This Travel Company Is Making The Middle East Accessible Again
There’s always been one place I’ve wanted to go to above all others. Ever since my father showed me the Indiana Jones films at age 10, I’ve associated Petra, in Jordan, with spirit and adventure. Indiana Jones shaped my early childhood dreams. I too wanted to travel the world in search of fact. (Not truth. If truth is what you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.) I harbored this dream up until early high school, when my careers counselor wisely reminded me that archaeologists spend most of their time in a library, not searching for treasure in far-off, exotic locations.
So I did the next best thing: I became a writer. I could still travel the world and hopefully, get the chance to occasionally stumble into my own Indy-style adventure.
Last month, I did just that. I went to the Middle East for the first time, and in doing so, fulfilled a lifelong dream.
I’d heard a lot about a boutique travel company called Wild Frontiers. Started by a former rock star-turned-writer, Jonny Bealby, the company promised something different to other boutique agencies: the experience of roads less traveled. That means places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Jordan. Not many travel agencies have the balls to pull off tours to these places, much less the expertise. I did my research. Bealby spent years traveling the Middle East. He has contacts there. Friends. The tour guides he employs are all locals. His groups are small. Where possible, groups stay in the homes of these friends, instead of hotels. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive: many of Wild Frontiers’ customers seem to return, year after year.
Last month, I flew to Amman to meet my tour group. Our tour leader, Carly, had spent almost a decade living in Syria. She had friends and acquaintances in every part of the Middle East. She greeted our small group (nine in total) at a small hotel outside Amman. She introduced us to our local tour guide, Suhaib, who lives in Amman and spends most of his time on the road trying to keep up with the recent surge in Jordanian tourism.
We spent the next ten days traveling across the country, from busy, colorful Amman to the wild expanse of the Wadi Rum desert. We visited the Roman ruins at Jerash, a wonderfully preserved archaeological site. We hiked for six hours through a deep canyon. We swam in the Dead Sea, spent the night with a host family in the mountains, and visited medieval castles. We camped in the desert, took stargazing lessons, and played with goats at a Bedouin camp. And of course, we visited Petra, spending two whole glorious days exploring the ancient city of the Nabataeans.
I fell in love with Jordan. Not just with its natural beauty, but with its people. Jordanians are generous in spirit and overwhelmingly hospitable. I felt welcome everywhere I went. I could have happily spent another month, or three, roaming the Jordanian countryside, camping with the Bedouin and eating homemade hummus.
I recently spoke to Bealby about how – and why – he started Wild Frontiers.
Tell me a little bit about your early life as a musician, and how you transitioned from the music industry to the travel industry. What inspired you to take this big step?
I formed a band in late 1984 and did the first of our 300-odd gigs in January 1985. I have always loved music and, having spent a lot of time watching other bands, I figured why not give it a go – what better career could there be? So I bought a guitar, pulled in a couple of friends and off we went. Over the next five years, we recorded four singles and one album, made a few videos and played live a lot. Although we were nearly signed by MCA records and did get a deal with a small indie label, we never quite made it to the big time and so in 1989, I decided to quit and go traveling with my long-term girlfriend. We got engaged in Bangkok before spending two magical months across Thailand and then another two wonderful weeks in the mountains of Kashmir.
But then everything changed. Melanie died very unexpectedly on a houseboat in Dal Lake, Srinagar.
And so it wasn’t music and the music industry that set me off traveling, but the need to drive my grieving heart as far from the reality I was now living as possible – to throw myself at the world to find out if life was going to be worth living.
I bought a motorbike and headed to Africa.
How did you support yourself financially when you started traveling?
Travelling wasn’t expensive in those days. I had some savings with which I bought a motorbike, and off I went. The whole trip around Africa, taking in 20,000 miles, 20 countries over ten months, only cost around $5,000.
I assume you didn’t intend to travel continuously for ten years. How did this end up happening?
That’s a good question. I am not sure we often think we’ll do this or that for ten years, but before we know it we look back and go, goodness where did that time go! So, when I returned from Africa, friends suggested I write a book about my experiences. I did, and it was quite successful. That then led to a second journey – through India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – for a follow-up book, which in turn lead to a third book about a journey by horse along the Old Silk Road from Kashgar to the Caspian Sea. Travelling and writing was my life in the 90s.
