Staff Ride 2019

I was hired by Backroads a year and a half ago and remember thinking, ´just get hired to go to Staff Ride!´ Well, 3 seasons of employment later, I realize Backroads was never just a job, but a lifestyle, and I´ve maybe finally figured out how to enjoy this Backroads life.

happy days with Backroads

Backroads operates in more than 60 countries, and has over 700 tour leaders, in addition to all the office staff, field assistants and other background magicians, so the corporate family isn´t small. The turnover is high, so people come and go, and the ones you know you rarely see, and you´re constantly fastforwarding friendships with strangers you work with intensely, for only a brief moment in time. You never know who you´ll see again, or when, but it doesn´t matter, since they all fill a niche part of your professional (and personal) life.

rest stop in Carovigno castle

Staff ride was pretty much the same; a group of old friends and new strangers, more than 400 of them, crossing paths, starting conversations we´ll never finish, meeting people whose names we´ll probably forget, but whose faces we know we´ll see again. You´ll recognise people and how they made you feel, even though you don´t know where they´re from, but we all share a common ground – the Backroads lifestyle – so we all relate, on some level or another.

one of the many beautiful coastal towns we biked thru

Staff ride 2019 was in Puglia, Italy, and it was more than I dreamed it would be. It was a mix of angst and excitement, with old and new friends, many more than you could count, and all the places and spaces were filled with new landscapes and rolling scenery from a bicycle. I´m not a strong cyclist, but it wasn´t (only) about the biking; it was about seeing and experiencing a place in slow motion, smelling and feeling it under your skin. The ability to stop anywhere for a photo, take it slow, sweat it out, and speed it up for the breeze you needed to cool back down. My butt hurts, not gonna lie, but every kilometer was worth it.

at the tip of the boot

We wined and dined, in historical towns and ancient castles, visited vineyards and citrus gardens, cliff jumped in the Adriatic, saw the ruins of an olive oil press and danced our hearts out in an all-white Pugliese dance festival. We skirted around the coastal towns of Bari, Monopoli and Otranto, and summited the hilltop towns of Ostuni and Carovigno. We overtook the town of Lecce for a night, and by the end of our 4 days cycling, most had covered nearly 380 km, others, over 450 km.

lunch at a Salento farmhouse

It was all a blur, a whirlwind of activity, culture, luxury and socialising. I can´t remember who I biked with where or when, but the conversations still resonate in my mind. If you imagine putting 400+ well-traveled, international, cosmopolitan, educated people together in the boot of Italy, all on the same itinerary, perhaps you can begin to understand why I thought this was always going to be the highlight of the job. The catch is that it happens every year, so the job is only going to get better, and staff ride changes location every year. It’s nice to know I get to work with Backroads in Iceland every summer and winter, with my regular visits to Provence in the spring, but the surprise of staff ride will always be the x-factor. If only my butt would agree…

Being Thankful in Canada

I´m thankful for Icelandair flying direct from Iceland to Vancouver all year round, especially since they cancelled direct flights to Kansas and I got to trade my one way ticket there for Vancouver. So, instead of a mid-west roadtrip, I got to go to British Columbia during one of the most beautiful times of year.

Vancouver

Instead of cherry blossoms and warm nights, there´s fiery red maples and crisp, cool evenings. The other trees are shades of yellow and orange, to match the pumpkins and Halloween season, while pine trees remain forest green, creating an orchestra of colours. The trees are everywhere, covering mountains, whose peaks were beginning to get dusted with early snow fall.

Beautiful British Columbia

I didn´t lose the itch for a roadtrip, so I rented a car from YVR and drove straight through all of BC. I started in Langley, where I met my 4 month old nephew for the first time, and carried on to Dawson Creek, where my older sister just nested in her new house. After breaking off highway 1 in Cache Creek, I drove the 97 past 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 150 Mile House and Prince George. From Dawson Creek, my sister joined and we carried on all the way to the Northwest Territories, driving nearly 500km of the spectacular Alaskan Highway.

