In the height of pandemic lockdowns, Haroon Mota could not wait to escape his four walls for the fresh air and freedom of the outdoors.
Having tackled Everest, Machu Picchu and Kilimanjaro on Muslim charity treks, it was during the pandemic that the former European kickboxing champion realised he wanted to share his love of outdoor fitness with his community.
With Covid-19 severely affecting Muslims, having the highest mortality rates by faith group, he realised encouraging healthier lifestyles was more important than ever.
It led to him forming Muslim Hikers in September 2020.
“Hiking isn’t something Muslims traditionally consider doing, it’s not in our culture or DNA,” he told The National.
“You rarely see people from our community out on the hills and I wanted people to see what they were missing.
“So I put up an Instagram post to see if there was any interest in people wanting to go out hiking and the response was overwhelming. It has grown really rapidly. The treks sell out within 24 hours and I have thousands of members now.”
Only 1% of national park visitors come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds
The 36-year-old, who was the European kickboxing champion at 17, isn’t wrong, latest figures by the countryside charity CPRE reveal only 1 per cent of national park visitors come from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and only 20 per cent of BAME children go to the countryside compared with 40 per cent of white children.
“I want to change that,” he said.
“Muslim Hikers is a grassroots initiative to encourage people to get outside more to get healthy and to enjoy the countryside. I wanted to grow people’s awareness of the countryside and give them a sense of empowerment and independence and be part of a group and build friendships.
“I started it in lockdown as a way of bringing people together in a healthy way and to break down barriers. Now we have a mix of ages taking part and the momentum continues to grow.
“All are welcome regardless of religious background or ability. Whether you're a seasoned mountaineer or a first time walker.”
The former Penny Appeal charity worker is based in the northern English city of Coventry and his walks span the length and breadth of the country as do the locations of those taking part.
His latest endeavour saw him take 130 members to the highest peak (736 metres) in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Dozens braved the rain and minus 5°C to climb Yorkshire’s highest peak
On a cold rainy morning, exposed on the moorland beside the formidable mist covered peak of Whernside in the distance, women stood in hijabs bracing the elements with their walking poles poised.
As the cruel wind battered the walkers brave enough to make the journey to the Ribblehead Viaduct, a third of the large group raised their hands when asked “Is this your first time hiking?” as the mountain guide prepared them for the worst.
“There will be gusts of up to 35mph, the chill factor will be minus 3° to minus 5°C,” he said chirpily.
“When you get to the summit there are stone benches, sit on the side where there is no wind. It is really important you stay as warm as possible, stay hydrated, avoid getting cramps and look after each other.”
It was a typical March day in the Yorkshire Dales, a few weeks earlier there had been snow and floods.
But the (nervous) laughter and banter among those taking part didn’t abate.
“It’s my 60th birthday and I’ve driven 240 miles [386km] up from Luton with my son and son-in-law to do my first ever hike,” Intikhab Mahadik chuckled as the rain lashed down.
“I’ve never done one before. It’s just something I’ve never considered doing. We don’t have views like this in Luton.
“My family persuaded me to do it after seeing the post.”
Teacher Aaminah Nisa travelled from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, to the hike on her own to make new friends.
“I like hiking, I’ve been to Iceland hiking,” she said.
“I came on my own and to make new friends who are interesting in walking too. There isn’t anything like this for the Muslim community.”
Nur Nasser, 28, works at Coventry University and has hiked before.
This time she persuaded two of her friends, Siti and Musa, to join her – it was their first time.
“We saw the post for Muslim Hikers and thought it was an opportunity to meet new friends,” she said.
“I like hiking but there isn’t much opportunity for me to do it as my friends are not interested. It is hard to go by myself for safety reasons.”
Teacher Siti had been busy conducting research into hiking equipment.
“I hope the weather improves,” she said.
“It’s my first hike but I’ve done lots of reading about what we need so we are prepared.
“I’m looking forward to getting to see new places I’ve never been to before.”
Online trolls targeted the group with racist abuse
The camaraderie among the group was endearing but only a few months ago those taking part sadly had a different experience when trolls posted racist comments on social media after a hike in the Derbyshire Peak District.
“The abuse we received was not very pleasant,” Mr Mota said.
“These type of comments, racist comments, only make it more problematic for those from our community who feel less empowered to get outside.
“For people who might be joining for the first time, they might think ‘oh wow, is this what people actually think?’
“One of the reasons why we set up Muslim Hikers was so that we could stand together and for greater diversity and inclusion.
“We’ve been working extremely hard to create a culture of confidence in the outdoors.”
However, those braving the English weather, were not deterred, and were more determined than ever to continue.
“You would think comments like we received would deter us, we know issues like this exist in minority parts of the community but in response to what they did we were overwhelmed by supportive comments,” he added.
“You can see by the turnout in Yorkshire, it’s united everyone. The group isn’t about religion, it is open to everyone.”
Hikers determined to walk during Ramadan
Their next hike is set to be held next month during Ramadan and Mr Mota and his team of guides are presently planning the feasibility of the walk.
“We haven’t finalised the details yet but there will be a hike,” he said.
“We have had a lot of interest. Instead of the longer hikes we have been running I think it will be a shorter one.”
Mr Mota is no stranger to tackling endurance missions during Ramadan.
During lockdown he ran the length of six marathons (253km) in his local area, running 10km a day throughout Ramadan while fasting with no food or drink for 18 hours.
His achievement raised more than £50,000 for the Penny Appeal, which helps people in poverty globally.
But for those considering the next trek, Mr Mota can reassure them it will be a pleasurable experience.
“It’s important to listen to your body and walk gently and to reduce the intensity of the hike,” he said.
“It will be challenging but we are here to have a good time.”
It seems that the members agree and already he has been inundated with requests to take part in the hike.