Leon McCarron is an adventurer and filmmaker from Northern Ireland whose latest journey took him to one of the most fascinating but potentially dangerous parts of the planet – the Middle East.
His previous travels include a 3000-mile trek across China, which he covered for National Geographic, and a 14,000-mile bicycle ride from New York to Hong Kong.
Most recently, Leon set out from Jerusalem, walking wild hiking trails and ancient trading and pilgrimage routes on a journey that took in the West Bank, Jordan and the vast deserts of the Sinai. He tells all in his book, The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot Through the Heart of the Middle East.
Sanvada spoke to Leon to find out more about his journey.
Sanvada: Why did you choose this route for your latest adventure?
Leon McCarron: I’ve been traveling to the Middle East for a few years and, as a storyteller, I find it’s a place that is so often misunderstood. I really enjoy making journeys in places where I think that I can show others another side, or an alternative narrative.
The Holy Land in particular is somewhere that feels familiar on one level, as I grew up in a Western Christian tradition and so Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho etc. are all familiar names, but I’d never been.
When I discovered that there were a series of new and audacious hiking trails being built across the region, I decided to use those to help me structure a route – that became Jerusalem to Mount Sinai.
S: Were there things that surprised you about the places and people you found?
LM: It’s strange to see the contemporary version of places that are well known as Bible locations! The layers of history, faith and culture are palpably heavy on the landscape, and it’s surprisingly diverse in that respect too – some of the West Bank feels more like Mediterranean Spain or Italy, for example.
Most of all though I was deeply moved and encouraged by the genuine hospitality and warmth of the vast majority of people that I met. They’d take me in, look after me and tell me their stories. One man, Mahmoud, in Jordan, offered to wash my feet when he saw me struggling along a path at the end of a long day.
This is a part of the world from which we usually only near negative press coverage – I found a whole other layer of goodness, and positivity to match.
S: Did you rely on much technology during the journey, or was it more paper maps and a good pair of boots?
LM: Good boots and a good pack are always key! I had some paper maps, but mostly I used a GPS to follow the digital points of the fledgling hiking trails that I hoped to follow – the Masar Ibrahim, the Jordan Trail, and the Sinai Trail. If I ever got really lost, I’d use my compass to point me back in the direction of a road or, if there were people around, I’d ask them which way to go (and, if I was lucky, they’d offer me a cup of tea while we discussed it!).
S: What is it about walking, wherever it may be, that’s special to you?
LM: I enjoy the enforced slowness of it, and I love the idea of living life at 3 miles per hour. When we walk to travel, it immerses us in the surroundings, and leaves us vulnerable, which often creates these wonderful raw, real experiences. It can be a scary prospect, but it’s the most authentic way to travel that I know. There’s also a great connection between walking and thinking, and I find that, as long as I keep walking, I’m able to appreciate and understand things in a way that are much trickier from a desk.
The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot Through the Heart of the Middle East is available now.