Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter January is the traditional month in the Northern Hemisphere for organising your summer holiday, and this week we’re back talking to someone who specialises in creating holidays that are entirely different – taking you to places you probably thought were out of bounds to all tourists. Places that while they’re not actual war zones, a visitor may well carry a security risk, or at least a perceived one. Swapping Sardinia for Syria, or Andalusia for Afghanistan, or even Ibiza for Yemen might well not be everyone’s choice. But if this is for you, then James is your man.
James Wilcox, welcome back. Now, your company, UntamedBorders.com, takes people to the most extraordinary places in the world. The kind of places where tourists don’t normally go. Now, we talked to you before about skiing in remote corners of the world, like Afghanistan. But now we want to talk about your mainstream bits, the other things you do? If I want to go to some far flung corner of the world, you can get me there, even though that country is not a normal tourist destination. Is that right?
James Up to a point, yes. What we like to think we do is organise travel and logistics in parts of the world that it might not be possible for people to do independently, or certainly not easy to do independently. The whole of the Untamed Borders team, we love travelling independently, but there’s some parts of the world where you need a bit of help, and that’s kind of where we think we add a bit of value.
So yes, we guide tourists and professional people across anywhere from the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, north, east, and Central Africa. So any region or country in that area that you wanted to do something, whether it’s join one of our group trips, whether it is a private trip or whether you wanted to do a project there, could be a media project, it could be some other kind of project….we would probably be a good place to start.
Felice So the group trips, are they organised with a guide or that sort of thing?
James So the group trips, we run maybe 25, 30 trips a year that are set on specific dates. They’re small numbers. So it’s usually between 7 and 10 people on those trips. The majority are with an international guide, or they’re with a local guide, and they are visiting the parts that quite a few people would like to see. So they’re highlight trips of the places. We have group trips in Pakistan, in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Syria, in Libya, Algeria, Somalia, a lot of places where we have a reasonable amount of demand and it makes sense for us to put on a group trip.
So, yes, it would be with a guide, sometimes with an international guide as well, or sometimes just with a guide from the country we visit.
Peter If I’m a traveller who has been everywhere and done everything, where would you think I should go to that normally you wouldn’t even be able to get in there without your help?
James If you’ve done everything and seen everything, are you planning to stay at home and watch the cricket or something like that. I don’t know, I think that I mean, the reason we as I said, I think the reason we exist is to organise things that people would find difficult to organise independently. And that can be because a place is very remote. So we organise trekking trips in very remote areas, where logistical support is needed.
Sometimes it’s due to permits and visas and permissions that it’s not very easy for people just to turn up and go. They need that kind of bureaucratic support. But I think the area over the years, the 15 years of Untamed Borders where we’re probably most known, is where there is a higher security risk, or at least a perceived security risk.
Probably the places where we’re most known for maybe are the trips that we do to Afghanistan – we’ve been working there for 15 years. We’ve done all sorts of trips there, developed different types of tourism there. We talked about skiing the last time I was here, but we helped organise the Marathon of Afghanistan there, which was the first and only mixed gender sporting event that Afghanistan has ever held. We ran that for six years, and we’ve developed horse riding trips, kayaking trips, all sorts of stuff in Afghanistan. So I’d say probably if there was one place that we’re most well-known for, if we were known for anything, it would be would be Afghanistan.
Felice The kayaking is on what sort of river, white-water?
James So this is a typical request. We had some guys that I knew who had kayaked in northern Pakistan, and they asked me about wanting to do a trip in Afghanistan. I don’t know when this was 2016, 2017, I can’t remember exactly. We identified a couple of places where we thought from a security perspective they would be able to kayak, and so in the end, they kayaked the length of the Panjshir Valley, which is maybe a couple of hours north of Kabul.
They made a little documentary about it as well, which I think if they Googled ‘kayaking Afghanistan’…there’s not so many YouTube videos, so I’m sure they can find it quite easily.
Peter Somewhere like Yemen, very few tourists have been there. How did you get into the subject altogether of taking people to Yemen?
