- - Adventure Cycling: "Horace and the Rough Stuff Fellowship"

Adventure Cycling: "Horace and the Rough Stuff Fellowship"

Horace and the rough stuff fellowship follows the footprint of three man, who go on one and the same adventure, over the period of 80 years.

1933 | Horace Dall

The engineer and astronomer from England loved solitude. When Europe had it’s roughest times, just in between two world wars, he set out to make the first wheeled crossing of Europe’s greatest desert Sprengisandur, a landscape so rough, raw and remote that it was used by NASA to train their astronauts for the moon landing only a couple of years later.

A piece of paper, not much bigger than his hand, showed the entire island of Iceland and was his only map. Dressed in a suit, with supplies, which would hardly have been sufficient for half of his planned trip, he crossed the river Þjórsá – and stood alone in the desert.

1958 | Dick Phillips

Four men set out from England to cross the vast deserts of Iceland on their bicycles. The rough stuff fellowship was a club destined to get off the beaten track and ride where no bicycle ever went before.

Travel log 

We probably would have drowned, had we not belted ourselves down. The river crossing was a lot deeper with stronger currents, then we were expecting.  It did take us a whole day to make it across! At one time our rubber dingy almost escaped us with all our supplies on board!”

In front of me I have Dick Philipps, a man of 81, with a disheveled beard of white, and a sparkle in his eye as he relives his great adventure. “We wanted to be the first to cross the highlands of Iceland. From the south to the northern edge, right through probably one of the most surreal landscapes on our planet.”

The idea to this adventure grew now close to 60 years ago, back when he was in his early twenties, and ready to take on the world.  His biggest passion was riding his bicycle, where others did not, off-road. This passion was shared with good friends, who together founded a Bicycle club: The Rough-Stuff-Fellowship.

Rough-Stuff, riding over and through uncharted territory, through woods, fields and meadows of the British homeland. However their passion would not be stilled by what they found locally, they needed to go further and further to still their appetite, leading to the planning of their dream trip to Iceland. Dick looked at every detail, searched for sponsors and companions who where willing to endure the travel and share his appetite for adventure. He finally got on the boat with three young fellows to accompany him, to seek out their own boundaries.

On Fixies, that are only used by some hipsters to roam the urban jungle of Berlin or New York nowadays, the four defeated a wilderness of a different kind: on the second attempt they crossed the deserted highlands of Sprengisandur, rode and pushed for ten days through endless black sand. A landscapes, so bare and inhospitable that NASA would train their astronauts there for the moon landing a few years later. They fought, suffered – and eventually won. Back in England, all bike newspapers would soon report of their bravery, followed by a lecture in Manchester. Up until a letter arrived: "Dear Mr. Philip. My name is Horace Dall, and i have crossed Sprengisandur by bicycle in 1933. "

Horace Dall was a special guy. The engineer and astronomer from England loved solitude. When Europe had it’s roughest times, just in between two world wars, he set out to make the first wheeled crossing of Europe’s greatest desert, all single-handedly. Unlike Dick Philip he did not plan every detail. His most incredible adventure just happened almost casually. 

A piece of paper not much bigger than his hand, showed the entire island of Iceland and was his only map. With inventories, which would hardly have been sufficient for half of its planned trips, he embarked over the river Þjórsá – and stood alone in the desert. The lose sand made it almost impossible for him to ride and he would spend only a fraction of his adventure actually sitting on his bicycle. Spengisandur had never been crossed by any wheeled vehicle before and apart from a few meters that meant pushing his Raleigh bike through the deep black sand. This ordeal could have put any normal human to the end of their forces, but Horace. He looked like he was on his way to a job interview in Reykjavik. He emerged from the desert dressed in a suit, almost like he would go for a job interview anytime soon. Even his shoes were nice and shiny.


Exactly 80 years after Horace Dall’s first crossing I’m on my way through the Highlands – in my trailer a secret stash of chocolate and coffee, probably weighting more than Horaces total luggage. Again and again am i being overtaken by massive 4x4s with man-sized tires on an eight -meter wide gravel road . Fortunately, the wind blows the dust away pretty quickly, unfortunately the wind is coming from the front. Always. I’m cold and I feel soft. I’m considering renting a car, maybe this is just not meant for me. 


Iceland has changed. Within the last five years the number of tourists have doubled every year and you can feel it everywhere . Once romantic, beautiful waterfalls have turned into huge structures of metal with stairs for the masses, who are brought along by huge buses. It’s either getting up super early or queue in a hikers jam. In the hot springs at Landmannalaugars campsite you bathe body to body, while there’s strangely human -smelling algae floating by. 

