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Leon Mccarron (Author)

Leon McCarron is a writer, broadcaster and adventurer – originally from Northern Ireland, he now calls Iraq home. Now based in Iraq, he uses storytelling to address the myriad misconceptions around this country and its people. Leon’s championing of ‘slow travel’ has taken him across China on foot, walking through the Empty Quarter Desert and riding across Patagonia on horseback.

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On today’s podcast, Leon talks about what home means and the importance of relationships and nuance in parts of the world that Western media often demonises or misunderstands.

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Transcript of our Conversation

Leon McCarron

[00:00:00] We woke up in the morning. And his village was just the most pictures place I can ever imagine of this little garden outside. And these windows, I could see it as soon as I opened my eyes, you know, lift my head from the pillow. I could see just these beautiful mountains, slightly dusted and snow just beyond his little garden, his little fruit trees.

And he had some breakfast and he said, well, Let’s go, let’s go walking there. And he was this old guy, this old military guy, very peaceful, very Zen had the most incredible prodigious mustache and and he just took us out and we spent the day just walking around in those mountains on these beautiful old trails that were all, you know, just really hundreds of years of.

Human activity on them. Hello and welcome to the modern [00:01:00] adventurer podcast where explorers and adventurers tell their stories. I’m John . And on this weekly podcast, I talk to adventurous and explorers from around the world who have made remarkable and daring journeys in recent years from Everest climbers to polar explorers, world record holders, and many more.

But what is left for the adventurers and explorers in the 21st century? Well, let’s find out, but before we start, if you haven’t already please subscribe. And if you listen on apple podcast, please leave a review. If you’ve enjoyed the show so far, a massive thank you to those who reviewed it. That is Mr.

Se from Canada and speed jury and S prose who recently commented and reviewed the podcast. So thank you. Right on with the show. My next guest is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and Explorer from Northern Ireland. He has traveled over 50,000 kilometers [00:02:00] by human powered means and is currently based out in Iraq on the podcast.

Today, we talk about some of his expeditions and about is doing in Northern Iraq to bring tourism to the country. So I am delighted to introduce Liam MC Mccarin to the podcast. Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. Well, it’s absolutely great to finally get you on. You’re currently out in Iraq at the moment.

And what I absolutely love about your story is just over the years, how. You’ve been talking about these countries, which we’ve sort of spoke about before, about sort of how they’re unrepresented in the sort of Western media and show a completely different side, as well as the sort of kindness of strangers.

We’ll get into some of your trips in a moment. But before I start, I always like to sort of get to know the sort of person. So for the audience. Why don’t you tell them sort of a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are now? [00:03:00] Sure. Okay. Well, it was kind of an organic journey, I suppose, where I am now.

I’m from Northern Ireland. Originally. I grew up there. I was very fortunate to have quite a. A wild, rural childhood. I grew up in a farm close to the ocean. And so I always loved the outdoors, but I didn’t travel much. I, you know, going to Belfast was a big deal. And when it came to the point of. Going to university.

I, I was desperate to, you know, skip and go somewhere far, far away. And the furthest place that I could think of was Kent. So I went to the south of England and while I was there, I, I sort of realized that the, the world was much bigger than what I’d seen. You know, even though I’d not crossed the water and been to England.

So I, I. [00:04:00] I was studying English and film. And I knew I wanted to do something creative. I knew I wanted to tell stories. I knew I was interested in, in people, but I, I felt like I, I didn’t really know enough about the world or myself to, to do any justice to try and tell story. I didn’t have any stories to tell.

So I wanted to figure out some way to, to educate myself outside of academia The idea I came up with was to buy bicycle and ride it as, as far as I could across places that interested me. So I saved up for a year bought a bike flew to New York city and then started cycling west and I rode across north America.

And then I rode from Canada to Mexico and over the course of a year and a half, almost two years, that journey took me. You know, New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia. And eventually I, I ran outta money [00:05:00] and my glorified gap year was over. And so I, I came back home, but it, it, it completely changed my life because it’s it gave me a lot more confidence in myself and who I was.

So I, I, I understood that I could be a lot more capable old and I’d felt I wasn’t really a cyclist. I was quite naive. And Nervous anxious about the world before that journey. It told me that most people that I would meet are good and kind and willing to help out a stranger. And it also gave me a, a sense of purpose.

I realized that by traveling slowly, in that case on a bicycle, I went to places that other people often didn’t. And so I. Was engaged in conversations and meetings and experiences that maybe not a lot of other people had. And, and so I could write about those or I could make films about those. And and my career kind of developed from there.

And that was 2010. So the last 12 years I’ve been I’ve spent about seven or eight of those years going in [00:06:00] expeditions cycling, walking, kayak, almost always human powered. I’ve traveled about. 30 35,000 miles by human power. And I write books and make films, do some TV, some radio, lots of different ways to share the stories that I find.

And now I live in the Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq. Okay. I, I think it’s so FA fascinating because your first, as you say, big trip was cycling across America. Which is mine too, was your sort of idea behind that because like, I dunno if it was similar to you, but I had never ridden very much in my life.

It was just about buying the bike and using it as a form of transport to get off the road into the sort of back country into the sort of Midwest was sort of similar with you. Were you a big cyclist before you did that trip? No, not at all. I was very similar to you. The bicycle was [00:07:00] a, a tool to help me explore.