stopping to snuggle domestic animals, since the wild game were so far away

I was thankful to visit the Northwest Territories for the first time, and we we´re so overjoyed by the first wild Bison we saw, only to realize there´s be herds of them roaming around Fort Liard, our base for the night. We hiked along Liard River and around Hay Lake, in hopes of a moose sighting, but dreading any bear encounters, since us rookies didn´t have any bear spray with us.

at Pink Mountain

We saw a bear grazing near the highway and a few more bison, along with some elk and even one coyote, but I´ll return to the Alaskan highway in hopes of a moose, or even a bigfoot or sasquatch, sighting. Pink Mountain town has a whole shrine to the sasquatch, and apparently he´s been sighted, and even caught before, in and around that area of the highway.

my sisters and my new nephew

On my way south, I stopped in Ashcroft, couchsurfed the back of a bakery, and made it back to Langley to snuggle my nephew, younger sister, and her mini doodle. Thanksgiving was coming up, and we hadn´t celebrated as a family for over 10 years, so it was time. There were pumpkins to gut and cook, pies to buy and a turkey to stuff and roast, and a dozen of my sisters friends came with other scrumptious sides. We had pumpkin ales, pumpkin spiced Bailey´s and an assortment of local Langley wines after some selective wine tasting in the area.

liquor tasting in Abbotsford

I enjoyed my days training for the 10km Turkey Trot run, held at Granville Island on Thanksgiving day. I finished my second motorcycle exam and rode a Honda 250 around Richmond and Burnaby when the weather was good, and hung out with my oldest friend.

Tandem in Stanley

I´ve known Lisa since we were only 9 or 10 years old, and she was getting married, so we cought up over lunch, went to her wedding dress fitting and then distracted her a bit from the upcoming big day by tandem cycling around Stanely Park.

Stanley Park lunch

Leaving Vancouver left me full of gratitude, for the season, the weather, the coast, the forest, and more importantly, friends and family. My grandma will be 90 next month, and she is the only grandparent I have left and the oldest person I know. She´s still got her wits about her and shares stories of growing up in Guyana that make me thankful for the places and people I grew up surrounded by.

Ending the Turkey Trot in Granville Island under the bridges on Thanksgiving day

The sunshine, the autumn leaves, the warmth of a sun in a sometimes wet and rainy place… the list goest on. I loved roadtripping to new places, and riding a motorcycle to places I had been a hundred times before, but never seen from the back of a bike. Running the 10km loop from Granville Island, over Burrard Bridge, past Science World and thru False Creek made me grateful for my health. And a bit of turkey and pumpkin pie never goes by unappreciated.

Big City hopping

Backpacking or roadtripping in Europe is something I haven´t done a lot, and started doing late in my travels, since the budget for a month in Europe can go a long way in Western Africa or Southeast Asia. Its also nice to visit Europe in the summer, which is prime work time, but early autumn or late spring is really the perfect time to visit. I got the excuse to go to Europe for 2 days of work, but extended it into a week long overland trip of big city hopping so I could try and justify my carbon emissions from Iceland and back.

Vor Frelsers Kirke

I started in Copenhagen, where I wanted to visit a dear horse-backriding friend Ditte, but that very same weekend she went to Iceland to ride so I borrowed her summer cabin for me and my favourite German riding friend. Michael had a bad knee so we didnt ride the Icelandic horses nearby in the town of Nykobing but we enjoyed the beaches of Sjaelland by bicycle and the weather was even good enough to barbeque dinner.

Copenhagen canals

We stopped in Copenhagen for a night to overlap with Ditte for one city bike ride and some touristic stops, and the next morning I flew to Hamburg, where I´d be meeting yet another horse friend Jana, for her birthday! We celebrated by scooting around town, day drinking and taking public transport ferries with roadbeers for a cheap booze cruise. We dined with some friends and sniffed some stuff that gave me a head rush, and the next morning we were finally off to ride. We rode Icelandic horses at a friends breeding farm called Bockholts-Hoff and rode thru a German forest on horses that had just arrived from Iceland. I wore my new yoga/riding/hiking pants that were a little too tropical for the rainy weather, but they must have been the reason the sun finally came out.

riding Icelandic horses in Germany

Next I was off to Rotterdam, via flight to Amsterdam and dinner with a Dutch horse friend, who rode those very Icelandic horses with Silke and I a few weeks earlier in Iceland. A short and sweet date before I checked into my Backroads hotel and was given a Backroads van to drive to Provence early the next morning.

