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

Riding in Alto Ongamira Valley

One of the most common bucket-list trips for horse riders to want to take is Argentina. Whether its Patagonia or Mendoza, its not hard to sell your rider friends to make the trip to South America, as long as its for the love of horses.

cowboys and cowgirls

I had 4 such friends, and we went from gushing about all the places and ideas we had for an Argentina trip 2 or 3 years ago, to finally making it a reality and all meeting in Buenos Aires.

riders all aboard!

From there, we flew to Cordoba, and drove another 120kms to Alto Ongamira Valley, where our gauchos and caballos were waiting. We stayed in an estancia built over 100 years ago, by Eastern European immigrants, where rooms were still heated by wooden fire places and the buffet breakfasts and coffee hour every afternoon would have been enough food for the whole day, but 3 course meals, with Argentinian wine, at lunch and dinner were also swindled into every corner of our full tummies.

asado picnic

Somedays we had barbecues outside, roasted over open fires, and the food quality was impeccable. Red meats and red wines flowed equally generously, and one day we had a sommelier come in to teach us about wines from the region, with more than half a dozen wines to sample – sparkling, white and red, and 2 bottles of each. We were meant to take home a third bottle, but none of us had space in our suitcases after buying so many gaucho hats and gaucho shoes. Instead, we left it for the cook and hospitality staff, who never ceased to be amazed at how much 5 adults could drink.

sunset dips were the best

There was a pool to swim in at the Estancia, but the weather was quite cool, perfect riding temperature which had a freshness to the mountain plains I would never have traded out for more heat. We went down to Ascochinga one day for a polo lesson, and we had plenty of sunshine there, sweating under our colourful polo hats as we tried our best to swing those heavy polo sticks to actually hit a polo ball from the back of a cantering horse.

polo coaching at Pompeya

We spent most of our days on horseback, with a gaucho or two, and atleast 5 dogs. One dog was slightly smaller than the rest, and he would barely see over the tall grass or worn trails at time, but always insisted on coming with us, climbing even to the highest point at Condor Mountain.

Monty, the little-big dog

I felt pity for him, especially when he’d get a burr in his paw or pant up hills trying to keep up with galloping horses, so I made the excuse my legs were cold and held him on my lap for parts of the ride.

riding to the mountain

The riding was never the same, the scenery or the weather, but the horses were consistent – always excellent. Everytime I rode a new horse, I swore he or she was the fastest, and they always were. We raced moth days, and my horse always won, but maybe it was the foxtail on my cowboy hat that made us run faster – noone wants to lose their role as the fox.

this one was, really, the fastest

The 26 days of Christmas

Christmas in Iceland is special for a lot of reasons, like the food, weird yule lads, short days and northern lights nights, but nothing beats Christmas in Iceland because we have 26 days of it.

Christmas starts 13 days before Christmas eve, when the first yule lad comes down from the mountains. After all 13 have come down, one by one per day, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve evening, usually around 6pm. We have smoked and boiled lamb with green beans and red cabbage, and open all our gifts that night, and Christmas day is spent at home with friends and family doing very little except eating the leftovers and cooking and baking more Christmas food.

Christmas Eve was spent eating smoked lamb with these two handsome men

The smelliest night of Christmas is arguably December 23rd, what we call Thorlaksmessa, when people boil pots of fermented stingray for hours without ever adding water, so the ever-increasing, pungent smell of ammonia quickly absorbs into your hair and clothes (and takes a couple of washes to get out).

The loudest day of Christmas is New Years Eve, which Icelanders more appropriately call Old Years night. Iceland is the only country in the world where you can actually hear the New Year arrive, since the intensity of fireworks climaxes at midnight like an out-of-tune percussion symphony. It’s also a pretty smelly night if there’s no wind, since all that smoke from a million kronur of explosives creates a fair bit of pollution.

The last of the fireworks

The hottest day of Christmas are the “brenna” or bonfires. On New Year’s Eve and the last day of Christmas, various neighborhoods around Reykjavík collect huge piles of inflammable junk – furniture, pallets, Christmas trees and even mattresses – and create fires as big as houses. It’s a way to clean out your closets, literally and figuratively, and burn away all the baggage from last year to start clean.

