The filmmaker and adventurer, who has travelled 1,000 miles through the Middle East, shares his stories
I’ve always loved being outdoors. I grew up in the wilderness in Northern Ireland but didn’t travel until I left university in 2010. I bought a bicycle and jumped on an aeroplane to New York with an aim to cycle across America from East to West. I thought that if I just kept going, maybe I could make it. I took my time and within three months I achieved my goal so I thought, why not keep going? I ended up cycling a total of 14,000 miles from New York to Hong Kong.
When I started travelling, I didn’t have a phone or an iPod. It was very low-tech compared to how I travel now, with my laptop and camera and I miss the simplicity of that. Keeping a log book and diary is a purer process than filmmaking, when you need to prioritise the story over being in the moment. But I am doing my dream job so I refuse to be jaded by it.
I don’t travel to break records, but to connect with people and share stories along the way. It can be easy to believe that the world is a scary and dangerous place. Not to downplay the serious issues we are facing currently, but these don’t define the world around us. People have more similarities than they have differences. It’s this counternarrative that motivates me to keep on exploring.
One of my most memorable journeys was crossing the Empty Quarter from Salalah to Dubai with a friend. Although I had lived in Muscat and know a small amount of Arabic, it my first real travel experience in the region. We walked 1,600km over six months, pulling our own supplies in a steel cart. On this journey we met the most liberal, open-minded people and the graciousness with which we were received was incredibly eye-opening.
Travelling can be hectic and crazy. When I reached the Northern edge of the Gobi Desert and crossed into China and Hong Kong there was so much noise. If I don’t factor in some prolonged moments of stillness between trips I would explode.
I spend a lot of time drinking tea and pouring over maps. I have never been to Russia or Central Asia; huge chunks of the world, and places I am keen to learn more about at some point in the future.
Leon will be speaking about his book The Land Beyond at The Times & The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival (5-14 October) on 9 October. cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature