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The Adventurer Who Places Purpose Above Places

When it comes to bringing meaning to an adventure, Reza Pakravan’s film on his expedition to Lake Chad, telling the story of an unfolding disaster unseen by the rest of the world, is a prime example of how modern exploration can find new purpose

Reza Pakravan had a career as a basketball player before a yearning for risk taking led him to a life as an adventurer and film-maker. In 2011 he set the Guiness World Record for cycling across the Sahara, then in 2013 he cycled the length of the planet from Norway to South Africa, clocking up over 11,000 miles.

As impressive as these journeys are, Pakravan places greater emphasis on telling the stories of the people who’s lands he travels through. His latest expedition and film documents the building but internationally little known humanitarian and environmental disaster that’s unfolding on the receding banks of Africa’s Lake Chad, on whose waters 30 million people depend.

In the 48°C heat we really struggled to keep up with women carrying 15kg of goods on their heads

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Q: What inspired you to take up a life of adventure?
‘Risk taking is in my DNA. I managed to ignore it for so many years. But later in life it surfaced. I wanted to become an adventurer and produce adventure TV programmes. I was spending my time dreaming about it, watching so many TV programmes and reading explorers’ books.’

‘Then, a month volunteering in Madagascar changed everything. I was working in a remote village helping to build a school. I lived in a tent for a month and when I came back I realised something had changed. I wanted to be out there all the time – that ignited my passion and gave me the means to kick-start my adventure journey. I started by cycling to remote places and then later on went to film school, and learned the craft of how to turn my adventures to films.’

Q: ‘Your recent expedition to Chad brings attention to a crisis brought on by climate change – do you think adventuring with purpose is becoming more important?’
‘The meaning of exploration has changed for me these days. Exploration is about documentation and bringing something back from the expedition to share and increase people’s awareness about places and people, and the issues that they are facing. I have been fortunate that making films has given me the opportunity to travel to places that it otherwise makes no sense to travel to.’

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‘I went to Chad to document the lives of the remote tribes of the Lake Chad area whose existence has come under threat by climate change, extreme hunger and Boko Haram. Millions of people in the Lake Chad Basin region remain in desperate need of aid. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, it hit me in the face. I have travelled to many poor places and places in crisis, but I had never seen anything like that before.’

‘You start asking the fundamental question: Why don’t these people get any attention in the world media? Building a purpose to an adventure is more important than ever because as adventurers we go to remote places that hardly anyone else goes to.’

Q: What was the toughest physical challenge in the Chad expedition?
‘I have never experienced such extreme temperatures; 45-48°C. We were filming people who were travelling for 20km from the refugee camps to the market to sell their goods, and we had to carry our heavy camera gear in that temperature. It was tough going. Roads around Lake Chad are nothing but desert track – just a tyre mark on soft deep sand. We really struggled to keep up with women carrying 15kg of goods on their heads, walking in their flip-flops on their way to the market.’

Q: Did making the journey itself enable you to fully grasp the scale of the problems there?
‘The problem is so complicated that even humanitarian workers spending years over there still struggle to comprehend it. In a nutshell: Lake Chad is a source of life for 30 million people. The convergence of high population growth, a low human development index and Boko Haram terrorists has had a devastating impact.’

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‘I couldn’t believe the level of under-development. It was like stepping into Africa 100 years ago. The modern world has not made it to the Lake Chad area yet. It’s still a very tribal place with enduring traditions.’

Q: What was the most hopeful thing you saw?
‘Dedicated people working for Oxfam. Lake Chad is not a place you can wander to on your own, even for someone with a high risk tolerance like me. Hence our movement was helped by humanitarians, especially Oxfam. They operate in places that no one else dares to go. I saw how selflessly they trained vulnerable people to cultivate crops for themselves, and how empowering it was for them.’

Q: And which person’s story affected you the most deeply?
‘I interviewed a woman who was a mother of five. Boko Haram came to their island and shot her husband and two of her sons right in front of her. In her humble little hut, one of her sons was lying down on the floor with foam constantly coming out of his mouth. She told me that he was traumatised when he saw his father and brothers shot dead in front of him. She still found the strength to carry on to provide for her other kids. I couldn’t stop crying when I saw that. It hit me badly.’

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Q: Do you think that as the way people consume media changes, adventurers have a new role to tell meaningful stories such as this?
‘Absolutely. Adventurers are well positioned to share stories about people and places that hardly make it to the mainstream media. Certainly, as adventurers, we could do more by building a purpose into our adventures. It becomes a lot more rewarding. The more stories we share the better understanding we have for each other. We create bridges and, with them, we create a better world.’

Q: What would be your advice to other adventurers looking to tell a story?
‘Telling a story comes with a big responsibility. Whatever story you want to tell about people, places and issues has to be based on facts and unbiased. Understanding cultural dynamics is so important to tell the story in a non-judgmental way. Whenever I want to write about things I normally give it a couple of weeks after I come back, because it gives me time to put things into perspective. If you want to tell other people’s stories, you need to read and understand about them and accept their way of life. Remove your western hat, immerse yourself in their world and give yourself time to reflect.’

Find out more about Reza Pakravan and his filmmaking projects at Rezapakravan.com Follow him @RezaPakravan

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