It was the, I, I, I, I think initially I’d had this idea that I’d watched this TV show with you and McGregor and Charlie Borman of long way round, where they went around the world of motorbike and I saw that and I thought, oh, that’s pretty cool. You know, it would be, it would be cool to be like you and McGregor and have a motorbike and, you know, go around making jokes and getting filmed.

And and then I realized that I wasn’t sort of had some Hollywood star, I wasn’t wildly wealthy and I couldn’t ride a motorbike. So I, that’s kind of how I came to a budget aver on a bicycle. And, you know, in the end it worked out much better because the, the pace suited me much more as I’m sure you find too.

It’s a, it’s the most beautiful speed at which to travel. I walk a lot these days, which I also like, cause it’s even slower, but there’s something effortlessly enjoyable about cycling unless you’re going [00:08:00] into a headwind, but yeah, I, I at it because. It’s helped me carry what I needed. It sort of limited.

I couldn’t carry too much, but I could carry enough. And, you know, as I’m sure you find as well, when you’re cycling, once you’re packed for three or four days, you, you could also go for three or four years. You don’t really need that much extra stuff. I love that, you know, minimalism of it. Yeah. I think, I think that’s very true.

I think when. When I did it, I didn’t know much about the world similar to you. And my idea was to get out and just sort of experience, and I didn’t really have any expectation. And with that, I sort of was off the road, the main sort of roads that you go on, you know, the main cycle path. And I ended up in the most extraordinary places, but that’s sort of where my love of back country and where I sort of experience sort of the kindness of strangers.

Just in the most extraordinary way, [00:09:00] which I had never really come across before. Was that similar with you? Yeah, it was. And I think for me, you know, the us and north America was purposefully chosen because it was. It was foreign, but it was also familiar. So there was a, a shared language and some shared cultural, I think to be honest, I was, I moved to New York city first and lived there for six months before I started the trip.

And actually it was more foreign than I might have expected. You know, it was quite, quite a lot of cultural differe. And, and even when I set off on my bike trip, I, I remember, I remember. Kind of not trusting anyone for a couple of weeks. And it was only after it was about 10 or 12 days into this trip.

I I’d sort of avoided having any real in depth conversations, you know, up until that point I would just cycle and I’d put up my tent and I’d, you know, [00:10:00] leave early from the forest or wherever. And then I remember some guy driving along beside me for a while and encouraging me to pull into a gas station, which I did.

And he I was kind of worried. He was gonna yell at me for, you know, riding my bike on the hard shoulder or whatever, but he took me inside and he bought me a coffee. And, you know, I told him about his trip and at the end of it, he reached into his wallet and pulled out $20 and, you know, kind of pressed it into my pan and, and told me to go off and have the adventure of a lifetime.

And he said, you know, he had a story about how he was, he was in a, his sixties and he always wanted to go and travel more, but he got tied up in a job and everything else, and he loved seeing someone young liked doing it. And I remember just thinking, you know, what a. What an incredible thing for a stranger to do, and it’s it totally made it made my day and, and actually made my, you know, sort of week and month.

And and it encouraged me to trust people a lot more. And I’m sure you find this too, you know, the, the negative experiences I’ve had [00:11:00] in over a decade of this sort of thing, I can kind of think there’s one hand really you know, which is also related to the fact that I’m male and, you know, White and where I come from and everything else.

It’s, it’s easier for someone like me to travel. But yeah, I mean, I can, I can kind just a couple of negative experiences and I’ve got tens of thousands of positive ones stored away, positive ones stored away and in the recesses my mind. Yeah. It’s, it’s so true. And I didn’t really understand it at the start.

And then yes, you stay, they at a petrol station, they sort of pull you over out what you’re doing. And I remember. They gave me a 20 quit, $20 and said, have a stake on in Nebraska, on us. And I was like, and you know, it just happened all the way through. And so with America, was that sort of the, and Canada and Mexico, that sort of was the grounding to the sort of last decade of these in the [00:12:00] sort of travel that you’ve done.

Yeah, it was, I didn’t have any. Aspirations to, to travel or have adventures beyond that, or at least that I didn’t I hadn’t articulated them. It was only as I, as I made that journey. You know, the, the ironic thing about that journey was that I was, I was on the road for over a year and a half over a year and a half, less than two years.

I can’t remember exactly long by the end of it. The thing that brought it to an end was just that I, I, my, I ran outta money and I had to go home. But. I was actually kind of ready to be done. I, I, I learned that I didn’t really want to travel forever. You know, when I set off, I had this vision that, you know, I could just be this.

Cool Noma guy and a bicycle, and I just go forever and ever. And there’s people like that, that you read about, especially if you’re in the cycle, touring world, there’s one German guy Heines or something like that. I remember his name coming up. He’s been cycle touring for 44 years or whatever. He’s a hero.

And that’s cool, but that wasn’t, that really [00:13:00] wasn’t me. I, I was sort of ready to be home by the end of the it. And when I got home, I figured that I loved being away. I loved. Being someone new and trying to understand that and then trying to, you know, Synthes synthesize those experiences so that I could share them as in my writing or whatever else, but I also really wanted home and I wanted a community and I wanted to.

