Simon Reeve is an adventurer, TV presenter and New York Times bestselling author with a passion for travel, wildlife, history, current affairs, conservation and the environment. Simon is the presenter of the BBC TV series Indian Ocean and has been around the world three times for the epic BBC series Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and Tropic of Cancer. He has travelled extensively in more than 110 countries.
When luxury travel agent Kuoni called me recently and asked if I wanted to meet Simon, I was intrigued. Really quite intrigued. I had heard of Simon, but hadn’t seen any of the TV programmes that he is known for. Luckily for me, the BBC just started showing his latest series – Indian Ocean – and I was able to get to know Simon’s work. I was really quite impressed – I liked him on camera, and was wowed (not quite sure if this is a word!) by the way he travels and why he does so. I was really looking forward to meeting him in real life, which I did at a private event held to celebrate the launch of Kuoni at John Lewis department store in the UK.
Before the official event, myself and 2 other bloggers were given the opportunity to have a one to one (or a 4 to 1, really) with the man himself. It was refreshing to see how “normal” Simon was, and he did make me laugh…
So, you have been around the world a good 3 times (or so I have read). Which were your favourite and least favourite places?
Hello and thanks for the questions..! Faves for me include Botswana, Bangladesh and Denmark, for all sorts of different reasons, but mainly Botswana for wildlife, Bangladesh for inspiring locals, and Denmark for being a fantastically well-run country.
Plus my wife is half-Danish, so I’m biased. Least favourite? I’m far too diplomatic to risk offending anyone, but I’ll stick my neck out and say I’m not a great fan of Dubai. I don’t like fake states or places where everyone uses air-conditioning to survive.
What is the most unusual custom you have ever come across or been asked to take part in? (this was the winning question)
A quick trawl of the brain suggests it’s probably kokpar, which is a weird custom masquerading as a sport in Kazakhstan. It involves playing polo with the corpse of a headless goat. It’s mad and wrong on many levels, but the locals love it and I was forced to have a go. Other unusual customs would include being smeared with blood and adopted by a tribe of former headhunters in Borneo. That was a strange day.
Seriously, have you been to Portugal? What did you think of it?
Yes! Why would I lie about such a thing? I didn’t get out of Lisbon, but still: I’ve been, and loved it. I was significantly younger and spent most of the time drinking and dancing.
Apart from your passport and money, what can’t you travel without?
Torches, knife, flapjacks and/or shortbread. And tea bags. I need a brew in the afternoon.
Not really. I’ve tried, but then I curse myself when I need whatever it is I’ve left behind. We have to be ready for anything on the journeys I do – which is part of the fascination, of course. But that does mean lots of bits and bags.
Airplanes, trains, boats and cars – what is your favourite mode of transportation? Any least favourites?
Favourite is definitely by train. For all the clichéd reasons and more. We’ve all got into a mindset that a holiday or adventure is all about the destination, when in fact, it needs to be about the journey as well.
Easy for me to say, perhaps, but I just think people who jet off without even looking at where they’re going on a map are missing out on a huge part of the experience. One of my best journeys was going from London to Istanbul by train with my brother a few years back. The landscape evolves and changes around you when you’re on a train in a completely memorable way. You don’t get that at 35,000 feet. My least favourite mode? Camel. They really don’t like me.
You cover such enormous distances in your television programmes, and you must be filming for a considerable amount of time, so how flexible do you need to be about what goes into the episodes? To what extent is the content of the series determined before you leave? Do you have a fixed idea of the story you want to tell, or do you set out with a loose outline of what you want to look at, but decide on the narrative direction of the filming once you’re on location?
Yep, we cover huge distances, and we’re spending other people’s money of course, so it would be outrageous if we didn’t plan what we’re doing in advance. I know roughly what I want to do and the stories I want to tell, but I rarely know exactly how we’ll do it. Unlike most other TV shows we don’t have a script or a ‘recce’ – so nobody goes out ahead of me to plan it all like some Hollywood movie. That means we generally arrive somewhere and then we quickly have to assess the best way of us filming a shantytown, a magnificent view, a shocking story, an elusive threatened animal, or whatever it is, and then we have to get on with it. Generally we’re making it up as we go along, which is more challenging but also more fun and interesting than following a script.
What has been your favourite street food and has there been anything you’ve been too squeamish to eat?
Vietnamese street food is amazing and would get my vote. There’s been a few times when we’ve stopped on a long car journey in different parts of the world and the team have spotted that grilled squirrel / fried caterpillars are being sold by the road. Of course my ‘friends’ then start rubbing their hands in glee because it’s part of my daft job description to sample the exotic local grub.
Usually it’s not too bad, although in Laos our driver ordered a plate of steaming buffalo poo, which was awful. The only time I remember turning my nose up was in Borneo many years ago when I was offered monkey by a tribe. That’s like eating my cousin. But you try explaining to famished villagers that they need to preserve their local wildlife.
How do you balance travel impact with the need for conservation? This goes both for environmental impact, but also one could imagine that places you show in your TV show, could face an influx of tourists that exceeds their capacity.
Well, I try to tell stories about issues that matter in my programmes, and hopefully there’s a conservation benefit to Brits and viewers globally learning about environmental threats to the Indian Ocean, for example.
I also try to travel with my eyes open, so I learn about the places and countries I’m visiting. It’s really important we do that. And I’m trying to encourage viewers to make a difference when they’re on their foreign adventures by doing things like visiting National Parks and Marine Protected Areas. When we pay our entrance fee and have a memorable day in a protected bit of the planet we’re helping to pay for its upkeep – we’re actually playing a vital role in stopping a forest, for example, from being turned into a palm oil plantation. Or when tourists go out snorkeling with guides who used to be fishermen they’re helping to protect life on our vital coral reefs. So tourism has a crucial role to play in protecting and conserving life on our planet. Yes, of course, there’s an environmental impact to our travels, and we should all do our utmost to mitigate and reduce the damage we cause, but then every aspect of our modern lives impacts on the planet.
Any obvious places you haven’t been to yet? Where are you off to next?
I’m blessed and hugely privileged to have been to more than 110 countries. But there’s lots of places I haven’t been that I’d love to visit: Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Senegal, Benin, Iceland, Canada. I’m not just off to somewhere next, I’m already there: I’m in Australia, filming a new telly series. It’s hot here, and it’s beautiful. Happy travels.