Hiking and Camping in Iraq and Afghanistan
Explore the World’s Wildest Places with Secret Compass
How about a hike in Iraq or camping in Afghanistan?
By Kristina Kulyabina
Picture a relaxing vacation on a white sandy beach surrounded by vivid palm trees and crystal clear water, sipping on refreshing piña coladas underneath the perfect shade. Now imagine trekking through the cold and jagged snowcapped mountains of Iraq, sleeping in a tent overnight and eating freeze-dried rations in the morning.
If the latter sounds more like your scene, then meet Levison Wood, a 31 year-old former British army officer, co-founder and director of the company Secret Compass, a service which leads individuals on exploratory expeditions to many of the world’s wildest and untraveled places.
Some of the most interesting things the team has done on its expeditions according to Levison was finding the source of the Oxus River in Afghanistan, discovering 5,000 year- old petro glyphs in Panama, being the first team to climb a mountain in Iraq, exploring an unknown rainforest in South Sudan, driving a land cruiser across Africa, walking across an uncharted mountain range in Madagascar, and taking Discovery Channel to film volcanoes in Patagonia, just to name a few!
In 2010, Levison and his colleague Tom Bodkin, also a former officer in the British Parachute Regiment, brainstormed a way to pursue adventure after leaving the army instead of settling for a typical “9-5 office job.” Levison has been traveling for as long as he can remember, roaming the areas of Southern Africa and Asia at 18-years-old. He has been on the road ever since.
Secret Compass was created not only to extend Levison’s travels, but to also broaden the horizons of other adventurous individuals willing to take on a challenge. He says his goals for new group members are “to be a valuable member of a team and a part of something pioneering and exploratory, learn new skills, and above all to achieve the extraordinary.”
The main ethos behind the company is that everyone has their own ‘secret compass’ that guides them towards exploration and achievement. Anyone can apply to join an expedition as long as the person satisfies medical standards and is relatively fit because some of the trips are not designed for the feeble.
The application is online and there is no fee to apply – the individual is contacted if the team wants them to join. Each trip, usually one per month and lasting from 1-3 weeks, allows 6-10 people maximum, and is lead by Levison, Tom or one of expert guides on the team – each of whom has a specialty whether it is deserts, jungles or mountains. The overall team leaders are highly experienced and have worked in over 100 countries.
Secret Compass expeditions consist of trekking, rafting, mountain biking, ski touring, canoeing, among many other outdoor activities. “It is nothing technical – we really believe in enabling maximum participation,” says Levison.
Staying in Yurts
Camping is the primary source of overnight stays in the wilds, sometimes in tents, hammocks, or simply under the stars. Sometimes the group stays in villages with indigenous people in places ranging from shepherd’s hurts, yurts, caves, floors of mosques and churches.
A team in Iraq once slept in a prison cell where the police were very accommodating! However, to finish on a high note with rest and relaxation, a plush hotel by the beach, lake, or city, is accommodated for the last night or two. If more luxury is required on a tailored, personalized trip, which is commissioned by the seeking individual, then it can be arranged.
Besides the freeze-dried rations consumed on the mountains, other sources of food are provided by local chefs and local villages, which are always fresh and sometimes unique.
For instance, members have eaten river eel, monkey, and meerkat, on past expeditions. “We do believe though that ‘an army marches on its stomach' so we're not into the starvation diet,” says Levison. “All team members will eat well and we can usually cater for dietary requirements.”
With his former army experience, Levison knows how to tackle rigorous expeditions. The team has encountered challenges from mindless bureaucracies in Sudan and dodging hippos and crocodiles in a raft in Uganda to sleeping in prisons in Iraq and getting followed to the toilet in Madagascar.
One of the most unique places Secret Compass has visited is Afghanistan, where the team stumbled across 3,000 year-old Buddhist shrines in the high passes of the Pamir Mountains.
