Meet the adventurer: explorer Leon McCarron on storytelling, close shaves and launching a hiking trail in Iraqi Kurdistan

The self-powered adventurer has walked across deserts, rafted down rivers and cycled across continents. Now based in Kurdistan, Leon is helping to shed new light on a region untouched by mass tourism.

By Matthew Figg
Published 1 Mar 2023, 13:40 GMT
Leon McCarron, photographed in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Leon McCarron, photographed in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Photograph by Emily Garthwaite

What sparked your interest in travel and adventure?
I grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland, a very beautiful part of the world. I was lucky to spend a lot of time outdoors, but it wasn’t until I went to university that I suddenly got this sense of what a big, exciting world it is. That’s when I started planning a trip. I knew I wanted to do something memorable that I would be proud of when I was older, so I bought a bicycle and set off on a long journey that changed the course of my life.

I started in New York City, and my plan was to ride until my savings ran out. I was so underqualified to do something like that, but I learned all the things that we learn when we travel — that we’re much more capable than we think we are, and that people are kind. I also realised that by travelling slowly, I was hearing stories that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. I could stop and speak to people, and I could learn a little bit about them. By the time I reached the West Coast, I was completely sold on having a life in motion and telling stories. 

It sounds like that trip was a catalyst for your next adventures
Each trip led very naturally to the next. That was the amazing thing about it — it was all very organic. It was 2010 when I started off on my bike trip, and I went on to walk across China, cross the Empty Quarter desert in the Arabian Peninsula on foot and embark on river expeditions in Iran and South America.

Before I knew it, it was 2015 and I had gone on all these back-to-back expeditions with some fantastic people. I wouldn’t say it was a lucrative or stable career, but I was honing my craft of telling stories and it was sustaining me. I try to never take for granted how lucky I am to be able to do this as a career.

What attracts you to slow, self-powered travel?
If you arrive in a village or town somewhere on bicycle or foot with a backpack, there’s a vulnerability that you show as a traveller and a visitor. There’s a hospitality exchange that happens, and this binds people together. I’m ultimately interested in this human connection. So, the slow travel brings me to places I wouldn't otherwise go and forces me to ask interesting questions that can lead to a deeper, more meaningful experience.

Have you had any close shaves on your adventures?
Yes, I have – although I’d like to say that I certainly have fewer moments these days, partly because my tolerance for risk has gone down! The closest I came to real injury was on the Karun River in Iran with [fellow adventurer] Tom Allen, when pack rafting down these really quite wild sections of water without any way to scout them in advance. We went into a canyon and I got tipped over and pinned into a rock. I was there for probably 30 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I was flailing, kicking, desperately trying to get out. I made it out on the flip of a coin, and I don’t ever want that again. We all like a bit of adrenaline, but that’s not what I’m in it for. 

You’re currently based in Kurdistan — what drew you to live there?
I’ve lived in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, since autumn 2019. I feel remarkably privileged to be able to call this region home, and I’ve recently been thinking a lot about why I’ve settled there. Back in 2016, I had already been in the Middle East a bit and had developed an interest in the wider region. I went to the front line of the ongoing war against Isis to try my hand at a different type of journalism, but it wasn’t for me.

I came back to Erbil after that, where I met a Syrian-Kurdish guy called Laween. He said, “Before you leave, you should make another memory — not just a war zone memory.” He told me that I should come to the mountains, because they’re as much a part of this region’s story as what’s happening in Mosul. 

So we went to the mountains, and they were beautiful, big, ancient, complex and layered. It was a wonderful experience. I had just written a book about contemporary hiking trails that had been developed on top of ancient pilgrimage paths through Jordan, Sinai and the West Bank. It occurred to me that all these layers of history, culture and faith were also here. 

I kept coming back. Every time I had a week or two free, I would head into the mountains with Laween to explore new areas. Slowly, it became an idea.

This idea has evolved into a new hiking trail through the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Could you tell us more about the project?
Fast-forward a few years from those early visits when I first began to learn about everything the region has to offer, and we’ve now defined a route — the Zagros Mountain Trail — that’s 136 miles long with 14 stages and a network of homestays and local guides. It runs from west to east, from a village called Shush through the mountains to the base of Halgurd, the highest peak within Iraq.