Have some sort of roots to put down. So the, the bike tour, you know, taught me both of those things that I, I, I wanted to try and find a balance between those two worlds. And it took a few years, honestly, because it’s not, not easy to go off in long expeditions and come back and have any sort of continuity.

But I knew after the bike trip, that was the aspiration. Yeah, I, I think I, I know that you did this desert quarter tour, Val Humphreys, and he always, he had a great thing that he put on this was years ago, I think on this social media, that sort of, he had a email from a guy who said, [00:14:00] You know, I looked at you and I always wanted to go on these long expeditions and, you know, travel the world.

And then, so he gave up everything, you know, he said to his family, he’s going on this big trip. And then after about two weeks of cycling up the Himalayas, he was like, what am I doing? I hate this. This is, this is terrible. And actually he then went, went home and said, actually, I’m pretty content with just having the weekends to have the week, rather than these big expeditions that I see.

Yeah, I think it’s everyone. I mean, we’re all very fortunate to be able to make these choices. Right. And I think adventure is a really wonderful thing. It’s It’s life changing. It’s life enhancing. It’s restorative, it’s all of these things. But and we should, you know, if we’re able to it, I feel it is very beneficial for each of us individually to be more adventurous in our lives.

But that doesn’t mean, in fact, I think it’s only really the minority for whom [00:15:00] it, or there’s any desire to go off for. Months or years on end and, you know, have these long ranging a adventures across continents. I think for most people, it makes much more sense to be adventurous closer to home, which Aster Hamre has been a, a, a really wonderful you know a ambassador for that sort of idea.

Yeah. And so when you came back from that big trip, as you say, you started to put down your roots, that was in the UK. Yeah. At the time and then probably, yeah. Sorry. Yep. Oh yeah. No, it was, it was at the UK first time, but I never, I never really figured out where You know, I, I sort of I think you’re in London now.

I love London. It’s the city I know best in the world. It’s great. But I never quite, I don’t think I’m really a city person. I grew up in the countryside and I, I [00:16:00] like wild more remote places. So I, it, it took me a while to figure out where I wanted to be, which possibly explained I live in, you know, Cristan Northern Iraq.


And as you say, you sort of started to put down your roots there and then your sort of travels took you all over the world from there in terms of your writing and your expeditions. One of them was China on foot. The other one say was the desert quarter of Alistair Humphrey. When you started the, you sort of expeditions, how did they sort of come about When I, well, I mean, organically as well, you know, you’ll know this, anyone else who’s traveled or who’s, you know, put themselves out into the world in an adventurous way, will probably know this that things happen.

You meet people with similar desires and interest [00:17:00] dovetail and so on. So on the bike trip, as I was coming towards the end of it, I was going through Hong Kong and A couple of years prior to that, I’d been at a book launch in London of a guy called Rob Luol. Who’d rid a bicycle from Siberia back to London.

And you know, I went to read his book and seek inspiration from this wonderful master of the craft of riding long distances. And I got to know Rob little bit and he, I think he said, you know, if, if you, if you’re coming through Hong Kong at any point in your upcoming. Give me a shot. So, you know, 16 months later, I, I sent him an email and said, I’m, I’m pretty close.

And so Rob Rob and his partner very kindly hosted me. And I stayed with him for a little while and, you know, we talked about adventures and things we wanted to do. And Rob had this idea to walk across, to to. And, you know, to, to kind of go even slower and really be immersed in the country and [00:18:00] to, to, to walk right through the middle, this kind of cross section of life in China, this was 2011 that we started it.

So it was, it was kind of the point where where people were starting to look at China, wonder. You know, what’s, what is this what’s happening in this, in this vast country, you know, away from Beijing in Shanghai and sh and you know, Guango, what’s happening in the, in the, the sort of P land. Yeah, so we, we, we started to plan the trip together and eventually did it over the course of seven months and 3000 miles of walking and And then when we finished that we had a TV show, Rob was writing a book.

I was kind of getting more into the idea that maybe this could be a career. And, and then Rob introduced me to Al Humphrey, who I’d also known a little bit, but, you know, and then Al had this idea for a desert trip and yeah. And so one thing led to another and, you know, eventually I started coming from my own ideas. [00:19:00]

But I, you know, I think Rob, I’ve got a lot to thank for, for for you know, I think we shared a lot of the same The same motivations, but they were definitely much more experienced than I was. And and they’re, they’re both still very good friends. And I, I kind of learned a lot about, not just about how to survive and you know, the minds of central China and the desert with them.

But, but more about turning this into a career and trying to do something meaningful all with the, the output from doll to. And so, as you say, you sort of moved on to sort of film and writing, but I suppose for the audience listening, you’ve gone from sort of cycling, walking trips. How do you find the difference sort of compared in terms of your experience in these countries?

Between cycling and walking? Yeah. [00:20:00] They’re very different. I mean, I, I, I do think I, I walk more than I cycle. And I think cycling’s more fun, honestly, it’s, it’s simpler. Cycling really is just magic when it, when it goes. Right. But there’s something really powerful, but walking it’s very grounded literally.

I do subscribe to this idea that. That our, the movement of our bodies is connected to the movement of our minds and that we, we, the, the Ru Rebecca Sawant has this wonderful idea that we think and move at three miles an hour. And so the two are very interconnected and I, and I find that when I walk.

