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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien

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Expeditions

Nov 28, 2018

350 Miles on Foot, Under the Midnight Sun

Two Friends take on the elements and cross Iceland from North to South on foot.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

During the Summer of 2017, two school friends, Antoine Debontride and Pierre Lefort undertook a North-South crossing of Iceland by foot and against the elements. By chance, The Outdoor Journal‘s Pierre Gunther also shared a classroom with Antoine and Pierre, so upon hearing of their adventure, he offered to buy them a coffee. Pierre asked some questions and listened to their story, of a beautiful, but challenging journey through Iceland’s rugged landscape.

Antoine, a 24-year-old trek enthusiast with a passion for photography was familiar with this kind of challenge, having already completed the GR 20 in Corsica and a crossing of Swedish Lapland, a trek of 350 miles. However, on this occasion Antoine invited his friend (and occasional model during the trip) Pierre Lefort, who was living in Burkina Faso at the time. Iceland was understandably a shock to the system.

The landscape between Thorsmork and Skógar. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Antoine, what inspired you to go to Iceland?

Antoine: By chance, having stumbled across the destination six years ago whilst online. At the time, I was looking for my first solo great adventure by foot, I was in total awe when I found Iceland: unbelievable landscapes, a very demanding climate, an amazing challenge both physically and psychologically. Additionally, all of this was merely three hours from Paris. Despite my excitement, I was under no illusion that this was going to be difficult, even dangerous without sufficient experience. Therefore, I told myself that this should be a goal, I worked towards it, and in the summer of 2017 we made it.

Askja’s last eruption dates back to 1961. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Why this route, and how did you prepare it?

Antoine: In the same way as I do for all of my treks, with lots of homework and time spent online researching. This is a phase that I really enjoy. Not a prelude, but a part of the adventure itself. I had been looking for a big adventure, a real challenge and I of course spotted the famous Laugavegur itinerary (a 3 day trek), but I wanted to challenge myself to something longer. I eventually found my way to Jonathan Ley’s blog, and I read about his North-South crossing of Iceland, “coast to coast”. This was a gold mine of information, and from there, I developed my final itinerary: from Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse in Skógar, south for about 350 miles and 20 days of walking. Buying the maps and finding a partner who could and would join me for this crazy adventure was the only thing left to be done!

The Godafoss waterfalls. Photo by Antoine Debontride

What was it about Iceland that left you with the greatest impression?

Antoine: The diversity of landscapes and scenery. During the course of a single day, we could walk on the peak of a volcano, in a sandy desert, and then on a glacier. Iceland is known to many as the “Land of the Extremes”, and we really understood its full meaning as we traversed the country.

Pierre: I was struck by the total lack of any sign of human activity in the Highlands, the centre of the country. Roaming these lands really gave you the feeling that no human had ever stepped upon them before. It made me feel like an explorer. I was also astonished to understand how mankind is dominated by nature. In the heart of the summer, the melting ice makes some trails inaccessible, you have to resign yourself to simply wait before mother nature allows you to pass. In this place, nature is the boss, humans must adapt.

Ódáðahraun desert, literally the lava desert of criminals, is said to be place where outlaws found shelter. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Were there any dangerous moments?

Antoine: There were a couple of moments that stand out. We regularly crossed fords, and on this particular occasion we had to cross 6 in a single day. One the 3rd occasion, the water was 41° F, with a strong current, we couldn’t see the bottom. I stepped into the water, and after a few steps, while I was looking for a support with my trekking pole… there was nothing. My arm sank further into the water, and I could feel it was at least one meter deeper in that particular spot from where I was standing. Due to the weight of my backpack, I toppled into the water. I don’t know how on earth I managed to get back on my feet, but somehow I pulled myself out. Knowing the risks of falling into water that cold really gave me a big scare. For once, the merciless wind of Iceland was helpful, and everything dried within an hour.

I will let Pierre describe the second dangerous moment, which was perhaps one of the most significant parts of our journey.

Pierre: I’ll never forget this moment for as long as I live. It was day 13, our final day before entering the Highlands. From the first moment that we woke up, we felt like this day was going to be remembered. The temperature had suddenly fallen, and we were welcomed by a light rain when we exited our tents. After just a few hours of walking, a thick fog had set in and we could only see ten meters ahead. Navigation had become difficult, we kept heading in the wrong direction. On many occasions, we had to retrace our steps as we aimed for the summit of the mountain range that we needed to pass. It was at the summit that the wind had replaced the fog, and we were forced to push on with great difficulty, continuously feeling as though we would be swept away by a huge gust of wind.

