Bestselling author, TV presenter and insatiable traveller, Simon Reeve has visited more than 110 countries in his time. Drawn to far-flung, mysterious and often troubled places, he is an expert at chronicling the lives of the people he encounters along the way. He is best known for the BBC series Tropic of Capricorn, Tropic of Cancer, Indian Ocean and, most recently, the hour-long documentary, Cuba with Simon Reeve. Here, Simon gives us some fascinating insights into living a life perpetually on the move:
What’s your favourite travel book and why?
Anything by Bill Bryson. I like his humour and the information he packs into his books while appearing to offer a self-deprecating comic tale.
Which one travel experience should every reader add to their bucket list, and why?
One thing that still lingers in my memory is swimming with manatees, or dugongs, in Crystal Springs River in Florida. You go out at dawn and lower yourself into a misty river, then suddenly these manatees the size of a car nuzzle up next to you and take an interest – and, in my case, they gave me a hug and rolled around with me. It’s one of the best interactions I’ve had with the natural world, and though it’s a touristy thing, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re doing it.
Where’s the most overrated place you’ve visited?
I don’t see the attraction of Dubai. I’m particularly saddened by the way they’ve treated many of their guest workers from places like India and Bangladesh, having seen, first hand, the appalling living conditions and heard stories of virtual slavery. And I struggle to see why anyone thought building a city on the edge of a sweltering desert was a good idea. You can’t survive without air conditioning on maximum – why not just go to Westfield or the Trafford Centre on a sunny day?
Which one thing do you always pack when you embark on a journey?
I have a long packing list, as I like my creature comforts. Flapjacks are among them, partly for me and partly for the team when they have a sugar crash after carrying a 16kg camera around under the baking sun.
Where you have been travelling recently?
I went to Greece with family and friends, to an island off Rhodes called Sými. And I’ve just been in Cuba filming a one-hour documentary for the BBC, focusing on the notion that it’s the last chance to see Cuba as a revolutionary Communist state.
What is the first thing you do when arriving in a new destination, and why?
First of all I get out. I’m not one for sitting around going through the TV channels in the hotel. I still think of travelling as an enormous privilege and don’t take it for granted, so I try to use my time wisely.
What was your most memorable meal on your travels?
Zebu penis soup in Madagascar. They don’t have the luxury of just taking the prime cuts; if they’re going to kill a creature then they eat all of it, and that’s life in the developing world.
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met on your travels, and why?
We had a guide in Mauritania called Hamdi, a magnificently eccentric and fantastically well-educated character in flowing Tuareg-style robes. He would quote great chunks of Shakespeare at us in his lilting accent.
Where on your travels have you felt most in danger and where have you felt most welcome?
It’s strange how the two can be in very close proximity. Mogadishu in Somalia is perhaps the most dangerous place I’ve been to, and when I was last there a war was underway. People were incredibly receptive, hospitable, welcoming and desperate for the outside world to know what was going on.
Where was the place that most changed you, and how?
The Horn of Africa. I’ve seen some desperately upsetting sights there, which have kept me awake at night, but have also helped me to put my own life into perspective. At the same time I’ve seen the very best that mankind has to offer in Somaliland, where the people have built a country from the ashes of war with very little help from the outside world.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your travels?
That all of us want, beyond food and security, pretty much the same thing – some purpose and meaning in our lives. Really, though, I’ve learnt innumerable lessons. I never went to university and wasn’t much good at school, but I’ve learnt what I have from keeping my eyes open and not sitting around with headphones on.
Is it harder to find truly new and exciting ideas for books or series now?
Since Roman times people have been complaining that there are only so many stories, and I think it’s the same with journeys. But the world often changes quickly and dramatically, you can go back to the same country and have a very different experience. The challenge in my world is coming up with an exotic-sounding adventure that hasn’t been done by Michael Palin.
Should air travel be made more expensive?
I travel a lot and I have no right to tell people who work harder – and at much more difficult jobs – that their holidays are causing problems for the poor in countries that are environmentally on the edge. Yet I do think we need leaders who are willing to take the punch bowl away at the party when everyone is really sloshed. We’ve been partying for a while now and the planet is really suffering.
I’ve been to almost all of the former Soviet states, but I haven’t been to Russia. The Cold War mentality intrigues me – the cold shell of your ex-Soviet type which, when stripped away, reveals a lovely warm hospitable core. I’d love to go.