And I walk as a, as a method of storytelling. It helps connect me to the places I’m passing through. It helps connect me to people. I meet a lot more. It’s a very humble way to arrive in a place. [00:21:00] You know cycling is two, but there’s, there is something else, like some other slight barrier between you and people.

But if you arrive on foot with the backpack, it’s, it’s very, very simple. And I think it, it encourages those that I meet to speak to me more freely. And it just, you, you see everything when you walk things you don’t want to see, you know, you smell everything, things you don’t wanna smell you, but you’re you just everything is right there.

And so you can’t help, but be part of it. And. My ambition really is to, I, I think, as I said before, when I’m, when I’m doing these journeys, I want to have the experience myself so that I can try and understand it and, and then present it for an audience in a way that they can understand and feel it too.

And, and they like me can learn something important from it. So the more, you know, immersed I can be in that the better. And I think walking does that better. You move, you move slower too. So you see. You see a, a, [00:22:00] you see less than if you’re on a bicycle, you know, a month on a bicycle, you’ll see more than a month walking, but in a month walking you’ll know that 150 miles of area much more intimately than you would on a bike.

Yeah, absolutely. I think in terms of, because you, as you say, describe yourself as a storyteller, I, I always find that when you are walking and you are, as you say, more engaged in the local area, the local landscape, the local it’s. If I find it clears your head a lot more to that sort of thoughts or the story that you are telling in a sense, it’s a more sort of clear, whereas cycling, you are a bit more, not the word, narrow focused.

Because you’re sort of streaming along, you know, maybe a hundred miles a day, but walking, you’re probably going at sort of 20, 20 miles [00:23:00] give or take a day. And so you have that sort of time to reflect. You do, and there’s never any, there’s no free miles when you’re walking with cycling, if you’re going up a hill or you’re riding into a headwind or whatever else, you, you know, you gotta work for it, especially if you’re on a loaded touring PI, but when you get to the top of the hill, you just, you cruise.

And you know, if you’re riding along a A flat area and there’s a ti there’s a, a tailwind or, you know, it’s almost like you’re not having to put in any effort, so you can, your mind can, as you said, you can drift off, you can think about other things you can just sort of, you know, feel the, the breeze in your hair.

But with cycling. Yeah. You don’t get that. You, if you, you walk up a hill, you walk down a hill, you know, you, you walk into the wind, you walk with the wind, but you’re always, it’s always your feet. So your back, so your legs that are doing the work and you always kind of feel the pack slightly biting into your hips, your shoulder, and kind of you know [00:24:00] I think a positive way to look at is it always reminds you, it always keeps you in the moment reminds you that you’re alive.

You’re still moving, but it’s yeah, it means you never fully disconnect from that moment. So you’re always, you always very present.

Yeah. That’s so very true. And as you said, you are out in Iraq at the moment and you are. What I think so interesting about the story now, and what you’re sort of doing is you are showing so many different parts of Iraq that you know, myself and probably a lot of our listeners don’t know about, and you are opening up these sort of trails and these walkways for, to hos in the future and for people and the locals there to sort of experience.

Can you tell the audience sort of about some of that? Yeah, sure. I mean, so the very short version of how [00:25:00] that came to be is that in, in 2015, I did a journey around a different part of the middle east. I walked from Jerusalem. In a, a sort of lap or a, of the holy lands area heading north up through the west bank and then cross into Jordan site length of Jordan into the cide peninsula, and then back up through Southern Israel back to Palestine and Jerusalem.

And I, I wrote a book about that and. To guide me on that walk. I used this, these series of modern day hiking trails that were being developed in the region and those hiking trails were didn’t involve any creation of a trail. It was more a re-imagining of what was already there of these old pilgrimage paths and trail route, and, you know of bettering tracks and so on.

And so I, I observed the work that had been done there over a number of years by the local teams. And I, I [00:26:00] did a lot of research about the process of creating trails throughout that book. And then I I went to Armenia and saw my friend, Tom Allen, who I’d been on expeditions with in the past before.

And he was doing a similar thing in our media of the trans Caucasian trail, which runs across our media in Georgia. So I, I helped a little bit there and sort of developed my own knowledge a bit more. And And I’ve been interested in Iraq for a while. I first came here in 2016 to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.

And this is where I live now in the city of AR, which is it’s part of Iraq, but it’s also distinct. It’s got its own borders. It’s own government, it’s own military. It’s significantly safer and simple. You can get a visa rival here. You know, there’s been a sort of nascent tourism industry here for a while.

It’s very different from. Federal Iraq from Southern Iraq. But yeah, and I came here and and I immediately, you know, I saw the mountains here and I [00:27:00] saw the, the layers of history and culture and faith, meaning that were in this landscape. I thought of all these other trails that, that were being develop to elsewhere in the region and around the world.

And I’d always, I, I still consider myself first and foremost, a storyteller and a writer. But I was really interested in the power of tourism and adventure to adventure. Tourism is the fastest growing sector of tourism worldwide. I think a lot of people are looking for you know, more meaning to their travels, but also they want something a little bit more bite to it.

And, and it’s not always what hiking trails of fall under the category of soft adventure. So, you know, it’s not, you don’t need any grit skills. You don’t need to be able to climb a rope. You don’t need to be able to, you know, Kayak and white water rapid. You just need to be able to walk, but you you’re out there and you’re, you’re doing something different.

