25 Years of Wild Frontiers: Our Best Memories

Posted by Hayley Cleeter 25th January 2023
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25 Years of Wild Frontiers: Our Best Memories

A birthday is a good time to reflect on how far you've come and since we've been very fortunate to work with some amazing people over the years and visit some incredible places, we asked the team to share some of their favourite memories…


When I think back over the past 25 years, and all the incredible experiences Wild Frontiers has afforded me, it's very hard to pick just one as a standout moment: riding horses across the Mountains of Heaven in Kyrgyzstan, taking classic jeeps through the villages of Rajasthan, walking through the bucolic farmlands of Romania all spring to mind as incredible experiences. But if pushed to choose just one event that was as moving as it was exciting, I’d have to say officially opening our school in northern Pakistan takes the biscuit.

Realising we wanted to do more for the communities we visited than simply travel through them, in 2009 we decided to set up a charitable arm of our business, the Wild Frontiers Foundation. The following year we organised a sponsored trek to K2 basecamp through which we raised over £20,000 and over the course of the following two years built a school in the small village of Baleygon in the remote Hushe Valley. In September 2012, I visited Baleygon, made a short speech to the entire village, cut the ribbon to raucous cheers, and thus opened the school.  

Running a school so far away and in such an isolated location has not been easy and there have been times when we have considered pulling the plug on the project. But with help from many hard-working and dedicated locals, we have managed to make a great success of it. There are now 107 pupils (as many girls as boys), taught by 6 teachers, and we have finally persuaded the government to acknowledge their responsibilities and take over some of the funding. As such last autumn, the school underwent some renovations and is now looking spectacular.

When I returned in June 2022, I was greeted once again by a wonderfully enthusiastic welcoming committee and was overjoyed to see so many young children getting an education in a place where formally there was none. So even though I’d pinpoint that moment in 2012 as my stand-out experience running Wild Frontiers, the beauty of the Baleygon School project, is that it is a gift that keeps on giving!


Two days into leading our recce tour to Palestine back in 2013, I was asked by one of the American couples on the trip if I was single. No, they weren’t swingers; they were just asking as they thought I might be a good match for their French teacher who’d since become a good friend. I was single; the match worked and this year we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.


It is by no means a coincidence that our Founder and CEO has chosen to lead our Mountains and Cities departure to mark 25 years of Wild Frontiers. On the tour of two halves, we journeyed through the most spectacular landscape in Kyrgyzstan and ogled those turquoise-tiled domes in the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan.

It is hard to pick just one highlight from THE two best weeks. However, chomping on a Kendal Mint Cake from my hometown atop MELS Pass literally took my breath away at over 3,400 metres above sea level. There is also something so freeing about going completely off the grid to get to these remote corners of the world – simply chatting in your yurt, taking in the scenery by day and huddling around a fire at night.

People make a place, and it was truly humbling to meet our local hosts, who were so grateful for every traveller who has stayed with them over the years. Imanjan, who runs a bed and breakfast in Osh, even showed me a Wild Frontiers sticker Jonny had given him way back when it all began.


Watching the sunset from the top of the Tower of Silence located just outside Yazd was truly magical. Until about 50 years ago, Zoroastrian people did not bury their dead, they put the corpses on the top of these towers for the flesh to be consumed by birds such as vultures. The reason for this method was to avoid contact with Earth or Fire, both of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion. No longer used for this, the towers are beautiful circular structures located on top of a hill and watching the sunset from here over the surrounding dusty landscape was a very serene experience.


Many years ago when I first joined Wild Frontiers, I considered myself a pretty seasoned traveller, but this went out the window on my first group tour. What we offered just clicked with me. We were following the stunning Mountains of Heaven to the far East of Kyrgyzstan at the border crossing with China going into its most easterly and fairly heavily militarized Xiangying province. I just had this realisation that I was so far from mainstream travel, that there was no way I would have done this by myself. Outside of the people I worked with or clients I talked to, I don't think anyone I know could have even pointed to where I was on a map. In my mind, I was literally in the Middle of nowhere and it was a wonderful moment and the start of many great trips with Wild Frontiers.