Dijon

My ´work´ roadtrip took me 1,099km thru Holland, Antwerp and Belgium, then Luxembourg and into France. I drive past Moselle, Metz, Nancy, a bit of Champagne region, Dijon and spent a night in Beaune. Then I drove the Bourgogne trail, past the gastronomic capital of Lyon, along the Rhone and into Provence. We ended in Carpentras, where we keep our vans, and I spent a day bike touring thru Aubignan and Sarrians.

good thing our bikes have built in wine racks

Another day was spent traveling by train back to Paris, eating some moules frites on the streets of Montmarte, and left feeling like I had taken in an overwhelming amount of sights, tastes and culture from so many different corners of Europe. I had also managed to get a tan and feel the sun, so returning to a chilly fall in Iceland was very welcomed, especially since it was one of the first times Iceland was really experiencing a truly autumn season.

For the Love of Golf

I make fun of golfers all the time. I say, “golf is for old, fat men” or, “golf is only for business meetings.” I thought golf was boring, pointless and drawn out. But, I was only a hater, not a golfer, so I decided to go with the mantra, you can’t knock it til you try it, and I tried it. And, I liked it. I hate to admit it, but it was fun.

driving at Oddur

I started by going to Oddur driving range in Gardabaer a couple of times, which is basically free if you have your own golf clubs, and you can buy a hundred balls for a few hundred kronurs. I inherited two of my father’s driving clubs, and decided it was time to learn how to hit a golf ball a few hundred yards. I had a few pointers, from two others who knew what they were doing, and it was so satisfying when I finally connected the club to the ball at the right angle and drove that ball far, far away.

hitting in the right place seems impossible from this far away

I didn’t quite feel the part without a one handed golf glove, so got that, and I needed a collared shirt too of course. A visor wouldn’t hurt, so I got one of those either, and in no time, I looked like a golfer. Ew. It was just too easy.

Now I was ready for my first real golf game. I did 9 holes at Icelandair Hotel Hamar, on kind of a cold, wet, day. Being exposed to wind and rain made it a lot harder to hit the ball straight, and just hit the ball in general, but everytime I did get it closer to the flag and into the hole, I was pumped for the next tee.

golf glove, yea!

I was on the way to Hotel Husafell the next morning to try out their golf course, but on the way, stumbled upon the farm Nes near Reykholt. They’ve turned their haying fields into a 9-hole golf course called Reykholtsdalsvollur. The grass was green, the sun was shining, and the farmer was about to mow the putting greens. He was a comical, old man who made jokes, told stories, and secretly laughed at our lack of golf skills.

Glanni golf course

My next real game of golf, a couple of weeks later, was at Bifrost’s Glanni golf course. There isnt anyone there to check in with, so you simply put some money in a mailbox and play as you please. There was’t anyone else on the course, so we played 9 holes in just under 3 hours, and I hit over par on all 9. I think I got a +1 once, lots at least 4 balls, but found 3, so I ended up feeling alright with the game. Overall, I feel alright with golf, and I’m going to stop making fun of the sport, although its still hard for me to call it a sport. It feels more like a stroll thru the park with a walking stick that works better hitting balls than

 

The Wilderness Expedition, by Hestasport

Every year I make time for Hestasport to do at least one riding tour in the summer. The highland trip we like to do together is called the Wilderness Expedition, for good reason – it takes place in one of the most remote highland areas of Iceland, crossing north over Hofsjokull glacier, bridging the gap between Kjolur and Sprengisandur mountain passes. Our ride started and ended in the horse capital of Iceland, beautiful Skagafjordur.

leaving Skagafjordur, under Maelifell mountain*

The impression of an Icelandic wilderness is like nowhere else on earth. There aren´t any big wildlife (unless you´re in the east of Iceland with the reindeer), and the chances you´ll see an arctic fox are slim to none, so its just you and the wilderness. There aren´t trees, so on a clear day you´ll see to the horizon and 360° around you across an immense expanse of mountains, deserts, highland plateaus and glaciers.