So so from, from 2016 onwards, I, I met a guy called low Mohamed. Who’s a [00:28:00]he’s cured. His ethnicity is Kurdish. He’s from Northern Syria. But he lives in her and he started taking out to the mountains and we started to explore them together. And And I, I had this idea then that it would be amazing to try and create Iraq and, and Kurdistan’s first long distance walking trail and to base on the, the model and some of the success that has been seen in Jordan and, and other places.

And and that, you know, one day maybe people local and international would, would think of. The mountains of Curtis Stan as a place to come and hike in the same way that you think of the other great Tris of the world. So that’s, that’s how it started. And I I’d be happy to tell you more about the, the process that we’ve gone through too, if you like.

Yeah. So how did it start? How, what was the sort of process from sort of starting out, because these are new trails [00:29:00] that you’re opening up. So from sort of day one, where does it sort of start? And. The sort of process. So the, the, the first thing that lo and I did was we, we just, so I started coming here 2016.

We my partner and I moved here in 2019, and that’s when things picked up an American organization called the Abraham path initiative began funding the project then. And so it could become a lot more professionalized and, and strategy could become a bit clearer. But those first years when I was coming back and forth lo and I would just go to places in the mountains and ask people about the trails.

And it started in a time called Amee, which is way up in the Northwest. Of the courage region, very close to the Turkish border. So you know, we’re in the north of Iraq, you’ve got Turkey above us. You’ve got Iran to the east. You’ve got [00:30:00] Syria to the west and then fed Iraq and down to the desert and the, the Persian Gulf to the south.

And it’s very mind Kur is almost entirely mountains. I. Some of which are pretty big, you know, out east by the Iranian border, the tallest mountain that’s fully inside Iraq is UR, which is what 3,600 meters. So, you know, it not insignificant. But anyway, so we, we went to this town called Amad, which.

It was an ancient capital of, of this region when, when everything was ruled in these, in these little Fidos. And it’s a, it’s an incredible time it’s built on the top. It’s built on a sort of plateau on the top of a mountain and, and three sides of it are just sheer rock. So you can see it from great distance.

And there used to be two ancient that went into the city and. There’s one of those still exists and it, it kind of, you know, you can still see it, [00:31:00] they call it the Moel gate. And it’s this small path comes out and it winds down, down in these ancient steps. They’re sort of alcoves etched into the rock beside it.

And then it just disappears off into the valley. And so we and I were there and we were looking at this and and I just thought to ask someone while we were there, where, where did this go? You know what. Historically, what was this? And he said, well, this is the old donkey track to Moel. So, you know, if you wanted to, if you wanted to carry your spices or whatever you were selling you’d go to, or from here and as a sort of protection device, it was the, you had to come up through this switch back.

Staircase into the city. And I realized that this was, you know, this was one of the silk roads. This was one of those ancient trade routes. And and so lo and I walked the first 10, 15 kilometers of it that day, just down into the valley, through these little foothills and. And if we’d kept going for another day and a half, we would’ve got to the [00:32:00] city of Mosel, which, you know, listeners will probably know now for all the wrong reasons because of its more recent association with the, the occupation of ISIS.

But it’s a very ancient, very beautiful, very wonderful city. And so, so we, we took that exp and extrapolated that art and just started visiting places and. You know, in order to create a trail, you’ve just got to walk a lot of trails. So we’d go to all of these different areas in the Kirstan region.

And we’d ask people where, where are their tracks? Where do they go? What were the purpose? Who used to walk them, who still walks them? Some were still in use. Some were falling out of use. Often it was the older people in the it. You knew them. And it’d say this one. Goes to the next village. It goes up over this pass, or it goes through this Gorge.

And we’d hire someone pay them some money to, to guide us for a day. And, and we mapped all of that digitally over the course a couple of years, until at some point we’d walked you know, [00:33:00] 1100, 1200 kilometers of trail. And we had this mid of, of GPX data. All of all these digital tracks of ours, then we looked at and thought.

If you were to choose one line with a start point in a finish point that took you across this region from west east, what would it be? And so we, we picked that out based on the trails we’d walk and picked out that single line started in a time called , which is a, in a Syrian Christian time in the west.

And the end point is the, the kind of best camp of Hagar mountain, highest mountain in the region and in between there’s You know, 225 kilometers of trail and it’s, we’ve chosen it so that it tells a story. Cause I, I, I believe that tri should be experienced like, like, like an narrative, you know, except that you kind of physically walk it.

You physically read it with your feet throughout, other than [00:34:00] any other way. And and along the way you pass through these small. Villages you pass through these small communities. You pass through the, the Syrian areas, the zis who are another faith here. There’s Zoroastrians here. There’s Sufi, mystics.

There’s a town with you know, an old synagogue when there used to be a Jewish population, Iraq you go into the higher are mountains and into these areas with where there are pers efforts still in the Hills. You know, we, but we, we also. The guides, the local guides that we’ve been working with and training, they, some of them are shepherds.

And these trails are their trails, shepherds trails. Some of them are who are the Kurdish military, who also use these mountains as a, as a source of defense in, in battles of the past. So we, we walk with them. So you have kind of have these different layers of experience of past and present. And then we try and imagine what [00:35:00] it’ll look like in future.

