Zoologist, committed conservationist, award-winning writer and bestselling author, TV and radio presenter, prolific wildlife photographer and expedition leader, Mark Carwardine is a hard man to pigeonhole. One thing, however, is for sure – his passion for the natural world is all-consuming. Here we get a flavour of the spine-tingling wildlife encounters that are the stuff of Mark’s extraordinary day job…
What is the first thing you do when arriving in a new destination, and why?
The flippant answer is that I sleep: the older I get the more I seem to suffer from jet lag. Seriously, though, if I’m in a city, I like to wander and just soak up the atmosphere, to get a feel for the place, because I’m not really into sightseeing as such. Most of the time, though, I tend to be at sea or in the middle of nowhere, in which case I simply get out and about as quickly as possible.
Which one thing do you always pack when you embark on a journey?
I’d love to be able to say that I travel light and, in fact, I could say that – if it weren’t for my camera equipment. I rarely go anywhere without at least 30 kilos of kit. Photography is my passion and I’d rather leave home without my trousers than without my camera. Apart from that, binoculars are essential, of course, and I always take a satellite phone (which has saved my life on two occasions and is often the only way to keep in touch with home and the office). I can’t travel anywhere without something to read and a pad and pen, because my boredom threshold – especially in airports – is incredibly low. Oh, and I take a few clothes if there’s room.
How have you seen travel – and the places you’ve visited – change over your career?
Wildlife tourism has changed beyond all recognition in the years I have been travelling. Returning to places I first visited decades ago can be a shock, because there are nearly always fewer animals and more people. Of course, there are exceptions, but often where once there was only camping now there is a small hotel, and where once there was a small hotel now there is a big hotel. It’s good that so many people are interested in wildlife these days, and that so much wildlife is accessible, but it’s crucially important that it’s managed properly and that both the wildlife and local people benefit too.
The biggest change I’ve seen was probably in Madagascar. I’ll never forget flying down the east coast in 1989 and looking out over an almost continuous swathe of rainforest that stretched as far as the eye could see, then returning exactly 20 later to discover that there was virtually no forest left.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your travels?
Travel teaches you so many things, but respect (being considerate and thoughtful) and patience immediately come to mind. I simply switch off as soon as I get to within a mile of an airport and then switch on again when I eventually emerge at the other end. Once I’m really on my way, I simply try to go with the flow.
How would you recommend readers try and make their travel more meaningful?
Read up before you leave home and take advantage of local guides for insight and information. The more you know and understand about a new place, the better.
What was your most memorable meal on your travels?
When I was travelling with Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) in China in the late 1980s, we were served still-wriggling rat foetuses on a bed of lettuce.
Where was the place that changed you, and how?
I think every place I’ve been to has changed me in one way or another: some in a good way, a few in a bad way. From a wildlife point of view, the Great Bear Rainforest, in Canada; Baja California, in Mexico; South Georgia; the Pantanal, in Brazil; and many other places, have had a big impact. Cage diving with great white sharks in the North Pacific about 10 years ago turned me into an ardent shark conservationist. From a human point of view, working on anti-poaching patrols in many countries in Africa and Asia blows me away every time – these people are on the front line of conservation and risk their lives every day.
Should air travel be made more expensive?
I think so, but with a few caveats. There is no easy solution to the frightening growth in air travel and the environmental damage it causes – and I, of course, am guilty, as a frequent flyer. The irony that most of my travel is for conservation certainly is not lost on me.
The number of European air travellers has risen sharply with the introduction of low-cost airlines, and there’s a fast-developing taste for flying in other parts of the world, too, especially in India and China. I’m by no means an expert, but it seems to me that there are several possible answers: the development of planes with low-fuel consumptions; governments limiting the number of airports, runways and flights in and out of their countries; and the introduction of an upper limit on the numbers of flights taken, which would ultimately result in increased fares. I think flying will have to become more expensive, in a way that reflects its environmental impact. This won’t necessarily make it an elitist activity, because most of the current research suggests that the majority of new demand – in the UK, at least – is simply the same people flying more.
Where’s the most overrated place you’ve visited?
That’s difficult because almost everywhere has at least some redeeming features. I tend to shy away from places that are heaving with tourists – Ranthambore National Park, in India, and Churchill, in Canada, immediately come to mind – but even in these places the wildlife encounters can be superb.
Where in the world is still on your must-visit list, and why?
I’ve never been to Cuba. I’d spend my days trying to photograph the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird, and my nights eating that delicious mix of Spanish and Caribbean food while listening to some wonderfully evocative and upbeat Cuban music.
What’s your favourite travel book and why?
The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson, for its laugh-out-loud humour and wonderfully memorable lines. Moondust, by Andrew Smith, for its stunning insight into the world of the last surviving Apollo astronauts. Travel Diaries of a Naturalist, by Sir Peter Scott, because it is incredibly inspiring and written by one of the greatest naturalists and conservationists of all time. Am I allowed any more?
Which one travel experience across the world should every reader add to their ‘bucket list’, and why?
There are so many! My bucket list is still far too long and I’ve been travelling for 6–8 months every year for the past 30 years. I suppose if you held a gun to my head and I had to pick just one, it would be San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. This is a breeding ground for grey whales, which love to be scratched and tickled by visiting humans – it’s arguably the most extraordinary, awe-inspiring and emotional wildlife encounter on the planet.