Leon McCarron is a Northern Irish adventurer and filmmaker. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and specialises in long distance, human-powered expeditions. At the end of 2012 Leon crossed 1000 miles of the Empty Quarter desert, roughly following the route of explorer Wilfred Thesiger and pulling a cart loaded with supplies. In May 2012 he concluded a 6-month, 3000 mile expedition walking the length of China, from the Gobi desert in Mongolia to South China Sea in Hong Kong. National Geographic produced a 4-part TV series of the journey. Other journeys include 14,000 miles solo and unsupported on a bicycle from New York to Hong Kong, a folding bike trip around the British Isles to climb the Six Peaks, a human-powered descent of the longest river in Iran, the Karun, and a crossing of Argentine Patagonia on horseback.
I grew up in Northern Ireland, and moved to England for university. After finishing my degree I briefly because manager of an independent cinema. Although it was a good job with decent prospects, I realised that I’d never really had a chance yet to explore the world. Even worse, I felt that I’d never properly challenged myself…I desperately wanted to set off into the wilds and see what I was made of. University had taught me many things, but not that! I decided to save up for a year, and then use that money to combine my two passions of storytelling and adventure by trying to cycle around the world.
I left from New York City, and eventually spend 14 months riding 14,000 miles through ten countries, finishing up in Hong Kong. There I met an adventurer called Rob Lilwall, and he asked me if I’d like to try walking across China with him. 5 months later we set off into the Gobi desert in winter, and spent 6 months walking 3000 miles, making a TV show for National Geographic along the way. After these journeys I because very passionate about sharing the stories of my expeditions, and encouraging others to try their own adventures, big or small. I have since walked 1000 miles through the Empty Quarter pulling a giant (and awfully designed!) steel cart, and followed the longest river in Iran from source to sea.
It never really occurred to me to check who had done what before me. I loved reading about Shackleton and Scott and Thesiger and all the heroes, but when it came to planning my own trip, I wasn’t too interested in the past journeys of others. My first adventure, ironically like many other people’s I suppose, was quite an introspective and personal rite-of-passage. I wanted to see the world, but I also wanted to see how I fitted into it. I reckoned the rest of my life would figure itself out from there!
I’ve always loved adventure in a small sense – running, cycling, hiking, camping – but once I set off on my big bicycle adventure I really saw the appeal of each day being a complete unknown, full of new experiences and challenges. Once I finished that trip I realised that it was adventure which gave me a buzz that nothing else could, and through my filmmaking, writing and public speaking I could share that experience with others. That was the real ‘lightbulb moment’ when I thought “I want to do this for as long as I possible can!”
The greatest adventure
Undoubtedly walking across China. It wasn’t just the distance, although 3000 miles on foot was a real physical and mental challenge, but it was also the fact that it was my first ‘professional’ expedition, shooting a TV show for National Geographic. As well as enjoying the experience, I also felt a lot of pressure to not get injured AND to film interesting footage, and for those reasons, alongside the fact that China is such an amazing and mad place, this is definitely the greatest adventure I have been on. Probably being brought ice cream in the desert! During our trek across the Empty Quarter we regularly crossed roads and trails used by oil workers in the sands, and occasionally the same drivers would see us over the course of a few days. One time when an Indian truck driver asked if we needed anything we joked “Only ice-cream!” and two days later he turned up further down the same road….with two ice creams!
The greatest rewards
I love the really unexpected moments that happen on expeditions. Often those involve people – meeting local farmers in the middle of nowhere, and getting a glimpse into a life so different from my own. One of my favourite experiences was spending a night in a Mongolian ger while walking across the Gobi desert, and another was having a complete stranger in Iran lend us two bicycles after just having met us! The kindness and generosity of so many people I’ve met has astounded me. I love the unpredictability of adventure, and the challenges that brings, and the rewards that come from those unknowns are so much sweeter because of it. Travel broadens the mind, so they say, and although clichéd, it is true.
Travelling adventurously makes us think about ideas that we never have to deal with at home- carrying our lives in a backpack or on a bicycle, being sustainable, relying on the hospitality of strangers, conserving water – it’s hugely beneficial for those of us from privileged background to be reminded of these. When we travel, we think differently and are inevitably more vulnerable, and we have to rely on the people we meet wherever we happen to be in the world. The kindness of strangers is something that has inspired me most of all – people all over the world have gone out of their way to help me on my journeys, despite many of them being very poor. It’s a very heartwarming and motivating experience.
I’ve always loved adventure in a small sense – running, cycling, hiking, camping – but once I set off on my big bicycle adventure I really saw the appeal of each day being a complete unknown, full of new experiences and challenges.
Projects and causes
In the past I have raised money for UNICEF and Viva (a children’s charity based in Oxford.) I am most attracted to raising money for organisations with which I have a personal connection – there are so many worthy causes out there that deserve help and fundraising, but each of us can only (unfortunately) do a finite amount with our time and energies, so I focus on helping those causes that I am connected with on some level. When I walked across China, my walking partner Rob Lilwall and his wife Christine were volunteering for Viva, setting up an Asian branch of the charity. It was great to be able to help them in a small way with the great work they were doing with the charity.
One of the real benefits of doing adventures from any sort of a platform is being able to raise awareness, and that’s probably the most useful thing I can do. A good friend of mine, Matt Friedlund, and I started a US-based non-profit called The Young Philanthropists. The aim is to utilise curriculum- and service project-based adventures to mentor young people and to raise awareness and funds for impoverished communities in the US and around the world (www.theyp.org.) I haven’t been involved much on the ground level to date, but Matt, his brother Andy and a few others have run some adventures in the US over the last couple of years and set up some projects. This year Matt is planning to cycle across Europe leading a group of American students, and will stop and help at service projects along the way. I am not hugely gifted in the organisational aspects of these things, but what I am really passionate about is getting people off the sofa and out on their own adventures. Once we’re out in the world, everything else can begin – we become more efficient, alert and enthusiastic about life, and are able to be better versions of ourselves (so I think!)
Supporting causes and fundraising has always (very honestly) been a secondary goal of my adventures. I do the trips because I love adventures, but also because I love encouraging others to try them for themselves. I love being able to help causes that I feel passionately about, but I never feel pressure from them. The challenges in that respect are all faces by the charities and causes themselves who are trying to do fantastic work on limited budgets.
It always opens my eyes and my mind when I travel to remote parts of the world. I think it’s important to travel sustainably, and show respect to the places in which one travels. I have helped out on some projects in places I’ve passed through, but I guess I find it easier to find a cause that I’m passionate about and then see that through to fruition in one sense or another.
Before the adventure began
I think I used to be pretty normal, and now I’m definitely quite strange! I feel that I used to just exist – I was pretty content a lot of the time, but also stuck in a bit of a rut. Most days just seemed the same, and I never felt particularly excited or fulfilled by my job or much else that I did. Adventures released in me a lot of emotions, and I suddenly realised what it meant to be truly, truly excited by something (the prospect of cycling across America, for example.) I gained so much energy and focus from that. I now make a living from being an ‘adventurer’ which doesn’t mean that I’m off on expedition all the time, but it does mean that I am my own boss and I have the privilege of putting my time into things I really care about. I’ve learned that the world is a good place. 99.9% of the people I’ve met on my travels are good, kind people. I find that such an encouragement! I’ve personally gained a lot of self confidence, and realised that each of us has very specific skills, abilities and passions, and it’s important to engage with that. I used to wish I could’ve done something more stereotypically useful in life – a doctor, for example! – but I’ve now realised that’s a bit of a silly thing to wish for (I’d be a rubbish doctor.) The best thing I can do encourage the things I am good at, and use those to extend beyond myself – to create good things, and help people where I can.
Reshaping the world
I am hugely shaped by my experiences. I learn so much from every adventure I go on, and will continue to for as long as I do them. Everyone always does – it’s one of the most appealing aspects. Doing things for selfish reasons is enjoyable for a while (I think!) but eventually it feels empty. I only take real pleasure and fulfilment from doing something which helps to inspire positive change. I can only get motivated to keep going on projects that are working towards a greater good. So finding a career I really care about has helped me enormously to be happy in what I’m doing and to feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. Adventures can (and will) change lives! We all learn so much on expeditions, and learning to forge an adventurous mindset is such a fun and worthwhile process. Everyone can benefit, and I strongly believe that they should – it’s so easy to give adventure a go!
Head out and do something adventurous…anything! Cycle to the seaside, climb the highest hill in your region, row across an ocean, walk to Italy…big or small, it’s worth just attempting it. If money was no object, what would my career/life look like over the next 10 years? I would like to keep having adventures, and be able to share them with a wide audience through my TV shows, films and writing. So, money no object…I would do my dream expeditions and hopefully use those to inspire an adventure revolution…!
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