25 Years of Wild Frontiers: An Interview with Our Founder, Jonny Bealby
Celebrating 25 years of Wild Frontiers, our Founder Jonny Bealby reflects on perhaps the most important journey of his life. We find out about the important lessons he's learned, the tours he's most proud of and what he hopes the future has in store for us.
What were your hopes and expectations when you set up Wild Frontiers?
The answer to this question is simple, I wanted to create a career for myself doing something I loved… namely travel. My father, being a farmer, had always instilled in us the pleasures and freedom that come from being one’s own boss, and although I enjoyed travel writing – the career I had for the decade preceding WF – I had discovered quite quickly it was going to be a challenging way to make a living.
So when Saifullah, the chief spokesperson for the Kalash, with whose family I had just spent three months researching my second book, suggested I start a travel company to bring travellers to northern Pakistan and in particular stay with his remarkable pagan community, I saw in an instant there was an opportunity. In those early years, I didn’t look beyond Pakistan but when 9/11 struck I had to shift focus and it was at this stage that I gained some investors and turned the small, sole-trader business into a private limited company. And as soon as you have investors things become a little more serious and the growth of Wild Frontiers really began.
Did I see it back then turning into the business it is today? If I’m honest yes, I think I did. In 1998 true off-the-beaten-track travel with a positive ethical stance was really starting to be appreciated and its popularity has only increased over the years.
Starting your own company must be nerve-wracking, was there a defining moment where you thought, this is actually going to work?
Looking back over a quarter of a century in the life of a business, there are always going to be those moments which stand out as being pivotal. In those 25 years, we have sailed a bumpy sea, that has included the financial crisis in 2007/8, the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the ash cloud in 2010, the Arab Spring in 2011, the exchange rate chaos triggered by the Brexit vote in 2016 and of course the Covid pandemic.
But undoubtedly the biggest impact on Wild Frontiers was caused by the cataclysmic events that took place in New York in September 2001. I was actually with a group in the Kalash valleys of Pakistan, on the Afghan border, when the attack took place and so remote were we that we didn’t hear about it for a further three days – surely making us among the last people on the planet to hear. But what at first I took to be the death knell for WF, ironically actually lead to its success. For by preventing me from running trips to Pakistan, I was forced to look elsewhere and this opened up the world. From there we never looked back.
What has been the biggest challenge since you started the company?
The most important factor for any company is the team that works within it. If you have the right team, almost any obstacle can be overcome. And I have been very fortunate to have had a superb group of highly talented, passionate and hardworking people working with us from the beginning. Of course, in business it’s inevitable that people come and go, and over the years we have lost some great colleagues. But now, more than ever, we have an incredible team; a team that has seen us through the enormous challenges of the pandemic and one that is now growing again and taking us forward. The challenge, as always, is to make sure we keep it that way.
What tour are you most proud of?
That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, I’d have to say the first tour I ever ran, the Pakistan Hindu Kush Adventure, but on the other hand, I think India in Slow Motion is an amazing tour, that when launched was truly ground-breaking. Up until then almost all trips to Rajasthan focused on major tourist locations such as Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. But this trip took a different, truly off-the-beaten-path route, through an incredible part of India, to stay in some amazing palaces, have fascinating experiences and visit a hugely colourful festival. All in all, for those that like to dig a little deeper, it is a perfect India trip.
I’m also very proud of bringing tourism back to places that for reasons of war or political insecurity had lost it; here I would include Georgia, Kashmir, Iran, the Demorcatic Republic of Congo, Sudan and others.
We did once run a month-long tour on horseback from Kyrgyzstan, all the way through Tajikistan, into Afghanistan. It was a crazy idea, hatched by myself and my great friend Dom Mocchi. Needless to say, it didn’t all go according to plan, but by hook and by crook we did just about pull it off. That, along with a journey down the Congo River and another on camels across the notorious Ténéré Desert, are probably the most adventurous trips we’ve ever run. Why don’t we do them anymore – ask Marc, but I think he wants to sleep at night!
What’s the best Wild Frontiers trip you’ve been on?
Well, it would be hard to beat the first running of India in Slow Motion or any running of the Pakistan Hindu Kush Adventure tours, but other than that I have had some incredible riding trips, like the first time we rode across the Mountains of Heaven in Kyrgyzstan with Richard Dunwoody and when we rode across the Andes in Chile and Argentina. Sadly, as part of our evolution, we have had to stop running riding group tours, now only running them as private tailor-made adventures, so as to concentrate better on our other tour types.
With that in mind, I had a great cultural trip to Guatemala for Christmas 2019 and a wonderful walking tour of eastern Turkey in the pandemic summer of 2020. But to be honest I am a traveller. I love seeking out new things, meeting new people, and seeing new sites. I can’t honestly remember a trip I did not enjoy – even when things have gone wrong!
What tour haven't you experienced yet but are most desperate to?
I’m desperate to get to Japan – so in 2024 perhaps it’ll be the Land of the Samurai!
What exciting developments have you planned for Wild Frontiers' in the next couple of years?
For now, after the tumultuous years of the pandemic, it is really just a matter of ‘steady as she goes’. We shrank in size during the pandemic, unfortunately losing some of our team, and have only just recently returned to something like full strength. Now things are returning to normal, and we once again have a London office, its my job to make sure the business not only delivers extraordinary travel experiences to our clients, and helps benefit the people in whose lands we are lucky enough to explore, but that we also do so in a sustainable and profitable way.
What new countries are you desperate to bring back/add to our selection?
The adventurer in me would like to see Chad in our offering, the culture vulture in me would like to see us bring back Morocco and the luxury beach bum in me would like to see us once again offer Mozambique – my niece just went on her honeymoon there and reminded me what a special place that is. We'd also love to bring back tours to one of our all-time favourite destinations, Syria, but with everything that has gone on in recent years we would have to do this carefully, sensitively and with responsible travel at the very forefront.
What important lessons have you learned running Wild Frontiers?
Goodness so many, but as far as business goes, learn to delegate, listen to your colleagues and above all trust your instincts. While travelling, remember people are good and almost everyone you meet will be willing to help you. And when leading a tour take time to get to know everyone. Some people you will naturally gravitate towards, others less so. But if you bother to take the time to get to know those that perhaps are less forthcoming, that you wouldn’t naturally meet or get to know, more often than not it’s worth the effort. Oh, and in hot countries always carry mosquito repellent! There are a few more here – 100 lessons from 100 countries.