A true traveller’s traveller, Jonny Bealby has intimately explored a staggering number of exotic countries. Thankfully, when he decided to undertake a daring circumnavigation of Africa by motorbike, Jonny made sure he wrote all about the many and varied trials and tribulations encountered ‘on the road.’ The resultant book was entitled ‘Running With The Moon,’ and it became a roaring success. Bolstered by the public’s reaction to his way with words, Jonny went on to write about his next extraordinary ‘trip’ of a lifetime as he travelled through India, Pakistan and Afghanistan on foot. He called it ‘For A Pagan Song,’ and it painted the most revealing portrait of the politically troubled yet fascinating and beautiful area in exquisite detail. ‘Silk Dreams, Troubled Road’ came next: a rip-roaring account of Jonny’s travels on horseback along The Silk Road.
In the wake of having penned and published three highly original and hugely successful travel-orientated books, Jonny boldly set about establishing an adventure tour company of his own. Eager for others to savour the types of unique experiences he had indulged in, Jonny set up ‘Wild Frontiers,’ a versatile tour company with a huge difference. Priding itself on taking adventurous travellers to countries as far-flung as India, Georgia, Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco amongst many others, ‘Wild Frontiers’ actively encourages cross-cultural interaction like few other adventure tour companies. Since founding the company in 2002, Jonny’s ‘Wild Frontiers’ has been a genuine success story, attracting the attention of champion jockey Richard Dunwoody (who leads tours for the company) and much-loved celebrity traveller Michael Palin.
Book-writing and the day-to-day running of ‘Wild Frontiers’ aside, Jonny has penned innumerable articles for high-profile publications such as ‘The Guardian’ and ‘Wanderlust.’ What’s more, he used to be heavily involved with the music industry, his work as a sound engineer leading him to form his own band called The Tin Gods. An inspirational workaholic who has never shied away from the act of pursuing his dreams, Jonny is a remarkable character. In spite of his hectic work schedule, Jonny still kindly set aside time to answer Steve’s questions…
HELLO JONNY, HOW ARE THINGS?
Fine, busy as usual…
YOU ARE A TRAVEL-WRITER AND AN ADVENTURE TOUR COMPANY OPERATOR. DID YOU FIND THAT IT WAS A NATURAL PROGRESSION FOR YOU TO SET UP ‘WILD FRONTIERS’ IN THE WAKE OF YOU HAVING PENNED AND PUBLISHED THREE BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN BOOKS SET IN FAR-FLUNG COUNTRIES?
Yes I did – although I think it is a unique story. Travelling to the places I did as a writer and journalist opened my eyes to some extraordinary places… it was very natural to want to share them with others.
YOUR FIRST BOOK WAS CALLED ‘RUNNING WITH THE MOON’ AND IT CHRONICLED YOUR ADVENTURES ON THE BACK OF A MOTORBIKE AROUND AFRICA. WAS IT YOUR INTENTION FROM DAY ONE OF THE TRIP TO KEEP A DIARY AND ULTIMATELY ADAPT IT INTO A BOOK FOR PUBLICATION?
No, absolutely not. I failed English O-Level five times so the idea of me becoming a writer was absurd to say the least. It was just the more I travelled the more I realised I was doing something different and the idea of writing stemmed from that. I did keep a diary and kept abbreviated notes, and one thing I have been blessed with is a very good memory so it was not hard to remember.
DO YOU ENJOY THE PROCESS OF WRITING, AND OF DOCUMENTING IN DETAIL THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE ON THE ROAD?
Not so much on the road, but I do very little actual writing on the road. As I just said, I have a good memory and I found the smallest note will trigger a torrent of images. I find sitting looking at a computer screen, I can zone back into the moment and occasionally drag up memories I didn’t know I had. It’s very fulfilling as you get to experience the event all over again.
YOUR SECOND BOOK, ‘FOR A PAGAN SONG’, FOCUSED ON A TRIP YOU MADE ON FOOT THROUGH AFGHANISTAN. HAD AFGHANISTAN LONG FASCINATED YOU, AND WHAT IS YOUR OVERRIDING MEMORY OF THAT TRIP?
I read ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ in my early twenties. Ever since, Afghanistan had loomed large. I have been lucky enough to travel to nearly 100 countries, but it is by far the most fascinating. That said, probably my abiding memory was of leaving it! Standing on a high mountain pass, with Afghanistan and danger to my back, and Pakistan and safety to my front, was a wonderful feeling.
