Mark Watson can understand what might draw an adventurous soul to a country as misunderstood as Iran.
A photographer who spent four years bikepacking the length of the Americas with his partner Hana Black, he has always relished testing his limits in locations well off the beaten track.
On their 45,500km journey from Alaska to Patagonia between 2016 to 2020, he and Black took backcountry roads through some of the continent’s most dramatic, remote and unforgiving territory, pedalling across Arctic tundras, mountain peaks home to wolves and polar bears, and cartel country pueblos that looked like something straight out of Better Call Saul or Narcos.
“I find that pushing yourself toward the edge a little bit sometimes provides a lot of clarity in your life; can help you understand who you are, and show you how robust your coping mechanisms are – your strengths and weaknesses,” said the 51-year-old avid tramper, climber and cyclist.
* New Zealand couple held in Iran ‘extremely relieved’ to be back with family
* Kiwi influencers Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray detained in Iran no strangers to misadventure, once held at gunpoint
* Kiwi influencers who disappeared in protest-stricken Iran for four months ‘safe and well’ after being detained
New Zealand couple Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray may cop criticism from some for having travelled to Iran when the New Zealand government warns against it, although it should be borne in mind that they entered the country in early July, a couple of months before Kurdish woman Masha Amini died after being detained by morality police for wearing her hijab “improperly”, triggering the ongoing anti-government unrest.
Yet they are far from anomalies in wanting to travel to destinations widely deemed to be dangerous, or at least risky. According to the adventurous Kiwi travellers Stuff spoke with for this story, seeking out such destinations often leads to the most memorable and enriching experiences.
Of the more than 30 countries he’s visited, Watson said he has most enjoyed those well off the tourist trail.
“An observation that I made in my earlier days of cycle touring was that I seem to get a lot more stimulation and interest from countries that were less westernised and less developed and where things were a little bit wilder and more unpredictable. And that’s because if you’re going out each day and know there is going to be a 7/11 on the corner in the next town you get to, it takes away from the adventure.
“Hana and I have found that it’s when you get off the beaten track that you challenge yourself because you’ve got to deal with things you can’t necessarily predict. You come away from that strengthened and with greater confidence because you’ve faced adversity. So it’s a real growth experience for us, and the greater your skill set becomes, the more you learn, the more confidence it gives you.”
Richwhite and Thackwray have asked for privacy over the next few days while, now safely back in New Zealand, they recover from their four-month ordeal in Iran. But they told Stuff in 2019 that the more challenging experiences they have, “the more immune and less afraid we become”.
Watson acknowledged that an adventurous spirit can lead its owner to trouble, having had personal experience of difficult situations spiralling out of control.
Visiting the Chilean capital of Santiago during the widespread protests against inequality that left more than 30 people dead, Watson and Black joined their local hosts one day in watching a group of protestors “as a show of support”.
Getting “a little bit too close” to the action, they found themselves caught up amid armoured vehicles firing water cannons and protestors hurling rocks. Before long they were dodging cylinders of tear gas.
“We were both wearing jandals and ended up having to run like crazy to get away from this tear gas,” he said, “We could feel it in our throats and we could feel our eyes starting to burn, and we realised we’d definitely pushed the boundaries too far with that one. We were reminded that we could have been hit in the head with one of those tear gas shells. Prudence is important.”
Aside from that and having a mobile phone stolen while cycling in Colombia, Watson said they had “almost no bad experiences” on their travels.
“It’s very easy to form opinions about countries from a distance when most of the exposure you have of those places is what you see in films and on the news. And you tend to hear most of the worst stuff. When you mention you’re going to Mexico or Honduras, for example, people automatically go ‘isn’t it dangerous there?’.
“But once you get down to the nitty gritty and look at the statistics. You see that violence tends to be concentrated in very specific places…. But if you avoid those places and cycle through the rest of the country, the people are by and large just like the people you would meet riding through rural New Zealand. They’re interested in what you’re doing. They’re keen to help if you’ve got a problem. They’re happy to stop and talk.
“Once you break through some of the prejudices and experience (notoriously dangerous destinations) for yourself, you find most people are just out there living their lives, getting by, looking after their families.”
Social media influencer Kyle Mulinder, aka Bare Kiwi, admitted he had misconceptions about the Middle East when he visited for the first time, but said having them proved wrong was nothing short of a life-changing experience.
“When I announced that I was going to Dubai, years ago, I had a lot of people sending me warnings and news articles about people getting arrested for wearing a bikini and stuff like that, and saying ‘Don’t talk to ladies in burqa’ and ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that’.
