Walk & talk – Amar Latif
Interview: Elyssa Campbell-Barr
Well known to TV audiences as The Blind Adventurer, Amar was appointed president of the Ramblers in April. Here, he takes us on his journey from first-time hike to global traveller, broadcaster and entrepreneur – and explains why he finds guinea pigs scarier than skydiving.
How did you fall in love with walking?
As a kid, I never went walking. My parents are from Pakistan and it just wasn't a thing they did. I didn't discover it until I left university and moved from Scotland to Leeds for a job. Some of my colleagues were working on a secret project. Eventually I asked what it was. 'We're training,' they said, 'for the Yorkshire Three Peaks.' I'd never heard of it, so I asked a friend about it. He explained it's a challenging hike up the three highest peaks in Yorkshire. 'Do you want to do it?' he asked. The walk was the next weekend and I had no hiking experience, but when I lost my sight at 18 I'd become very determined, and that sheer determination kicked it. So I did it, and it was blimmin' hard. (After the second peak I sat down and said: 'I need a helicopter!') But the feeling of being out in nature, in the countryside and mountains for the first time - oh, my goodness! That's what sparked my passion.
Where are your favourite destinations?
There are so many! Walking the Lycian Way in Turkey, or the rolling hills of Andalusia, or the Rila mountains in Bulgaria. One of my favourite places is Cuba. For a blind person it's magical. You've got the sound of people playing music in the streets, the noise and feel of l950s cars, horse riding through sugar cane plantations and tasting raw sugar, and soft white-sand beaches.
Your company, Traveleyes, runs tours for blind travellers and sighted companions. Any highlights?
Most sighted people on our trips have never met a blind person before, so to see them connecting is always special. When we're out walking and come to a beautiful viewpoint, hearing ten sighted travellers describing what they can see to ten blind travellers is incredible. It's always special when humanity strives to build connections and overcome differences. On a trip to Lake Titicaca in the Andes, we visited the floating islands and met indigenous people who had never encountered a blind person. When we took another group a few weeks later, the islanders had built a 3D model to help our blind travellers get to know their island.
You've tried so many things - does anything scare you?
When I offer an adventurous activity like skydiving on our holidays, it's often the blind people who want to do it and the sighted travellers who are too scared! As a sighted kid, I used to be scared of rollercoasters. But since becoming blind I throw myself into any challenge because I think: 'What have you got to lose?' Doing new things gives me a buzz. The one thing that does scare me is animals. Whether it's a guinea pig or a rhinoceros, I know one end is full of teeth and the other is a backside, and I don't want to be near either!
How did it feel to be asked to be president of the Ramblers?
I felt shocked and excited and humbled all at the same time. Being asked to take on this role was the greatest honour, and it didn't take me long to say yes. It seemed right on so many levels. All my life I've been passionate about helping people overcome preconceptions and enjoy the great outdoors, and this is a fantastic opportunity to take that passion further.
What are your hopes in the role?
I hope I can help open up the world of rambling to many more people, especially those who might think walking would be challenging for them. Not just blind people, but people with mobility challenges, people from diverse backgrounds, anyone who might think that rambling's not for them. I want as many people as possible to benefit from spending time in the great outdoors and get to know this beautiful island we live on. Walking is such a simple thing, yet has so many amazing benefits for physical and mental wellbeing.
Was it a surprise to be awarded an OBE in the King's birthday honours list?
When I got the letter from the Cabinet Office, I thought it was a prank. I had no idea I'd been nominated. It made me a bit emotional to receive that recognition after working so hard all my life to break down barriers and overcome preconceptions. It's wonderful to know I've made a difference. But it wouldn't have been possible without all the incredible people who have touched my life and helped me along the way.
One well-wisher said you were an inspiration to her visually impaired teenager. What would your message to your teenage self be?
That's a lovely thing for them to say. I'd say to a younger Amar: 'Don't worry about the challenges you're going to face by not being able to see. Just take things step by step and before long you'll be climbing this mountain. And when you turn around, you'll realise how far you've come and appreciate how beautiful everything is.'
Do you have any advice for Ramblers groups wanting to make their walks more inclusive of disabled people?
I know Ramblers walk leaders are volunteers, and everything they're doing already is great. If they can keep an open mind and encourage all sorts of people to join their walks, they can make a real difference to those with different abilities or from different backgrounds. If you're feeling unsure, say: 'I've not met anybody with this disability before, so I'll be led by you. How can we make this work?' Great things happen when you're open and honest. The important thing is dialogue. The onus is also on disabled people. If you're a blind person who wants to join a walk, for example, get in touch and explain how you like to do things and any practical or logistical considerations. I've helped the Ramblers with some tips and a short video: ramblers.org.uk/guiding-a-blind-person.
What are the practical considerations for you when walking?
I walk with a guide and usually just hold on to their rucksack or lightly touch their arm. I don't need them to tell me when to step up or step down, as I'll feel when they're doing that. It's handy if they let me know if there's a big drop to the left or right though!
You've achieved so much. Is there anything still on your bucket list?
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain. I'm heading there in a few weeks, so I hope by the time people are reading this magazine I'll have done it!
Catch Amar's latest TV series, Pilgrimage, on BBC iPlayer.
What's your favourite
Country walk? Overseas, I love walking around Kaş in south-west Turkey with its beautiful sunshine and rich history. Closer to home in Leeds, it has to be the Yorkshire Dales - especially along the river in Nidderdale .
City walk? I enjoy walking along old city walls, anywhere from York to Dubrovnik. I love the sense of connecting with the past, and escaping the city traffic.
Sensory experience? The warmth of the sun on my face and back - it makes me feel so zen . Also birdsong, the smell of wildflowers, the feeling underfoot of walking from gravel onto grass, the still soundscape of a valley . . .
Piece of kit? My cane is the most critical piece of kit on every walk.
Backpack snack? I take lots of different nuts. Wasabi nuts are my favourite.