And yet , nowhere else have I seen such a vast, tremendous nature. This very young piece of the world errupts and grows even now, out of the Earth’s core, and builds fantastic masterpieces on the surface. No Expressionist could ever create paintings that contain so many weird complementarily contrasts and be yet so smooth in color gradations. Incredibly large glaciers flow down from the peaks into the sea where small icebergs are cracked out only to be thrown back as blue shiny diamonds onto the black beach.


Everywhere you go the earth is fuming and bubbling. And even where no proper plants grow  the earth is very much alive. The soil itself lives, and it behaves like a wild animal once in a while. Under the fluffy moss lies a beast, you can feel it’s body heat and pulse, hearing angry hisses now and then. Falling of your bike is not an option or you might end a in a wide open mouth full of boiling sulfur water. 


"Mountain Biking in Iceland is different" says our guide Magne with his cheeky Viking humor. What he means is that you basically have to schlep your bike up all the way. And  he’s right, the first tour is already quite different. The surface of the small massif west of Reykjavik looks like rock with pimples . Basically, the sandstone is incredibly grippy, but if you brake on one of these rock pimples, you slip away immediately. I ride a ridge trail accordingly, almost humble. To be honest with you it’s not really a trail, but some kind of petrified dragon’s back . Slowly I warm with the round rock structures and the free line choice, until the wind almost blows me from the mountain and the weather is turning really bad.

The next tour is much better. Along endless pipelines leads a gravel road , which branches off to a narrow path. Arriving at the summit, I discover the huge factory on the horizon, from which hot water is pumped out into the pipelines and to all adjacent places. Quite naturally the Icelanders can heat their homes by geothermal energy to generate electricity instead of using coal and nuclear energy. The descent is a fun earthy trail with small bumps, jumps and fast rhythm changes. All around me are steaming streams and ponds and it permanently smells of fart. Definitely something i’ll have to get used to. Instead of packing up when it starts raining i hop in the next fume covered light blue thermal lake and almost feel icelandic. Only when i get out i see the signs with skull and warnings of scalding hazard, well at least no tourist or algae came close to me this time. Except for a slight red color of my skin all went well, and I feel very clean when I go to sleep in my tent.

As usual I wake up early. It’s only four clock in the morning, but already bright as day. The midnight sun which extends the to 24 hour is something i will never get used to. Some duct tape and cloth are the only two things which help me keep the illusion of night once in a while…

For a change, the sky isn’t cloudy today, the constant wind a mere breeze. On the hiking map I saw what looked like a wonderful trail to a nearby peaks that I want to try today. After three hours of climbing with the bike on my back there’s still nothing that looks anything similar to a trail. I turn around . Even the pleasure of a downhill ride is denied to me by hundreds of sheep, which transformed the mountain side into a mine field and so I carry my bike frustrated all the way back to the tent . So far, only the proposals of Magne led to a meaningful tour. I ‘m annoyed and decide to ride one of his suggested trails. Magne works as a graphic artist in winter and shows Icelands wilderness to adventurous bikers in summer. At the second meeting , his complexion has changed from some white, grayish into a healthy tan. He obviously didn’t get too much sunlight during the long Icelandic winter, but now he’s more than happy to ride and tells me about his favourite trails.

Glymur is Icelands highest waterfall. He is relatively hidden and not directly approachable by car. The water falls into a deep gorge, a bottomless hole whose depth one can only imagine. The steep and abysmal path that leads along the waterfall, is exactly to my taste. Full of joy, I even ride the narrow trail twice, since all the other trail aren’t for real but only exist on the map.

From now on I ask Magne more often for advice, and ride one great trail after the other. It turns out, that the first part of the famous Laugavergur trek is true highlight. After leaving the crowded Skogafoss behind, you will follow some equally impressive and endless trail uphill to the complete black – white glaciers. Everything is covered in ash from the last outbreak of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that stopped the whole modern from working in 2010 and grounded planes for weeks in the northern hemisphere. The trail passes through a fresh lava field in which there is still plenty of heat, so I can grill a fish in a steaming crack.

