017 | Reza Pakravan | How to become an explorer

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Reza Pakravan has every kid's dream job title – explorer. He just released on Amazon Prime, his latest travel series "The World's Most Dangerous Borders" for which he traveled uninterrupted the width of Africa, across areas any foreign ministry generally tells you to keep clear of and which rarely see a film crew. It's full of stories and chance encounters, of the magic and the messes that we make on the road. It's everything we've missed in 2020 and why I wanted to end the year on this episode.

Sources & credits

The World’s Most Dangerous Borders, Reza Pakravan, Amazon Prime Video, 2020.

Kapp to Cape, Reza Pakravan, Amazon Prime Video, 2015.

Music by Dyalla.


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:00:00] Reza Pakravan: If you haven't tried it, you have to try: you always start with a map and a glass of whiskey.

Isabelle Roughol: Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

An American friend texted me recently to share his joy at discovering a new French word. And I hadn't realized that it doesn't translate until he pointed it out. The word is dépaysement. It's something like the pleasing sensation that you get from being outside of your own country, especially if it looks nothing the same and breaks you out of your routine. It's about marveling at the smallest things, the most mundane encounters, because they are new and enchanting to you. It's the opposite of homesickness.

For the last episode of 2020 -- yes, this is it -- the last episode of a year when we've experienced more anxiety, more grief and more stillness [00:01:00] than many of us have in our lifetimes, I wanted to get back to that, the joy of discovery of exploration, the very reason that we have borders in the first place, which is to cross them.

So I turned to Reza Pakravan. Reza has every kid's dream job title, Explorer. He just released on Amazon Prime, his latest travel series "The World's Most Dangerous Borders" for which he traveled uninterrupted the width of Africa, across areas any foreign ministry generally tells you to keep clear of and which rarely see a film crew.

Yes, it's marketed a bit like a Jack Ryan movie because TV, but actually it's full of stories and chance encounters, of the magic and the messes that we make on the road. It's everything we've missed. Here's Reza Pakravan.

Reza Pakravan: I started my journey across the width of Africa from Gorée Island, from the Door of No Return in [00:02:00] Senegal. That's the Westernmost point in Africa, a point that slaves were shipped to the Americas, knowing that they were never going to see their homeland ever again. So that was my entry to Africa: the opposite direction where the slaves were shipped out of the continent. And I carried on through the width of Africa. Basically it was an unbroken line all the way to Somalia. So I finished my journey in the Easternmost point in Africa, in Somalia.

Isabelle Roughol: That's quite a powerful place to start this journey.

Reza Pakravan: That was the intention. I just wanted to have a very powerful to start if you like. My guide got really emotional because he's, uh from Cameroon and he's a human rights lawyer. And he got really emotional seeing that place. I just didn't, I didn't have any comprehension of what that place means [00:03:00] to African people.

Isabelle Roughol: Was it the first time that he went? That's, that's Henry, right, whom we see on the show?

Reza Pakravan: Yeah, absolutely. That was his first time that he was on Gorée Island. He got really emotional and started singing Bob Marley's song. And we couldn't put it on the show because of the rights, but...

Isabelle Roughol: Oh, what a shame.

Reza Pakravan: Yeah, what a shame. He is, he's a great singer. And yeah, unfortunately we couldn't use it, but it was a really powerful day that we spent on Gorée Island.

Isabelle Roughol: And how did you travel along the way?

Reza Pakravan: WE traveled as the local did. So by any means of transport available to locals, that was my motto. I wanted to travel as a local, sleep where they sleep, eat what they eat from the same bowl. That, that was the, the whole ethos of my travel, in this really war-torn region that you hardly see, other than perhaps Senegal, [00:04:00] hardly see any foreigner wandering around Tchad or, or, or Mali, unless you're working for the UN or working for, for,, for, for the army. But so that's, that's the extent of foreigners that you see there.

And they move from trouble to trouble. They move from war to war and problems to problems. And my idea was to, I actually want to move from story to story. I wanted to see the life, the real life of people who form the, the Sahel, who called the Sahel their home, the land that I was about to cross. So I was thinking each interaction could give me a slice of life in the Sahel. What is life like for people who travel in this, who, who move and who live in this part of the world? We used anything from animal cart, camels, donkey, on a back of lorry full of onions... We use d boats that were used by nomads. You name it, [00:05:00], we, we used it. Any means available to locals and of course, walking for long distances.

Isabelle Roughol: So it sounds almost like, you're kinda just hitchhiking around, but I actually imagine that there's quite a bit of logistics behind the scenes. What goes into planning a trip like this and how long did it take you?