We believe that in general, this region is getting safer and hopefully continues to remain secure. And so we think about what might happen. And so there’s along the trail. There’s 35 36 communities that we work with. And this trail really belongs to them because they have to endorse it and support it.

And it’s a wonderful privilege for me to be able to, to walk here and have, and. To have got to know somewhere so far from my own home, so well, but ultimately if it’s going to last and if it’s going to work as a tourism product, it’s got to, it’s gotta be a local team here who will, who will will champion it and maintain it and everything else.

And yeah, so, I mean, I, I really strongly believe that true else. Change lives, you know, it, it seems like it’s very simple. It’s just going for a walk, but creates a whole level of economic economic opportunities for people in these [00:36:00] villages. It also builds a sense of civic pride. It creates an opportunity for environmental protection, for protection of heritage and historical sites.

And it it’s, you know, in a region that has had a history of. Ethnic and religious division. I think it’s a, a way that people can come and be together in a, in a safe, beautiful space. And then for people like you and me, you just like you know, beautiful, interesting places. It’s great. Cuz we have a, a sort of heavily researched, safe way to be somewhere really interesting and someone new.

So that’s. It’s grown quite a lot from , from what I thought it would. It’s, it’s the, the reason I’ve moved here. And my, my partner’s a photographer. She spent now also years on the trail photographing it too. And, you know, it’s low is still one of my closest friends. We were out in the mountains together almost every weekend, whether it’s for the trail project or [00:37:00] just for ourselves.

And yeah, it’s completely changed the course of my life. You know, it’s the aside from the bike trip, which Which taught me about the world. This is the, the second most impactful experience I’ve had. That’s affected almost everything.

It’s just incredible. As you say, opening up these roots, did you have any sort of issues or conflicts when starting out? I mean, was it taken with the locals? I think for a, for a long time. I mean, here, people are incredibly hospitable. It’s most people around the world are hospitable in the middle east.

That’s doubled and here it’s tripled, you know, it’s, it’s such a intrinsic part of people’s personality. It’s a very defining characteristic. And actually it can be, it’s been really challenging for, because people are so hospitable that the idea that at any point in the future, [00:38:00] Someone would have to pay to stay in their home or that they would have to pay to hire them, to walk with them for a day is total asthma.

You know, it can seem to a lot of people in these areas that were working, that, that, that would be abandoning your sense of duty to stranger. So I mean to go back to your question, when we, when we started approaching these. Villages the first couple of times you turn up and walk somewhere. You can tell people whatever you like, but it doesn’t really mean anything cuz it’s the first time they’ve ever seen you.

And you know, you could say we’ve got this idea for a trail and maybe some other people come in future and we want to go from here to here, whatever. And you know, people understand intellectually of course, but it’s just, it’s, it’s so new and foreign and everything else. But third, fourth, fifth, sixth time you turn up in a village.

And you walk the same trail and you, and you kind of explain the project again again, then it starts to settle in and people have been really receptive to the idea. [00:39:00] You know, aside the, the biggest challenge is just getting people to accept money for the work that they will do. And you know, that’s kind of ongoing, but and it’s sort of amusing, but it’s also, it’s how we spent a lot of our time just to trying to, to.

To explain that that’s how this will have to work in future. But we’ve, there are challenges here too. In this region, you actually won’t gloss over them. There, there are, there are a lot of landmines in this area from various conflicts. In the past, we ran Iraq war. Sadam was San when he was in power.

And you in Iraq had a number of campaigns against the Kurds and the north. He mined a lot of the areas in the mountains. Some of them are unmarked. So, you know, local people know where they are, but it’s not like there’s a, a fence or a sign for every single one of these mine fields. So. As you can imagine.

The risk assessment for a trail development project is, is [00:40:00] pretty extensive when that’s the case. There’s also you know, the, the Turkish military, just across the border of an ongoing conflict against a Milant group. And there’s been airstrikes in certain parts of the, the region and all of this is kind of far from where we are and where we’re, we’re having our project and having our walks.

But it’s certainly things that we have to be aware of. Very acutely. And I think in order for anyone to come and walk this trail, the future, they’ve got to feel 100% secure in kind of any question about a landmine or an airstrike, or even like a wild animal. You know, you, that’s just not gonna fly for the vast majority of tourists.

So we’ve somehow got to somehow got to manage those risks really carefully and really well to make sure that this is. Safe and open for everyone. So yeah, you know, direct conflict for us, not so much. [00:41:00] We’ve had the usual sort of adventures you have when you go off into the wilderness for a few days and, you know, have to cross swollen rivers or Often what will happen or not often, but sometimes what will happen is we’ll meet some, someone who’s a little bit elderly in a village.

And they’re the last person who still knows the trail from, you know, village X to village Y. And so we think brilliant, this, this guy can take us and we’ll finally connect up these places and, and he’s always very enthusiastic and, and is on, was always he and we set off, you know, and. With whoever it is.

And they’re normally 78 years old and quite quickly, it becomes apparent that they’re maybe not as fit as they thought they were 20, 30 years ago. And also they can’t quite remember the trail as clearly as they thought they did. and and not insignificant number of times we’ve ended up like that. You know, clinging to the side of a mountain, somewhere in a, in a DPO having to [00:42:00] having to very quickly extract ourselves from it and realizing that we’re probably never gonna find that trail.

So we, we, we do all of that, so that hopefully in the future, people who walk this will have a very pleasant, managed experience, but sky is not always as successful. amazing. And I suppose for people listening when they’re on this trail and for you, you’ve been doing this over the last sort of few years, what’s the sort of what, what’s an amazing moment that you’ve sort of had along the way that sort of took you back.

There’s been there’s been a number of them, but the one that I. Love the most, I think is it was actually in the early days, 2017, early 2018. And we still hadn’t really sky much in the east, which is where the biggest mountains are. And [00:43:00] we we’d been in another area in the middle of the region and decided last minute, you know, late at night to drive out to the east so we could do some more.

Skying the next day and see some of it. And so our friend Miran drove LOE and I, and another friend and, you know, kind of late at night winter, it was really cold. It was minus whatever. And and it got to the point where it was just so cold and so late that we, we thought we have to find somewhere to stay and we just start to scale.

And tomorrow, and we ran called a few friends and eventually there was a village on the way called R and someone he knew, knew someone there. So we. Arrived, you know, midnight or 1:00 AM to this guy’s house. And he, he didn’t ask any questions at all. He just swept us straight inside, had these little oil, gas heaters going Somehow his, you know, with about 30 minutes, notice his wife had prepared this [00:44:00] huge spread of food.

And we ate really well. We warmed up and then we just passed out on the floor in his guest room. We woke up in the morning and his village just. The most pictures place I can ever imagine of this little garden outside and these windows, I could see it as soon as I opened my eyes, you know, lift my head from the pillow.

I could see just these beautiful mountains, slightly dusted, snow, just just beyond his little garden, his little fruit trees. And we had some breakfast and he said, well, you. Let’s go, let’s go walking there. And he was this old guy, this old military guy, very peaceful, very Zen had the most incredible prodigious mustache and and he just took us out and we spent the day just walking around in those mountains on [00:45:00] these few beautiful, old trails that were all, you know, just really hundreds of years of human activity on them.

And then we came back to this house and. And spend another night there. And that guy AF has now become one of the major guides. He’s one of our, you know, close friends. He’s one of the major people involved in the trail. He’s, he’s, we’ve learned so much about this project and the country and life from him.

And it all just came by in that chance in encount, whenever I think of, you know, moments that I hope I’ll always remember waking up that morning in his home after that bitterly cold night and just going off this beautiful walk, that’s one of them. Wow. God, what a story. I, and I suppose your, your hope is for the future, that this becomes a sort of go-to destination for people to go and experience Iraq [00:46:00] and the best of it, right?

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And it’s, it’s always, you know, it’s not gonna be for everyone. Some people will you know, very understandably feel. It’s just not quite for them. The risk level is too high or whatever. But for other people, I think they might be up for it. And as long as we can do our job well and professional me and, and prove beyond reasonable doubt that it’s safe and enjoyable, and that you’ll learn a lot.

Yeah, I hope that people will, will come and it’s for everyone it’s for, for local people. It’s for international people and hope it’ll take a few years, but at some point people will talk about this as one of the, the great, exciting new trails of the world. Well, that, that would be absolutely amazing. It’s been absolutely brilliant.

Sort of listening to your stories. And as I say, we could probably. Delve into about three more stories from your travels and adventures over the past [00:47:00] year, but or past decade. But there’s a part of the show where we ask the same five questions to each guest each week with the first being on your trips and adventures.

What’s the one gadget that you always take with you? Yeah, that’s a, that’s a tricky one. I there’s a, a new gadget that I’ve got recently, which was a really beautiful small pair of field binoculars that my partner bought for me a really, really nice pair, kind of like her pair. And they are just, I mean, it it’s, it’s been so much fun having those around and You know, partly purposeful.

I can sort of scout trails and look at things in the distance, but also just to enjoy it much bird, life, and everything else. So these days I always take those absolutely everywhere prior to that, rather boringly, I always just said that, you know, I’m walking adventures. I always just made sure that my boots and my backpack where [00:48:00] you know, you can kind of get away with, with lower quality or less successful versions of everything else.

But I will spend whatever money it takes in a good pair of boots to make sure I’m happy. But yeah. Boots and binoculars, I suppose, is probably where I’m at these days is very I’m I I’m entering middle-aged fast than I realize. Maybe yeah. I, I think that’s so true going on these sort of trips with bad boots or bad walking shoes, it just makes the whole variance.

Just something else.

Yeah. Miserable. What about your favorite adventure or travel book?

My favorite adventure or travel book I said is a, a really good one. I find it probably very not to go to question. I find it very hard to. Choose one. I, I like a lot, but I’ll tell you, I a [00:49:00] book that I have that had a big impact on me was a book called the marsh Arabs by Wilford Feiger. And I’ve been rereading it a lot.

I read it, you know, at university Wolf teser was a, a great Traveler in the middle east, spent years with the bedwin in, in the deserts and the Arabia peninsula, and, and also spent years in the marches of Southern Iraq. And I was lucky enough to go there in recent years. And I’ve, I’ve actually just written a, a magazine story about finding one of his boatman, his kind of companion in the marshes, a guy called Amara Ben.

