Simon Reeve has been around the world three times for the BBC television series Tropic of Cancer, Equator, and Tropic of Capricorn, and has travelled extensively in more than 90 countries, including troubled states in Africa, the Caucasus, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Far East and Central Asia. On his travels Simon has been detained for spying by the KGB, taught to fish by the President of Moldova, tracked by terrorists, electrocuted in a war-zone and protected by stoned Somali mercenaries in Mogadishu. All in a day’s work!
What inspired you to embark on a career in the media?
It wasn’t so much that I was inspired by it, I actually fell into it. I was working as a ‘post boy’ on a newspaper and I worked very hard when my shift had finished and I would do research and photocopy cuttings and from there I started to do a bit of scribbling. Ultimately what inspired me I suppose was the sense that anything was possible and the environment that I was working in was one where they were giving me work and they would say “go on, give it a try”, so I kept saying yes and kept on working hard.
Considering some of the topics you’ve tackled, it must have been mind blowing to have been thrown into it so quickly after starting off as a post boy?
Well I think this was during the time before people in the media had to fill out health and safety forms and do risk assessments! I was nineteen years old and doing some ridiculous things such as looking for terrorists and working undercover.
So how do you find terrorists?
Well, they don’t usually carry business cards! They are out there, and they do quite often want to talk about what they’ve done and in some way justify it. To find them you have to go through a chain of people, you talk to one person and they then tell you to talk to this other person and gradually you get deeper into the story and you track them down.
How would you describe your job now?
A lifelong education! I get to travel, which I’m hugely grateful for, and I get to learn about the world and what makes it tick. It’s a bit like being a permanent student really whilst still being paid for it. I feel very lucky and very fortunate and I don’t expect it to last forever.
What would you say are the best and worst bits?
The best bit is being able to travel and getting to go to these places and meet extraordinary people. The worst bit, in a sense, is the fact that I never get to put down roots. I was away for nine months last year and obviously that means that I’m somewhat disconnected from life back home in Britain. I never get to really get a sense of what it’s like to properly live in any of the places I go to and sometimes it feels a bit like I’m sort of popping in and then popping back off again. It’s hard to complain about it though because that is just the nature of the work.
I hear you have three passports, why is that?
Yes I do have three passports; have two British passports I actually have a diplomatic Somali passport in my name. The two British passports I have are entirely legitimate – if I am preparing for one of these trip then my passport needs to get multiple stamps and Visas and it has to ‘do the rounds’ of embassies, and I still need to be able to travel with the other one. The Somali diplomatic passport I bought from a man called ‘Mr. Big Beard’ from the market, which is as bizarre as it sounds!
Have you or would you use it?
I’ve thought about it but the thought of spending several weeks locked up post-9/11 for travelling on a Somali diplomatic passport didn’t appeal! It is a legitimate passport, it’s the genuine thing. There’s a state of anarchy really in Somalia and Mr. Big Beard is the man who managed to liberate the passports in Somalia and he’s the one who gives them out. I can’t imagine that if I tried to pass through US immigration they would look too favourably on it though!
The viewer gets the impression that you travel on your own during series such as Tropic of Cancer, in reality, how many people travel with you?
Well it’s still quite a small team but obviously I’m not on my own. Although the focus is on me I make reference to the fact that there’s a team with me when I’m being filmed. There are four members in our team who go out and we all do each other’s jobs. We have a cameraman; an assistant producer who is also does the second camera shooting and we have a producer/director who shoots as well. I also do a little bit of the filming when I’m allowed. The days when thirty people would go off with sound people and lights and cameras and cranes are well and truly over now I think.
Do you do what you do because you feel that it makes a difference or is it for the adventure and the experience of travelling?
It’s a bit of both I suppose. I think I’m really lucky in that I do get a good sense of purpose and meaning from the work that I do, and I do find it still really interesting. The biggest rush is often the fact that we’re visiting strange and forgotten places and we are able to tell several million people at home about the country we’re visiting and the issues that face the people who live there. But of course I do enjoy the travel as well so for me it’s the best of both worlds.
Many of your visits are to war-torn countries, what draws you to and fascinates you most about these places?
