Doyenne of the adventure world Leon McCarron will be leading our two-week walking expedition through the Occupied Palestinian Territories this November. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, Leon has recently returned from a four month walk through the Middle East and is now beavering away on a film and book about the journey. We had a little chinwag with him to see why he’s so keen to go back, and what he found so beguiling about Palestine in particular.
EDGE: Obviously we are interested in the West Bank because that’s where you are leading a tour for us. What was the most surprising thing about your time there?
LEON: There’s a lot of diversity there. On the map it looks like quite a small area – and it is, geographically – but when you’re there, on foot, it begins to feel much bigger and varied. The south is desert; the north green hills. There are wild open spaces that feel positively Biblical, and then there are bustling, busy cities like Nablus with crowds thronging on every street corner. Some days you get all of these things within a few hours of walking.
EDGE: The Middle East doesn’t exactly have a good profile in the media at the moment. What possessed you to do a walk there?
LEON: Exactly that! I’ve travelled a lot in other parts of the Middle East and have always found it to be a wonderfully friendly region of the world. My working hypothesis is that people are good just about everywhere in the world, and there’s no reason why this area would be any different. I thought it would be interesting to go there and report back on just how misunderstood it is.
How could you resist a walking expedition led by this model of rufty-tuftiness?
EDGE: Middle Eastern hospitality is supposed to be legendary – did you find this to be the case?
LEON: Always! Without exception, and especially so in the West Bank. It’s a big part of culture in the region, but in Palestine in particular people seemed keen to go above and beyond the call of hospitality duty, perhaps because so few tourists visit these days.
EDGE: There are probably fewer tourists visiting Palestine than visit Bognor Regis each year – how did people react to you as a ‘rare’ tourist?
LEON: See above! There were ‘better’ days in years gone by when tourism was more frequent, and the economy healthier. On a purely practical level, people in the West Bank miss those days. Tourists are treated very well, and there seems to be quite a lot of respect for travellers who have decided to make the effort to come to a misunderstood place.
EDGE: People often view this part of the world as having a frisson of danger. What was your own experience of walking there – for example, did you ever feel in personal danger, were people hostile towards you or did you ever feel that the concerns we hear about in the mainstream press were justified?
LEON: The West Bank is not dangerous. The only threat come from clashes between local Palestinians and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), but these are relatively rare and completely avoidable. There are flashpoints, like Hebron Old City and the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, but unless a traveller is looking for it, I would suspect that it’d be nearly impossible to find trouble in the West Bank as a walker.
EDGE: What was your most memorable meal in Palestine?
LEON: That’s too hard to answer! The food is out of this world. I particularly like Mensef, which I cannot do justice to with words…
EDGE: You have said that it was impossible to walk very far each day because of the number of cups of tea offered to you! How many cups of tea do you think was your daily average!?
LEON: With self-restraint I probably got it down to about 10! It’s a big part of culture, and it’s also the perfect energy drink for walking…
EDGE: What was your most memorable human encounter in Palestine?
LEON: This is almost as hard to answer as the food question! I’d often get invited in to homes for tea or even as a place to stay. In Jericho, one gentleman was particularly keen to show me around the city and he offered for me to spend the night in his home. I declined as I had other plans, and he came out with the unforgettable, undeniably unique response of: “But…we have aubergines!” How could I say no to that?!
EDGE: Can you think of the most memorable view you encountered in Palestine and describe that scene in a few sentences?
LEON: There is a beautiful vista from the town of Sebastia, especially around sunset. I stood on a mound by the old Roman ruins and looked north through the rolling green hills of the West Bank as the light faded. Slowly lights began to spring up across the West Bank until the previously empty looking landscape was covered in signs of life. It’s a very special place.
EDGE: People often say that long expeditions can bring out minor irritations with an expedition partner. What was Dave’s most annoying habit!? And what do you think he would say is yours!?
LEON: I think Dave would say I was the perfect walking partner…
To be very honest – and this is not simply diplomacy – we didn’t annoy each other too much I don’t think. There was always so much to do and see, or people to talk to, that we rarely had time to be irritated with each other!
EDGE: Why do you think it’s important to travel in places like this – do you think travellers like us have a purpose or message, or a part to play in redressing the negative messages of the media?
LEON: Absolutely. These are beautiful, kind and important parts of the planet. The current climate of fear regarding the Middle East sets a dangerous precedent. Those of us fortunate enough (and motivated enough) to go there and see these places for ourselves experience first hand what they’re really like, and that puts us in a unique position to report back first-hand, without any political influence or slant. We can do a lot in changing perceptions by simply giving a human face to places that are so often more associated with danger, terrorism or any of the other buzzwords that do much more harm than good.
To find out more about Leon’s walk and drool over his fabulous photographs check out his website walkthemasar.com. And if this sounds like the sort of adventure you’d love to come on, find out more and sign up here. There are just FOUR places left….