- a vast, waterless, desolate, inhospitable expanse of land
- an uninhabited, desolate place

Deserts. They conjure up images of vast, desolate, waterless lands. Or meringues. Not this one though. This expanse in mid-Wales is probably the wettest desert in the world - one vast empty oasis where many great rivers are born, and “road and river…wander side by side…into a land of mystery"[1].

Travel writer, John Henry Cliffe, first coined these Elenydd uplands “The Desert of Wales” back in the late 1800s; deemed a desert because of its desolation and inaccessibility. Today, the sweeping hills, moors, forests, rivers, remote roads and trails are still much the same but for the damming of several rivers and spread of man-managed forests; still desolate but for Red Kites sweeping the skies, felling forestry workers, feisty farmers, wool and mutton.


A touring squad of six gathered around the Pannier Campfire, in a forest near Beulah, on the eve of our trip with Quoc Shoes - most of us meeting for the first time as the pizza-oven hit 500°C and the chilly January temperatures kept our Campari Cocktails chilled just above 0°C. But, we would get to know eachother well over the next two-days as we bikepacked into The Desert via old drovers' road and the Towy valley, whose infant peaty river “thunders in flood-time through scenes of unsuspected and surpassing wildness” [2] to an overnight bothy stopover and back. Our sole aim was to lose ourselves in these Welsh lands of mystery - where the hills are wild and high, and streams run loud and clear – biking, hiking, and wading to preview Quoc’s new Gran Tourer (GT) adventure-cycling shoes.

No sooner than the last pizzas were out the oven, the rain began hissing over the glowing embers and the foil-wrapped sweet potatoes for tomorrow’s lunch. Rain stopped play, but spurred us inside our basecamp cottage to hand out bikepacking bags, camping kit, supplies, and let Quoc introduce his new Gran Tourer (GT) shoes that we’d all be wearing for the first time. At first glance, they looked rugged, yet minimal in all four colourways, which include options for all-black, gum soles and an interesting proprietary Vietnamese Tiger/UK topographic hybrid camo. We let Quoc ride the pink ones. Some of us fitted SPD cleats, and others crankbrothers', as we worked out who could carry the extra 1kg bag of risotto rice and look after the all-important golden syrup cakes and welshcakes before bedding down for the night.


Our plans were deliberately kept vague and free, to add to the sense of adventure and disconnection. Whilst we packed the bikes and dangled mugs from seatpacks we gathered Ben, Athena and Quoc's thoughts, before pedalling off towards Abergwesyn, and the Irfon Valley:

"…where are we, and where are we going?" 

Ben: “Well…I know that we are somewhere north-west of Builth Wells, and I know that we have to get to a location further north-west of here; and that’s about as planned as it is I think, which is quite fun. As a bike racer, you’re so constrained all the time – this is so much looser; it’s a real breath of fresh air…” 

Athena: “I don’t really know where we are. We’re in a forest. The plan is to ride through more forest, to a bothy that I’ve seen on a map is north-west from here…”

Quoc: “We’re in south Wales – I can’t pronounce the name – we’re here to explore and wander without any real plans – we have a destination, but it’s up to us (Stefan) to get there...”

"…and what are you expecting from the next couple of days?" 

Ben: “I don’t have any expectations, other than to soak in the experience of something completely new … I’ve never even had more than a small saddlebag on my bike before – I’m a totally newbie to this and am pretty excited about spending a night in the wild...” 

Athena: “I’m expecting epic views, a bit of rain, a lot of fun, fast trails mixed with a fair few stops for hot drinks and food along the way...”

Quoc: “To live and enjoy the outdoors by bike – it’s the way of the future! Remoteness - there’s no wifi, no internet, no reception. You don’t see anybody. We’re shut off and away from it all..."


[Mat Waudby inspired]...

Sweet Potatoes (Pre-baked on embers, wrapped in foil)
Baked Beans
Kidney Beans
Cheddar Cheese 
Salt & Pepper

Minds wander in The Desert. There’s little to focus on in such silence and solitude, other than enjoying the simple pleasure of riding bikes, picking lines in the tracks, and seeking the next turn.

