“Humans will never lose the thrill of exploring. Travel is as important as it’s ever been.”
BBC broadcaster and adventurer Simon Reeve is due on stage in Dundee in an hour and there’s no time to waste, so I’ve kicked off our interview with the big question; why is travel important? “Travel is more than staying in a cosy beach resort. Travel is learning and creating memories, not sitting by a swimming pool.”
He’s been described as ‘British television’s most adventurous traveller’, but unlike previous Source interviewees such as Sir Ranulph Feinnes, Bear Grylls or Ben Fogle, Simon’s career journey was less predictable and certainly less privileged. Growing up in Action, west London, he didn’t set foot on an airplane until he was an adult. I wonder whether his limited travels in his younger years inspired his adulthood adventures? “I guess they encouraged and inspired me. I never take what I do for granted. Travel was not my birthright. I was never pushed to go exploring. I love every single day that we’re on the road and it’s an immense privilege. Setting out to work in the extremes of life, travelling to dangerous places to hear real human stories, these are the most exciting and memorable aspects of what I do.”
As you may have gathered by now, Simon is no modern day Judith Charmers. It’s not a travel show he presents (he reports in to the BBC’s current affairs department, FYI) and there have certainly been some scary moments along the way. “More than a few in truth!” Simon tells me. “I was in the Burmese jungle travelling to meet a tribe of endangered people. This really was a secret undercover operation, there were just three of us in the TV team and we were passing through a remote militarised zone. The military in these parts are known for their savage abuse and since locals guided us, the consequences would be terminal if we were caught. I wanted to tell the story of these abandoned people but the experience was truly terrifying, especially when we heard rumours that the military had arrived in the next village. We had to make a swift exit through the jungle in darkness. Even now, special forces guys ask me how and why we did it!”
I imagine the shelves in Simon’s home, straining under the weight of precious travel souvenirs. With 130+ countries under his belt, what is his most prized travel memento? “A Somali diplomatic passport in my own name that I bought in Mogadishu for $80 from a man called Mr Big Beard. And a sword that Dayak headhunters in Borneo gave me as they adopted me into their family. It’s smeared with blood and comes complete with notches indicating the number of heads its slayed.”
In previous interviews Simon has hinted of some dark times in his late teens. He left school without any qualifications and since it’s World Mental Health Day when we speak, I wanted to know more about these early days. “It’s only recently, this year in fact, that I’ve faced up to and talked about how tricky things were for me. Now the story seems appropriate … Life was as dark as it could get. I left school with no qualifications, no ambitions, I was a real no-hoper. I had no idea what I’d do and ending my life genuinely seemed like a better idea than going on.” Simon is open and honest in recounting these experiences. I wonder what advice he has for kids these days? “In my situation, it was critical not to think too far ahead. The lady in the DSS office told me that as I collected my dole. I didn’t need to have a ‘grand plan’. I just needed to take things step by step. As children we’re always encouraged to ‘reach for the stars’, there’s all this ‘live your dreams’ bollocks. But I was struggling to get out of bed each day! And these days there’s the bullshit Instagram narrative of this unobtainable perfect life. Youngsters can’t have it all, and they can’t have it overnight.”
A job in the mailroom of The Sunday Times aged 19 proved to be a turning point for Simon. As a sideline, he involved himself in investigations and was eventually promoted to the newsroom by the paper’s Editor. In 1998 he wrote ‘The New Jackals’, an in-depth look at the future of terrorism and the first book to name Osama bin Laden as a threat. Then came 9/11 and Simon was in demand as the world’s foremost Al-Qaeda expert by the BBC. ‘Holidays in the Danger Zone’ was his TV presenting debut in 2003 and the intervening years have been spent making no fewer than 80 programs exploring lesser-trod parts of the globe. Combining travel, adventure, wildlife, conservation and environmental issues, Simon’s adventures have been broadcast in more than 60 countries, racking up tens of millions of viewers.
But surely all that travel equates to a lot of time spent away from home? Simon is married and is father to a seven-year-old son (“who I completely dote on”). “I used to be away for six or more months of the year, but now it’s more like four months in total. Unfortunately the BBC’s insurance doesn’t cover seven year olds in war zones, so the family stay at home.” I wonder how he balances the thrill of adventure with the responsibilities of being a Dad? “My wife is half Danish and has those strong Scandi genes, so she’s pretty level-headed. In truth, she copes better when I’m away than when I’m at home. I was once in an armed convoy travelling through Libya. We approached the town of Sirte, it was one of the most heavily damaged places I’ve ever been to following the civil war. I sent my wife a text saying ‘we’re just about to enter the city, there could be booby-trapped bodies’. She replied ‘try to stay safe. I’m just cleaning up some dog sick, then I’m off on the school run. Oh and the washing machine is broken.’ The normality is always more important than the extreme.”
If you’re reading this after taking a few risks on the mountain today – maybe you triumphed on your first black run, or you nailed your first 180 – how does Simon’s risk list compare? He’s hunted with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari and he’s been hunted by the KGB. He’s been detained on suspicion of spying and he’s dodged bullets on the front line in Somalia. He’s dived with manta rays, seals and sharks and survived Malaria in Gabon. Walking through minefields is just another day in the job. If Simon could return to one place of his choice tomorrow, where would it be? “Somaliland, an unrecognised country on the Horn of Africa; it’s unusual and inspiring, the people are incredible. Or the Maldives, which are stereotypically beautiful and the marine life is incredible.”
By travelling to dangerous and difficult places, surely Simon has seen more than most the damage humans are doing to our planet and to each other. Is that difficult to process, I wonder? “It’s difficult to accurately and fairly portray what seven billion of us are doing to our world. Understanding the scale is incredibly hard. We are destroying our planet and there is a collective madness; no one is trying to stop this and that’s a failing of democracy. A politician who tried to make us moderate our behaviour for the sake of the planet is like taking the punch bowl away at a party. Honestly, it worries me a lot. I’ve come across indigenous people, who’ve never seen a European before, and they ask me why their climate is changing. They are scared of the immediate dangers our planet is facing.”
There are approximately 200 recognised countries on the planet and having been to over 130 of them, Simon still has some work to do. “If I lost this gig tomorrow to someone younger and cooler, I’d head to Japan. Or New Zealand, Finland, Costa Rica… or much closer to home. I’m more at home in the mountains than anywhere else, but this isn’t a box ticking competition! I mean, that’s a fun game at a dinner party, but you can go to Brazil ten times and have ten different experiences.”
But who inspires the man who inspires so many of us to get out there and travel? “My family to a certain extent. I’m not from a family of travellers, but my brother is an award winning travel photographer and the images he captures whet my appetite. And when we’re on a journey, it’s the fixers and guides that travel with us that inspire me. They’re so enthusiastic and they perfectly tell the story of where they live”.
Chris Evans described Simon’s 2018 autobiography and instant bestseller Step by Step as ‘the best autobiography of anyone under 50 I’ve ever read’ and it’s hard to comprehend that a 46-year-old has travelled so extensively. It’s tales from these travels that Simon recounts during his twice-extended UK theatre tour, which he describes as “just me, on a stage, telling stories” and as “the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done”. But what’s next? “I honestly don’t know! I’ve been discussing some ideas with the BBC and there’s a bit of poker playing going on right now. But it’ll be another journey; an epic one.
Simon’s autobiography, Step by Step, the Life in my Journeys, is available on Amazon.