Refreshed I start into a stunning descent: switchbacks alternate with fast sections and over and over again I have to stop to appreciate the landscape, which is much more rugged on the north side of the volcano as on the south side. Dragon Land. One would hardly be surprised if a troll would jump out of a cave. I’m not so sure about the strange creature I meet on the way, he’s six-foot tall, a late pubertal Englishman with a huge backpack, but the coordination of a toddler who obviously underestimated the route. I help him through the wire section , in which he despairs before I ride it. The trail ends in Thorsmörk, which means something like "Thor’s Forest". This dramatic describtion is a little confusing for me as central European, but the Icelanders are very proud of their few sparse birch bushes, after Vikings have cut down the entire island centuries ago and since then the island has been increasingly sparse. The largest trail density is to be found in Landmannalaugar, the well-known area in the highlands of Iceland, which looks like it’s painted in oil colors. On every hill, there are witty paths with technical sections, mixed with some extremely loose ash on which you’re able to carve like you’re on skis in powder. I could be staying forever just to test out the many small trail loops and to enjoy the aesthetics of the landscape, but i gotta be going, there’s just too much to see on this small island.

Meanwhile, I gave up the idea to completely transport my entire luggage on the bike trailer. I respectfully nod down from the stiring wheel of the Land Rover, the Magne has lent me, to great the many heavily-laden cyclists who fight the wind and weather on the ringstreet. 

I still have not found what I’m looking for: a tour or a summit, where no wheels have gone before, a first descent, a real adventure . Instead, I find more and more trails that are non existent. I try to carry my bike onto the trail free, but beautiful mountain Kirkufell and leave it half way to make the summit hiking, there’s no way to ride. The basalt peak of Vaðalfjöll is indeed spectacular, very demanding and just so rideable, but it’s barely 150 meters high. On Hornstrandir there are fantastic landscapes and many great (hiking) trails . However, the only access to this remote piece of the Westfjords is a boat trip and the captain doesn’t want to take my bike. The three-day hike in the fog is nice, I see Arctic foxes and a real iceberg, but i’m missing my bike. For half a day I drag my bike through the snow onto the glaciated peak of the Snæfellsjökul. Jules Verne’s fictional journey to the center of the earth begins in the crater of this spectacular summit, which extends far out to sea on a peninsula. At almost 1,500 meters I am over the endless blue of the ocean and just begin to rejoice when i hear a loud roar and two snowcats wheel up the mountain and set out 40 tourists. I feel cheated and descent the whole mountain in ten minutes and without a single turn in the tracks of the snowcat.

After nearly a month on Iceland I look back, on the journey lying behind me, and i have to think of Horace Dall . I wish I were a wild adventurer just like him. While I enjoy the comfort of my rental car, dressed up in functional clothing and a sophisticated blow up tent driving from one Icelandic highlight to the next, he’s just broke up into the wilderness. Just like that. Times were easier for pioneers as well there were still so many beautiful blank spots on the map. At the same moment , I realize how arrogant this thought must sound. I wouldn’t probably have dared his adventures neither would i have survived it . I decide to visit Dick Philip.


In the summer month he lives in a tiny hostel directly across from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier massif, a very special and lonely place where you can hear nothing but the water that rushes through a huge river delta from the highlands. When i step into the house i can feel the love, that Dick put into this piece of land. I haven’t seen a so perfectly maintained grass roof during my whole month in Iceland, and the beautiful garden blooms with flowers and even some little wine vines. I meet Dick in the living room, the walls covered entirely with books on Iceland. You couldn’t tell his age of 81 years since he’s eye sparkle like he would head out to the next adventure any minute. We note that we are not related to each other in spite of similar surnames, talk about bikes back in the day and now and of his great adventure. I want to know how he felt when they learned that they were not the first ones to have crossed Sprngisandur. His answer surprises me. "Yes we thought we were the first ones, but didn’t think that was a big achievement and if we were’t…" Full of fascination he shows me all the articles and information that he has collected on Horace Dall. I watch him and suddenly understand that, being the first one, was meaningless for his own adventure. It was rather the journey than the destination that makes for an awesome adventure. He has experienced something great with his friends and found his irrevocable love with Iceland. With a twinkle he adds, that at least they were the first ones to have crossed the river Þjórsá on their own.


On my way to the airport I make a quick final trip to the pimply fossilized dragon’s back. I only realize now, how good of a tour this bloody little mountain right next to Reykjavik is. Will I ever biking again in such an amazing landscape? Accustomed to the underground it’s a ride of pure joy. I’m looking for my own lines, ride every small wall ride in the rock shed, avoid the soft slippery pimples and can’t get the grin off my face no more. What a blessing to be able to spend a month on this contrasting island.

Have I done anything out of the ordinary … It doesn’t matter.




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