Leon McCarron Goes With the Flow

The County Derry adventurer on changing perceptions of Iran through a new film tracing his thrilling journey along the country's longest river

Intrepid adventurer/filmmaker Leon McCarron from Castlerock, County Derry~Londonderry has made a name for himself as a long-distance traveller who explores the world by foot, folding bicycle, horseback and anything that’s unconventional really. His trips have included travelling from New York to Hong Kong, around the UK’s Six Peaks, and walking the length of China – to name but a few. 

McCarron’s not one for taking the easy option when he travels, but he subsequently has many exciting tales to tell, and some of his journeys have been serialised by National Geographic for TV. He also published a bestselling book in 2014 and has released films about his trips, the latest of which is called Karun: Misadventures on Iran’s Longest River. The name is self-explanatory, so viewers can prepare for another thrilling insight into a far-flung place…

What’s Karun all about?

Leon McCarron: It’s the story of two people trying to follow Iran’s longest river, from source to sea. Tom Allen - a fellow adventurer/writer/filmmaker from Northamptonshire - and I travel alone, although we end up meeting a host of wonderful and wacky characters who help us on our way.

It’s an adventure story at heart - we travel by different forms of human-powered transport, including walking, cycling and using inflatable boats. We saw temperatures as low as -15° in the high, snowy mountains, and we finished near the Persian Gulf in a hot, arid desert. Through our journey, our hope is that the audience sees a different side of Iran - one that they may not have known existed.

Why did you decide to make the film?

It was a combination of factors really. I’d been to a few parts of the Middle East before, and knew what a welcoming and friendly place it was, and how different my experience was from the general media representation of the region. When Tom suggested going to Iran, I was curious to see if I’d have a similar experience there. The film was an attempt to document that, and share the results. 

Perhaps as a result of growing up in Northern Ireland, I’m very interested in misrepresented parts of the world - places were politics seems to come to define a place, rather than the people who live there, who are so often completely disconnected from that political squabbling.

How did the idea of going to Iran come about in the first place?

Tom sent me an email one day saying, "Would you like to go to Iran and try following its longest river from source to sea?” We’d been talking about making a journey together for a while, and we both shared an interest in using adventure stories as a vehicle for a more powerful message, so the idea appealed immediately.

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How did you and Allen originally meet and what was it like working with him?

We’d known each other for a few years from leading similar lifestyles. We were both trying to make a living through sharing stories from adventures, and we’d each spent years on long, wandering bike trips when we were younger.

We were also both very keen to make a high-quality and engaging film, and I think that’s why we got on so well - our goals were well synchronised. We argued a little, I’m sure, but in general we had a great time. Iran was mad and a lot of fun - we couldn’t help but smile through most of it.

How did you go about planning the trip and what did it involve?

It was a hard journey to plan, because there was very little information available in advance. We knew we’d travel hundreds of miles and that we’d avoid using any engines.

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We carried pack rafts - inflatable kayaks - so that we could paddle down sections of the river where the water was high and fast enough. The rest of the time, we’d walk, although towards the end we spontaneously picked up bicycles and at one point, ill-advisedly attempted to run through a desert…

The trip itself lasted six weeks and involved journeying through the mountainous south-western region of Iran, finishing up at the Iraq border near the Persian Gulf.

Tom Allen: We wanted to take an authentic look at the geography and culture of Iran. People and communities congregate around water, and the mountainous landscapes along the river meant there was plenty of potential for a really exciting adventure along the way.

What did you ultimately take away from your visit to Iran?

To not simply believe everything that I read. In general, I think Iran is a deeply misrepresented country. Our journey sought to look beyond the politics to the people and the positivity and stories we could find there, and it was overwhelming friendly.

We spent over 30 nights on this trip in the homes of strangers - and all that within a five-week trip. Almost everyone we met went out of their way to accommodate us. There was no animosity toward the West - certainly none that I could pick up on. We were welcomed, looked after and sent on our way. It’s a beautiful, diverse - and huge - country, and I hope that our film can show some of that.

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You crowdfunded the finances for the film, raising more than £25,000. How difficult was it to get backing for this?

It was challenging, for sure. Tom and I treated the campaign like a full-time job. For a few months we prepared it, created content, planned the film we wanted to make and gathered details on the types of people that might be interested in seeing the end result. Then we hit ‘Go’ and spent two weeks at our laptops managing it.

In the end, I think we were successful because there are a lot of people out there who also want to help promote an alternative view of Iran. Once we reached them, they were very happy to help the film get made, so the difficulty was simply in spreading the word of what we were doing. We also found volunteers to translate the film into 16 languages, which was great.

How or where can the public see Karun?

It will be released digitally on November 16 via www.karunfilm.com and can be downloaded from anywhere in the world. We’re also encouraging people to host community screenings - the aim is to get as many people to see this story of Iran as possible, so if anyone is keen to set up a screening in their local pub, church, cafe or community hall et cetera, we’ll facilitate that for free.

Finally, we’re entering festivals, and I’m hoping to put some Northern Irish dates in the diary for next year. Fingers crossed.

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What message do you hope viewers will take from the film?

Simply that there’s more to Iran than complex politics, revolutions and nuclear agreements. It’s a unique and wonderful country, and deserves a more well-rounded global reputation.

Do you have any more adventuring looming on the horizon?

I’m off to Jerusalem at the end of November to spend three months walking around the Dead Sea – through the ‘Holy Land’ and the heart of the Middle East. I have similar aspirations for this trip to my journey in Iran. I’ll be back in the spring, hopefully with more footage for a new film.

Karun: Misadventures on Iran’s Longest River premieres at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Saturday, November 14 before being released worldwide digitally via the project’s website on November 16. Information on how to set up your own screening of the film can be found at www.karunfilm.com/host-a-screening.