The real moment of misfortune came whilst crossing a névé, along a steep mountain side, with a 30 meter drop down onto the rocks below. We were moving slowly, my steps steadily settling in Antoine’s, when suddenly my left foot slipped. With the weight of my backpack, I fell, and only saved myself from a deadly fall courtesy of a walking pole that stuck full length in the snow. The pole sacrificed it’s life for mine, and whilst I was grateful, this episode was a serious blow to my morale; it felt like I had lost one of my best allies.

Lake Viti’s crystal-clear waters. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Did you sleep under the elements? How did you manage for food?

Antoine: We wanted to do this for ourselves, without support, so we carried everything that we needed. This included tents of our own, not the best solution if we consider the weight, but it felt necessary for a trek this long to have our own space. Along the way, we also benefited from shelters that were open to the elements and huts, maintained by an association of rangers. In total, we managed to spend 5 nights inside a hut out of a total  of twenty nights.

Concerning food, I adopted the same diet as during my previous treks: muesli and powdered milk for breakfast. Dry-fruit mix, chocolate and cereal bars during the day. Soup and freeze-dry meals for diner. I cannot tell you how happy we were to enjoy fresh food once we reached the finish line.

Bivouac with a view on Vatnajökull. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Did you try Håkarl? (Whale Sashimi)

Antoine: What? We saw many restaurants offering shark, whale and mackerels.

Pierre: After the famous hot-dog of Reykjavik and the fish and chips we gobbled up when we arrived, we didn’t have any room for anything else.

What’s the one thing everyone should know before attempting something like this?

Antoine: It is a matter of being prepared. When considering this kind of itinerary, you cannot afford to be unprepared. It’s also important to have self awareness, and good knowledge of yourself. This can only be acquired with experience. Walking 350 miles across Iceland is physical, but the real challenge takes place inside of your head. Loneliness, long hours of walking every day for three weeks… it’s certainly not for everyone!

Pierre: I totally agree with Antoine. However, I would also add the preparation regarding the equipment. It is extremely important to be equipped with good gear and above all test everything before departure. On this type of trek, 80% of people don’t make it because of bad preparation.

Read next: Engagés: Upon Reflection. Calm, Patience, Humility

What’s the one piece of gear and/or tech that you think was essential?

Antoine: The GPS was very useful, sometimes maps were not accurate enough for us to locate exactly where we were. With the GPS, even in scenario’s of low visibility we were able to continue moving forward. We had prepared by saving a few local landmarks, that helped us once we were on the ground in Iceland.

Pierre: If I let my stomach speak, I would tell you it’s the equipment that you need to cook, but Antoine is right, without any doubt the GPS that was essential.

Asbyrgi canyon, nicknamed Sleipnir’s footprint according to Icelandic sagas that explain the site was formed by Odin’s eight-legged horse. Photo by Antoine Debontride

Antoine, what camera did you use?

A Nikon D7000 with a 18-105 lens, and a GoPro hero 5.

How much value does the midnight sun add to pictures?

Antoine: It is true that in a particular light pictures are enhanced, but instead I can’t let go of the unsettling aspect of this phenomenon. You really lose the notion of time. You can wake up at 3 am and still find the same luminosity as during the day. Of course, it can also be a great asset during a trek, you never have to stop because of low light.

Tell us about your favourite photo?

Antoine: Without any hesitation: Askja! It’s a huge volcano crater that we needed to cross during the trek. It was still covered with snow and the weather was gorgeous. Later, we ran into another hiker who told us that he had already come here four times, but this was the first time that he could see even two meters ahead.

The moonscapes of Askja. Photo by Antoine Debontride

What’s next?

Antoine: Perhaps Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan and Mongolia, they are beautiful lands for treks and still not mainstream.

Pierre: I plan to focus on our own beautiful country. France is packed with amazing hikes and treks. I would love to take more time to perfect my equipment before challenging myself to adventures further afield.

If you want to see other pictures of Antoine around the world, have a look at his 500px account here.

Cover photo: The rugged landscape of Landmannalaugar. Photo by Antoine Debontride

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Travel

Jun 14, 2019

Riding Through Rajasthan

On the back of an indigenous Marwari horse, known for its warrior spirit, a female-only group rides 160 miles across India through villages that have never been visited by foreigners.

