Walking through the Middle East with Leon McCarron
Walking a thousand miles mostly by yourself through the Middle East isn’t generally something most people would do for their kicks, but award-winning adventurer and filmmaker Leon McCarron isn’t most people! A specialist in long-distance, human-powered expeditions, Leon has cycled around the world, tackled a 3,000 mile walk across China, trekked 1,000 miles through the Empty Quarter, you get the picture. So when we caught wind of his latest adventure and new book, The Land Beyond: A thousand miles on foot through the heart of the Middle East, we sat down with Leon to get the lowdown on his fascinating journey through the Holy Land, and his accounts of the conversations and encounters he had with some remarkable people.
The MALESTROM: Let’s start with the book, what first compelled you to take on the walk?
Leon McCarron: I travelled a lot before, I’d done a lot of long distance human power journeys in various parts of the world and then over the last few years I’d ended up in different parts of the Middle East on a couple of occasions, and I think when I’m doing these journeys I’m always looking for somewhere that’s exciting as a destination and has great landscapes and so on, but I’m also looking for interesting stories and one of the most interesting stories is always a place that is very different from how they might seem from the outside. What I found from the Middle East over and over again was that it was really misunderstood because whenever I went there I just found a really friendly place and people were really kind and generous and when I look at it from afar it seems quite dangerous. So that was really the starting point and I knew that right at the heart of all this was that Holy Land region, which I had never really travelled in, so I just started looking at it and found that there was a variety of organisations that were trying to rebuild the history of walking that there’s always been in that region – you know pilgrimages and traders and so on, and so there was actually a very new version of hiking trails that were starting out. So I used those as a guide and made up some of the rest and just decided to see what would happen and if it was possible to try and walk from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai.
TM: There’s a nice quote at the start from the chap on the plane saying “walking makes people less fat and more intelligent”?
LM: (Laughs) Yeah walking’s so simple and it’s really underrated I think. I used to think if I was going travelling I’d always go really fast, if I wanted adventure it would be more adrenaline based, but walking’s just the perfect speed to meet people and for if you really want to explore a place. There’s so many aspects to it that as a method of transport as well as a way of thinking and exploring a place are just really valuable.
TM: Do you think walking is meditative as well?
LM: Yeah it really can be, I mean I really like this idea that the brain works best at 3mph you know, and I think that’s probably true. For a lot of us if we’re sat at a computer and can’t really get the words out, or you know feel a bit stuffed up – if we step outside and take a walk down the road, it just seems to clear the head a little bit. So I think there’s a big connection between walking and thinking, and when you settle into this rhythm, your thoughts then seem to move at the same pace as your footsteps and that can be very meditative. It can also be really miserable and tiring at times (laughs) if you’ve got a 1000 miles ahead of you, but you have to take the rough with smooth I guess.
TM: Talking about those 1000 miles, how fit do you have to be to take up that challenge? Your walking companion Dave (for part of the journey) struggled at points?
LM: Yeah I mean, to walk a long distance in general is actually quite simple because just doing anything repetitively builds fitness and builds strength and walking is relatively simple, but the added challenge with a journey like this where a big part of it is trying to document it, is that you went with quite a lot of weight on your back, obviously if you decide to carry rucksacks, well that was our downfall and unfortunately Dave’s downfall was just carrying an overly heavy pack, which is my only real regret about this trip, that we didn’t cut that down. I mean fitness wise it’s about balancing out what you really need with how long you’re going to be on the road without the weight on the back, walking journey’s are really feasible and fitness shouldn’t really come into it too much because it just develops.
TM: Once Dave left and you were walking alone, how did that change things?
LM: It was incredibly different, I suppose I noticed it a lot more because I hadn’t been expecting it. I’ve done walking journey’s on my own before, but I’ve prepared for them and to suddenly have it thrust upon me was really quite different. I think when you’re alone you just feel the extremes of everything a lot more, especially the extremes of emotion, you feel a lot more vulnerable, but when things go well, when you’re feeling good, you feel on top of the world and you notice little acts of kindness, you have more interactions, more conversations because generally people are more inclined to talk to someone on their own than say a group of people or even a group of two. I did find it really tough in stages, just to be isolated in somewhere new, somewhere so different, with something that was just so challenging in so many ways mentally and physically and with so many miles still ahead to do, but I also probably had a much deeper and more rewarding and more immersive experience than if I’d had company for the whole trip. So in a way I’m grateful for that, even though I wouldn’t have chosen it to work out like that.