After riding the twisting threads of silver road through the Irfon valley, up and over The Devil’s Staircase Bypass, we turned north off the old tarmac drovers’ road, deeper into the Towy valley along the tracks that hugged the River Towy (Afon Tywi). "Be prepared to ford several lively streams”[3] the old book said, and they weren’t wrong. The cold, dark peaty waters glistened around our legs and over our shoes in the sunshine as we crossed the infant river, repeatedly. Each new bend in the valley seemed to bring another new stream sloshing from high around to feed the swelling Towy, which continued to babble and meander around our track. So, by the fifth or sixth crossing in as many kilometres, everyone was riding or wading straight through; Quoc’s Gran Tourer shoes doing a decent job of tackling the rocky river bed. This was the story of the morning until we reached the gravel fire-road network that took us, uninterrupted, across to the remains of the Strada Florida Abbey – the medieval institution whose Cistercian monks first saw value in The Desert for grazing sheep - so much so that “through their efforts and those of the weavers of Flanders, thousands of men, women and children in medieval Europe were clothed.”[4]


Arriving at an off-grid stone bothy in the dark, by bike, offers a real taste of the simple life, and back-to-basics nature of bike travel. Light is a luxury; spare, dry, warm clothes to change into are a treat; fire becomes a focus - a place to gather around for warmth and to dry shoes and clothes; and food preparation becomes a social group task to chop, cook and chew over a memorable day’s riding.

Thankfully water wasn’t a scarcity for us in The Desert, this time, but with washing-up a chore and without a kitchen full of pots, sporks and knives, it pays to be tactical: one-pot, tasty vegetarian meals are the way to go for simple group cooking in the wild. On the menu for us was a mushroom risotto – cooked across two remote gas-canister stoves, in two 1.3L pots – full of flavour from Ben’s sliced mushrooms and re-hydrated porcini mushrooms, Josh’s sliced shallots and garlic, white wine, and the stock that Athena and Quoc rustled up. We shared a good fifteen minutes of stock pouring and stirring as the aromas of a much needed hearty meal filled the dank room. Then, with sporks in hand and parsley, Parmesan cheese and chilli oil garnish sprinkled on, silence fell but for the whooshing chimney and scraping of titanium on aluminium.

Talking of the simple life, there aren’t many greater pleasures than sharing communal pots of tasty food, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Once every last drop from our small bottle of limoncello was gone, we stuck one last log on the fire before settling into our comfy down sleeping bags and falling asleep as soon as our heads hit our inflatable pillows…

Veg Stock Cubes
Olive Oil
Chestnut Mushrooms
Dried Porcini Mushrooms
White Wine
Salt & Pepper
Chilli Oil

One look out the tiny, deep steamed-over window was enough of a taster for the day's riding ahead. But, we deserved it; yesterday had luckily been “the nicest day for months” as a trail worker had told us, repeatedly. And, it was January. We washed risotto pots and filled stove-pots in the rushing river whose course ran in front of the bothy, to cook our morning oats and brew copious amounts of coffee. Quick-packer Quoc was kept busy on the Aeropresses as Bothy Barista, whilst others packed bikes outside; until we noticed an ever so slight rising of the rain and mist that shrouded the golden moorlands around the bothy – the real desolate Desert of Wales. This was our chance. Once all our rubbish was out, traces cleared, and emergency coffee left for the next bothy dwellers, we pedalled back over the boggy moonscape moorland to retrace most of our tracks through the forest back to the Abergwesyn Mountain Road - the old drovers' road - that would lead us all the way back to basecamp…


Back at the basecamp cottage, tired but clear-headed, it was time to kick-back around the woodburner with a drink and de-brief on our experience with Quoc's new shoes over the last two days. They were perfect for the type of riding we get up to. The initial great first impressions on look and feel were matched with comfort and performance on the road and tracks of mid-Wales - comfy and rugged enough to ride steep passes, ford streams, make sweet-potato lunches, and spend an evening off-the-bike in. Time will tell how they fair over a few of these bikepacking trips...

With all our shoes in pairs around the stove steaming and drying, we unpacked the bikes, re-lofted sleeping bags and aired sleeping mats, and took the chance to ask Ben, Athena and Quoc one last question:

"…so, where did we go?" 

