The Long Riders' Guild

A Word from the Founder

Will Explorers be redefined as Terrorists?

by CuChullaine O'Reilly FRGS


(This article was first published in May, 2012 on the exploration blog operated by Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg.)


I have just completed chapter 52, "Guns & Trouble," in the "Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration." The project is currently up to 1000 plus pages, and includes more than 500 images to date.


The majority of people would expect a book about horse travel to focus on spurs and saddles. That has certainly been the narrow focus of the few books written about this topic in the past. In stark contrast, the Encyclopaedia is designed for 21st century equestrian explorers. In addition to containing information on how to choose horses, etc., it is the first book of its kind to deal with a host of modern problems which did not plague our equestrian forefathers.


For example, most nations only issue transit papers for horses that are destined to cross their country via a truck and trailer. These papers, usually valid for ten days, provide adequate time for a driver to deliver the horse to a competitive event. Yet such short-term transit papers do not provide time for a Long Rider to journey across an entire country.


The need for personal security has also changed. Long Riders are no longer being murdered by rampaging Indians. Today they have to be careful that their blogs do not provide cyber stalkers with information that will allow them to locate, then attack and/or sexually assault, a lone equestrian traveller.



The first modern hostage crisis occurred in 1901 when American Long Rider Ellen Stone was kidnapped by Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski. He bragged to the media that he had “stolen” the woman so as to set his country free from the Ottoman empire. Despite being held captive in the mountains for six months, it was widely believed that Stone became sympathetic to the “terrorists.” When the American government refused to intervene, the $110,000 ransom was paid after an appeal was made to the public.


Nor are Long Riders only interested in pack saddles. Like other members of the international exploration community, they too rely on a variety of up to date electronic equipment. This too has brought unforeseen complications.


Because the Guild has Members in 44 countries, we must constantly remind foreigners that Hollywood's version of the American "Wild West" is not valid. In fact, the Encyclopaedia explains that in a pending court case, the U.S. government has argued its authority to protect the country’s border extends to looking at information stored in electronic devices such as a laptop. Even though the computer owner may not be suspected of a crime, when crossing into the United States, officials regard a laptop the same as a suitcase and can search it without obtaining a warrant.


Nor is this the only indication of a dramatic change in the American political climate.


In the Encyclopaedia I warn foreign Long Riders of draconian new laws which have taken effect in America. For example, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that anyone can be strip-searched upon arrest for any offence, however minor, at any time. History demonstrates that the use of forced nudity by a state is powerfully effective in controlling and subduing populations. This legislation joins the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) which lets anyone in America be arrested forever at any time and HR 347, the "trespass bill", which gives you a 10-year sentence for protesting anywhere near someone with secret service protection.


While these topics will be of long-term interest to equestrian travellers, my research has revealed an interesting/alarming idea which I believe may be of immediate concern to the international exploration community.


In the 19th and 20th centuries explorers were often suspected of spying for foreign powers. The African continent was suffering severe political upheaval in 1970, when Scottish Long Rider Gordon Naysmith set off to ride across 16 countries from South Africa to Austria. When Tanzanian soldiers mistook the equestrian explorer for an Israeli spy, Gordon was jailed, and his ribs broken, before he could establish his innocence and continue his 20,000 kilometre journey.

Photo courtesy Gordon Naysmith


In an article in the English press I came across this quote.


".....the US Anti-Terror Law judges the provision of medical aid to 'terrorists', or negotiation with 'terrorists' to gain access to wounded, starving or destitute civilians, to constitute a major criminal offence. This has actively removed any identifiable 'neutral' status for doctors, nurses or allied health professionals in battlefield, conflict or famines zone. You are either for the 'terrorists' or against them."


I believe there is a danger to exploration hidden within that paragraph.


The American government has announced that it can arbitrarily define as a “terrorist” any doctor or nurse who aids a wounded human. In such cases a victim’s politics overrules his physical suffering.


Thus, for the first time in history, it appears that the neutrality which all civilized nations have traditionally granted to the medical profession has been violated by the Americans.


If doctors can now be classified as "terrorists" by the “land of the free” are explorers next?


Consider the dramatic shift this might hold for exploration.


In the past native people had good reason to be wary of strangers posing as explorers who passed through their country uninvited. Such missions, though carefully cloaked under a disguise of geography, were often closely connected with an imperial power's intelligence service.


For example, in 1906 Baron Carl Gustaf Mannerheim set off on a 14,000 kilometre-long, two-year ride for the Czar. The sharp-eyed cavalry officer spoke Polish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Swedish, Finnish, Russian, French, German and English. The mounted espionage mission took him from Andizhan in Russian Turkistan to Peking, China. During the ride Mannerheim gathered information on various tribes, befriended the Dalai Lama, surveyed obscure mountain passes, and scouted China’s Great Wall, before heading back to share his findings with the Russian government.


But the hiking boot is now on the other foot.


Times have changed since Mannerheim set off on his expedition for the Russian Czar, when natives suspected explorers of being a spy. By stripping an explorer of his neutrality and punishing his impartial interaction with the local populace, the Americans have set the stage wherein we may soon see travellers accused of being involved with, or sympathetic to, “terrorists.”