The last day of Christmas is the “Thirteenth” (þrettándinn), January 6 when the last of the 13 yule lads has returned back to the mountains. As I write this, Reykjavik has started to light up again, as everyone finishes the last of their fireworks. It’s only legal to fire fireworks during Christmas, so after midnight tonight you could technically be fined. The city will be even darker tomorrow since Christmas lights and decorations will also get put away. The sidewalks of Reykjavík have already started filling up with Christmas trees that won’t be needed to be cut down again til next year. The radio will stop playing Christmas music, and the harsh reality that the last day of Christmas does not mean the last day of winter will start to sink in. A couple of days ago, the street lights never shut off automatically because the cloudy skies and lack of snow meant the daylight never became bright enough to convince the sensors that it was day time.

the first Saturday ride of the year for these horses and horsepeople

For most, this is a time to buckle down the budget, face impossible new years resolutions, and start the year fresh and optimistic. We do have the assurance that days are getting longer, already for 2 weeks now, and we finally start to notice the difference. For the horse people in Reykjavik, its time to bring the riding horses into the stables and start training. For me, its a time to hole up and write a book, and book the cheapest one way ticket out of here until summer.

Shepherd’s Way Trekking in Kyrgyzstan

The far east has a lot of appeal – it’s the orient, the exotic, far away lands, the famous Silk Road, weird but delicious food, colourful décor, nomads, and also horses. I went to Mongolia last year for a horse trip, and found out the same was possible in Kyrgyzstan, but in totally different landscape. I had known the Gobi desert, and now I was going to the Alps of central Asia.

riding in Kyrgyzstan

I’ve always wanted to go to Kazakhstan, and the visa was just as difficult to get as Russia’s visa, except I knew no one in Kazakhstan to invite me. But, since Expo 2017 got scheduled in Astana, Kazakhstan changed the visa requirements and I was able to get one on arrival. Flying into Almaty, only a few hours drive from Bishkek, is a more common, cheaper route from Istanbul or Moscow, the two main hubs connecting Central Asia/former Soviet countries to Europe. I flew with Pegasus airlines, for very cheap, considering the distance, and carried on my luggage. I splurged another 15 euros upgrade to spend my layover time in the lounge at Istanbul airport, and drank enough Starbucks coffees, Effees and feta cheese  to well make up for it.

swimming in Issyk Kul

I was riding with a friend from France, Alicia who came on a tour with me in Iceland. We would only be two guests, but with 3 guides, and spend 10 days in and around Barskoon village on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul. We climbed up to 3900 meters, where the landscape looked just like the highlands of Iceland, except where we have frost at night and snow topped mountains all year round is between 600-900 meters.

camp at 3900m

We only had one horse each, and split all our camping gear, luggage and food in big saddle bags that each of us carried. We cooked on some old Soviet-time portable stove that ran on gasoline, and always had a hot breakfast and freshly cooked dinner. Our lunches were half-way stops, picnics full of biscuits, jams, wood-oven cooked bread, nuts and dried fruits. Although we had enough to eat, you always felt hungry – it was a combination of all the fresh air, hot days, cold nights, and perhaps the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes.

picnic time

We rode through valleys, pine forests, and even up to a glacier, and my favourite day was the Jukku Pass, a track even I became a little afraid of heights. We saw two rock slides, not so far from us, and both ended only a few metres from the road. Our guide figured we’d hear one coming before it was too late so we just carried on along the same treacherous road.

camping and trekking the shepherd’s way

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind horse trip to add to your bucket list, definitely look up Shepherds Way Trekking, and they’ll custom tailor a trip for only 2 people. If you’re not a big horse person, they also have hiking treks, and you’ll still feel like a shepherd after all the other free-roaming shepherds, goats, sheep, cows and horses you’ll meet along the way.

Horse Culture in Kyrgyzstan

I’ve learned a lot about horses after trekking in Kyrgyzstan. In this country, covered 94% by mountains, a semi-nomadic people still maintain a co-dependent relationship with their horses. They use them to travel, they use them for sport and games, they work them as shepherds, they drink their milk, and also eat their meat.

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a herd of mares and foals drınkıng

Around central Asia, they play a type of team sport on horseback called Buzkashi that slightly resembles polo, except the ball is a goat, who starts out alive and usually ends up less living by the end. There’s also a game where a boy and girl on horseback compete, where the boys goal is to kiss the girl, and meanwhile the gırl can run away and beat him with a whip. The girl wins if he doesn’t manage to kiss her, although I wonder why the girls even bother to play – of not to get a kiss, then just to hit the poor boys.