Reza Pakravan: Well the starting point, if you haven't tried it, you have to try: you always start with a map and a glass of whiskey. In my case, unfortunately I had to resort to many bottles of whiskey because it took such a long time to plan it. It took two years. It shouldn't take that long actually to plan a journey like that, but the reason it actually took that long was I had to navigate through so many war zones and border closures and insurgencies. So I had to navigate around these troubled areas. It was extremely difficult areas that, permission of [00:06:00] entry was very difficult, including Darfur. It's been an area that has been close to foreigners for so many years, let alone getting a camera to Darfur. Can you imagine? So just negotiating to get into Darfur, took about six months on its own, and so on.

So that's why it took such a long time. But I wasn't willing to compromise on, on my route. I needed to, I wanted to do this as an unbroken line and travel to the places and tell the stories that have not been told.

Isabelle Roughol: Why, Why the Sahel? Cause as you say, there's, you know, you could do other unbroken line trips that would be a lot easier to organize than the Sahel, which is probably the most dangerous area of the world to be in right now. So why there?

Reza Pakravan: Yeah, it's absolutely true. It's perhaps if not the most dangerous, it's one of the most dangerous places in the world to be in. And the purpose [00:07:00] wasn't really unbroken line, to be honest. My main concept was that the areas that I wanted to travel and the people, the stories that I wanted to tell form this sort of unbroken line.

When the idea of the Sahel started, I was in Chad filming. I went there to make a film for Oxfam, and it was like a mini documentary. And I went to Lake Chad and what I saw over there really blew my mind. It's only five hours' flight from London if you think about it, but what I've seen over there, it was like going back by a hundred years. It was a time travel. I couldn't believe the lack of development and how as I said, there's no better way to explain it than say, you go back a hundred years. For example, everyone was walking around with spears and bow and arrow, or you couldn't see any motorized vehicle or mobile phone, [00:08:00] which is available in abundance across Africa and around Lake Chad was non-existent. So I was thinking to myself, as an Explorer it's great, to see these sort of things and I'm just thinking, wow, this is fascinating. But for God's sake, we are talking about the 21st century.

I went to the Amazon and saw, apart from the headwaters of the Amazon, pretty much most of the tribes nowadays have Facebook and, no one uses radio to talk to each other. They talk to each other via Facebook and organize campaigns and all of that.

And you think about places like Sahel, not so far away from Europe and still, so left behind. So I came back, started to dig deep, went to the Royal Geographical Society, which I'm a fellow of. And I started researching really thoroughly. The more I researched, the [00:09:00] only thing that I could find was newspaper articles talking about war, insurgency, coup, and human trafficking, that kind of stuff.

And I was thinking there must be more to this region than just some really horrible headlines. And I wanted to go and tell those untold stories and perhaps providing people with an alternative narrative to what they hear on mainstream media. So that was the purpose of my journey.

Isabelle Roughol: Well, you did, you did do that. There's a moment I think that really encompasses that, I think it's at the end of the first episode, it's the replastering of the mosque. I forgot what town that's in.

Reza Pakravan: Djenne in Mali.

Isabelle Roughol: Yeah. That was such a powerful, joyful scene. How did it feel being there?

Reza Pakravan: It felt like Glastonbury festival slash Notting Hill carnival slash Burning man, in Mali.

Isabelle Roughol: In mud.

Reza Pakravan: In mud, in Mali. . You had it all. . [00:10:00] Apart from drinks you had it. You had everything there. The music was there. The joy was there. the people absolutely adored this mosque and there was, they were taking pride of just plastering it.

They'd been preparing mud for months and ready for the head masons to say, to give them a green light. And the whole thing started. I couldn't believe actually that the plastering of a mosque can be so joyful. And they started plastering. I mean, they they'd been preparing the mud for months, but the plastering actually started from 5:00 AM. By 10, 10:30, finished. Everything finished. That gigantic mosque was completely replastered. And that goes to show the sheer amount of people involved in plastering it. So there was a complete ecstasy of [00:11:00] just being there and seeing those people.

And the Malian music is just out of this world, it's absolutely incredible. It's a cultural hub of West Africa and, you know, with world-class musicians. When you're there and you experience this joy and incredible beauty and madness and dance, and, the whole people in community came together was something that I'm never, ever gonna forget for the rest of my life.

Isabelle Roughol: Is that what exploring does for you? Is that the thrill that, that you're seeking when you go on these adventures?

