July 29, 2022 13 min read
Northern Irish Adventurer Leon McCarron has trekked across the world’s most incredible destinations, cycled from New York to Hong Kong, ridden a horse across Argentina, and that’s just scratching the surface. I was lucky enough to chat to him and he talked us through his adventures, as well as telling us all about his books and top tips for novice adventurers.
Thank you so much for joining us, Leon. Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I'm originally from Northern Ireland, and I am a writer primarily, but I also tell stories in whichever way I can. So sometimes film, TV radio, giving talks. And the stories that I tell always come from adventures from long journeys, mostly human-powered, walking, cycling, kayaking, and my philosophy, I guess, is that the slower you travel, the more connected you are to the places you pass through. The more you learn about it, the more likely you are to be able to say something of interest about it and share my story worth hearing.
You've now become a well-known adventurer and set some amazing records. When did you first find your love of the outdoors?
Right here, well, actually in the north of Ireland. I don't live here anymore. But I grew up here and grew up in the countryside, surrounded by, you know, what we have here, close to the ocean, close to the hills, and with animals around. And so I always was an outdoors person. And then I kind of combined that with an interest in seeing the world after I left university. I set off on a bicycle from New York City to cycle across the US and then onwards, and just to see how far I could get. And so those were the two elements, you know, kind of love and appreciation of the outdoors and a curiosity about the world and where I fitted into.
That leads me perfectly to my next question. You cycled all the way from New York to Hong Kong, which is an incredible feat. What inspired you to undertake this mammoth challenge?
I wanted to see the world. Northern Ireland is very beautiful, but it is quite small. And so when I went to university in England, suddenly I met all these people from all over the world. And, you know, I just wanted to get a sense of what else there was and how me, in the little corner I grew up in, fitted into all of that. I wasn't too attracted by the idea of normal gap years or travelling as a backpacker, I wanted to do something that I had a little bit more control over and was a little bit slower. So cycling seemed like a very obvious idea. I decided to start from New York City, just because it felt like somewhere far away and different, but it was also a country that shared the same language. So yeah, there wasn't a great deal of knowledge at that point. It was mostly just I was young enough to be excited about everything. As soon as I started travelling by bike, I realised that was a really good decision because it means you can be very self-sufficient. It's a very inexpensive way to travel. You can go quite long distances if you want to, but you don't have to. And it's not that complicated. You know, you just learn a very small amount of bike mechanics and you can pretty much keep yourself going for 10 miles, 50 miles or all around the world. So that was kind of what encouraged me to do it that way.
This obviously sounds like such a tough physical and mental challenge. How did you prepare physically and mentally for something like this?
Well, at the time I was inexperienced enough not to know how tough it would be. So I didn't really, I was so anxious about all the other things, you know, leaving home, leaving friends and family and being on my own, and what would happen if a bear came close to my tent and that kind of thing. I underestimated the rest of the physical and mental strain of a long journey but the physical side was actually very simple, in many ways. It was very hard to begin with and then after about two weeks, it was very easy, because I was just riding a bicycle every day so I got strong.
In terms of the mental side, on that journey, I was just taking things at my own pace so the biggest thing was just to learn to get over my own fears and insecurities. And, you know, to start to trust a little bit more in the world. When I first began, I was really nervous about people that I met or putting up my tent in the wild on my own. I didn't really trust anyone or anything. And after a while, like, after a couple of weeks, and throughout my ongoing journey, I've learned that most people are good and want to help you out, very few people want to do harm. Most wild animals don't really want to do harm, either, unless you do something silly and get in their way. You just have to have a good relationship with both the landscape around you and the people around you and then travelling becomes quite simple after that.
Your most recent book is called ‘The Land Beyond: 1000 miles on foot through the Middle East’. Can you tell us a little bit more about this book?
Of course! So after doing some cycling journeys, I ended up doing a lot more walking because I wanted to write more. It felt like walking was an even slower pace and allowed me more time to talk to people. I ended up in the Middle East in 2012 on a journey and kept returning there. I had this idea to walk this 1000-mile loop of the Holy Lands area, and this kind of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Jericho area that many of us know or at least know the names of from religious education when we grew up. The whole journey took about five or six months. I was fascinated by the kind of cultural heritage of this place, and the deep history of it, but also just what it looked like, in this day and age. I wanted to just walk, go slowly and see who I met and see what happened along the way.