Instead of the natives suspecting the explorer of being a spy, by stripping an explorer of his neutrality and punishing his impartial interaction with the local populace, the Americans have set the stage wherein we may soon see travellers accused of being involved with, or sympathetic to, “terrorists.”


Is such an idea far fetched?


French Long Rider Louis Meunier recently made an extensive journey through Afghanistan. Because Louis is a fluent Farci speaker, he interacted with countless Afghans along the way, including at least one respected local mullah. That incident involved the mullah invoking a blessing on the Long Rider’s horses.


But what if the interchange about Afghanistan’s equestrian culture had turned suddenly political? Could Louis’ participation in a local conversation with the mullah have rendered that traveller a suspect if the Taliban perpetrated acts of political subversion in the area?



During Louis Meunier’s journey across Afghanistan a spell was cast on his horse at the village of Barakhana. Villagers believed that the mysterious knots tied in the stallion’s mane at night were placed there by a naked female jinn. To offset this equine witchcraft, Mullah Khodadad recited a prayer over the afflicted animal. Could the mullah’s political beliefs have compromised the Long Rider’s credibility in the eyes of a hostile American government?

Photo courtesy Louis Meunier


What are the implications for explorers who wish to visit countries rocked by political instability, ie Afghanistan, Burma, Eritrea, Kashmir, Mali, Somalia, Syria, Tibet, Yemen, just to name a few?


Arita Baajiens is the Dutch camel traveller who explored the deserts of Egypt and Libya. When rebellion broke out across the Arab world in 2011, the desert traveller found herself swept up by the political storm. "Those kids really pulled it off," Arita reported to ExWeb from Cairo’s Tahir Square.


Washington maintained a guarded neutrality when dissident citizens toppled Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarik. Likewise they ignored Arita’s actions in Cairo because it suited their political purposes.


What if Arita interviewed pro-Iranian Shia protestors who are currently trying to topple the pro-American Sunni government in Bahrain?


Could a chance conversation between the Dutch explorer and a politically active student result in statements being voiced which, being in opposition to official American foreign policy, carry an automatic condemnation for the traveller?


In addition to being a leader of the movement to restore exploration’s previous prominence within the Royal Geographical Society, British explorer Alistair Carr has travelled by camel in the Sahara. On one occasion political rebels served as his guides.


Last month pro-Islamic Tuareg rebels seized control of the historic caravan city of Timbuktu. Is Washington prepared to dictate terms to explorers like Alistair who venture there? Will the American government decide that interactions between travellers and native guides counts as evidence of "support for terrorists"?


Could explorers become victims of political entrapment? News stories are revealing how well-paid informants are employed by the American CIA, British MI5 and the Saudi intelligence service, the Mabahith. Is there cause for concern that explorers might be lured into situations that compromise their traditional neutrality?


Who would know, you might ask?


The US Army is preparing to deploy in Afghanistan its latest helicopter-style drone, the A160 Hummingbird, equipped with 1.8 gigapixel colour cameras. Able to hover, unlike current drones, it will have unprecedented capability to monitor activity on the ground. It can track people and vehicles from above 20,000ft, and with a 65sq-mile field of view, it will have 65 steerable "windows" able to follow separate targets.


A government capable of spying on a unsuspecting traveller’s conversations can then use any images of interaction with natives as evidence of support for terrorism.


Nor does this problem reside solely with the individual traveller, as organisations which endorse explorers may also be caught up in this international net of intrigue.


Swedish explorer and Long Rider Mikael Strandberg has just arrived in Yemen, where he is preparing to set off on a perilous camel expedition across that war-torn country. Mikael is carrying flags from the international Long Riders’ Guild and the New York based Explorers’ Club.


Given the highly volatile political climate in Yemen, what are the chances of Mikael journeying across that nation and not encountering a conversation which includes political themes and voices of dissidence?


If this explorer is, by default, “caught” talking to people who are politically sympathetic to Al Qaida, are the two exploration organizations which support Mikael’s journey also culpable of “supporting terrorism”?


These are troubling times and disturbing scenarios.


Members of the medical profession, as well as prominent advocates of civil liberties in the United States, are deeply concerned at the tremendous erosion of civil rights and basic liberties which political events have inspired.


In the past all civilised nations recognised, and respected, a doctor’s neutrality. He was, it was previously believed, acting for the good of humanity, before supporting any political cause.


That sense of international trust was based upon the Hippocratic Oath, which bound the medical professional to “remain free of all intentional injustice and mischief” regardless of where he might find the wounded or sick.


Likewise, the political neutrality of the explorer is also taken on trust.


Sadly, given the aggressive nature of new American legislation, we may be witnessing the demise of the traditional respect accorded to citizen-explorers.


In the 1980s Afghan freedom fighters, known as mujahadeen, were involved in a bitter conflict with the Soviet Union. CuChullaine O'Reilly was praised by the American government for his efforts to train these Afghans to become journalists. At that time, CuChullaine also explored northern Pakistan on horseback. How times change. Were he to repeat that journey today, any encounters with the sons of his former Afghan pupils might prompt the American government to accuse him of involvement with terrorists.


CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s international association of equestrian explorers and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club. Author of "Khyber Knights, he is currently completing the “Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration,” the most comprehensive equestrian exploration guide ever written.

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