Reza Pakravan: Yes, definitely. You know, seeing those sort of unknown definitely is the thrill. But, obviously the whole thing is a thrill for me, is an exhilaration. For me starting planning,, , facing obstacles, facing border closure, facing difficulties of getting to a place and, putting the pieces of the puzzles together and, [00:12:00] and plan it and go and raise fund, facing day-to-day challenges to just get your expedition off the ground and getting a television behind it to allow you to go and film it and present it. And then till you get there, all the things that you're facing there, all the challenges, as well as the joys, as well as the difficulties, everything about this job for me is the thrill.

There is no single day for me is is the same, you know what I'm saying?

the variety of tasks that you have to deal with, the joy of telling a story that changes, people's understanding about certain parts of the world and about the world that we live in, that is the thrill. That is the, that's the best part of my job.

Isabelle Roughol: So I want to talk a little bit about how you got to that because that wasn't always your life. You're e like me, like, like many people who come on this podcast an immigrant. You grew up in Iran. Can you tell me a bit, a bit about your childhood and what it was like growing up there and [00:13:00] what made you eventually come to London?

Reza Pakravan: Yeah, it's interesting. I When I was in Iran I grew up during obviously the Revolution and then the war happened. So, my mom and dad worked in television. They have quite a difficult life when I was growing up. Obviously the country is going to war and, making drama or documentaries wasn't something that is really well-funded.

So we had we didn't have much money. It was quite difficult, but, you know, coming from a middle class setting, was fine., We had a brilliant childhood because at least, we had some really good stuff like skiing, , it was available to us., Straight after school, we're going to skiing. That was our winter pretty much, you know . Lots of outdoors., I had lots of opportunities to travel with my father when the war finished. And what was in my sort of mid teens. And he was encouraging me to to go outdoors, to see people, to travel. He took me to so many places with him [00:14:00] while he was making those documentaries, and that sort of ignited the passion for me, for travel, and seeking the world out there.

I I had my role model in those days, when I was a kid, was Tintin. So imagine growing up in Iran, you don't have access to the latest, um David Attenborough's films or l. there's no national geographic or, discovery channel. My window to the outside world was the collection of Tintin books.

And as a kid, just growing up, reading that, those sort of visual books, for me was fascinating., I traveled with Tintin, to the moon and back or went to the Congo. I went to the Americas, everywhere with this reporter who was the hero and at the end of the day, he was taking a heroic action and saved the day. And Tintin ignited another exploration passion in me.

So I came to London [00:15:00] and, it was a great place, to start.I have some background here, so family here, so that was a good place to come to. And those days I had a really good passion of becoming a musician. I started playing in different bands and the , London music scene in those days was fantastic. So I could realize my passion. On the side I was working, in finance earning really good money.

So life was good overall. Exploration those days took a back seat. Something that I really wanted to do, but obviously I was sort of conforming to that, to the situation. I mean you can't have everything really. I was, I wanted to really pursue my music career and all that kind of stuff, but got to the stage that I couldn't continue playing this double life of being in finance, doing a job that I don't really like and just, ignoring my passion, which was really exploration.

And yeah, finally I gave up my job in finance. Obviously it wasn't as easy as that, but took a while and forged a career in [00:16:00] exploration and television.

Isabelle Roughol: It's funny. I read those Tintin books, like back to back and again, and again and again as a kid. So I totally know what you mean and traveling to Africa and central America and all that with Tintin. The only journalist I know who never files a story by the way, but ..

Reza Pakravan: Wasn't it amazing? I mean, as a kid, perhaps you had a really good recollection of memories of him just being absolutely amazing, going everywhere. I mean, the extent of imagination of Hergé who has never traveled himself very much was absolutely incredible.

Isabelle Roughol: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I remember my, my dad had the whole collections and, I, I was never much into comic books, , but Tintin, I, I read definitely a lot. So when you were in finance, were you the kind of finance guy who like jumps out of airplanes on the weekends? Or like how much of a departure [00:17:00] was that exploring life?Were you an adrenaline junkie? Were you very athletic or did you have to change your life a lot?

Reza Pakravan: Finance was very comfortable for me because, , it gave me money and the ability to be able to travel a lot. So I could travel, had a really comfortable life. I wasn't like a trader or a, top investment banker who earns millions, but you know, I was in a decent salary. you know, towards the end I was pushing, mid six figures, which was great., In two years I paid all my student debt after graduation, graduating from university. So

In a way, I pretty much spent all my holidays traveling, off the beaten track as much as I could. And, , these sort of things, , learning and, having a job as an Explorer requires a huge amount of... ... If you like, you gotta pay your dues. You gotta be able to travel, get yourself out of different situations. You gotta know how to deal with situations and sort of, um... It was a [00:18:00] gradual buildup for me to constantly travel, to constantly be on the road,, to, to have the means and ability to to go to these journeys by myself and, little by little gain experience and ability t, to have it, as a professional career.