James We’d been working for a while. Untamed Borders began guided tourists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It began with an Afghan chap, a Pakistani chap, and myself. They work predominantly with professional people, but they worked with tourists quite a bit, and they wanted to do more tourist work. So that’s sort of how Untamed Borders began.
Because I ended up spending quite a lot of time in Afghanistan, we developed a lot of connections with people in the international development world and in the conflict media world. So we began offering trips to other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia and, and Africa, where it was probably quite hard to organise, or there was a security risk, or a perceived security risk.
By extension, people were interested in going to Yemen. So we expanded our contacts, and now we’ve done trips, regular trips, both group trips and private trips to Socotra, which is an island off the coast of the south of Yemen, kind of like the Galapagos of the Middle East – it has a lot of endemic and indigenous plants and wildlife.
But we also organise some trips to the mainland of Yemen, predominantly in the Hadhramaut region, which is in the east of the country, which by and large has escaped the conflict, which has pretty much been restricted to the west of the country where most of the population is.
So we got into it by demand and by the fact that we knew if we had guests that liked to visit Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Libya, then they would probably be interested in seeing some of the amazing sights and experiences that can be found in Yemen.
Felice So on the mainland Yemen, what is there to see? What sort of things would people go and look at?
James The areas that we go to…probably the highlight of the trip is definitely the Hadhramaut Valley. So Yemen for centuries, millennia, has always been a huge trading place. The trade between Europe and India 2000 years ago was controlled by people that lived along the coastline of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. If you ever go to Aden or Al Mukalla on the coast, it’s extremely humid and it’s quite uncomfortable to live.
But if you go inland, it’s very dry. So the people who created this wealth built their palaces and their cities inland in the Hadhramaut valley. So one of the places is called Shibam – if you Google it, it’s known as like the Chicago or the Manhattan of the desert; so it’s this square city with 13, 14, 15 story high mud skyscrapers. The advantage of having these extremely tall…whenever you’ve been in a city which has extremely tall buildings, you often feel the wind whipping between the buildings. It can actually be quite cool, that’s why they built it like this – so they could live in the desert and have this air moving through the city to keep themselves cool.
It’s still there. This city is 700, 800 years old and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s fabulous and a privilege to visit it without there being any other tourists there. So that’s just one highlight of this area of the Hadhramaut, which had incredible wealth 700, 800 years ago and has these wonderful mud-built villages and towns to visit.
Peter Syria, again we think of Syria…and being a war zone for so long now, but there are parts of Syria that are relatively untouched by the war, right?
James Yes. Damascus itself wasn’t touched dramatically by the conflicts of the last 12 years within Syria. It’s really relatively stable at the moment, within Syria. So the areas that we visit are well within the government-controlled areas and have been pretty stable for a number of years now. Syria has a number of UNESCO sites. It also has these Crusader forts like the Krak de Chevaliers. Damascus itself is one of these wonderful Middle Eastern cities that’s as old as time itself. We have mosques and all of the other stuff there, so there’s always a great amount of interesting stuff to see in Syria.
Felice Yes, because I hear there’s classical architecture. Is there Roman architecture as well?
James Yes, absolutely. Obviously the Roman Empire spread throughout the Middle East. So there’s a lot of Roman sites from that period, sites from the Umayyad period where the Islamic world was ruled from Damascus. There’s a lot of stuff to see.
Peter And then Somalia, another semi-permanent war zone as it appears to be these days. But that’s again a place you can visit?
James Well, Somalia is split quite a lot. Probably the most secure part of Somalia is Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia maybe 30 years ago, has its own government, has its own military, has its own currency, is basically a de facto independent country, and has been pretty secure for a number of years now. Probably the highlight of going to Somaliland are these 6,000 year old cave paintings at Lascaux, which are probably some of the most impressive cave paintings in all of Africa, I would argue. So there’s plenty of interesting stuff to see there.
Felice You said you dealt with conflict media. Isn’t that taking cameramen and journalists to places where there’s a conflict?