TM: Sure, what was the most difficult scenario you found yourself in?
LM: Physically there was a couple of sections in Jordan where there was really quite lengthy distances between water sources and places to resupply and so because I was still carrying everything on my back, I really had to load with much more stuff than I’d have liked to – I mean upwards of 35/40 kgs, and at the time I was losing weight quite rapidly, so I was getting up to half my bodyweight on my back. So to know that I had to walk for 12 hours in a day to get water, whilst feasible also put a lot of pressure on you, there was a couple of times when it felt like it was beginning to push me to my limits physically. There was also a section in Southern Jordan where a lot of different borders meet and there’s in the past been quite a lot of smuggling that goes on, particularly narcotic smuggling and so occasionally there’d be concerns like that but generally what I was able to do was find someone local who knew much more than I did and they would just guide me through anywhere tricky. So really I was further away from danger than I expected to be which was nice.
TM: You talked about some of the people you met along the way. There’s some fascinating characters, any who stick out in your mind?
LM: It’s really hard to say, I mean in Sinai I had a very intense journey with the two Bedouin companions that I had, Suleiman and Musallem. Musallem was just this really unique blend of East and West – he was a Bedouin, he’s always lived there, grown up there – but he had this really worldly attitude and was vey wise, so I really enjoyed spending time with him. And then there was another guy I met called Suleiman, that I met in a place called Feynan in Jordan, who was sort of this really young guy but determined to make this very different life for himself, he was very philosophical and I write about him in the book and listening to him and his theories of the world and his deep understanding of the history of the region. One thing in particular I like about those two guys and a lot of the other people I met who I was very fond of was a great sense of humour, humour’s such a big part of life in the region, and it maybe doesn’t get talked about that often, but I spent a lot of time laughing with people and being silly on this trip which is really important to get you through.
TM: The Middle East is so often demonised in the Western media, does this book redress the balance a little do you think?
LM: I mean yeah, I would certainly hope that it contributes to that. The book just tells the story of what happened and I hope that with this account and with other accounts that are similar to this then it does slowly start to do that. The book, certainly when I was writing it, with it I was keen to try and avoid the stuff that’s covered elsewhere because I’m not a political scientist, not a historian, so there’s a certain amount of context that has to go into it, but I was keen to stay clear of that stuff. That doesn’t mean that the other things aren’t happening, but I just felt that there was just such a big part of life and culture there that doesn’t get mentioned and as travellers and people who enjoy these places and benefit from them, there’s a sort of responsibility on shoulders like mine to really tell the truth about these places and hope that other people enjoy that as well.
TM: Would you say the people are misrepresented or misunderstood? How do you see it?
LM: Yeah I mean I guess, it’s really hard to talk about this without getting into big generalisations of course, but I rarely read about, well I can’t remember the last time I read anything about Sinai without it being a really negative story about some of the trouble that is relatively consistent in the Northern part of the region. I never read anything about the Southern part – so Sinai as one example gets lumped altogether when in actual fact it’s really quite distinct and the Southern part is very safe and very quiet and because it’s tribal area as well, you can even break it down much more than that – so to use that as one example then yeah people do get misrepresented and what that means is somewhere like Sinai can then be demonised and it can really start to eat away and destroy a place, because tourism, which is a big part of the industry begins to fall off and so on. Nothing in the region is simple, everything is really complex, but the more different narrative threads we get, I think, the more I think it builds up a truer picture.
TM: You mention in the book about being ‘consciously’ impartial with the Palestinian situation, but it can’t have been easy with the things you saw there and the experiences you had?
LM: Yeah absolutely it’s really difficult to spend time with someone who’s pouring their heart out to you about really difficult life situations and political situations and restrictions on the way in which they have to live their lives and so I had a great deal of sympathy for the people I met, particularly in the West Bank, and I think that’s to be expected. I also had a lot of really interesting conversations with Israeli’s towards the end of the journey as I came back through, and tried to sort of build a more three dimensional picture of it, but it is something that really strikes you very deeply when you experience it and there’s a lot of things that I think need to be rectified quite rapidly in the region, at least I hope that they could be, so yeah you can set out to be impartial and that’s always a good aim, but it can be difficult to stick with that.
TM: One thing that stood out is you took an awful lot of tea breaks on the journey?
LM: (Laughs) Yeah it’s fantastic, I think most English people especially would enjoy travelling through this part of the Middle East, although less milk and more sugar seems to be the Bedouin way.