Ben: “We’ve been right into the depths of the Desert of Wales, to an unpowered stone hut in, from what I could tell, the middle of nowhere. This morning we paid for yesterday’s good weather with a pretty grim start – the cloud was down to the ground and it was raining so we took a slightly more direct route back than planned, retracing our tracks through the forest, back to our cottage basecamp … it is cliché, but there is something intensely satisfying about heading off and being completely self-sufficient for that time…”

Athena: “Err...we cycled from our basecamp cottage, to a stone bothy, and back here again … the riding was amazing … including a handful of river crossings, which Stefan made up for with a mushroom risotto, treacle cake and custard and a fire at the bothy in the evening … The experience was what I expected, in that it ended up being completely different to what I expected, if that makes sense? With these things, you always have a rough idea of what a trip might be like, but it always ends up being something completely out there; which it was, especially because we didn’t know exactly what we were doing…”

Quoc: “We’re still in mid-Wales. I still can’t pronounce the name … we’ve been riding some of the most amazing roads in the UK - remoteness, hill climbs, gravel, river crossings … bog – it was an experience, and it opened my eyes to so much more … if you want escape, then this is one of the best places – it clears the mind. Fresh air, views. You don’t need to go far – the UK has the most stunning landscapes that other places can’t compete with, and it’s fairly accessible…”



"After several months of testing, Quoc are finally ready to release the Gran Tourer: a bike shoe for the backcountry, available first via Kickstarter on March 1 2018. Whether heading out for a spontaneous solo outing or bikepacking with friends, Quoc's new shoes have been designed to hack trails, tracking and tinder foraging in the space of a single day; equally at home fireside as blazing down fire trails. The Gran Tourer is an adventure cycling shoe, built with a specially formulated rubber outsole that perfectly balances longterm durability with off-bike underfoot grip, and a carbon composite midsole that partners pedal stiffness with off-bike comfort when fallen trees have you hiking for a spell..."

Note. Wading through rivers, as above, obviously won’t keep your feet dry…

RRP £219.00

For more, head over to the Quoc website


SPD Compatible Cleat

Waterproof to the top of the black seam border

100% waterproof up to the black seam border and all upper external materials are fused together

Gusseted tongue 

prevents water entering the shoe. The interior fabric of the tongue is an absorbent microfibre material

Carbon composite midsole

engineered to blend the stiffness needed for responsive cycling and the comfort needed for hiking and all-day wear

Custom-specced rubber outsole w/ tread

the Gran Tourer’s sole is designed to make hiking and walking trails more comfortable and easier to navigate

Double-Lock lace system

Create a custom fit by tightening different sections of the shoe to your liking

Reflective rear detail aids low light visibility


Lightweight & supportive

380 g / shoe (size 43) 


KIT-GRID: BOTHY OVERNIGHTER with all Pannier Tours, we are not about getting from A>B as quick as possible, and therefore don't need the minimal kit lists to match. On this Desert of Wales Overnighter, you saw we cooked up a super nice one-pot risotto for six, all together over a few drinks, which required the larger stove and pan set as well as a fair amount of space for all the ingredients. Also featured is Stefan's luggage setup, sleeping kit (minus warm socks, spare base layer & warm leggings), bike/repair kit, navigation & misc kit, and ... coffee three-ways kit.

You can see everything loaded on the bike in the photo below the grid...

Front Panniers, Handlebar Roll & Pouch, Top-Tube Bag, Frame-Bag, Seatpack, Dry Bag Set, Bungee Cord
Water Bottle (s), Water Filter, Mug, Spork, Field Knife, Food Storage Containers, Remote Canister Stove, Boiler Stove, Pot Set (including Skillet), Stovetop Percolator, Aeropress, Emergency 3-in-1 Sachet, Fresh Ground Coffee, Mesh Tea Ball, Loose Tea, Hipflask, Riding Snacks
Down Quilt, Sleeping Mat, Inflatable Pillow, Warm Socks, Warm Leggings
Riding Clothes (Kitsbow), Lights, Helmet, Pump, Multi-tool, Tyre Levers, Spare Inner Tube (or Sealant), Tape, Zip Ties
Map, Map Case, Headtorch, Lighter, Firelighter, Rubbish Bag, Tissues, Spare Batteries & USB Battery Pack, Compass, Penknife 

Quoc Pham (Quoc Shoes)
Ben Spurrier (Condor Cycles)
Athena Mellor (Blogger & Outsider)
Stefan Amato (Pannier)

Chris McClean
Josh Brooks

Stefan Amato

Up The Claerwen - Sid Wright (1948)
Highways and Byways in South Wales - Arthur Granville Bradley (1903)
OS Landranger 147 - 1:50,000

[1] Highways and Byways in South Wales
[2] Highways and Byways in South Wales
[3] Highways and Byways in South Wales
[4] Up the Claerwen
[5] Highways and Byways in South Wales
[6] Up the Claerwen

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