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our brave mounts for the trek

The Kyrgyz horse resembles the Mongolian breed, a small but tough, colorful assortment of hard working horses. During Soviet rule, the Russians tried to prove the Russian horse was better, proving it to be stronger and faster in races, and then interbreeding them with the Kyrgyz horse. Today you have few purebreds and a lot of mixed blood, and both are incredibly adapted to the terrain – they define ‘mountain horse’ to a whole new level.

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climbimg up and down these passes was no problem for the horses, even wıth us and all the luggage on theır backs

Horses are often named after their colour or owner – a fun tradition also common in Iceland. Female horses used to be ridden only by females, but today mostly only geldings and stallions are ridden. The mares are used for milk, or ‘kumis’, and to produce hillsides full of fluffy foals each spring.

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riding through canyons and gorges in 35 degree heat

A horses age is not counted the first three years. First they are ‘tayi’, in the second year they are ‘kunan’, and their third year is called ‘Byshty’, which means ‘ready’. Then a 1 or 2 year old, which is actually 4 or 5 years old, is trained and used as a riding horse. Most boys are given a horse at birth, a new born foal they get to grow up with. This forms a lifelong partnership between a man and his horse, something too beautiful to describe but you know it when you see it.

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thıs 8 year old shepherd still can’t reach the stirrups, but his German Shepherd and his stalliıon don’t care how little their boss is

The stallions are ridden with other stallions and geldings without much fuss, and free roaming mare and foal herds are naturally protected by one stallion. I wonder what happens when herds meet… But I didn’t see any fighting or injured stallions.

Stopover Berlin

Traveling from Reykjavik to Bishkek isn’t so common, but you can get there in a pretty straight line as long as you have enough time for stopovers. I spent less than 24 hours in Berling but managed to visit two Icelandic horse fanatics (both Germans who I met on tour in Iceland) and their extensions (boyfriend, father, child, mother, horse). I got to ride a pony and a big horse, and I have to admit I missed the tolt a little.

Riding with Jana

I drank some German beer and ate a bratwurst, as well as some amazing Indian food, and the highlight of my trip was an interview at Fritz Radio in Potsdam. Here’s a link to it (it’s in German and English), you’ll find my name under interviews.

https://www.fritz.de/sehen-und-hoeren/audios/fritzaktuell/fritzaktuell-feed.html

Next stopover is Istanbul, but only a few hours in the airport, and then a weekend in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Riding in Lesotho

Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked kingdom, surrounded by South Africa on all sides. There aren’t many road borders in or out, but you could easily walk into the country by accident. There are some beautiful mountains and National parks on the north side where South Africans can see Lesotho just across the valley, including the Drakensberg and Golden Gate National park, places I visited to flirt with the idea of Lesotho before arriving.

on the road in Lesotho

I found couchsurfers to stay with, a household of Filipino sisters and brothers and cousins. They’re all working in various businesses, from textiles to furniture and a car garage. We ate breakfast and dinner together every day, with a few other guests, and at one point I was in Lesotho singing Karaoke with 9 Filipinos drinking South African wine and couldn’t imagine expecting a more random experience to write home about.

bumpy road ahead

I borrowed a friend’s car from Johannesburg and drove to Lesotho. The roads on the South African side were excellent – and also filled with tolls and speed cameras. Once entering Lesotho, I didn’t see a single traffic police officer or camera, and only one traffic light, and the roads were full of potholes, where they were paved, and one big pot hole where they weren’t. I was driving a Ford Fiesta, not the greatest off-road car, and it took hours just to drive 80km, but I managed to get deep into the countryside and find some horses to ride.

riding off into the Lesotho countryside

Lesotho has an alive and kicking horse culture – people still travel by horse, shepherd on horse back, and use horses to work their fields and transport goods. I found a camp called Malealea where tourists can go on multi-day treks, up to 28 days, and basically see the whole of Lesotho from the back of a horse. I rode for only one day, barefoot because I didnt have proper shoes and it was too hot, and left my guide in the dust everytime I asked him if we could go for a gallop. We visited a waterfall, a cave, and some ancient rock art paintings, and by the end of the day I realized I should have stayed a week for this. But oh well, there’s always a next time. And next time I’ll bring riding shoes.