Kate Humble (BBC Pictures)
Interview 04 November

Kate Humble: “I've always needed to travel”

Kate Humble has been on British television for 20 years, presenting everything from Countryfile to Volcano Live. We caught up with her to chat beach cleaning, camping, and living with nomads...

Wanderlust: You’ve been announced as the ambassador for the Barefoot Wine Beach Rescue Project – we didn’t see you as a beachy person!

Kate: I don’t tend to go on beach holidays, but I do spend a lot of time in coastal environments. People seem to forget that beaches are the richest and most diverse of natural habitats, and that’s why I wanted to be an ambassador for the Barefoot Wine Beach Rescue Project campaign.

The very sad thing is that people think that if you dump litter in the sea or on a beach it’s going to conveniently disappear and no-one’s going to care or worry about it again, but that isn’t the case. Plastic litter doesn’t just disappear. It hangs around for thousands of years and it causes untold damage. I’ve seen seals, basking sharks, tangled up in marine litter, discarded fishing nets or fishing lines. I’ve been present at the autopsy of a leatherback turtle that was washed up on the beach on the coast of West Wales: the whole of the entrance to its stomach was blocked by compacted plastic bags – they looks unnervingly like a jellyfish to a passing hungry turtle – and it had starved to death.

The turtle's stomach was blocked by compacted plastic bags – they look like jellyfishes

Beach cleans are fantastically important; we get a bunch of volunteers together and everyone is given their black plastic bag and their gloves, and we all go up and down the beach for a couple of hours. At the end we weigh the rubbish we’ve collected. It is astonishing how much [there is]. Sometimes you’ll look at a beach and go ‘there’s not that much on there really, it looks quite clean to me’, and then as you pick your way along the surf lines you’ll find bottle tops, the plastic bits off cotton buds that people have flushed down the loo, discarded crisp packets. It’s amazing how much you find.

We weigh the rubbish and we look back at the beach and it looks amazing. It’s not that hard to keep your beach clean, but people's idleness can be staggering. So that’s why for me this is a really important campaign to be part of.

How do you approach travel when you’re not working?

I still love it. I look for the unfamiliar. I love going to places where I feel like an explorer of sorts – and that doesn’t mean that you have to go to the other end of the world.

I am fascinated by the way that people live. I’m doing a series at the moment which has the working title of ‘Living with Nomads’. It feels like the biggest treat in the world to be asked to do a job that is basically what I’m doing in real life. In 1999, I had an extraordinary five weeks with a tribe who live north of Timbuktu in the Sahara Desert, trading salt – and I did that for fun. Now I’m doing similar things like that for work.

Having an immersive experience with local people is so important to me

I was in Mongolia – the first time I’ve been – earlier this year, living with a nomadic family in the Southern Gobi Desert. Obviously for me, if they have livestock, we have an instant connection. So this family that I lived with had goats and sheep, well I have goats and sheep, they have ponies, I grew up with horses, and they have yaks... I haven’t got those!

Feeling like I can have some kind of immersive experience with local people is so important to me. That’s what inspires me to travel – a tremendous curiosity about other people and how they live. Public transport is brilliant for that. You go on African minibuses as a foreigner: instantly you will be in conversation and you will find out stuff that you wouldn’t find out if you were on an official tour.

Africa was your first really big travel experience, wasn't it?

It was. I’ve always been quite restless. My mum said that when I was three I disappeared and they found me a mile down the road with my wheelbarrow and apparently I said I was going on an adventure! I always had this inherent need to travel, perhaps inherited from my dad’s father who travelled and lived all over the place.

The first trip I did on my own and away from the UK was interrailing when I was 17, and I worked and worked and worked for months and months and months to save up for my ticket, so that my parents couldn’t tell me I couldn’t go because I’d done it all myself. I didn’t even have a passport; I had to get one of those emergency passports from the Post Office.

I had a little cardboard passport and off I went! I had £100 spending money to last me the month, so I ate a lot of baguettes and slept on a lot of railways stations and got brutally woken up by railway police at horrible hours of the morning and told to move on. But I like that.

Until we moved to Wales, I felt quite nomadic myself. I loved that idea of being mobile, of being light on my feet, of not being burdened down with stuff. It has become evermore important to me as I’ve got older, this connection with your environment. A connection with what the seasons are doing, what the weather is doing, which things are growing. I love the sense of being immersed in what is happening in the natural world.

So many of us try to block out what’s happening in the natural world. If it’s cold we put the central heating on; if it’s hot we put on air conditioning – what a crime! We seem to want to be removed and apart from what’s going on in the natural world. That's probably why I’ve become so entranced by the idea of farming and producing food: you have to be aware of what the weather’s doing, you have to know when the sun coming up and when it’s going to go down. I love that; it makes me feel properly part of the world, if that makes any sense?

When you’re planning a nomadic journey, how do you prepare? What’s the first thing that goes in the suitcase?

Never a suitcase: a backpack or duffel bag. I’ll always take a pocket knife, a really good pair of boots – I’m a KEEN fanatic, I’ve never found a pair made by them that doesn’t fit instantly – and I’ve got great big farmer’s feet. I’ll always have a map. And a book. There’s something absolutely lovely about tucking yourself up in your tent with a book. You’re in the middle of nowhere, there are no distractions, there’s no point in staying up late... I just love being in that tent, reading with a head torch.

We’ve just announced our Guide Award winners: when you were involved in the judging, what were you looking for?

I look for somebody who’s given somebody what feels like a really personal experience. Taking a big trip isn’t something that everybody can do every year – sometimes they really are a holiday of a lifetime. I look for the thing in the testimonial that says ‘this is the person that tuned into their clients, understood that there are certain things that are really going to excite them, and they’ve gone that extra mile to give them an experience that they’ll never forget.’

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