For me, Wild Frontiers is all about people. Over the last 15+ years, I have been really fortunate to work alongside some truly inspiring people both within our team and partners in the destinations we visit.

Managing the Wild Frontiers Foundation, it is a real privilege to support and work with people who are making a significant difference and having such a positive impact within their, often socially and environmentally vulnerable, communities.

Perhaps the most memorable initiative that I have been really proud to be a part of is our partnership with John Kahakwa, a renowned local primatologist and founder of the Pole Pole Foundation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Pole Pole Foundation works with the communities surrounding Kahuzi-Biega National Park in an effort to protect rare Eastern Lowland Gorillas from poaching and the destruction of habitat.

While working with the Pole Pole Foundation in 2018 to help bring tourism back to the region, and in turn support the communities and gorilla conversation, it became obvious that the vast majority of local people had never seen the animals they were learning to better protect.

People travel from around the world to trek to see the gorillas, however, those living along the border of the national park had never had the same opportunity.

Realising the simplicity of an initiative that would have a huge and life-long impact on both the local people and their primate neighbours, the Wild Frontiers Foundation raised £8,000, which allowed John and the Pole Pole Foundation to organise trips for people from surrounding villages to trek to visit the gorillas and learn more about the importance of preserving both the endangered animals and their habitat.

They included community leaders, teachers, doctors, high school students, police officers, former poaches and women who had been arrested in the past for the illegal gathering of firewood and vegetation.

A heart-warming image, that really makes me smile, is the women trekking through the jungle with their handbags. No fancy trekking equipment, just their everyday clothes and their handbags.

And of course responses like this.

‘We are so grateful to visit the national park. We had the opportunity to visit the lone gorilla, which was a victim of poaching and lost a hand. We have seen him face-to-face in his natural habitat. Now we are going to explain to our women friends and tell our husbands and children to stop poaching in the park because as the gorillas are our neighbours it is our responsibility to protect and conserve them and their habitat.’

In all, over 230 local people made the trek to see those gorillas. I think that’s pretty incredible.


After years of hearing, learning and talking about the Svaneti region of Georgia, my second trip to the country saw me finally reach Ushguli. It was just as special as the rumours. It is no doubt hard to reach but it's so worth it for the most picturesque views of the famed ancient watch towers and Greater Caucasus Mountains.


The Iran Unveiled tour I joined a few years back really sums up what Wild Frontiers mean when we say ‘Challenging Perceptions, Inspiring Connections’. Most people I spoke to were extremely surprised I was visiting Iran, and I must admit to being a tiny bit apprehensive myself beforehand, but once there my perceptions were well and truly challenged, discovering a country of rich history, fascinating culture and beautiful poetry. 

The people of Iran meanwhile, were, without doubt, the friendliest, most welcoming people I have met anywhere. I am still in touch with many of the people I met, as well as some of my fellow travellers, who were great company and full of interesting stories. So it's safe to say the 'Inspiring connections' part was fully fulfilled as well. A magical country, a fantastic trip and many wonderful memories.


I haven’t been on a trip yet as I'm still relatively new to Wild Frontiers, but that hasn't stopped me from dreaming! The top three tours I would like to take include Algerian Colours because it’s a very up-and-coming destination and still largely unknown to the main public, so I would love to go now to beat the crowds. The country has so much to offer and is still very much underestimated, compared to its more known neighbours Morocco and Tunisia. 

I'd also love to go to Papua New Guinea because it’s been a childhood dream of mine to travel to this mythical country of colourful tribes, untouched coral reefs and steamy jungles with birds of paradise. And of course, I have to pick the Pakistan Hindu Kush Adventure because that’s where it all started for our company and I would love to experience what Jonny saw and what made him decide to share this beautiful region with the world.

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