The trail goes through a very diverse region. You pass the remains of an old synagogue, then there’s an important Yazidi site and the day after that you see an old monastery. You learn so much as you walk through it. Then, of course, you’ve got the Kurdish villages. There are 36 communities on the trail and each of those has a stake in it. Laween and I came up with the concept, but the trail is owned by the people living along it.

What’s the process for putting together a trail like this?
We're documenting trails that have been used for hundreds of thousands of years — all we're doing is asking people where they normally walk. So, we're not making trails, we're finding them. Laween and I walked thousands of miles and mapped all these trails into a big digital matrix. I think a good trail tells a tale, but you read it with your feet — you walk your way through. Like any good story, it brings in other themes and slowly collects it all together. By the end, you have the full picture. That’s what we’re working towards. 

What have you had to think about to make sure the trail is sustainable for the communities along the route?
We try to do a lot of listening. We spend a lot of time visiting people in the towns and villages along the trail and learning what they want from it. We’re keen to make sure communities have really bought into the idea, and that nothing is left unsaid. 

We also want to ensure that there are different religious and ethnic communities on the route, and that visitors respect the culture of the places they’re passing through. There’s a responsibility for us, as the trail organisers, to protect those communities. 

Finally, the culture of hospitality in the region is very rich and very deep. We’re constantly having to remind our homestay hosts and guides that it’s OK to charge money for what they’re doing! It’s very, very endearing. I think is says a lot about that part of the world.

Your next book is about an expedition down the Tigris. Could you tell us more about this adventure?
When I moved to Iraq, I wanted to really commit to learning as much as I could about the place. One aspect of this was the trails and the other part was this idea to follow the Tigris — one of the great rivers of civilisation — from source to sea. So much of our shared history came from the river; it’s really important.

The Tigris is at the forefront of climate change and geopolitics, and there’s a good chance that at some point it will no longer reach the Gulf as it used to. My new book, Wounded Tigris, is a journey along the river, exploring its rich history, but also looking at what happens next — what do we stand to lose? Over the course of three months, the team travelled from the source all the way down, trying to use local boats and hire local boatmen to take us downstream to the next point.

What are some of the stories from the expedition that you’re looking forward to telling?
The river passes through some of these great cities in the ancient and modern world, from Diyarbakır to Baghdad. I’m really excited to tell the story of those cities through the lens of the river. I’m also looking forward to sharing the tales of the Mesopotamian Marshes. If people know them, it’s probably because of Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs book, but I’m looking forward to revealing a modern glimpse of them. 

My favourite part of all was going to the city of Ashur, which was the ancient capital of Assyria. There are parts of the city that are poking out from the ground, but much of it is still unexcavated. I feel like there’s so much hidden underneath the ground in Iraq, and its stories haven’t had the chance to be told. 

I’d also like the book to be a call to arms in a way. This river is in a dire state and there are things that can be done about it. The more attention that’is given to that, the better.

What do you think the future of exploration looks like?
I think there are ways we can all be explorers. For me, there’s a huge purpose to exploration through telling stories that bring people together and trying to make those stories important and timely by highlighting challenges we’re facing. There will always be new tales to tell; it’s very exciting, and it kind of keeps us on our toes. Exploration is always going to be needed. 

Who has been one of your biggest inspirations?
A lot of my inspiration came through writers. When I was younger, I read a lot of the classics of the travel genre. I really loved the writing of Thesiger. He’s one of those figures that inspired me not just to travel, but to write about it. I’ve really enjoyed digging into him and his story, understanding him anew as a sort of archaic, colonial figure. I’m really interested in how we analyse the writers of the past; I like those complexities. I’m just as interested in how people told their story as what they actually did.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
To make sure to listen at least twice as much as I ever speak.

What’s next?
The trail is going to take up a large amount of my time. I’m also excited for the release of the Wounded Tigris book — it’s been a long project, and I finally get to share it. I want to work with the findings of it and do more with the colleagues who travelled down the river with me. So, I’m going to put a lot of effort into things like that. Then, yes, I will write more and I’m going to travel more. But I’m still very much happy in this region — I don’t think I need to go anywhere else.

Leon McCarron is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and explorer from Northern Ireland, known for his long-distance expeditions. He’s currently based in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he has co-founded the Zagros Mountain Trail, which will open to the public this year. Leon’s latest book, Wounded Tigris, will be released on 6 April 2023 by Little, Brown Book Group, £20.

Published in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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