plans for whenever I next come to Iceland), and very shortly I’ll be back on/off the road.

It’s rare to find someone like Emil – who knows the terrain like the back of his hand, and is aware of all the risks and pitfalls, but nonetheless able to differentiate between a clueless novice and a reasonably hardened adventurer (even when I myself sometimes have trouble knowing which one I am), and happy to trust people to make their own mistakes, know their own limits, and bring themselves home safely in one piece. In this respect, he reminds me of Akbar, whom I met long ago in his guesthouse in south-east Iran, who had seen thousands of overlanders come and go through the badlands of Balochistan over the decades, and who rose above all the rumours and scaremongering and excessive caution, to say ‘ah, you’ll be fine’. And I was, and I have every intention of continuing to be so, as I head back off into the wilderness. See you in a few days.

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Here I go again

And once again, as I did many moons ago, I find myself surrounded by half-packed bags and slightly too much kit, contemplating my imminent departure with the same mixture of nervousness and excitement, even though I should really have grown out of this by now. [Thanks to Genesis for the bike and Alpkit for the

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On being human

There’s a receptionist in St James’s who continually mistakes me for a man. As I walk in he greets me with “hello sir!”, then does a double-take and speedily backtracks: “I’m so sorry – madam!”. And then he ushers me chivalrously towards the lift, apologizing all the way. Last time I embarrassed him even more

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Don’t go to Balochistan

Note:  A few days after I wrote this post, the cyclist concerned gave an alternative version of events. I currently have no way of knowing whose account is more accurate, and since the bulk of my argument still stands, I have left it as it is. ______________________________________________________________________________ You’ll probably have heard – a couple of

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Right then!

I tell everyone I’m skeptical about New Year’s resolutions, but I always end up making one or two. Everything always seems to build up and grind to a halt at the end of the year, and by mid December your diary and stomach are both bursting at the seams, and you’re constantly behind with sleep

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A certain slant of light

My goodness me, it’s been nine whole months since I flew back to London from Japan. This was not my plan. I was supposed to be in Mexico by now. But as you’ll probably have noticed, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my life quite frequently deviates from the plans I make

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We, the disposable

Eleven months ago I was standing on the Khunjerab Pass between Pakistan and China – the highest international border crossing in the world. It was bright and sunny, but bitterly cold, and within minutes Michael and I had lost the warm glow we’d earned on the way up and were shivering helplessly. So we truncated

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Observations

I still haven’t stopped smiling. The two days of work I was promised this week turned into four, and when anyone asks me how it’s going, all I can do is grin. I can’t really explain why couriering makes me so happy, any more than I could tell you why I want to cycle round

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