Levison says it is one of the most unique places he has ever visited for its unrivalled history, allure, and mystique embraced by the lush green fields and stunning mountains. Afghanistan has a temperate climate- a bit like a warm spring day in Europe. “And also for the sense of edginess and wrongful perceptions.
The Afghans are incredibly welcoming people. It’s a place like no other, in its color and feel,” he says. He in fact did not expect the people to be so over-friendly and did not expect the scenery to be so stunning.
Glen Downtown, a 40–year-old software developer from Australia, joined the team for the Source of the Oxus and the Wakhan Corridor expedition in Afghanistan in July 2011. The team trekked in some of the most remote mountains in the world and experienced local cultures while tracking the Oxus all the way to Lake Zorkul.
“It was an incredible experience…not to mention we made some great friendships with like-minded explorers, and had endless amazing photography opportunities! I consider all of this an incredible privilege, and I’m desperate to spend more time in this part of the world,” says Glen.
Zagros Mountains of Iraq
Another recent unique trip in the Middle East consisted of the Zagros Mountains in Iraq that stand at over 3,000 meters and guard the high passes into Persia. They are sacred to the Kurdish people – some of the friendliest and amazing people on the planet considered by Levison, who were very proud to host tourists. “Eating food with the local people in Iraqi homes is a really special experience- they share everything,” he says.
The most challenging part of visiting Iraq and Afghanistan is procuring the right visas and permits, but once you’re in, you’re fine. “You can visit these places if you do it properly,” says Levison.
Most people initially visualize Iraq as a complex area of conflict and war. Some would never consider this part of the world as an ideal destination spot. The Gulf War and the American Invasion of Iraq in 2003 have molded misconceptions of the region.
Iraqi Kurdistan, which was to a large extent spared by the latest conflict, endured times itself, during the course of which its populations were crushed by the totalitarian forces of the former dictator of Iraq. For a while, the Kurds were dominated by internal conflict, which led to civil war.
However, the situation has improved immensely over time and since the conflict, Kurdistan has claimed itself has the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Iraqi Kurdistan is proving that it has effectively surpassed the contradiction and taken full advantage of a strong cultural identity. “They sure as hell need the tourism!” says Levison.
A Client's View
Dan Humphrey, a 28-year-old company founder from Britain, says that he knew he was going on a well-organized trip to Iraq that had been well prepared in advance by Secret Compass. “Kurdistan is a beautiful and friendly region, with people who opened their hearts to us where ever we went – for me experiencing the country, culture and community made this a fantastic trip.
“The location cannot be matched, the mountain range we trekked within was a spectacular sight, made all the more special by it’s isolation,” says Dan. “Finally and most importantly, the group was fantastic, I cannot wish to have been within a nicer team, that ensured no matter the conditions, location, etc we had an amazing time.”
Levison has difficulty pin-pointing a singular country that provided him with a life-changing experience during his expeditions so far with Secret Compass. “They're all life changing I'd say- how could they not be? But for me personally, my first Secret Compass trip to Afghanistan was really special and will remain with me forever,” he says.
Currently, a few trips are planned out for the next destinations on the Secret Compass list. One is back in Madagascar and the other in the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan. Secret Compass often re-visits spectacular countries more than once but the leaders really try to change the mission because each place has so much to offer.
Next month Bodkin is taking a team back to the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan for a pioneering and challenging trek. Some new explorations planned ahead include Uzbekistan in the summer and Yemen and Sudan in the fall. For Levison personally, he’s off to walk the length of the White Nile starting in Rwanda towards the end of the year. “Big plans ahead!”
To apply for an expedition with Secret Compass, visit their website. Although there is no cost to apply, flight costs are not covered by Secret Compass. You can also email the team directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristina Kulyabina is an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD.com. She also blogs for Let's Go, a student travel guide. She is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Western Mass. Kristina attended UMass Amherst for a B.A. in journalism and an international relations certificate.