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WRITTEN BY

Margaret Reynolds

The adventure began before we even arrived at our destination. Racing through the twisting narrow back allies of Delhi, we were late. Our train to Ganganagar was leaving in ten minutes and we hadn’t made it through the swarm of Delhi traffic to the train station. We rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt as the road ahead was completely closed off at the intersection with no hope of a resolution any time soon. Honking horns, a constant accompaniment to Delhi traffic, now rose to a crescendo of cacophonic sounds as frustrated drivers expressed their annoyance. “Out! Out!” our guide shouted, and we leaped from the van and ran through the street. We were weaving around traffic which bolted forward erratically to gain inches, trying to maneuver their way free of the jam, while we stayed alert to avoid being bumped or hit. Some drivers called out to us in Hindi words we only understood by their tone. Blindly following our guide, using our adrenaline to power us through the crowd, we made it to the train and our sleeper cars minutes before departure and hoped that the bags coming behind us on porters made it too!

Author Margaret Reynolds is an experienced horseback rider who prepared for this trip with previous rides in both Europe and Africa.
Some of our group in the sleeper car of train.

Awaiting us in Hanumangarh, a short distance from Ganganagar, was the Bhatner Horse Fair, a once-a-year festival to celebrate, compete, and market the famed Marwari breed indigenous to India and unlike any other breed worldwide. Missing our train would have meant missing the Fair and it was an event that we planned our entire Rajasthan riding safari around.

“We discovered that we were the main attraction.”

The next morning, we arrived at the fair. It was the last day and while most of the events were completed, we discovered that we were the main attraction as they rarely had foreigners, and there were no other women there. We were given the red-carpet treatment since we were accompanied by Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately known as Bonnie, a nobleman of the Shekhawati clan and reputed to be the savior of the Marwari’s. He has dedicated his life to the promotion and protection of the breed which he considers the true ambassador of Rajput culture and heritage. We were followed by a beehive of fair attendees, drawn to us like honey, and even interviewed by the local media. It became clear that our presence held so much more value than just our own education and enjoyment; we could offer support to Bonnie’s cause through our words and interest, as well as in undertaking the week-long safari to showcase these beautiful steeds to his countrymen.

Bonnie educating us on the horses while being observed by other fairgoers.
In breeder tent at the Bhatner fair with Bonnie, our guide and emissary (Margaret wearing bright scarf).

The next day we greeted our horses and mounted into traditional military saddles. The horses were proudly adorned with cloth martingales baring the rich red and saffron colors of Dundlod Fort, and the ride began past sheep herds along the Indira Gandhi Canal. These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari across 160 miles of desert. We rode through the heart of Rajasthan, across the Thar desert, far from the bustling cities of the Golden Triangle, now populated by robust crops of millet and mustard enabled by the newly built canal system.

Our group freshly mounted ready to ride out. Margaret and Noel on far right.

“These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari.”

The route was a new one as each year the progress of India’s roads, establishment of new agricultural fields and corresponding fences creates the need for a different trail. We passed through villages that had never been visited by foreigners. Women and children came rushing from all directions to shout “Hi” and “Hello” and shyly wave at us. We were followed for miles by young men on motorcycles whose English focused on the word “selfie” as they came armed with their cell phones to take pictures of this unusual parade of noble horses and white-skinned foreigners. We were welcomed guests wherever we traveled.

Passing through a village in Rajasthan.
Being greeted by villagers along the route.

Our first night by the village of Raika Ki Dhani, we were greeted by dozens of villagers who came to watch us—they observed us sharing chai and popadum, a crispy tortilla-like bread spiced with pepper whose flavor snaps in your mouth just like the texture, as we sat around the fire and chatted about our day. Bonnie regaled us with entertaining tales from his many adventures such as the time they were almost attacked by misinformed villagers who thought his group was hunting their sacred antelope. The locals stood quietly, respectfully, yards away and crept ever closer like sandhill cranes, en masse one step at a time, until the camp staff intervened.

Evening view of tents.
Inside view of the tents.

“We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever.”

In the morning, the son of the landowner on which we camped, fluent in English, came to us requesting our presence at their home in the village so we could meet their women. Delightedly, we accepted and drove to their brick and adobe home in the village. Many generations live together, and women join the family home of their husbands. When we arrived, there were a dozen people and when we left many dozens as villagers heard of our presence and joined the gathering. The women are beautiful, graceful, and shy but so friendly and welcoming. It didn’t take long to bridge the language barrier as they let us hold their children, shake their hand, and take many pictures together. We aren’t sure who enjoyed it more. We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever by the time we left.