Many of those countries are among the most beautiful in the world and although they’re war-torn the stories about them very rarely get into the news. From a travel perspective they are extraordinary countries to visit but from a learning aspect they are really important to visit because we need to know about the things that are happening there. I’m not a danger-junkie in the sense that I just want to go and film with a bullet flying past my ear but we do live on a small, inter-connected planet and it’s important that I and other people as well know what is going on in these countries.
Have you ever felt that your life was in danger?
I have a few times actually yes. From when I contracted Malaria to trotting through the Burmese jungle fleeing the Burmese military control. There were periods when I thought, ‘I might not make it out of here’. The most obviously dangerous moments are when you’re confronted by men with guns; that’s happened several times but fortunately there hasn’t been a bullet with my name on it.
You seem to have a very calm persona on film but are you terrified?
Actually not really whilst it’s going on; bizarrely I seem to have this feeling that myself and my team are supported by this kind of ‘BBC force field’. You get into a zone where you’re focusing on trying to convey what is happening to the camera and to your friend behind the camera. Sometimes you do stop and think ‘actually this could go horribly wrong’ but when I’m scared I do try not to show it. Certainly there have been situations where guns have been swung onto us and I have had this feeling where you know it could go completely and utterly wrong.
Have you had any humbling experiences on your travels?
One of the reasons to travel really is to experience life on the rest of the planet and you soon realise that we are one of a very privileged few countries on it. I am endlessly humbled on my travels. I remember dropping into a refugee camp on the Kenya/Somalia border and meeting a young woman there called Fatima who’d lived almost her entire life in this refugee camp. She’d fled from Somalia but the Kenyan authorities wouldn’t let her go any further into Kenya so she and thousands of other refugees were trapped out in the desert and she’d never travelled more than 4km from the camp and then there was me with my British passport which meant that I could flit around the world. I think that it is helpful when we travel to remember that we are amazingly privileged and to do that is something that our ancestors could only dream of. I think it helps us to feel better about what we are doing and how lucky we are to do it.
Would you say it’s the people that populate those places or the nature and landscapes that really interest you the most?
I think what I really remember is the people. I love the landscapes, I’m big on views and I’m big on natural experiences but when you meet somebody on the other side of the planet who speaks a completely different language to you but you share a jolly, moving connection – that is what really resonates and that’s what you really remember. I’ve certainly had stand out experiences like that.
What cultural differences have you encountered that remain most poignant?
We are told that one of the big differences in the world is between the broadly Christian West and the Islamic East and you do get a sense of a totally different culture when you go to some Islamic states but I think one of the great and wonderful differences between those two cultures is that in Christian countries we are taught to share what we have with visitors but in the Islamic world you’re really taught to give everything you have to visitors. I remember in Saudi Arabia one time a member of our team went off with some of the women in a Bedouin encampment and she came back quite quickly rather flustered because she’d mentioned to one of the women that she liked her jewellery and the woman had immediately taken off her chunky gold ring and given it to her! That’s Islamic hospitality in its truest, most beautiful form. That’s a very humbling thing; it’s a different way of thinking.
Are there any countries in the world that particularly concern you, both politically and environmentally?
I think us Westerners are the greatest concern environmentally and that is the greatest of challenges for our planet in the future. I think we tend to forget that we wiped out our precious animals and forests centuries ago but we’re very quick to criticize other countries for doing the same without recognising that this is a process that we’ve already gone through.
I’m not actively looking into the topic in the way that I was before 9/11 but I suppose that my interest in it has broadened to other threats that we are facing. I think there is an over-focus now on terrorism being a threat to us and a threat to the rest of the world when there are lots of other issues which are more pressing and more concerning and more likely to affect human beings in the future. Obviously the environment is the top issue and how we relate to it, how we pollute it and how we mine it for its resources which we then burn. We’re spoiling our nest; I’d say that is the only way of describing the wholesale destruction of our natural world. Overpopulation is also a concern, I know it seems to be politically incorrect to say it these days but no politicians seem to be saying that we can’t go on like this. We can’t keep using and abusing the natural resources of the world because they’re going to run out and then we’re all going to be in a mess!
All the travel you do obviously has an impact on the environment, how do you feel about that?
Well of course I feel guilty. I only fly long haul for work and I like to think that the work that we do has some positive impact by raising awareness. I’m not completely dismissive of the value of tourism at all; there are lots of wildlife reserves and wildlife sanctuaries around the planet which are entirely dependent upon the revenue they get from tourists for their continued existence. Tourism does have a role to play but I think that it’s important for us to be conscious of how we spend our money and where we spend our money and use our time and holidays wisely.