AS WELL AS WRITING ABOUT THE EPIC TRIP THAT FOLLOWED, YOU DECIDED TO MAKE A FLY-ON-THE-WALL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT YOUR ADVENTURES AS YOU TRAVELLED ON HORSEBACK ALONG THE SILK ROAD. HAD YOU HAD MUCH EXPERIENCE ON HORSES BEFORE THE TRIP, AND WHAT EVER BECAME OF THE DOCUMENTARY YOU PRODUCED?
Yes, I have ridden since childhood so that part was easy. But on a long journey on horseback, riding is the easy bit… it’s everything else that causes the problems: keeping it from getting lame, feeding and watering it, not allowing it to get stolen etc… the film I made has been shown many times on ‘Discovery Channel’.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU HAVE THE IDEA OF SETTING UP YOUR OWN ADVENTURE TOUR COMPANY, AND WHY WERE YOU SO CERTAIN THAT YOU HAD DISCOVERED A NICHE IN THE MARKET IN TERMS OF TAKING PEOPLE TO THE TYPES OF EXOTIC AND OFTEN RARELY-VISITED PLACES YOU HAD VISITED?
It was when I was sitting with the Kalash, a pagan tribe in the Hindu Kush – with whom I lived for 3 months – that the idea came to me. I say the idea came to me… that’s to say my good friend, Saifullah Jan, the chief spokesperson for the Kalash, told me I should bring tourists here. I had no idea there was such an industry, knew none of the existing companies, and had no idea about exploiting gaps in the market. I just thought, if I have loved it, so will others, so I’ll do it… the whole thing grew from there. (To be honest I still don’t look at what others do… I prefer to keep what ‘Wild Frontiers’ does original.)
BEFORE CALLING YOUR COMPANY ‘WILD FRONTIERS’, DID YOU CONSIDER CALLING IT ANYTHING ELSE?
No. I was in the Northwest Frontier when Saifullah gave me the idea; it was completely obvious that’s what I should call it. (‘Along The Wild Frontier’ was a working title of a chapter in my second book.)
IN THE FIRST YEAR THAT ‘WILD FRONTIERS’ WAS OPERATIONAL, HOW MANY TOURS DID YOU RUN?
We ran 2 trips and took 19 clients. This year we’ll take about 75 group tours, run 80 tailor-made trips, and a total of about 800 clients.
DO YOU LEAD ANY OF THE TOURS YOURSELF, OR DO YOU FEEL MORE AT HOME BACK IN THE UK OFFICE THESE DAYS?
I get to cherry-pick the ones I most want to do. This year I have taken a group riding over the Andes from Chile to Argentina, trekking in Turkey, and I’m off to India next month. Next year will see me riding in the Okavango Delta, trekking in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and returning to India.
CHAMPION HORSE-RIDER RICHARD DUNWOODY OFTEN LEADS TOURS IN THE EAST. HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO HOOK UP WITH RICHARD, AND WHAT IS THE REACTION OF YOUR CLIENTS WHEN THEY LEARN THAT THEIR TOUR HAS HIM AT ITS HELM?
Well they normally know beforehand. He is an old friend; he knows a lot of my family from his racing days. He’s a great asset: a really wonderful guide and a great bloke.
HAVE YOU DONE ANY MORE WRITING SINCE UNLEASHING ‘SILK DREAMS, TROUBLED ROAD’, OR DO YOU FIND THAT ALL OF YOUR TIME AND ENERGY IS NOW CONSUMED BY KEEPING YOUR ‘WILD FRONTIERS’ CUSTOMERS SATISFIED?
Yes, very much the latter. I am thinking of writing again, but it’s all a matter of time. One day though I will write another book. In the meantime, it’s just the odd article.
OF ALL THE TOURS THAT YOU NOW RUN THROUGH ‘WILD FRONTIERS’, WHICH ONE IS YOUR FAVOURITE, AND WHY?
Wow, impossible to answer… but if pushed I would say the one that started it all, the Hindu Kush Adventure through Northern Pakistan. It’s a trip that just has everything: gargantuan scenery, fascinating culture, diverse tribes and people, delicious food, amazing history, and virtually no one goes there… perfect really.
FINALLY, FOR PEOPLE WHO WOULD LIKE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOU, YOUR BOOKS, AND ‘WILD FRONTIERS’, WHAT IS THE BEST WAY FOR THEM TO GET IN TOUCH?
Through the website… www.wildfrontiers.co.uk
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Jonny Bealby)