Invited inside a local village family home.

The ride was swift with many fast canters through the desert, lined up side by side on a sandy two-track, with every horse competing to be in front. Astride the powerful Marwari thundering through the desert is an experience in which your soul is freed, and you are in the moment, feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors past. You hope it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t. She is a successful endurance horse that can go forever and is pleased to show you her power and speed.

The famous Marwari inward tilting ears—view to the desert.

Animals are esteemed in India. Cows, dogs and even pigs are considered holy and roam freely throughout India, including the cities. Drivers don’t honk at them even though they honk at everything else. They feast on grass and garbage or food provided by shopkeepers or families. While those of us in first world countries drive through our suburban neighborhoods, expecting to see the standard home with two car garages and the glow of multiple TVs, as we passed each home in the village we found a courtyard with a camel which served as the beast of burden pulling carts of supplies or crops, a few water buffalo that provide milk, a dog or two and likely sheep or goats for milk and meat. These precious animals, so essential for survival, are well cared for in a country known for its poverty.

The indigenous Marwari horse.

Life is simple in the villages. Days are repetitive and the work is essential –laundry, gathering fuel, cooking, and tending fields. Our presence in their villages provided some respite from the day to day existence. Often, a young boy would lead the way through town shooing goats, cows, or other animals out of our path and showing us the way to the community water trough so our horses could have a refreshing break, feeling pleased with his important role.

“The earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.”

Unlike the cities with their explosion of people and constant stench created by the recipe of uncontrolled diesel fumes, sewage, and trash, the villages were peaceful and calm. Here the smells were not of diesel but of livestock. Camels, so common in courtyards and hitched to carts, are ruminants. They chew and swallow their food into rumens where it is fermented, then burp it back up into their mouths later for more chewing. It smells a bit like a compost heap on a warm desert day. Cow patties are the most common source of fuel and they are being shaped by bare hands, then dried for use, usually within the courtyard or sometimes on the roof. Inexplicably, these smells weren’t offensive as they seemed harmonious with the way of life and the use of the land and its resources. For this Midwestern equine enthusiast, the earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.

Riding through a village.

We rode for 6-8 hours a day stopping for a break mid-day for lunch and a rest, avoiding the hottest sun of the day. Just before lunch, Bonnie’s staff raced ahead of us in the “gypsy” jeep to set up a small camp, with chairs and sleeping pads and to prepare the food, a buffet of vegetarian delicacies such as dal and curry flavored vegetables with steamed rice and endless chapatis. We were reliably greeted by villagers or passers-by, a camel driver, or young lads on their bikes, as we rested. Our biggest challenge was in finding an appropriate and private spot for a comfort break without being observed.

Men gathered with invitations to their homes.
Photo Op and Interview with the local press while the crowd watched. Margaret in a bright scarf to right of the horse.

“The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause.”

Our eight days through the desert was not a ride for the inexperienced. For those experienced riders who have come to believe they have tried it all, this ride surpasses expectations—not just because of the majesty of the Marwari’s but for the combination of culture, history, and riding which is unparalleled. I have worked up to this event by riding through other countries from Europe to Africa and the magic of this ride transcends them all.

Riding through a village being led by a young man.

The Marwaris, which drew us to India like snake charmers beckoning cobras, were everything we expected and more. We learned that they are banned from exportation which is leading to declines in the quality and popularity of the breed. The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause as we have so much respect for these amazing animals.

Dancing Marwari.

The days included challenge and leisure; hardship and comfort; and speed and stillness which have come to define India to me. It is a country of contrasts—from city to village; from western dress to traditional kurtas and saris; from Muslim to Hindu; and from ancient to modern buildings and customs. It is a country with many possibilities and it was exciting to experience first-hand the range of the country’s legacy and promise for its future.

Margaret Reynolds is a speaker, author, and advisor to organizations on improving business performance and increasing revenue growth. She is an avid competitive trail rider, winning back to back National Championships with NATRC in 2017 and 2018. Every year she and her adventurous friends find a new country to explore on horseback. mreynolds@breakthroughmaster.comhttps://www.breakthroughmaster.com/

Feature image: Group send-off at Bonnie’s Dunlod Fort

 

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