Where do you like to go on holiday?
My wife is half Danish so we go over to Denmark to visit the in-laws now and again. We try to go to places that we can reach by train for our holidays. That can be rather limiting, although I have managed to get as far as Istanbul by train.
How was that journey?
That was amazing actually! I went with my brother and it was a very memorable bonding experience with him. You can reach almost all of Europe by train now. People say “well why would do that when I can get a Ryanair flight for a fiver?” but the value of train is that the journey becomes part of the adventure and the landscape unfolds from out of the window rather than peering down between the clouds. It makes it more of a memorable trip I’d say.
Are there still areas of the world off the beaten track which can excite and amaze you?
There are still loads of amazing places! Most of the places that I go to you never really see foreigners or tourists. There are so many areas of the world that travellers and tourists are missing out on, places that are beautiful and extraordinary.
Where would you say the best view was?
I think probably in Yosemite National Park in California. When I was growing up I had some amazing photographs by Ansel Adams, he had photographed national parks and I would say that Yosemite is one of the most amazing natural sights in the world.
What kind of strange tribal rituals have you seen?
One I know about is there’s one in Madagascar where they lay the body of a dead relative out on a wooden bed and the juices from the body are gathered into a sipping cup which members of the family then gather to drink from. That could possibly be the most disgusting thing that I’ve ever heard of humans doing! In terms of what I’ve seen they would be events in countries who are desperate to gain a seat at the United Nations and usually those occasions involve lots of alcohol and dancing – they are always great for a laugh!
So where would you return to if you could only travel to one more place in the world?
That’s a very difficult question. I think that it would be Greece. I think that Greece is beautiful, it’s all very well travelling to the other side of the planet but I think that the Greek Islands are one of the world’s greatest pleasures. I love the sights, the sounds, the smells, the foods and the memories that those things create.
What would you say has been your worst meal?
I’ve enjoyed and endured some pretty bizarre and wonderful dishes on our travels. For the worst I’d be torn on that one between fried caterpillars and grilled squirrel for breakfast in Lauth to penis soup. I think that penis soup has to be the worst though – I still have to cross my legs whenever I think about it!
Have you got any most embarrassing moments?
I think they generally involve the toilet! I remember being on a remote island in Indonesia and I had to go to the loo in a little hut built out over the sea but it was low tide and there were pigs fighting to get into the toilet from underneath whilst I was trying to go and there were little kids running round, laughing, giggling and generally humiliating me, so that was a fairly unpleasant and embarrassing experience!
What would you say have been your favourite experiences?
Every day that I’m on one of these journeys is just such an amazing treat where I’m learning something or being confronted by extraordinary sights, sounds and smells. Every single day, honestly, you wake up and there is always something new. All of that massively outweighs any annoyance or bad food or strange, embarrassing experience.
Where do you think will be on next year’s hotlist?
I’d like to see Taiwan on next year’s hotlist. I think that Taipei is the world’s most underestimated capital city. It has extraordinary treasures and some of the finest restaurants in the world.
Do you have a favourite place in the UK?
Yes, the Lake District although I haven’t been for a few years actually. I think that people tend to underestimate this island but it is still one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The weather might not be to everybody’s taste but if you are prepared for that then you can definitely still enjoy it.
Do you have any top travel trips?
I always carry a few small notes of the local currency in my sock. Also, always remember to wear your seat belt whilst you are abroad! I know it’s mundane but it is amazing how many people stop doing such basic things as wearing a seat belt when they go on holiday. In some instances, they’re travelling where people aren’t always made to take driving tests and the death rate on the roads is about ten times that in Britain. People tend to think that the greatest threat on these journeys is something they might eat or the possibility of being shot at but it’s actually getting into a traffic accident.
What are your most essential items in your travel kit?
I always take teabags with me now and I always have my Leatherman Wave with me which is a multi-tool. I also have a torch. I’m big on kits, I take all sorts of bits and pieces with me!
Is there anything you wouldn’t do, or anywhere you wouldn’t go?
No! No, I don’t think there is! I’ll do anything really!
Have you worn Rohan?
Of course! They do fantastic travel wear and it’s really durable. I’ve been a willing buyer and Rohan has seen me right on my travels!