Palms sweaty in nervous anticipation, I clumsily fumbled my notes and hurriedly gathered my dictaphone and camera. In a couple of minute’s time I was to meet one of my favourite travel journalists, Simon Reeve.
Working at My Destination, I had managed to wangle the interview as part of our travel insider interview series. So there I was, sitting on the edge of the sofa in a John Lewis brasserie awaiting my idol. Joining me were three other travel writers, Ana O’Reilly of Mrs O Around the World and the two Global Grasshoppers, Becky and Gray.
“Shall we snuggle together?” Simon had said, shuffling along the sofa to sit beside me. Pleasantries aside, we had bundled over to a nearby table and wedged ourselves into an excited huddle around the presenter. As he politely topped up our glasses of water, the first question was fired.
“What’s the worst place you’ve been to?” Asked Ana. Momentarily stumped, Simon replied: “Um, there’s nowhere that I’ve wanted to leave in truth.” Explaining that as a presenter, having to go somewhere challenging is part of the job. Puzzled, he continued: “I’d probably say Somalia is the most dangerous, the most screwed up, the country that’s fallen further, that’s got a longer journey back to normality.”
In direct contrast, Simon describes Somalia’s neighbouring country, Somaliland, as one of his favourite countries to visit. Unrecognised by the world as a whole, Somaliland gained independence from Somalia in 1991. “I’m a huge fan of Somaliland,” gushed Simon, “While Somalia is really screwed, Somaliland is really not. It’s democratic, it’s fairly stable, secure, it’s got women in parliament, good camel curries and camel BBQ’s!”
Speaking of food, Simon’s palate clearly has a lot to be desired. When asked what has been his strangest experience with food, he described his dalliances with penis soup, grilled squirrel and fish eyes, and encouraged: “Secretly I love it. It’s part of the job, but I’m very happy to do it, I think it’s quite fun.” Flashing his famous grin he continued: “It makes me feel adventurous and means I get good stories to tell. I have a very bad memory, I eat the same old British food regularly and I don’t remember it. But I really do remember eating penis soup in Madagascar, or eyeballs at a feast in Saudi Arabia.”
A little harder to swallow, perhaps, was one of Simon’s strangest cultural experiences, a visit to the Dayak tribe in Borneo. Infamous headhunters, the tribe is renowned for violence. In stark contrast to their fearsome reputation, the tribe were hospitable and friendly, with a chief who promptly adopted Simon as his son. Frowning he said: “Yes, being adopted was very strange. It does make you think about what a weird old world it is. These people were so friendly and welcoming.” Welcoming the may have been, but the parting gift they gave Simon is a sobering reminder of their past. “They gave me a blade which has got notches on it which they said related to the number of heads they’d taken. I’ve forgotten how many, but there’s a few. Enough to forget.”
Immersion in local culture is important to the presenter. (“They love that in TV, don’t they? ‘Where’s the immersion?!’”) Delving into the current affairs and issues of a country is what his programs are all about. In Kazakhstan, Simon did exactly this, and took part in a local game called Buzkashi. “I was roped into playing the game, which is where they play polo with the corpse of a headless goat. It was just so exotically different,” He laughed. “Why they’ve never thought of a round object…” he shrugged, smirking, “…it’s gross.”
Simon may preach about experiencing local traditions, but has he ever gone too far? Laughing in recollection, he said: “There’s a Timotei advert isn’t there? Where people come out of the jungle in bits and they’re refused access to the hotel, and then they go and have a shower and they’re allowed in. We had a situation almost exactly like that!”
Getting his hands dirty is obviously in Simon’s nature. It’s the primeval urges that drive his passion for travel. “I don’t come from a travelly family, I didn’t get on a plane till I started working. I do like the feeling we get of climbing a mountain, or driving for a thousand miles and arriving somewhere or going on a long boat trip, reaching somewhere. I get that Victorian feeling of ‘Aha! I’m on the map!’” He cried, brandishing his fist.
So how does he decide where to go next? “I’ve got a big mouse mat of the world on my desk, so I look at it thinking ‘Where’s Palin not been?’” He joked, chortling to himself. “You come up with the initial idea, then more people come on board until it builds, it becomes a pretty big mass; researchers are employed and so on, so overall it takes about 18 months.”
18 months is a rather long time, and with a wife and young son, how does Simon cope with being on the road and away from home for such long lengths of time? Shaking his head rationally, he said: “I love the journeys but I’m keen to keep the ring on the finger.” Generally, each one-hour episode takes a month to film so he gets to go home in between shoots.
Whilst on the road he is with a different family altogether. “There’s generally just three or four of us on the road. Obviously it’s nice travelling with people who then become your mates.” But what’s one of the best things about travelling as a group? “There’s one cameraman who is slightly taller and bigger than me. I find him quite a reassuring presence because I think he’ll hit somebody with the camera and we can leg it!” He smirked, winking.