Meet the adventurer: Reza Pakravan on crossing Africa’s Sahelian belt, from Senegal to Somalia

The British explorer is the first in modern history to travel the width of Africa via the Sahel, the semi-arid zone south of the Sahara Desert. Here, he discusses endurance, mental health and his new Amazon series, The World's Most Dangerous Borders.

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 9 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT
On his expeditions, Reza Pakravan focuses on documenting the impact of environmental catastrophes on the lives of ...

On his expeditions, Reza Pakravan focuses on documenting the impact of environmental catastrophes on the lives of indigenous people — especially those living on the frontline of climate change.

Photograph by Mark Game

What made you leave a career in finance to become an explorer?

I grew up in a family of television workers. My dad used to take me on shoots — he made documentaries all over the world. But I had a different idea. I thought, ‘You guys have spent your lifetime working in a creative industry not earning much, but I’m going to make lots of money’. At first, it was great: I paid back my student debts and lived a dream life. But fast-forward to my mid-30s and I realised I didn’t want to be behind a desk. Money wasn’t enough and I hated what I was doing. So, little by little, I changed my career. I went to film school. I trained myself. I slowly built up the confidence to be an adventurer and a filmmaker.

What’s been the most challenging moment in all your travels?

When I spent four days under arrest in Darfur while my wife was pregnant at home. I was travelling through the Sahelian belt in North Africa, which separates the Sahara Desert from the African savannah. Darfur has been a no-go zone for many years — it had taken months of negotiations with the Sudanese government to get permission. There’s a tribe called Masalit, who live on the border of Sudan and Chad, and I wanted to document the impact of desertification on their lives.

However, when we got to the border, we were taken into custody and handed over to Sudanese intelligence. Since we’d spent a lot of time in remote areas and didn’t know what was going on in the world, we were unaware that Omar al-Bashir [dictator and former president of Sudan] had just been toppled and Sudan was going through a revolution. It was four days of living in bad conditions, not knowing what was going to happen, unable to communicate with my wife. They were the darkest moments of my career.

And what about your most eye-opening experience?

In Chad, I came across a sexually liberated tribe called Wodaabe. Basically, a married woman can take any married or unmarried man as a sexual partner, even if she’s married to someone else. But there’s a condition: if the woman decides to leave her marriage, the children remain with the husband. There’s no stigma or shame. The system makes sure the children’s place in society is protected while giving women maximum flexibility.

Reza advocates a holistic approach to tackling climate change, "We need to see the problem as a problem for all of us. If we don’t do something right now, the next generation is going to suffer dreadfully."

Photograph by Mark Game

How do you prepare for such mammoth journeys?

The starting point is always a map and a glass of whiskey. It’s the best way to start your research! There are four different elements to consider: mental, physical, logistical and human. In terms of physical, if I’m about to row somewhere, I basically throw myself into rowing; if I have to cycle, I throw myself into cycling. When I put my mind to something, I live that idea 24/7. I dedicate time to building the skeleton of the trip, and make sure I know the right person, the right place and have access to what I want to explore. A lot of work is done beforehand on the logistics. As I’m preparing, I get so close to the subject that I’m mentally there. By the time I arrive, 70% of the job is pretty much done.

And how do you nurture your mental wellbeing while on an expedition?

I’ve lost my mind a couple of times. There’s nothing like an expedition to strip you bare. Especially the isolation — think about doing something over and over again, on a daily basis, with nobody to talk to. I distract myself, come up with emotion-focused coping strategies and reframe the situation — I find these things to be the most successful techniques. I move myself away from the situation and try to look at it from a different perspective. Good mental health is integral to the success of an expedition.

Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met on your travels?

Henry, my guide on The World’s Most Dangerous Borders. A Cameroonian, he spoke five or six languages, 15 different dialects and was incredibly well-connected. He had a profound impact on me in terms of mindfulness and compassion and appreciating communities in really poor countries. I’m eternally grateful to have met him.

On his journey across Africa, Reza stayed with the Dogon people who inhabit the rocky plateaus between Mali and Burkina Faso.


Photograph by Mark Game

Where did the idea for The World’s Most Dangerous Borders come from?

My job is to tell untold stories. I’d spent a couple of months travelling around the Lake Chad area and couldn’t believe how under-developed it was. All I was seeing [in the West] were stories on terrorism, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and civil unrest. What about the people? What about the tribes who call the area home? The media talks about mass migration across the Sahelian belt, about terrorism and killing, but what’s the root of all of that? I decided to set off and try to answer these questions. And it’s called The World’s Most Dangerous Borders because they really are that. Each one is a war zone and navigating them was a major job.

You’ve cycled the length of the planet, from Arctic Norway to the tip of South Africa. What’s the biggest lesson you learnt on that journey?

I had a near-death experience with heat exhaustion and had to be rescued by a local tribe — my malaria-ravaged body didn’t have the stamina to cope with gravel-riding in 45C. I wanted to get to Cape Town in 100 days to beat the world record, but I made it in 102 days. Still, that trip ignited my dream career. I started a lifelong journey of expeditions and filmmaking, and those two days don’t matter anymore. That perfection us humans seek? It might not be truly attainable.

What’s the biggest change we need to make as a planet?

My career focuses on documenting the impact of environmental catastrophes on the lives of indigenous people — especially those living on the frontline of climate change. The impact isn’t as tangible in the developed world. But if you go to the Sahelian belt, for example, you see how people’s lives and land have been completely consumed by mass desertification. It’s led to migration, war and the rise of the terrorist groups. If you tackle one thing in isolation, it doesn’t work — we need to think holistically, and see the problem as a problem for all of us. If we don’t do something about climate change right now, the next generation is going to suffer dreadfully.

Describe what adventure means to you in three words.

Discovering, documenting and disseminating.

Reza Pakravan is an ambassador for SEED Madagascar and is currently helping to highlight their food insecurity campaign and working to help prevent famine on the island. The World’s Most Dangerous Borders is available on Amazon Prime now.

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