Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Wolves, bears, guns and tornadoes: the Leon McCarron story

Former Kent film graduate turned adventurer Leon McCarron visited the University of Kent to talk about his adventures as a cameraman travelling through the USA and China. Kieran Watkins reports on the highs and lows of his trek.
Imagine walking across the Gobi Desert with only your shadow for company. What about trekking through the Australian outback as the blistering sun scorches your back? Or maybe even running into a tornado, away from a mad man wielding a gun in America?

Unbelievable you might think, but for former University of Kent student Leon McCarron, 25, they are just some of the more memorable moments of a three year travel expedition which has seen him cycle and walk across the globe.

Speaking to students and members of the public at a bustling Woolf College tonight (Wednesday, October 3) at the Canterbury campus, Leon spoke passionately about his journey from New York to Hong Kong with enough excitement to entice the whole crowd to book an adventure holiday. But for the former Film student, who graduated in 2008 with a first class honours degree, it was something much more than just a holiday.

Commenting on his early university years, Leon, from Northern Ireland but now living in London, said: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life after school.”

“So I came to university”, he added. “And I really enjoyed Kent. In fact, I felt unhappy about leaving university after the three years.”

The film degree provided Leon with one of the happiest things in his life; the skill of filming and knowing how to document stories through the camera. Combined with his love of travel, it wasn’t long before Leon set his sights on travelling the world.

“The creativity from filming is great, and practising documenting and filming is one of the happiest memories of my life,” he said.

Having already toured the UK on a bike at just 15 years-old and later Europe at the age of 16, Leon had set his sights on foreign territory.

He said: “There’s something very liberating about being on a bike.”

His friend, Howard Thurman who he travelled with across Europe, gave him the drive to continue his travels.

“Howard said to me, ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive’ and that inspired me”, he said.

So in 2010, he set off to New York where he would travel over 14,000 miles on a bicycle to Hong Kong. Dubbed ‘the Cycling Reporter’, he planned to meet and interview people along the way.

At first, the journey seemed an unachievable, complex task that even Leon worried he would not be able to complete.

“There were times during the early stages when I tried not to cry myself to sleep,” he admitted.

The USA proved an interesting start for Leon. Encountering bears at night and visiting events including the ‘Testicle Festival’ in Montana – where festival goers can sample various animal testicles – proved to be memorable, but one encounter topped all other memories. What started out as a short stay at a ranch in the Mid-West by a man offering him shelter later led to Leon running for his life.

“I was about to pitch my tent one night when a man, Eric, in a truck pulls over and offers me a place to stay”, Leon said. “It was dark and Eric said a storm was coming, and so I agreed to go with him to his ranch.”

However Leon’s stay at the ranch didn’t last long. After a ‘near-explosive’ episode in a shed with a friend of Eric’s and a whole load of guns, Leon quickly fled the ranch in fear of his own life – straight into the approaching tornado.

“I was running away from these men and their guns without noticing I was running straight into a volcano,” he told.

“That incident was the scariest thing that happened to me over my three years of travelling.”

Leaving America behind, Leon visited Canada before being given free flights and travel across New Zealand by the New Zealand tourist board. He spent six weeks touring the North and South Island before flying over to Australia, and onwards to Thailand and Asia, finally arriving in Hong Kong on March 5, 2011.

It was quite an achievement for someone, who at the age of 23, was still struggling to find his real goal in life.

“Despite having no job, no money and feeling very tired, the trip changed my life,” said Leon. “In fact, travelling around the world made my life.”

It took Leon just over a year to cycle from New York to Hong Kong, travelling a staggering 14,325 miles across three continents.

But there was no time to put his feet up. Meeting up with a friend Rob Lilwall, they both decided to walk the impossible; a 3,000 mile walk from North China back down to Hong Kong in the South.

This time, Leon would be filming his expedition for National Geographic. Setting off with Rob just six months after his gruelling cycle, Leon admitted he initially struggled to qualm his nerves.

“Flying over China towards the Mongolia, we looked out on the land we would be passing”, he told.

“For every three minutes travelling on the plane, it equalled a whole day of walking.

“So for every 30 minutes in the sky, that meant a month of walking,” he added.
Setting off from Mongolia, the pair’s first test came as they crossed through the Gobi Desert. With temperatures falling to a chilling -50c in some parts and only the wolves for company, the duo pushed through on to the Great Wall of China, with only a small trailer and back packs carrying their belongings.

Commenting on their few resources, Leon said: “You get used to living a simple life, everything we needed was on the trailer.”

“At one point, I went without a wash for 16 days!” he added.

It was over Christmas when disaster struck the duo. After sending footage from the first leg of their journey to National Geographic, Leon received the devastating news that the images obtained from his camera were too blurry. Subsequently, they would be unfit for broadcast.

What was more; Rob had sustained a foot injury, meaning the pair had to delay their trek for three long weeks.

Talking about the difficult period, Leon said: “It proved to be the worst period of my life.”

“The last six weeks of filming had been in vain, and I was now worried about Rob and the possibility we wouldn’t be able to film a TV programme,” he added.

However it didn’t hinder the pair from continuing their trip. In three weeks the pair were up and away, heading South as they interacted with the locals, learned a bit of Mandarin and even celebrated Chinese New Year after being invited in by a family.

On March 26, 2012, the pair arrived in Hong Kong after six long and difficult months. It took them 195 days in total, and despite a few uncomfortable moments with the local police – they were arrested 15 times during the trek – they had completed it.

Summing up the achievement, Leon said: “You never feel more alive until you’re about to fall off a cliff in China!”

“The world really is an exciting place, and opportunities come in lots of forms.”

Confessing to having well and truly caught the travelling bug, Leon plans to hike again over Christmas, this time from the Empty Quarter in Oman – the largest sand desert in the world - to Dubai. The 1,000 mile trek should take six weeks to complete. He also plans to write a book about his journey in the future.

Providing the audience with one last though, Leon said: “Embrace opportunity and embrace change.”

To find out more about Leon’s travels, visit or A four-part series filmed on the China trek is scheduled to be shown this Christmas on National Geographic in the UK.

First picture taken from Leon McCarron online

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