Can you tell me about two experiences during that decade of travel that made you think differently about the world?
It’s difficult to pinpoint just two things. A decade of travels through some of the world’s least-traveled destinations has a cumulative effect, mostly making you realize we as humans are all the same. It doesn’t matter if you are an Afghan shepherd, an Indian prince, or an English travel writer – most of us find the same things funny, worrying, exciting and meaningful. Travel is a great leveler. Through it, we break down misconceptions, cure ignorance and dilute prejudice. And I gained hugely through all my experiences and all those I met along the way.
But if I had to offer up two experiences I’d say the time I went to pay my bill at a roadside café in northern Pakistan, only to find a total stranger had already paid it. That, and being taken in by an African chief in a tiny village in the Congo after one of the hardest days of travel of my life. I could think of tens, if not hundreds, more such examples of the generosity of strangers. These days, you hear a lot about the world being a scary place. It is not. It is an amazing place where most people will go out of their way to help you.
You must get asked this a lot, but: after spending so long traveling – what is your favorite place in the world?
I do – about once a week! The way I always answer it is that although I have many favorite places in the world, India is the one country I could not live without. The vast differences of cultures, cuisines, landscapes, wildlife and of course the people, make it the most enchanting place on the planet. My mother was born there so I grew up with stories of India and it has always felt like home.
Tell me about the beginnings of Wild Frontiers. What pushed you to start a travel company, and how did you envision the company standing out from other boutique companies on the market?
It was while I was traveling for my second book, For A Pagan Song, that I spent time with a pagan tribe in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. While there, the chief of the tribe suggested I start a travel company to bring tourists to his village to meet his people and learn from that. I thought it a great idea, so once I had written that book I did as he said. I stuck an advert in the paper and took my first group a year later – 20 years ago in 1998.
I had no knowledge of (or, if I am honest, interest in) other travel companies; there were none operating in this part of the world anyway. I just knew that northern Pakistan was an amazing part of the world and if I liked traveling there so would others. And so it proved.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in the early days of running the company?
In short – September 11. Everything was going fine until that horrific event. I was in northern Pakistan with a group at the time. At first, I thought it would be the end of my business. No one would now want to go to Pakistan on holiday.
While I was right about that, I was entirely wrong about it being the end of my business. Ironically, it actually ended up being the beginning. I came back from Pakistan, set up the business properly and, using all I’d learnt in Pakistan, started organizing trips to other countries I knew well – Ethiopia, Central Asia, and India. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s talk about what happens when Wild Frontiers wants to add a new destination or tour. Do you personally go there to see it for yourself? What are your criteria? And what are the steps involved in locking in a final destination?
The company is made up of like-minded travelers and there is nothing we prefer than getting out there and exploring new places. We have usually stuck with the developing world and expanded only in areas where we have expertise. Have I been to all our destinations? No, but I have been to most. One of the great things about growing a business is that you bring in lots of great people to help you, all of which have experience and knowledge themselves.
What, in your opinion, is the value of opening up places that have traditionally not been tourist-friendly destinations?
There are a few reasons why it’s important to open up locations that have traditionally been off limits. Often these are places that have been neglected by tourism because of war or political upheavals. When tourists come back, they bring with them money which is spent on local hotels, restaurant, with guides, cooks, drivers. They provide much-needed employment. But they also bring hope. Many of these places have been cut off for decades and therefore feel removed from the world. Tourism is often the first vanguard of people from the outside world, bring with it a sense of normalization and that can mean a lot.
We as a company ran one of the first commercial tourist trips to Afghanistan for more than 30 years. We were among the first back into Kashmir after a decade and a half of unrest. We have spearheaded tourism in countries like Georgia, Tajikistan, and Colombia – all of which have suffered turmoil in the past, and recently we have started running trips to remote parts of the Congo, another amazing country that has been largely ignored by tourism for the past 25 years.
What’s next for WF?
I see parts of West Africa, Indonesia, and the Arctic on our radar. The other great thing is that we are seeing so many more clients coming from the US, and I hope that trend continues. Now more than ever, we really need to understand each other better.