For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Leon McCarron is a adventurer and storyteller from Northern Ireland. A Fellow of the National Geographical Society, he has quite the CV when it comes to travelling around the world.
He has walked 3,000 miles across China, trekked across the Empty Quarter desert in Oman, and even cycled 14,000 miles from New York to Hong Kong – and that’s just scratching the surface.
Here at Winfields Outdoors, we were lucky enough to catch up with Leon to chat about his more recent book, his favourite places in the UK and the weirdest places he’s slept the night…
So let’s start with your new book, The Land Beyond – tell us a bit about it…
Sure, so The Land Beyond documents walking from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai – I knew of all these places but I wanted to know what they looked like in the modern era. I have always made a habit of travelling places slowly, using human power and immersing myself to get under the skin of a place. I wanted to see another side of an area that’s often misunderstood.
It was wonderful, although physically hard work, and I was doing it on my own. In Jordan there can be large stretches without water and so I had to find it from unusual sources. We carried heavy packs in long days of heat and exposure, but it was really beautiful and wild place with big mountains and rugged landscapes
It was also so incredibly friendly and hospitable. It was one of the friendliest parts of the world I’ve been to. It’s not something we often hear about the middle east – it’s nice to be able to experience and share that in the book.
You hear a lot about the Middle East not being safe but I didn’t find that at all. There are certainly things to be aware of, but there are organisations there committed to building hiking trails especially for travellers.
What are your standout achievements?
My last trip to the Middle East was a proud moment. I started it with a friend but he got injured after a few weeks and I did most of it on my own. That was pretty tough. I have experience of hiking on my own but in somewhere I didn’t know with a new language was pretty hard.
The thing I found toughest mentally and physically was an earlier journey where a friend and I walked from the Gobi Desert down to Hong Kong which is a distance of about 3,000 miles and took us about seven months. We had a freezing winter crossing the Gobi Desert and we weren’t really prepared for it to be that cold. We were carrying 30kg of gear on our back, about 25 miles a day and had total isolation for a while until we reached the Chinese border. It was a fantastic opportunity to see China but it was tough. It felt like a relentless challenge and I’m glad I’ve done it but wouldn’t be jumping to do it again!
Are these hikes more of a mental or physical challenge?
I often find the mental side is tougher than the physical. With the physical side, as long as nothing breaks or tears, it’s mind over matter and you distract yourself and remind yourself of all the reasons why you’re there in the first place. You can put the pain to background, but it’s hard to completely get rid of the thought process – you wonder why you’re doing it for months on end. You really have to work hard to keep yourself in good spirits.
Looking at the same terrain can be hard but you have to force yourself to be interested in everything. I learn as much as I can about the formation of the route, the terrain, vegetation, etc, so each thing has its own story and your appreciate the little details. It makes you see that one rock is different from the last rock!
Have you ever been worried you’ve bitten off more than you can chew?
I did run into a few issues about finding water and the potential of getting lost or stuck between canyons. I was aware that if I slipped and rolled and ankle it would be severe and no one would help me find water. Or if I took a wrong turn I could find myself 10 miles away from water in 40 degree heat. The margins for error were slim. I did have a few hairy moments but I just had to trust my own experience and hope for the best.
So what did you do about finding water?
I had a decent support network within the region and I used their information on water sources, rivers that would be flowing, local Bedouin camps to help me refill. I put all that on my GPS so I knew where everything was. I did rely a lot on technology.
Where haven’t you been that you’d love to see?
Lot of places around the world, but also closer to home – I used to go to the Cairngorms a lot when I was young and would like to re-explore some of that. We’re really lucky in the UK to have some of the most amazing outdoor wilderness areas on Earth.
Elsewhere in the world, I’ve never been to Russia or India and they’re pretty big places to explore.
So where else in the UK is on your list?
I know the Lake District quite well but not the Peak District, so would like to go there more. I go to the same places a lot but I’d like to be more adventurous. In Northern Ireland and Ireland, I know the north coast quite well where I grew up but I’d like to do more there, especially in the mountains and maybe the rivers and the coast line.
How important is the right kit when hiking?
The right kit is essential – I’m a real fan of minimalism and I don’t thing you should overcomplicate things. I don’t think you should have to spend the earth to have an adventure. I’m a believer in adventure being democratised but we’re also living in an age when high quality gear is more affordable than ever so we’re really fortunate in that way.
I do a lot of hiking obviously and the two things I don’t compromise on are hiking boots and rucksack because that is your whole existence – how comfortable your feet are and the weight on your hips and shoulders. I also spend a lot of time on my sleeping system as that’s so important – I make sure I have a good quality sleeping mat and sleeping bag that’s rated a few degrees below where I’m going to be.
With other parts of my kit, I’m a bit more experimental with new technology, such as cooking systems, types of tents, etc.
Speaking of sleeping, where’s the worst place you’ve slept?
I was cycling from New York to Hong Kong and I was in China being a bit lazy and would sleep wherever. I would sleep in construction sites and there are those big concrete cylinders and sometimes I would just crawl in those and sleep there but one night I eyed one up but I didn’t realise it was much smaller and wasn’t wide enough for my shoulders. I squashed myself inside and it was just awful. I can remind myself of that night and nothing seems quite as bad.
How about the worst things you’ve eaten?
Asia has the best and worst food – I had some weird things in China and Mongolia. I had lots of boiled goat’s intestines. Lots of things weren’t cooked very well but were apparently delicacies! It makes a change from instant noodles and cooking on my camp stove – I’m up for anything really.
A big thank you to Leon for taking the time to talk to us – his book The Land Beyond is available now.
Last modified: June 25, 2019