And when I made a decision that I really wanted to do it, I started building incrementally towards it. So I started doing sort of endurance journeys into really difficult and strange parts of the world. And then, broke a couple of records and all of that and, gained that sort of a respect from brands. And, I went to film school, so basically I, I forged a career inin exploration for myself, , found the niche, which, I had it in my blood. My niche was, television. I knew that language of television. I knew that storytelling and I combined it with my passion and that was it.

Isabelle Roughol: How long does that take from, , from leaving [00:19:00] finance, to having a series on Amazon Prime?

Reza Pakravan: good one.

Isabelle Roughol: I'm just you know, I'm just thinking you know, if there are people listening who are like, Hey, , I wanna have that life., it's a lot of work and, , and quite a bit of time, I assume.

Reza Pakravan: Yes. The first time I got a gig in television was when I crossed the Sahara desert on a bicycle. So I had no experience, but the move was so bold that the BBC Worldwide gave me a camera and said, "okay, go on, film yourself with this little camera and see what we can do with it."

And then towards the end, they sent their cameraman., I managed to get the footage back to them and they saw the footage and they said, "okay, towards the end of the journey we'll send our camera man to spend few days with you. And that made like 10 minutes in the BBC Worldwide, but it was definitely an [00:20:00] incremental career transition.

I'm completely against this advice that when people seeing someone that is done well in certain, interesting careers and then they think, "Oh yeah, just resign tomorrow. And I'm just going to go and explore, or I'm going to make, , television," all that kind of stuff. I'm completely against this. I think for me, it was a gradual transition. It takes time to build contacts. It takes time to build networks. It takes time to learn a craft and things. You have to give it that time. Y You can continue your day job on the side, , you can work on your passion, build your passion to the level that can pay for your, for your life. Otherwise you leave your job, you go and do it. And then you fail, you run out of money, then you have to go back and start doing exactly the same thing that you hated.

So back to your question, sorry, I digressed. How long did it take? Took a good few [00:21:00] years for me from the day that I pressed go till I managed to, get my first television program done., I had to incrementally build and build and build and build till I got to the, to the first one or, given a first chance, then I thought that's not enough. I've got to get myself to film school. I went to film school. I was studying took some time off then a sabbatical. And then, I changed job, , managed to find more time inbetween, use my holidays, , all that kind of stuff. I, I played really hardball. I worked really hard to be able to finish my degrees in filmmaking. Came out and I continuously pushed and pushed and pushed till I was able to get my series the first television series commissioned.

Isabelle Roughol: Which is probably good good training too, because it shouldn't come easy because it's not easy when you're on the road either. So you want to have, you know, built up that resilience.

[00:22:00] Reza Pakravan: Absolutely. And, it's a career that is something that everyone wants to do. And. English is not my first language. I'm not the most, uh well-spoken or I'm not the most beautiful guy around, you know, perhaps Ben Fogle is a lot more watchable than this ugly face but... but No, I, I managed to find my own niche and perhaps, you know, for the listeners who are listening: it's completely doable. Whatever you want to do is completely doable. It's just finding the right approach to tackle it, and give it time and keep at it. You will get there.

Isabelle Roughol: Were there ever moments when you thought, what the hell am I doing? I mean, you end up in a Sudanese prison in this series. I think the previous one you had malaria. Ever thought maybe this is... the toll is too much?

Reza Pakravan: Yeah., I've experienced that question,, asked that question a million times so far. [00:23:00] So it wasn't the first time I was asking that question, but I have to say when I got to, when I got when I became under arrest, when they caught me, I thought "S H I T. What the fuck?, What am I doing here?"

My wife is pregnant back home and you know, I'm in the Sudanese prison In Darfur! Hello. It was, it was crazy. It was like really beyond me. I mean, I never, ever expected to be that situation.

Isabelle Roughol: But you got out.

Reza Pakravan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But I, I sort of got out and I continued. bBut yeah, that four days wasn't easy., The fact that you don't know what's happening to you, what's going to be the outcome. I wasn't doing anything illegal. I was completely legal., It wasn't my fault that Sudanese dictator got toppled by his own general and the country went to this state of emergency. [00:24:00] It's something that I didn't plan for. In these journeys things like this happes., You find yourself in a survival situation you fight for your life., you end up in jail, and you got up and you continue. Like life, isn't it?