the desert highlands north of Hofsjokull*

It takes so long for the snow to completely fade in the highlands that the mountain passes don´t even open until late June or early July, and it already starts snowing again in August, so the tiny gap of a few weeks you can ride it is brief. We took our trip at the end of August, with incredible weather, and some of the hottest days I´ve ever experienced in the highlands. We only got a few drops of rain, not even enough to get into our heavy duty rain gear, and the horses held their shoes and no horse or rider got injured. By the first week of September, the tops of the glaciers had already been freshly snowdusted again and the northern lights started coming out, so we made it home in the nick of time.

the loo with a view; Ingolfsskali cabin and our A-frame toilet under the glacier*

From our week long ride with perfect visibility, we saw all three of Iceland´s biggest glaciers, ran into a few goose hunters, and sold some of our herd to Germany. We crossed multiple glacier rivers, thankfully all low enough to get over without swimming, although the current on Jokulsa eystri (the east glacier river in Skagafjordur) pulled a few of our herd far enough downstream to force them to doggy paddle over.

running into herds of wild horses*

After our wonderful trip, the Icelandic and German guides, Australian, Dutch and Swiss guests all parted ways. Only a couple of weeks later, I visited some of our tour horses at Bockholts-hoff Icelandic breeding farm south of Hamburg, hosted by the owner and breeder Silke Kohler. We tolted through a German forest and I couldn´t stop smiling at the cornfields and big trees – they were more exotic to me than anything we saw on the wilderness expedition!

*(C) All photos by Dorien Kaandorp

This Backroads Life

At Backroads, I´m called a leader. I much prefer chasing sheep on horseback, but that job doesn’t pay as well, and I’m deathly allergic to hay, so I’ll stick to Backroads leading.

Skaftafell National Park for a Backroads day

You can also call us glorified tour guides, where we’re capable of acting as babysitters or bus drivers just as well as we get to shine in the spotlight, but Backroad’s leaders are really one of a kind – a rare and spectacular breed of individuals that are capable of so much. There’s benefits to being an Icelandic leader in Iceland, but actually it means I get to spend extra time defending Backroads in Iceland, and doing extra work for the company since Im the local language expert and live here anyway, so I’m not really that special, on the Backroads global scale kinda measurement.

on Fjallsjokull glacier

The trips I lead are called multi-sport: we do sports, different kinds, one for every day. Its a 6 day trip, and we hike, bike, glacier walk, and sometimes, horse back ride. We go from Hofn to Reykjavik, in our Backroads vans, and are always atleast 2 leaders working together. We sleep at Iceland’s best hotels; Hotel Ranga and Ion Adventure hotel, to name a  few, and eat like kings and queens. It’s hard to stay fit, even as an active tour leader, since the food weighs me down, day after day, in addition to all the snacks we’re meant to offer guests, but really just end up eating ourselves, out of boredom, or guilt, or satisfaction, or all of the above… I don’t know.

biking around Thingvallavatn

The Iceland season is short, beginning at the start of June and ending at the start of September. I start and end the season, with a few weeks off in between, and our groups are anywhere from 9 to 26 people, almost always only Americans. They tip, so I love them, and speak English, which makes my job easy, but the few weeks I get off from Backroads to lead horseback riding treks are also a blessing. I may be surrounded by middle-aged German women, who were expecting a Chris Hemsworth kind of Thor as their guide, and barely speak english, but the horses are always worth it.

horseback riding in Hella

A couple of nights in the highlands, in mountain huts without running water or electricity, sharing bunk beds in one big room, and I’m immediately ready to go back to Backroads leading. My Fosshotel glacier room feels more like home than my own bed in Reykjavik does, and I’m not sure I remember what life was like before Backroads… *sigh*

my well-worn hiking boots at Hoffell

This Backroads life was meant to be, the dream job I never had and the perfect lifestyle to enjoy Iceland and traveling. If only my midriff agreed.