James No, no, I said I had contacts in conflict media. So I would develop the knowledge and the contacts and the experience and understanding of how things worked in places at which we would then train our local guides with, which we would use for best practices, which we would use for other risk assessments. And we generally don’t take people when we work with media. It’s not a kind of frontline experience, but it might be working on a documentary in a post-conflict area.
So we’ve worked in documentaries in Afghanistan, we worked in documentaries in Iraq, we’ve worked in documentaries in Somalia. But these are not documentaries where somebody is going to the frontline of an active conflict. This is people doing documentaries in places where there is an increased security risk. So we manage that risk.
Felice So of all the places that you take people to – and ignoring Afghanistan, because we talked about that at length on the last episode that we did with you – is there anywhere else you think: ‘that is absolutely amazing. That’s where people should go,’ your favourite place?
James There is really wonderful stuff to see in Iraq, along with the Nile and the Indus Valley was one of the three places where civilization began. In addition to that, it was the centre of the Islamic world a thousand years ago, this was where Baghdad was, had the house of knowledge, and The Thousand and One Nights was written.
There’s all this incredible architecture from that period as well, plus everything else in between. And I think because of how Iraq has been portrayed, because of the problems Iraq has faced in the last 30+, 40 years, a lot of that’s overlooked. I think it really has a wealth of stuff to see. It’s often quite a surprise for people when they go, how much there is to see and how much they enjoy a trip there.
Felice When you take people trekking, what sort of places do you stay at? In local houses or in hotels? Are there hotels?
James There is. What we organise is trekking in Afghanistan, southern Tajikistan, in parts of Kyrgyzstan. Most of the areas that we organise trekking in – this is not Nepal, this is not like a tea house route. So once we are in away from civilization, once you’re away from the trailhead, we’re camping. There isn’t anywhere to stay. Having said that, on all of those treks I’m talking about in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, on the route to the trailheads, there has been some sort of tourism development projects that we like to try and support.
So we do stay in homestays at times. When we’re in the capital cities, then we stay in hotels. When we’re in the remote areas, if there’s a homestay, we’ll stay in a homestay. When we’re in a remote area will be camping. Occasionally in Kyrgyzstan and in Afghanistan, where there are Kirghiz nomadic people, we might hire a yurt or two and sleep in the yurt, just to put some money into the local economy, and also for the experience and the comfort of the guests.
Felice How do you carry the camping equipment?
James On those treks, traditionally, the equipment that we need, both the tents, food, cooking equipment, these are multi-day day treks. So we’ll be ten, twelve days trekking. There’ll be horses used as pack animals when we organise trekking, which we do sometimes in Pakistan the tradition there is more for porters to be, to be carrying it. So it’s whatever is the traditional method of moving goods in those remote areas. Everything needs to come with us and everything needs to come out as well. We don’t want to leave any rubbish or waste behind.
Peter How did you start all this? How did you develop the business?
James It began when there was a couple of guys that became friends. One from Afghanistan, one from Pakistan. They primarily worked with professional people; so documentary makers or journalists or photographers, occasionally with tourists.
And when we met they were keen to do more tourism stuff, and that’s kind of how we started Untamed Borders. It was a bit loose to begin with for the first year, but then we restructured it. We registered it in the UK. To begin with it was in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But if someone enjoyed their time in one of those countries, or both those countries, they wanted to go somewhere new. So it made sense to look at expanding into other areas. That’s how we began.
As I said before, if we’ve got a name for anything it’s being able to manage risk in places with a security risk or a perceived security risk. But the way we view ourselves is that we just add value to…where we’re best is where it’s hard to organise independently. And that doesn’t have to be due to a security thing, it can be due to permits being difficult, it can be due to logistics being difficult, it can be due to a remote area. That’s where I think people get the best from us.
Peter Have you had any moments of real danger with guests?
