As the face of travel on the terrestrial television, Simon Reeve has presented a number of BBC travel series, from exploring where our tea and coffee comes from, to travelling the entire Tropic of Cancer. Having just returned from filming a new series in India, Simon talks to Rough Guides about adventure, muppetry and a better understanding of the world.
What’s your current location?
I’m at home in North London right now, but I was just in India filming a series called Sacred Rivers and for that I’m travelling down the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze. It was absolutely glorious. There were places there I had no idea really existed along the Ganges and when the river comes through the mountains there’s these beautiful white beaches, there’s amazing white water rafting. It was utterly glorious.
Next is supposed to be to follow the Nile through Ethiopia and Sudan into Egypt, all being well if civil war doesn’t erupt in Egypt.
Tell us where you go to relax.
I go home because I spend too much time abroad and I like doing really ordinary things when I’m back because I’m lucky that I get to do extraordinary things when I’m away.
What was your biggest adventure?
The one that springs to mind is trekking into occupied Burma from India for the series I did when I travelled around the Tropic of Cancer. That was pretty extraordinary for those of us who did it; it was very dangerous. Maybe also across the Sahara, that was phenomenal and involved crossing borders that hadn’t been crossed for decades, areas that no white person had been into – but I think you can have an adventure anywhere in the world. It’s your mindset as much as anything, how you approach it.
Which country’s cuisine is your favourite?
That’s tough actually, because you can get everything in Britain now in amazing quality. But Argentina does some really incredible melt in the mouth meat for a carnivore like me.
What’s the weirdest meal you’ve ever eaten?
Probably penis soup in Madagascar. But there are a number of contenders for the title, that’s part of the gig being the TV presenter. You have to expect you’re going to be required and asked and cajoled into eating some local weirdness that’s never as bad as people think it is and it’s always very memorable and fun. It was a giant todger of a penis.
Tell us about your strangest encounter.
They pretty much all are you know. Filming fairly recently during the Australia series I did, we went from one day, meeting with a vet who rescues injured koalas, to the next day when we met the super buffed up infamous members of the Finx motorcycle gang who the Australian police accused of being involved in most organised crime in eastern Oz. They were covered in tattoos and really steroided up – pretty terrifying guys, but very welcoming and hospitable too. Then two of their biker babes got into a Jacuzzi wearing bikinis while I was talking to them. That was pretty odd.
And your most moving experience?
Moving? Well there’s a young lady I met called Fatima, who I encountered in a refugee camp on the Kenya-Somali border. She was 22 and she’d been living in that camp since she was three years old. She was very bright and very worldly, she spoke perfect English as she’d been educated by the succession of aid workers who’d come through the camp, which is for displaced Somalis who’d fled the war there but aren’t allowed to go further.
Basically for her entire life, she’d been trapped, in an open prison, not allowed to move more than four kilometres in any one direction. When I think of her, I’m reminded of the pure fluke and privilege that means I was born on this island and that I have a British passport, and that she was born where she is and struggles to exist every day.
What do you love about travelling?
I love the experience it offers me, I love the chance it gives me to educate myself about the world. I didn’t go to university, I don’t have much of an education, but actually going to places, talking to people, and seeing situations is such an amazing form of education.
What do you hate about travelling?
Muppetry, jet lag, airplanes, dangerous roads, poverty, crap food, the usual whinges really. But you know, as soon as I come home I’m reminded of how fortunate I am that fresh water comes out of a tap, so there’s nothing I really hate about it you know. It’s a dream of a job and I know I’m bloody lucky.
What’s your favourite series you’ve filmed?
It was a series I did called Places That Don’t Exist, I did a number of years back, and it’s all about countries that aren’t officially countries – places like Somaliland, Transnistria, Abkhazia, Soth Ossetia.
They’re not members of the UN, they don’t get to send a team to the World Cup, or a singer to Eurovision, but when you get there you find that in the space on a map there is a country, that thinks of itself as a country, and they have a border and armed guards and flags fly and they have their own national anthem, and their own currency often. They’re all at the centre of past, existing or future wars, so they are very difficult parts of the world but absolutely fascinating to visit and learn more about.
You were given an award for your outstanding contribution to a better world understanding, what one thing should we understand and keep in mind while travelling?
I think the main thing to keep in mind is that you have an impact wherever you tread; whatever you do with your money and how you explore your world makes a difference to other people. You don’t travel in some sort of bubble, whatever you do, it impacts, it connects – don’t pay for hotel rooms in a place that’s owned by the local dictator’s son, try instead to put your money in the hands of local people.
So be careful how you travel, and be good.
Simon Reeve is one of the celebrity travel experts who will be speaking at Destinations, The Holiday & Travel Show at Earls Court, London from 6-9 February 2014. Advance tickets cost £11. www.destinationsshow.com