Amar Latif is a blind entrepreneur who runs his own travel firm and has been on an adventure in the wilds of Nidderdale for a new TV programme. Chris Bond talked to him.
The idea of abseiling off a bridge into a canyon and landing in a dark, chilly river would have many people quaking in their boots.
Well, imagine doing that if you were blind – which is what Amar Latif did as part of a journey through a section of the Yorkshire Dales.
Amar, who runs his own travel firm, took up the challenge for a BBC TV documentary he’s presenting next week called River Walks – A Nidderdale Adventure. The programme sees him joined by a guide on a 13-mile trek during which he abseiled into a hidden canyon, canoed across a vast reservoir and swam through icy waters as he discovered how the landscape along the River Nidd has been shaped over the years.
Along the way he met a local farmer revolutionising the way that farms connect with nature by planting 10,000 trees, and a woman who owns a llama trekking business. “It was an amazing experience, especially if you’re blind,” says Amar.
“The Yorkshire Dales are so beautiful and even though I’m blind I get a great sense of them. I had a guide with me who described some of the scenery and I just visualised it – the green rolling hills, wispy clouds and the river weaving its way along. It’s a bit like reading a book so you build your own pictures.”
There were some moments that made him nervous, though, like when he was about to abseil between a gorge into the river.
“I must admit when I was about to head down into a roaring, freezing cold river I did think ‘why am I doing this?’ but as I started to descend the adrenaline kicked and my senses became overloaded with all the sounds in the air, it was a magnificent feeling. Sometimes when you get out of your comfort zone your world just becomes much bigger in so many ways,” he says.
“It wasn’t just the sense of adventure, it was meeting such wonderful people. I met a farmer, called Martin, who’d been farming for years following in the footsteps of his parents and grandparents.
“He asked me if I wanted to help build this dry stone wall so there we were picking up the stones that had been blown over by a storm and then I learned how he was planting thousands of trees to help the environment.”
During his journey he also explored a hidden canyon and went out in a canoe on a reservoir. “Canoeing on Scar House Reservoir was amazing because I was canoeing on water that was going to be in Bradford taps in a two weeks’ time.”
He also learned about a hidden village there. “This village was created where they were building this dam but it became forgotten about and walking around with an archaeologist and learning about the place was incredible.”
Although Amar grew up in Scotland, he says he’s passionate about Yorkshire. “The reason I am is because when I was growing up I graduated from university in Glasgow and moved down here as a young 22-year-old working as a graduate accountant for BT.”
It was while working in Yorkshire that he completed the gruelling Three Peaks Challenge with a friend. “That was the beginning of my adventurous journey so whenever I go into the Yorkshire Dales it means something very special to me.”
Amar, 44, wasn’t born blind. When he was four, his parents were told the devastating news by doctors that he had an incurable eye condition which would slowly worsen and leave him blind by his late teens.
“I remember waking up one day when I was 18 and I couldn’t see the picture opposite the end of my bed. I was walking around crashing into things. I couldn’t see the faces of my parents or my brothers and sisters and I realised that this was it and I was now blind.”
It was a crushing realisation and initially it hit him hard. “Despite knowing I was going to go blind, it was still a shock. I didn’t want to be blind and for several months I was depressed and I didn’t want to do anything or know anyone. People kept saying I couldn’t leave my house or ride my bike and I thought it was the end of everything.”
But then came the self-realisation that life is too short to wallow in despair. “I decided that blindness wasn’t going to hold me back and I created this positive mindset.”
Along the way he’s had to battle against people’s preconceptions about what he can and can’t do. “What I learned was if you push yourself your world becomes bigger and you become more confident and you start doing some amazing things. I’ve learned that success in life, whether you’re blind or not, is all about refusing to accept negativity.”
He has been running his own travel company, called Traveleyes, for the past 14 years. He created it after a travel firm told him he had to bring a carer with him if he wanted to go on holiday with them. “I thought there’s such a beautiful world out there I don’t want to feel restricted.”
So he decided to set up his own business taking groups of 20 travellers half of whom are blind and half that can see. The fully sighted people act as guides and get to travel for a reduced cost. It’s proved very successful and they’ve been to places like China, South Africa and Cuba.
“We’ve cooked in traditional Tuscan farmhouses and when we go to places like Peru we get the museums to open up the glass cases and let us touch Inca artefacts that are thousands of years old. We get to do things that people wouldn’t normally get to do,” he says.
“When we were in Ghana we were on this coach and suddenly we got stuck in the mud so a party of blind and sighted people had to take their shoes and socks off and roll up their trousers and wade through the mud. It was an adventure whether you could see or not because you came across unexpected things.”
The travel firm now leads more than 70 tours worldwide each year and on top of this Amar has become a TV presenter – something he’s just as passionate about. “Seventy-five per cent of blind people of working age are unemployed and I just think the media is so powerful in changing people’s perceptions and if I can be a presenter on a programme like this it can help remove those preconceptions,” he says.
“People who are blind or have a disability are often great natural problem solvers. Disability builds that into you because we have to overcome problems from the time we wake up till the time we go to bed. The world needs a diverse workforce otherwise society is missing out,” he says.
“People have preconceptions about what blind people and people with disabilities can do and they’re not true. So if you get one TV presenter who’s blind, one lawyer, or even home secretary, it can make a difference.
River Walks: A Nidderdale Adventure is on BBC1 in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire on December 10 at 7.30pm.
An inspirational entrepreneur
Amar Latif was born in Glasgow in December 1974.
When he was four, his parents were told that he would go blind by his late teens due to an incurable eye condition.
By the time he was 18 he had lost 95 per cent of his sight. However, he refused to let his blindness prevent him from doing the things he wanted.
He studied at the University of Strathclyde, spending his third year in Canada, where he got his first taste of travel adventure.
In 2004, he founded Traveleyes in an attempt to make the world more accessible for blind and visually impaired travellers.
He’s now an inspirational entrepreneur, television presenter, motivational speaker and world traveller.