Adventurer Leon McCarron: 'I’ve never found a place I didn’t like"

The writer, filmmaker and explorer tells us about his most memorable and most uncomofortable travel experiences

Leon Mccarron. Courtesy Leon Mccarron
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Leon McCarron has cycled 22,530 kilometres from New York to Hong Kong, walked the length of China, ridden across Patagonia on horseback and, as recounted in his 2017 book 'Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East', hiked from the West Bank to the Sinai desert. The Northern Irish writer, filmmaker, adventurer and Royal Geographical Society fellow tells us why a slow and simple approach to travel is always best.

How often do you travel?

Last year I was in 34 different countries and that was the busiest year of my life. I’m probably travelling six to eight months of the year and the rest is spent in London, where I technically live, even though I’m never there.

Do you have a favourite city?

I really don’t. Because my job is essentially to travel and appreciate ­places, I’ve never found a place I didn’t like. But if I’m really pushed to say my absolute favourite, I always say the north of Ireland, which is where I was born and grew up. I don’t have a favourite destination, but the place I’ve spent most time in is the wider region of the Middle East, because it fascinates me and I could keep going there continuously.

What three things do you always take on your travels? 

I take two quite boring things: I always travel with my notebook and I always travel with my camera, because those are the tools of my job. And I always travel with a comfortable pair of walking shoes, because if I get the chance, I want to be able to go out and experience a place on foot.

Courtesy Leon McCarron
Courtesy Leon McCarron

What’s the most uncomfortable travel experience you’ve ever had?

The most uncomfortable travel experience I've ever had – and not really for me, but mostly other people – was after my friend and I had walked across the Empty Quarter, from Salalah to Dubai. We had spent 46 days walking and, as you can imagine, there weren't many shower facilities or ways to get clean along the way. We finished on top of Burj Khalifa, but we couldn't take the steps so we had to get in an elevator. Everyone else in there was, of course, looking very normal and very glamorous, because they were on vacation. And we stepped into the elevator after 46 days in the wilderness. We all had to stand there for a couple of minutes, or however long it takes to get to the top, and you could see people starting to smell these two strange men who had just come out of the desert. That's the most awkward I've ever felt. So I'd like to apologise to all those people.

Courtesy Leon McCarron
Courtesy Leon McCarron

Where was the last place you went for an actual holiday?

I don't think I've really been on holiday for a very long time, even though I'm always travelling. The closest I get to holidays is when I go back home to Ireland to see my family. I'm planning a holiday for this summer, although I haven't decided where. I think I'll probably end up going somewhere in the Middle East – I'd like a mixture of something cultural and relaxing.

What is your least favourite part of the travel process?

I don't like airports. I enjoy being in a place and getting to know it. I enjoy the slow travel, the movement of walking or cycling or kayaking or horse-riding or camel trekking. So as long as I'm in a place or moving slowly from one place to another, I'm happy. The logistics of airports are a hassle of the job – a privilege but also a hassle. I would much rather be in a desert with a camel than in a plane over an ocean.

Courtesy Leon McCarron
Courtesy Leon McCarron

Simplicity or luxury?

Definitely simplicity. I love luxury once in a while, but I also like to feel like I’ve earned it. One of the greatest feelings in the world is having everything you need to survive in a small backpack and being able to just go somewhere with that, knowing that everything you need is on your back. That minimalism and simplicity is probably the best feeling. It’s also nice, though, at the end of a long journey, to have a five-star hotel and a cold shower. So maybe a combination of the two is best.

What’s your top travel tip?

It's probably obvious by now, but it's to go slow. Just slow everything down – slow movement down, slow ambition down, in terms of how much you want to fit in. Try to really be somewhere and to immerse yourself in that place. Walk around instead of driving around. When you are exploring a city, spend an hour in a café instead of 15 minutes; or three hours over dinner instead of one. There's nothing worse than going away for a week of travel and trying to fit too much in, and coming back home exhausted, not feeling like you've seen anything properly. There's always going to be more things to do than we have time for. Experiencing everything fully and getting to know a place properly is infinitely more valuable.