As travellers go, Suzanne Al Houby is one of the region’s most accomplished – and certainly amongst the most adventurous. She’s made travel her life, and along the way she’s enriched the life of countless others as she journeys throughout the globe, as well as many back home in this region through the establishment of Rahallah Explorers. A passion undimmed, and an enthusiasm that is contagiously infectious, she and Rahhalah should be the first port of call for anyone seeking a journey rather than a simple vacation. Life changing? For sure. Men’s Passion’s Simon Balsom learns the hows and whys from Suzanne.
The Arabian world had a great tradition of adventure travellers and explorers throughout history. It’s perhaps not so sparkling now. Why do you feel things are changing for the better now though?
I think that we are maturing as a people. We are connecting better to ourselves and to the rest of the world. When we were still trying to find ourselves through wars, colonization and then sudden wealth, the attitude and behaviour towards travel changed. It became more about luxury, shopping and dining and less about connecting with others, less about learning from ethnic diversity. For many generations, we Arabs didn’t feel comfortable going to places where they didn’t speak our language, or where we didn’t know the food. We felt uncomfortable travelling with no guarantees that our familiar way of life would not be practiced overseas. Now, it is different.
More and more people not only want to be more physically active, but they also want to really learn through travel, and not only through sightseeing. They are ready to immerse themselves in different cultures, to explore and to learn more. Today they are enjoying experiences far removed from the mass tourism they were used to in the past.
They’ve also got bored with how travelling has long been done. I mean, how many times do you see Arabs strolling down the streets of big cities – both east and west – looking bored amidst such uncreative experiences. The more they thought I guess the more they learned and realised that they can travel differently and still have a blast at the same time. They are breaking some taboos and letting themselves experience ‘out-of-the-box’ travel experiences. Globalization and the revolution of in media is continuously showing us exotic images of people adventuring around the world – this appealed to the imagination of the Arab traveller as well. Worldwide, the largest growing segment of travel is adventure travel and we are also following the trend. We were behind, but now we are slowly but surely catching up.
We’ve become accustomed to travel being so easy that in the modern era the focus is on the destination. There’s a return to the journey itself being a focus. Can you give me your thoughts on this?
Definitely. It is about the journey. It is about the experience. People who choose to do adventure travel come back inspired, motivated and most importantly transformed. People around them see the difference and start becoming curious and then maybe even decide to experience this for themselves. They don’t just want to see a temple; they want to hike and experience a wild or exotic culture before they get to the temple. They don’t want to sit on a terrace sipping tea and watch rice fields; they want to cycle around these rice fields and sip tea with locals somewhere on the journey itself. That’s the beauty of the journey itself.
What are your personal reasons for seeking adventure in this form?
To me, this is the only way to travel. This is the only way I learn more about myself and the others. To me exploration, learning, physical challenge, connection with nature, and to see things off the beaten track are what I live for. The positivity of these experiences led me to establish Rahhalah Explorers. I wanted nothing more than to share what adventure travel does to you and how positively it impacts the way we live amongst others. It really does change lives.
Explorers and adventurers are different from others. You’ve selected a small number of the region’s adventurers in the role of Rahhalah brand ambassadors. What are the qualities of Rahhalah you see within them?
Curiosity, humility, willingness to adapt, and a mind-set that adventure is about expecting things to change all the time, as well as flexibility, an enthusiasm for fitness, a love for nature and the wild, they’re storytellers, and of course know how to enjoy an adventure and have fun.
We’re particularly inspired by your ‘7’ series of adventures. What is your process of selecting challenges for inclusion in the series?
The magical number seven came from our passion for the mountains and achieving the seven summits – the highest mountain on each continent. We then fell in love with the number seven and we played around with it choosing what we think are the seven best hikes in the world, and the seven best family adventures, the seven budget adventures and so on. We, as founders and partners, travel the world and experience many adventures. We then sit down and decide what ‘earned’ a place in our 7 series. We don’t offer anything that we haven’t experienced ourselves and everything is designed it to fit our very own Rahhalah soul: adventurous, exotic, value for money, attention to detail, scenic, primitive or exotic culture, off the beaten track when possible and, for sure, ethnic.
Are Rahhalah’s journey’s simply sanitized ways for people to feel they’ve had an ‘experience’ – or do you offer a genuine experience that extends beyond luxury travel? How?
You want luxury and glamping (glamourous camping) adventure, we give you that. You want a budget adventure we will also give you that. That’s why we have many different 7 series. However, the experiences of adventure (cycling, hiking, climbing, rafting and so on) will all be the same! Meaning we all must do what it takes to experience the journey. No one can hike on your behalf, and no one can cycle instead of you – although we do help sometimes!
Some of our adventures are based on homestays with people in faraway villages that don’t have electricity or stoves.
Can you give me a couple of unforgettable personal travel experiences?
Papua New Guinea remains on the tip of my all-time favourites. The tribes that live in PNG’s jungles have been living as if time never moved. They are totally isolated from the rest of the world. They are naked, with spears and war-paint on their faces to intimidate outsiders. They eat what they grow. I trekked in the jungle for six days, and in sometimes waist deep swamps and torrential rain that never stopped. I was miserable and cold and tired many times but now, when I reflect back, it is indeed my wildest adventure.
Another one is Bhutan – a lost Buddhist kingdom which was closed to tourists until recently. So very genuine, untouched, beautiful and spiritual. Trekking in the mountains in Bhutan is so magical because you feel that you are so far from everything else. Even staying in its charming little towns and watching the world go by offers a memorable adventure.
Best moment on an expedition?
Finally summiting my last mountain to finish the 7 summits – Denali in Alaska. It was after four previous attempts that failed because of weather or altitude sickness.
Worst moment on an expedition?
I had a low moment when I was climbing Everest back in 2011 at Camp 2 and at almost 6,400 meters. I was really beaten up, hit by the altitude, didn’t acclimate well and was as slow as a snail. Then, when I finally reached camp, I was so cold and couldn’t sleep the whole night because of the altitude. I was surely as miserable as it is possible to be, and I seriously doubted that I would make it anywhere higher on the mountain!
It was all about the demons in my head telling me that I can’t do this and I actually contemplated quitting the climb. I didn’t. And I reached the summit.
Where is top of your list of places for future adventure and exploration?
Colombia tops my list in South America; Zimbabwe and Mozambique top my list for Africa, and I want to do more of the Arctic Circle up north in Scandinavia.