Remembering Geoff Hann, the adventurous 85-year-old Middle East tour guide who lived life to the fullest
The life of Geoff Hann (85) probably the world’s oldest tour leader, who died from a stroke in Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital in April was celebrated at a commemoration at London’s Abrar Foundation.
For 50 years Hann took tourists to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Kashmir... the list goes on.
The overland trips started in the 1970s when Hann drove from London to India where his wife had gone to live in an ashram. He lost a wife and the world gained an adventurer who, through his company, Hann Overland (and later Hinterland Travel) organised hundreds of trips to the world’s trouble spots.
"Hann treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor hurdles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq"
Hann’s daughter Louise recalled her father raised Vanessa her sister and her on his own from when they were four and six respectively.
“He had a hankering for travel and history, so in 1970 we went on our first trip to Turkey. We didn’t just fly over as a normal family would do," she explains.
"He placed an ad for a chaperone in the paper for Vanessa and I, and packed us all into the family Ford escort, then drove overland to Turkey. It took about a week to get there: we visited most of the sites, then drove home as if it was quite normal."
She continues: " Our second trip was in 1971, but this time it was to India in a VW campervan. There was a war on at the time between Pakistan and India, so we simply left the van at the border, flew over, and then continued by steam train from Amritsar to Bombay.
“The third trip was in 1972 again to India, but this time he upgraded to a Land Rover and had his first couple of paying passengers. Thereafter, he would go on his tours without us and build his business from there.”
I meet Hann in 2006 when I was writing the Bradt Travel Guide to Iraq. He glared at me sceptically from across an enormous dining room table strewn with itineraries and travel brochures and asked “What do you know about Iraq?” in a condensing tone. “Not a lot,” I admitted. That was the end of the conversation.
When I got home Hann had sent me about ten emails with information about tourist sites in Iraq only he had, photographs, practical hints about dealing with Middle Eastern bureaucracies – everything I needed for the guide and more.
We developed an excellent working relationship and went on to write two more guides to Iraq for Bradt. He was a meticulous researcher and provided those on his tours with detailed historical backgrounds and information about each site and the country.
Hilary Bradt founder of Bradt Travel Publishers recalled how for nearly 40 years she exchanged stories about the trials and tribulations of being a tour leader with Hann.
“It’s through his deep knowledge of, and love for Iraq that we remember him and how he first began his long collaboration with Bradt Guides. Geoff’s love of history and taste for exploring little-known routes made him an obvious candidate to get immersed in Iraq, and during the Iraq-Iran conflict, his groups were often the only travellers there.
"In 2003 he paid a fleeting personal visit as the war ended, and then led a rather famous post-war Iraq tour. In Iraq Then and Now, Geoff told of the bemusement of the military personnel – how could a group of tourists be travelling past their checkpoints as they were hunkered over their machine guns? Sadly, this open window soon closed. In 2007 he operated two tours of Iraqi Kurdistan and waited for southern Iraq to open again," she continues.
“His patience was rewarded and for five years he was able to travel throughout all of Iraq. Further restrictions curtailed these tours and the second edition of the travel guide was punctuated with security warnings about areas that were still inaccessible. However Geoff was the eternal optimist and predicted access would change again in the near future and indeed by the time the third edition of the Bradt guide came out last year, Geoff was leading tours once more."
Before the 2003 invasion, the US Pentagon ordered copies of Hann’s guide to try to avoid destroying 6,000-year-old treasures from the cradle of civilisation.
Hann treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor hurdles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan were the mainstays of his business during the last decade.
His partner Tina Townsend-Greaves, described a journey through the Khyber Pass. "He wore an Afghan waistcoat and had a gun with him. I asked him if he took a gun on all his trips. And he said: 'No – just this one, this trip might be more risky than normal.'
“Do you know how to shoot?” I asked. He was in the RAF but spent a lot of time on the athletics team. He said that he was going to save the honour of the ladies. “Thank you,” I replied. “How many bullets have you got?” Nine, he told me. “But there were ten of us.”
Ill health forced Hann to retire in 2022. In March he led one last trip to Iraq which he described as “the last hurrah.” At the end of a wonderful tour, he suffered a stroke and passed on in Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital.
Raad Al Qassimi, an Iraqi guide who worked with Hann for 20 years described him as an Iraqi icon. “Everywhere he had friends. He loved Iraq and Iraqi people loved him.”
Dr Mehiyar Kathem, the author of a gloomy report about the state of Iraq’s conservation efforts said Hann was well-known in Iraq for bringing tour groups with his company Hinterland Travel, however difficult the circumstances.
“He was an amazing guy. He was 85 and he kept being active and arranging these tours."
Hann is survived by his partner Tina Townsend-Graves and his daughters Louise and Vanessa.
Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July