Hornstrandir

Hornstrandir has been on my bucket list ever since I moved back to Iceland, and one overnight visit to Hesteyri a few summers ago didn´t really cut it. I wanted to hike Hornstrandir, with everything I needed on my back, sleep in a tent, meet some arctic foxes, and see the green cliffs rise straight out of the sea. My friend Gudny was down too, had a week off, and the weather forecast was perfect, so we set off in the plumber car to the westfjords, where we´d take 2 days to get to Isafjordur town.

Hellulaug

From highway 1, we turned towards Budardalur and picked up an Icelandic hitchhiker, and his dog Saga. We stopped for a bathe in Hellulaug, close to the Bjarnslaekur ferry port, before ending our day of driving at Reykjafjardalaug. There, we had another dip, made more Icelandic friends, and camped for the night in the plumber car.

Dynjandi waterfall

The following morning we stopped at Dynjandi waterfall, did some grocery shopping and ran some errands in Isafjordur town, and boarded the 17:00 shuttle boat to Aðalvík. Gúðny chatted up the captain while I napped, until we arrived at Sæbol and decided to jump off there and walk to Látrar (you can be dropped off there since both stops are considered part Adalvik). We expected 7 or 9 km of hiking along the shore, plenty of time when the sun doesn´t set til 11pm, but it was more like 16km, since hightide means you have to take the up-and-over route along one of the sea cliffs, and detour into the valley around one of the rivers thats only 2m wide at the coast but much too deep to wade (or swim). We camped at midnight, met the neighbourhood fox, after running into a local summer house family, who told us where best to wade the river inland, and slept like babies in our tiny Decathlon tent.

starting in Adalvik

Day 2 brought us from Látrar to Fljótavík, over a highland pass covered in fog. The visibility was barely enough to get us from signpost to signpost, or between piles of rocks in a field of rocks, so even though it was also a 16km day, it took us all day to finally arrive in the right fjord. Once we were down from the pass, we ran into another summerhouse tenant, who told us where we should wade if we wanted to get to the Atlastadir campground, but we decided to go inland to the more private Glúmsstadir campground. The ground was damp but the view was gorgeous, and we had the place to ourselves.

helping out the ranger with signposts

Day 3 was slightly longer, more than 17km, from Fljótavík to Hlöðuvík, and the highland pass was wet foggy this time. We got damp thru our clothes and used the emergency shelter to dry our shoes and socks whiles we played games of cards and drank our rations of alcohol. We saw another fox, atleast 5 other hikers, and slept on the beach in a sanddune with two other tents pitched.

bays like this were an everyday sight

Day 4 was another 17km roughly, from Hlöðuvík to Hornvík, the main show, but the low clouds didn´t show us much of the seacliffs when we first arrived. Instead, we were greeted by a welcoming committee of baby foxes, still too young and playful to even notice us, and remained completely distracted by them and their antics.

baby Arctic foxes

We did, however, notice that the one and only ranger of the whole Hornstrandir reserve park system was not in, which was incredibly unfortunate, or unlucky rather, since we would only be spending a night there and her house was connected to the only flushing toilets we´d see all week, which were also locked. The door on the outhouse had broken, and with atleast 14 other people there, it got weird real fast. But we still had running water, and our cards, so we could cook, eat and play, and by the time we were ready for bed after a short hike around the fjord, the clouds miraculously parted and Hornvík mountain appeared before us, in all its glory.

the breathtaking colours of the moss in the highland pass

Our last full day of hiking would be the highest climb, getting over the 519m pass between Hornvík and Veiðileysufjörður. It was approximately 16km, in scorching sunshine, and though there were patches of snow at the top, there wasn´t a breeze or a cloud in the sky, and we probably got even more burnt from the snow reflection. We were to meet the shuttle boat between 5 and 7 pm at the bottom of Veiðileysufjörður, which sailed us into Hesteyri and Grunavík before returning us to civilisation in Isafjorður. There we went straight to the house “Husid” and ordered something hot and freshly cooked – I think I got fish and chips – and green and healthy (vegetarian Gudny got some amazing greens and vegetables) and a pint of beer. Such basic food and alcohol has never tasted so good, but we filled our bellies and gorged the whole while thinking, “the weather is still so nice… shouldn’t we go back to Hornstrandir and stay there a bit longer?”