TM: The people were all so generous and hospitable, is that the big takeaway for you?
LM: Yeah it was and I’ve been really fortunate to travel a lot, and in all parts of the world I find that people are generally very kind and generous, but it really is such a part of the culture in the region and always has been historically and I met people from all sorts of faiths and ethnicities as well, we do live in a time when Islam is such a big touchstone, drawing conversation and tension especially in the UK. Predominantly a lot of the people I came into contact with were Muslim and it is a big part of Islamic culture to be hospitable, which is not something that again necessarily gets talked about all that often. So partly it’s cultural to that part of the Arab world but also it’s tied into the faith as well, but that doesn’t mean that Christians and the Jews that I met on the way back through Israel weren’t just as hospitable, so it’s a really nice thing to be able to take away from a region that has so many problems.
TM: Talking about faith, it’s obviously quite a spiritual journey following that path. How did that affect you?
LM: That’s a really good question, I grew up in Northern Ireland – so I grew up in a place that unfortunately really has seen a lot of the negative impacts of a very religious culture. So I’ve always been very interested in religion and spirituality and would call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I don’t practice any faith, so it really did make me think very deeply about what it means to have a faith and also how that drives peoples lives and how that drives them to interact with others as well. I think this region more than any shows the best and the worst of what faith can bring out in people, but it certainly gave me a huge respect for the Abrahamic faiths and how powerful they are and how much they impact on peoples lives.
TM: In terms of your travels, what does adventure mean to you, is it learning?
LM: I think it’s learning, that’s a really good way to put it actually. Adventure has meant a lot of different things to me at different points of my life, and I think that’s the great thing about it, it does mean something different to everyone individually. When I was 21 I wanted to break free from full-time education and I set off to try and cycle round the world, that was the biggest adventure I could think of, and that was very internal – seeing what I was made of, seeing if I could take responsibility for myself in the world, but now it’s probably much deeper. I still like the physical side of it now and then, but I get much more of a kick out of trying to find interesting places, interesting people and maybe sharing stories that don’t get heard that often, so I suppose to summarise it would just be to say that adventure is doing something different and something that is a learning experience and trying to make it into a lifestyle where everyday offers something that can’t really be replicated.
TM: Is there anyone who really inspired you?
LM: Well I grew up in the countryside, so I always had an appreciation for the outdoors, but I remember reading the classical exploration accounts, particularly Ernest Shackleton’s books, South was one of the first I ever read, but really it was when I was starting to plan the big cycling trip after I left university and I realised that there was actually a very small but very active community of people based around London and the rest of the UK that were doing these sorts of things. So maybe not individually, but people who were doing it relatively quietly, getting on with it and just sharing stories as they found them and just making the most of adventure as a lifestyle rather than as a career at that point. That was really encouraging to me that there were these people doing these sorts of things.
TM: Do you find wherever you travel people are inherently the same, do you think there’s a lot of difference between people and cultures?
LM: I see a lot of similarities among the core values of people. I really believe the vast majority of people are hard wired to be good and kind. People want to work, they want to do something that feels worthwhile, they want to have families and look after them and they want to have communities. So I find those things over and over again, which is always encouraging. maybe the peripheral details change, but we’re more similar than we are different in the important ways.
TM: How did this journey compare to your other travels? How was it different.
LM: It was the most immersive experience I’ve had. My personal trajectory is I’ve tried to narrow the geographical region of which I’m travelling, to go slower and focus on a smaller area and see it in more detail. This is probably the most effective I’ve managed to do that so far. Of course I’m never going to understand it from one journey, but I feel I was getting somewhere and learning a lot of things on this one.
TM: What’s the main thing you’ve taken away from the trip?
LM: It probably changes day to day, but I’m really fond of this region and I do worry about it in a wider sense. There’s a lot going on there, I would really like people to see what I saw and feel the warmth and kindness and complexity of peoples lives there. It’s a very special part of the world and ultimately I feel very grateful to have spent so much time there.
TM: Is there a piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up on your travels that’s stuck with you?
LM: One thing that I constantly learn, I can’t say I’ve managed to fully follow it myself, but if I could encourage others to completely remove any judgement before meeting people that would be wonderful. I’m constantly surprised by people and their depth of knowledge and their ideas and philosophies. I think that’s always a good bit of wisdom, to try and approach everyone with an open mind and see what they have to say.
Leon’s fantastic book The Land Beyond is out on the 30th September. Pre-order your copy HERE