“But after a few days there, realising I didn’t really know the place, I went over to a few ladies in full burqua and started talking to them. I was with a group of people and they were saying ‘Come away. What are you doing?’
“The ladies ended up taking their hoods off and we got selfies and I hung out with them for like 20 minutes or so, just chatting. And from that moment on I felt like I knew Dubai so much better. All of those myths and rumours I’d heard were completely shattered by the real people in front of me.”
Mulinder, who has made a career out of filming his daredevil escapades around New Zealand, struggled to recall a time on his travels when he had felt truly afraid – until he remembered the day he was threatened by armed men in India.
Jumping into the air for a photo in front of the Taj Mahal, as many tourists do, Mulinder was confronted by a group of men with guns who demanded he delete the photo, saying such pictures weren’t allowed.
“It was pretty scary. I was like ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’.”
It wasn’t the only naive mistake he has made on his travels, but Mulinder said they have all provided invaluable learning experiences.
“I think everyone should travel. When people have been out of their comfort zone, out of their culture, it gives them a new respect for mankind and society. It’s incredibly enriching seeing how another person lives. Even if it’s just travelling to Northland or Gore.
“When I and all the travellers I know go to unique places, we go with respect and do our research. It’s when you hear about drunken idiots going to Bali and not respecting the culture that problems arise.”
Mulinder suggested that it’s unfair to criticise other travellers’ decisions when you don’t know their histories or skill sets.
“When you think of someone like Sir Edmund Hillary, his skill level to climb Mt Everest is far superior to the everyday person’s,” he said. “My wife, as another example, will eat the spiciest food known to mankind, but there’s no way I’m going to go near it. Her perception of risk is far different to mine when it comes to spicy food.”
Another naturally adventurous spirit, travel blogger Sarah Chant has also spent many years seeking out destinations and experiences that are off-the-beaten track – and her husband Nathan has learned to follow suit.
“We like seeing difference and diversity,” Chant – one half of the Exploring Kiwis and the founder of the New Zealand Travel Tips Facebook group, said. “When you travel to a country with a different language or different way of life, the personal learning you get out of it is massive.”
Chant said she is mindful that you can’t control everything that happens to you wherever you are. Travelling to Ukraine about five years ago, she and her husband left their sole credit card on the plane and were not allowed to reboard to retrieve it. Unable to pay the fees for their visas to enter the country, they were overwhelmed with gratitude when an Emirati man they didn’t know offered to loan them some money.
“It got us into the country and enabled us to get by for a few days, and we repaid him when we returned to New Zealand. We relied upon the kindness of a stranger, and we were incredibly fortunate he was able to help us out. I think it’s that reminder that challenges when you’re travelling come in all shapes and forms, and it’s not necessarily just personal security you need to be worried about. Anything could happen. But that’s what makes you grow and that’s what makes travel so amazing. You learn from everything that happens.”
Chant said she could understand the desire to travel to Iran, adding that it’s a country she would love to visit when things there settle down.
“I think that desire to see how different countries operate, and that desire to see how different people live is a huge motivation for people to go and visit these places. To be able to see and to understand is really valuable when you enjoy seeing the world.”
That said, she wouldn’t choose to visit now, saying Richwhite and Thackwray’s ordeal has highlighted the importance of paying attention to global travel warnings.
Chant said she thinks westerners have a lot of misconceptions about travelling in the Middle East.
“I think there’s an assumption around women’s rights. What we’re seeing in Iran right now is incredibly concerning, however I think not all countries in the Middle East are like that. We spent two years living in Abu Dhabi in the UAE and, as a woman, I was treated incredibly well there and had no concerns as to my rights.”
Chant said she felt safer in the UAE than New Zealand; that they could leave a wallet or laptop on the front seat of their car overnight and “feel absolutely secure in the knowledge it would be there the next day. If you leave your wallet in a café, someone will race down the street to give it back to you. In New Zealand, that might happen, but it also might not.”
Travelling around South America for six months, she and Nathan didn’t have any difficult experiences from a safety or security perspective other than a dodgy taxi ride in the Colombian city of Bogotá, where the driver took them on an expensive tiki tour to their destination.
“We had almost no troubles at all, and the few small problems we had could have happened anywhere,” she said.
“I think the key things are to keep your wits about you, and be mindful of your personal security. But we should be doing that regardless of where we are because things happen all over the place and I don’t think that should stop people from seeing countries they’re interested in.”