What sort of terrain and wildlife did you encounter?
The terrain was interesting, there's been a series of modern-day hiking trails built on top of these old paths, you know, the old pilgrimage paths, shepherd's paths, so on. So I was able to walk on those in their kind of very new form, and meet with local guides, people who are at the forefront of the tourism industry and adventure tourism industry in these places. And then other times, I’d be on my own and in big mountains or desert, carrying a couple of days worth of water at a time so I had a real mix. In terms of an adventure, it was everything I was after. And in terms of a story to tell it was even more than that. It was a wonderful thing to have had a chance to write about.
You're bringing out another book covering a recent expedition along the Tigris River. Could you again, tell our readers a little bit more about this book and what they can maybe expect from it?
Yeah, sure. Iraq is not typically a place a lot of people think of, certainly in terms of fond thoughts and maybe a place they'd like to visit. It's more of a place that people associate with war and conflict these days. However the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that fed the earliest civilizations on Earth, they call this area called the cradle of civilization because these two rivers irrigated the huge floodplain that formed a very fertile area of land and the very first hunter-gatherers from the mountains came down and started to collect together and farm and create cities, the first ever cities. And so, you know, a lot of what we know today comes from those city-states that grew out of the floodplain, and Tigris and Euphrates. That's also where we got the first ever writing and the invention of the wheel and the modern legal systems and schools, and all of these things that are such a central part of our life came 5000 years ago from this part of the world. So it seems very distant and alien to us now but my learning on it is that we're deeply connected to that part of the world. So the journey I made was very simple, in some ways, it was with a small team, and we travelled along the full length of the Tigris River, from source to sea, to kind of look back at that very ancient history, but also to look at what the river is, like, in a modern-day passing through a country like Iraq. What we learned is that a lot of the issues that we are thinking about globally, particularly climate change, this is kind of the front line for that. So everything that we're seeing happening in the UK right now, with the hottest day on record, etc, is happening, fivefold tenfold in Iraq and along the Tigres. So it’s kind of a glimpse into the future for a country like the UK. I wanted to look very far back and I wanted to look very far forward and try at the very least to make a case for the fact that Iraq in this cradle of civilization is somewhere that we should reimagine and not just think about as a place where there are a lot of wars.
What inspired you to move to Iraq? I read that you're working on a current trail project, aimed at setting up hiking trails in the Kurdistan area of Iraq making the area more open to tourism which I thought was really interesting.
In part, I was interested in the area, I was interested in hiking trails, and how they could encourage tourism in places that didn't get a lot of tourism. And then, when I first went to this area in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Region, it was incredibly beautiful. It struck me that some of the projects I had seen in Jordan and Sinai and elsewhere in the Middle East could also happen here. So I started mapping out all the old trails, all the old shepherd’s paths, trading routes and pilgrimage ways and things like that. Then we turned it into a currently 150 mile long, multi-day hiking trail, with the idea being that in the future, it will be a tourist destination for people to come, if we can prove, as we believe, that it's safe and wonderful because of this unique experience. I moved there in 2019 to continue working on that and then my life moved there. The pandemic meant that it wasn’t exciting to stay in the UK anymore, so we decided to move to Iraq. It's awesome.
In all of your travels so far, what has been your favourite country that you've adventure to? And why?
When I went cycling, I loved Cambodia, because it was so different from anywhere else I've been in the world. It was very calm and just seemed to be the most beautiful and tranquil of all the Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited. I also love New Zealand because it felt like Ireland but on steroids. These days, I’ve spent so much time in Iraq particularly in the Kurdistan Region in the north, and it’s just so beautiful. It feels like such a secret still because not that many people where I’m from go there so that’s up there as well.
What was the weirdest food or experience you encountered during your adventure?