Who’ve. For seven years in the 1950s, traveled with feer and we’ve tracked him down to Baghdad where he lives these days and he’s 91 years old. And I, I wrote, you know, the story of his life and his memories of feer and also his own memories of his childhood and that time in Southern Iraq. So I think the marsh Arabs, a.

[00:50:00] Wonderfully written book, it’s sort of problematic in the ways that a lot of books of that era are it’s Teig. It was very unusual man, and he, he writes with this you know, very sort of ATIC orientalist approach to his writing, but he all also on the flip side of that is that he really did immerse himself in.

These places and he really did seem like he was trying to be a part of that lifestyle. He never really felt like he belonged in in Eaton or Oxford and you know, this kind of high side life that he had in England. So there’s something really vulnerable about his writing as well. And so the marsh arts is the short answer.

Amazing. I might have to check that one out. Why are these adventures important to you?

[00:51:00] Oh gosh. I mean, adventures always been important to me for my own. There’s two, two levels to it, but I, one is just my own health and happiness, my own mental and physical health and happiness. I feel much better about. Myself and the world when I’m outdoors and when I’m out meeting people. So I, I do it to keep myself sane, but I think mostly they’re important to me because these days, the, the, I really believe in the purpose of what I’m doing.

So creating a trail or or some of the other shorter journeys and stories I’ve been doing, I, I, I kind of would really. Yeah, I, I would put everything I have behind the fact that they will make a difference. And so that kind of gives me a sense of purpose too. It makes me feel like I’m using my time wisely.

[00:52:00] And the, the older I get and the more I do this, the more I feel a responsibility to, to use my time wisely. Nice. What about your favorite quote?

My favorite quote. That is a good one. I have actually, I have one pinned above my desk a minute, which is it’s it’s not really I’ve got two they’re they’re both about writing. One is by the, the crime writer. Elmore Leonard who said, if it, if it sounds like writing, rewrite it. And I quite often look at that when I’m , when I think something I’ve written great.

But there’s a, I probably can’t remember it exactly, but I, I was recently reading a book, a Jo one of John Steinbeck’s books when he went to Russia with the photographer, Robert CAPA and they, you know, it was, it was [00:53:00] very unusual for. For someone like him to be allowed in and allow access to travel around the country.

And this is in the, in kinda era of cold war. And somewhere new started of the book. He says something like, this is our plan. And this is what we were gonna try and do. And if it worked, it would make a good story. And if it didn’t work, then, you know, whatever happened because of that would also make a good story and I’ve you know, butchered his wonderful pros for that.

But that was, that’s basically the essence of the quote. And I recently did an expedition myself where it felt where I took a lot of inspiration from that. You know, you, you make a plan for goes, well, you get what you want, if it doesn’t go well, well then if you just go with it enough and the idea is good enough, then whatever happens as a result will also work out well.

Yeah, I think there’s quite a few sort of different takes on that. People listening are always keen to travel and go on [00:54:00] these sort of expeditions like yourself. What’s the one thing you would recommend for people wanting to get started?

I guess there’s, there’s two ways to look at it. One that for most people I imagine who will be listening to this we’re we we’re all. Pretty fortunate. You know, we, we have if you’re listening to this, you probably have a certain quality of life, a certain set of opportunities. It might be greater or lesser depending on the individual, but you might, you’re probably able to be able to consider this.

So and just go off and, and do something. You can do something simple. I mean, there’s no point in waiting around forever for the, the dream trip because. It, it rarely happens. You’ll always be more money to save or more research to do or waiting for someone else to be ready to join you or waiting for something. [00:55:00]

So I’m a big fan of just going if, especially if it’s a first adventure. But I also found of starting relatively small, more humble before I did my big bicycle trip. I cycled around to UK with a couple of friends when I was 17 or 16 even And it was very simple, very haphazard, but it was what we could do and it was there and it was, it was wonderful.

But the second thing I would say is that as I’ve got older and I’ve done more of this the only, the thing that has kept me motivated and interested is finding my purpose and, you know, hopefully I’ve articulated over the last hour. So what I feel like that is for me, but I think if, if you find the purpose for your travels, for your ventures, Then it’ll never feel, you know, possibly challenging or difficult to overcome because that will always drive you forward.

It’ll be this motivating factor that will, that will [00:56:00] be with you at all time. So, you know, think about what it is that you do think about what you’re good at, what you’re interested in. And you know, what you can offer. And if you find that then yeah, it’s a, it’s a wonderful, wonderful key to unlock everything else.

Oh, well, that’s really well said. And people listening, you know, how can they follow you and follow your trips and what you’re doing in Iraq? I am on social media with my name, Natalie on Instagram and Twitter, primarily. And my website is Leon MC mccan.com, which has got a mailing list. Yeah.

And everything. I write my magazine stories, my books, my TV stuff. I, I posted all you know self congratulatory posts on social media. No, hopefully not, but yeah, I will share everything on there. So [00:57:00] Instagram is probably the most active of all those. Amazing. Well, Leon, thank you so much for coming on today and telling your story.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks for inviting me. Thank you for listening. You can watch it on YouTube now, and don’t forget to subscribe and review the podcast. If you’re listening on apple, I hope to see you next week for another fascinating tell adventure, but till then have a great day and happy adventures.

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