Interview with James Willcox

13 November, 2015 | Blog, Interviews

Q: James, tell us something about yourself and your background. How did your interest in travel come about?

After multiple trips to East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East I become fascinated with Central Asia. A region where cultures, cuisines and people that a new well combined. That was how Untamed Borders came about. I got to know two Pashtun guides that worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan with journalists, photographers, researchers or sometimes tourists. I helped them set up a website to promote their work. As time progressed, I would help them by answering mails whilst they guided and after a year or so we decided that we would set the company up as a real travel agency. Untamed Borders was born.

Interview with James Willcox


Q: As the founder of Untamed Borders, what do you consider the greatest challenges of your position?

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes. We have issues and complications on a regular basis. It comes with the territory of guiding in less stable regions. Landslides, earthquakes, floods, invasions, embargoes, civil unrest, road traffic accidents, arrests and more are all things that can and do happen in the regions we guide people. These are things we have contingency plans for and have the experience and knowledge to adapt to. The real challenges are not these though. They are things like how we keep the quality of guiding high as we expand to new regions and how to try and ensure we bring a positive impact in the places we guide.


Q: Untamed Borders focuses on just a few uncharted regions, such as Afghanistan, Somaliland and the Russian Caucasus. Why the emphasis on these? How are these places similar and how are they different?

Untamed Borders began by taking people to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Travelling through the Khyber Pass was something we did a number of times a year. From there, we added other destinations in the region and still arrange trips to all the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We also get requests from guests to visit other hard to access regions. With friends and contacts from the development and media world we expanded our area of expertise into regions such as Chechnya and Somalia. We try and operate in a way that enables our guests to have an authentic experience rather than a standardised package tour. The places we guide sometimes see no other tourists so that is one way that they are similar. Culturally, geographically and ethnically the regions we guide in are quite diverse.


Q: Which of the regions is it most challenging to operate in? And which one is your own personal favourite?

Everywhere has its own challenge. Areas that have no tourism infrastructure are more challenging initially but then it is easier to give an authentic trip as we like it to be run. Areas with a small semi-established tourism infrastructure are easier initially but it takes more time and effort to enable us to run an authentic trip and get off the beaten track. Guiding people in Mogadishu is probably the trip that carries the most risk. Afghanistan is probably my favourite place to guide in. I love the landscape and the people. The guests usually find it one of the best trips we do too.

Q: What makes Untamed Borders different from other companies of this niche?

I like to think that the close relationship with the majority of the guides we work with gives a real insight into the places we guide. The private trips with just one or two guests and one local guide often get really great feedback.


Q: Do you have any plans to expand to other current hotspots such as Syria or Yemen, or really hard to get visa zones such as Equatorial Guinea or Nigeria?

We have no plans to take people to Syria and Yemen in the current climate (although that can always change). We do have trips in progress to Puntland and Darfur in Sudan. Both of which are challenging from a security perspective. We have arranged trips for journalists to Gaza too. We can arrange trips to Equatorial Guinea on request.

Q: How are your own travels different when you travel for yourself rather than representing Untamed Borders?

There is an awful lot of overlap between my personal travel interests and that of Untamed Borders. For my own trips I do not have such a fixed plan or itinerary. I like to visit somewhere with a vague plan and see where it takes me. I also do take trips to the seaside with my two-year-old son. Something that is currently not on any of our itineraries!


Q: What are your travel plans for the next few months?

I have just come back from researching some tribal groups in Chattisgarh in Central India and leading our annual cultural trip to Afghanistan. I will be home for a short while before leading a reconnaissance trip to Puntland.

Q: We always ask a quirky question at the end – if you could have one superpower, what would it be?

To be in two places at once. One would be at home with my family, planning and arranging trips. The other would be somewhere else in the world guiding and travelling.


The photos in this article are taken from the personal collection of James Wilcox.