Well, I remember there's always this thing where when you go to places, far from home and you try weird food, you generally have to pretend to like it and be quite polite about it, even if it's not necessarily very nice. It probably is quite nice to them but just not something I was used to. But there's always space within that for people to take advantage of that, too. I remember in China, I did this big walking expedition in 2011, and I remember this guy telling me about this wonderful delicacy that I had to try and it'd be very rude if I didn't try it. It was basically the fat off the back of a pig. It was uncooked and still hairy. He said ‘you've got to try it is very important’. It would be very culturally inappropriate if you didn't try it.’ So he kind of fed it to me with chopsticks. It was just like chewing hairy rubber. As soon as I started chewing, he burst out laughing. It wasn't a delicacy, he was just taking the piss. And he just knew that I would feel obliged to give it a go and he couldn’t believe that I actually put it in my mouth. So anyway, well done to him!
What was the scariest country you've been to? And why?
No country has really been too scary in and of itself. By far the scariest thing anywhere that I've travelled is because I'm travelling on foot or by bicycle all the time and I use roads occasionally. So there’s always traffic, and actually cycling in the US with some of these huge big vehicles that people have on tiny little rural roads was scary, there were a couple of really close calls with that. I guess that's funny, too. I mean, spend a lot of time in other parts of the world that you might think are more dangerous, it was probably cycling on American roads that was the scariest.
You faced many obstacles throughout your career, how do you cope with or overcome fear on your adventures?
I think one of the things I do on these adventures and journeys is I always feel like I try and put myself in a position where there's not really any way out. If my fear is just of the unknown, or of what happens if things go wrong, then I like to just make sure that there's not really any way for me to get out of it. I just have to keep going. I often try and play out the scenario in my head and think about if I'm really scared of this, what would happen if I give up tomorrow and went home, how would I feel? I always kind of realise the first day or two, I’d feel really good. And then after a week, I probably really start to really regret it. So I often try and project that scenario in my mind to encourage me.
The other thing is, especially in the regions I work in now there is also sometimes a real element of fear or at least you have to have awareness of your surroundings. I try to distinguish what the fear is, is it just me being like slightly silly and just wishing I could go home and lie down? Or is it something more genuine that is a risk for me and my team.
How does your love for the environment influence your adventures?
I think in one way a huge part of me wanting to travel is to feel so connected to the landscapes I pass through. But increasingly, I want to use my adventures to tell stories that are important and somehow make a difference. The biggest story in the world right now and for the rest of time is climate change. Almost everything I do has an element of that too. Particularly in this Tigris expedition, a large part of that is to try and raise awareness of the precarious state of that river and region, to try and offer some sort of suggestions as to what we might be able to do to protect it.
What tips would you give to someone who wants to up their adventure game and take on their first big expedition?
Taking on a first big expedition is a really wonderful thing but it can also just seem so scary, and so far off. So I'm always a big fan of starting something smaller, doing something locally, and doing something achievable. And just building up some skills and confidence, and then setting off for something else. Adventures are great however we do them. I recently went off for seven or eight days and walked in Portugal and Spain, and it was wonderful and didn't really have a purpose. There’s kind of an internal value to doing things that don't have a purpose. But as a writer, I think that if there's a way to tie in something purposeful to the adventure that someone might do, it adds another dimension to it, which makes it in many ways more enjoyable and more impactful on the person doing it. It's a big exciting world out there.
Now for some quick-fire questions:
Favourite way to relax and unwind?Playing the guitar.
Land or sea?Land.
Is there anything you’re afraid to try?Funny-looking seafood.
Who/what is your biggest inspiration?When I was growing up, it was the Explorer Shackleton. He’s the first explorer I read about and kind of wanted to emulate.
What's your must-have piece of equipment?A good backpack and good boots. I mean, all clothing is kind of important, but with a really good backpack and comfortable boots you can pretty much take on the world.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals?I often fall into a routine and don’t like to break that routine.
Favourite post-adventure meal?Probably breakfast cereal. You know, granola and breakfast cereal that we have here in the UK. It's hard to get that in a lot of parts of the world. So I always miss that.
What has been at the top of your bucket list?I would love to go to Antarctica. I loved reading about it when I was a kid and I’d love to go. It’s like the ultimate wilderness and it intrigues me.
What has been your favourite adventure?I walked across a desert called the Empty Quarter desert with my friend Al. It was just really wonderfully simple. It took six weeks and we just walked across this desert, dragging all of our supplies behind us in this big car. There's something really wonderful about that simplicity so I've got a lot of really fond memories of that one.
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