James We’re an adventure travel company that’s been running for 15 years. We’ve had some road traffic accidents, we’ve had someone break a shoulder, we’ve had someone had a tooth kicked out by a horse, some people get ill on a trip. Things happen. We’ve had guests in cities where there has been an explosion or there has been an attack by an anti-government group in another part of a city. We’ve done a lot of trips to somewhere like Kabul, and that’s something that occasionally happens. But we have processes in place to try and reduce the chances of our groups being in areas that are going to be targeted, and also protocols that if something like that happens, what we would do to reduce the risk of our group being in the wrong place.
Felice So I’m assuming it’s all adults who come? You don’t get families?
James For the group trips, it’s a minimum of 18, but for private trips, we’ve organised private trips for families before. We had a family going to Uzbekistan, so we put something together that would be interesting for them. So there was some horse riding, they stayed in some yurts. I can’t remember what else we did….oh, there’s a bit of climbing….trekking…not like rock climbing.
So, I wouldn’t say we’re set up for families, but if people have a family and they want to go somewhere a little bit different, we’ve definitely organised stuff in parts of Central Asia, maybe Algeria, places like this. We could do some really fun stuff with the family.
Felice I’ve been to Uzbekistan myself many years ago. Samarkand, of course, is there, isn’t it, Samarkand, Tashkent, those sort of places, Bukhara. And they’re all very beautiful, beautiful mosques and things like that.
James Well, that was it. The classics in Uzbekistan are Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, these blue-tiled Silk Road cities. But if you’ve got teenage, young teenage kids, probably there’s only so much of those kind of things that they’re going to enjoy. So yes, we put together a few more activity-based things. And there was some cooking, they did some cooking as well, they made some sort of Uzbek food as well. So we just tried to put something together for that family that would be perhaps more appropriate to their interests. I think they had a good time.
Peter I think if you’ve spent a lot of holidays on the Mediterranean or in the Alps or whatever, it’s really good to push the frontiers a bit, so to speak, or should I say, push the untamed borders a bit, and get out and do something really different?
James I guess so. People have their own borders and boundaries, right? I mean, for someone that’s never left the UK, going to the Alps or to the Mediterranean is pushing their borders, right? As good as a human being to push it. I mean, for somebody who’s travelled extensively around the world, maybe going to Syria isn’t pushing their borders a bit.
So I think through travel, it’s not a bad thing to push your borders a bit, but that’s very much dependent on the person, it’s not absolute on the area. We often get a lot of satisfaction out of somebody who’s pushing their own boundaries a little bit, more than perhaps someone who’s very comfortable about going to one of the places that we guide.
Felice How can people find out more? What’s your website?
James The website is UntamedBorders.com – they can email us at [email protected] and we are on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @UntamedBorders so you can see what we’re getting up to there and see what we’re doing. Any questions, just let us know.
Peter We just have one question. Insurance becomes increasingly difficult for all kinds of travel these days, and presumably you need some very specialist insurance companies, which I presume you have a list of, in order to find policies for your guests?
James Yes, but basically, most travel insurance becomes null and void if you travel somewhere that has – I don’t know if this is British – but an FCO or State travel warning against it. So absolutely. Most of the places we guide have…not all, but most of the places we guide have a FCO or State travel warning against it. But as you say, there are people in all sorts of things. I mean, there’s a lot of people travel to these to countries that have FCO or State travel warnings. You just have to go to that insurer and depending on where you’re from, depending on your profession, depending on the activity you’re going to do, depending on the type of cover you want, different insurers are better at different types of things.
So yes, as you say, when people look to book with us, we’ll send them a little information document about what all this means, and a list of companies which our guests have used in the past. We’re not insurance brokers, so we can’t recommend anyone, but we can point people in the right direction.
Felice Great. Well, thank you very much for talking to us again today. It was great, really interesting finding out more.
James Absolutely. Thank you very much for having me again on the podcast.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. By the way, we’re no 7 in the Top 20 Midlife Travel Podcasts.
© Action Packed Travel
- Join over a hundred thousand podcasters already using Buzzsprout to get their message out to the world.
- Following the link lets Buzzsprout know we sent you, gets you a $20 Amazon gift card if you sign up for a paid plan, and helps support our show.