Now the beauty of being in an expedition is just constant reminder that, , life can change any minute, , unexpected. Things can happen any minute, good and bad, and you got to embrace everything and that's our life. And you knowyou just got to get on with it, whatever the outcome. And the beauty of life is just to be on that roller coaster. Otherwise it's going to get boring, doesn't it?

Isabelle Roughol: And that rollercoaster can surprise you even at home. So this year it's definitely been a big surprise. And I wonder what it was like for you, who's someone who's kind of used to making your home on the road and, and your livelihood as well to be stuck in place for so long.

Reza Pakravan: I, [00:25:00] maybe this is not a very diplomatic thing to say, but this year has been for me, it's been fantastic because you know, I'm a new dad and this coronavirus situation, although it has been terrible for our societies, , for many people, gave me that opportunity to bond with my little boy.

And if I wasn't stuck at home, I wouldn't have that close relationship with him, as I have right now. So perhaps that's the positive thing that actually came out of this. But you know, the, the claustrophobia of being stuck in my garden shed constantly, day in, day out spending all the time editing is hasn't been that easy, I have to say. I can't wait to get on the road again.

Isabelle Roughol: Well, I'm glad for you that there was a silver lining to this year and the timing for your family was, was very fortuitous. So since you're planning again for when you can [00:26:00] travel again,,, , where next? What's the plan?

Reza Pakravan: I have a couple of series in development. One is cycling the Himalayas. So And Basically I'm going to be traveling to sort of a very high altitude part of the world, exploring the people who live in the highest altitude andthe highest settlements in the world and perhaps documenting their journey, documenting how their life has been impacted by climate change and global warming. So that is one on the go It hasn't been, , , we haven't got the green light from the broadcaster because of the coronavirus. All the borders are closed. You cannot go to India, you cannot go to Nepal. China is a bit tricky to get that part. So that's up in the air.

And also we have "The world's most dangerous borders" season 2 w o commissioned by Amazon Prime but again, we're waiting for the corona situation to calm down a little bit, because that's also including traveling to the [00:27:00] countries that they don't want any foreigners there at the moment.

Isabelle Roughol: Well Until then I strongly recommend people watch "The world's most dangerous borders" on Amazon prime., It's a nice escape as well I think, in this particular time for everyone. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

Reza Pakravan: Of course, you've been a great host and I love your questions and thank you very much for having me.

Isabelle Roughol: Thank you. Thank you. Is there besides the series on Amazon Prime, is there anything else in your work that you want people to be aware of and go check out?

Reza Pakravan: Yeah, sure. I've got another series on Amazon Prime called Kapp to Cape. That's the story of me leaving my financial career behind and launched the career in adventure travel and exploration. And there is an accompanying book for that with more details of the whole transition. How did that happen, step-by-step perhaps. It's perhaps a [00:28:00] good step-by-step reading if you want to really ignite your passion and go after whatever you dream of doing.

Isabelle Roughol: Great. Thank you so much, Reza. And yeah, hope we can all travel again next year.

Reza Pakravan: Absolutely. Thanks Isabelle. Thanks for having me

Isabelle Roughol: My pleasure.

Thank you to Reza Pakravan and thank you for following this adventure this year from a corner of my bedroom closet, to your ears in your phone, your living room, your car, wherever you are. It's been an absolute joy and a heck of a learning curve. That's it for season two, except keep your eyes peeled for a holiday surprise, so make sure that you subscribe to the podcast feed so you don't miss it. And you don't miss a return of Borderline in 2021.

I'm taking a proper Christmas break and then a few weeks to work on the business, not in the business, as they say, and prepare a smashing next season. The newsletter isn't going anywhere though so make sure to subscribe. You'll find it at borderlinepod.com so we can stay connected.

If you want to give [00:29:00] me one Christmas present, I would ask for you to rate and review and maybe share this podcast with your friends or with anyone that you think might like it. Let's continue to make some noise over the break so that we can start up 2021 welcoming a bunch of new listeners.

An extra thank you to members who make Borderline possible and have shown their faith in this project. This week, we welcome Lila Smith, Ralph and an anonymous, but no less cherished new member.

If you'd like to join them in our community of defiant global citizens and help make Borderline happen through 2021, you can become a member on Patreon or on Substack. You'll find the links at borderlinepod.com and in the show notes.

I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. Music by Dyalla. I wish you happy and safe holidays however you are able to celebrate and wherever you are in the world. And I will talk to you very soon.

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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.