Simon Reeve is a bit under the weather. What’s laid the hardened traveller low? Gun battles in Mogadishu? Run-ins with South African drug dealers? Any number of illnesses that can literally get under your skin while filming abroad?
“My little one has given me a bit of virus. Survived travels in foreign parts, laid low by an eleven-month old. But there you go!”
Following on the heels of hit Tropic of… series on the BBC, his latest mega-journey takes him around the Indian Ocean, cunningly entitled… Indian Ocean. Once again, he will explore the beauty spots that the area’s famous for – Maldives, Madagascar, Seychelles – balancing it with reportage from its darker currents: the social and economic collapses, brutal crime rates and environmental disasters, regularly finding himself in the sort of hot water that you don’t find at the hotel pool: Mogadishu, Somalia, Jakarta’s illegal wildlife markets, while dodging pirates, sharks and curried bats along the way. Intrigued? Us too, so Wanderlust’s Tom Hawker caught up with Simon to find out a little more.
Mogadishu’s widely regarded as one of the most dangerous places on the planet, so how do you prepare to visit a place like that?
Well, we spent a lot of time researching the safest, strongest way of getting in there. By ‘strongest’, I mean what would provide us with a story that would justify the risks in going there. There's not much use in turning up and going “Oh, it's a bit dangerous here, innit?”
We prepared by talking to people who had gone there before – there's not many of them – and just constantly monitoring the situation. As it was, we went into Mogadishu with the Ugandan peace keeping troops, who were basically fighting the war against Islamic militants there.
But I knew from the beginning of production that the problems of Somalia are an absolutely fundamental part of the story of the Indian Ocean. It would have been wrong of us to have just gone to the beauty bits like the Maldives and not to have explored the problems as well. So I was in a weird perverse way really keen and insistent that we went there.
How do you get that balance right?
It's a journey of extremes – it's got the Seychelles and Somalia, just a few hundred miles away from each other. It’s staggering that one region can harbour such extraordinary extremes, yet alone the planet. You're talking about chaos and normality being a very short plane-hop away.
Well I think the journey format incorporates that balance really well. We went from Kenya into Somalia and you see what happens when you go from – I'm not saying Kenya's particularly well run – but you go from a normal African country to the heart of darkness. Somalia is a completely collapsed country. Yet Mogadishu is a very beautiful city in parts. It's got colonial buildings going back to the 30s and 40s. You can really see the glory beneath the disaster.
How did you create the Indian Ocean concept?
The concept initially wasn't much more than Indian Ocean said in a particularly exotic way! As awful as it sounds, you've got to start with the title because unless people are drawn in by that then you're not going to get people watching. I'd like to travel down the Ural Mountains, but you're not really going to get the viewers, as fascinating as it would be.
So the Indian Ocean is exotic but also has got some really interesting issues to be explored – you've got the two extremes. On a more geo-political level, the Indian Ocean is home to a vast quantity of the world trade across the shipping lanes. China's moving in on the Indian Ocean; India's just realising it wants to take control of the Ocean. It’s strategically vital for the planet and interesting for that reason as well. There are lots of new military bases that are opening there.
But we don't dwell on these issues – they're just a backdrop for the story and the history. The Indian Ocean is fascinating because it's played a crucial role in the development of our civilisation. The predictable monsoon winds meant merchants knew they could sail with the winds across the ocean for a few months and then return home when the winds changed a few months later and that led to the spice trade and the exploration of the ocean.
Does the story develop itself or do you have a narrative idea fixed in mind when you arrive?
It would be extravagant to just go out to these places and try and make it up as we go along. It's fair to say we prepare the stories beforehand but we never know how they're going to play out when we go there. The bit that is spontaneous is what we film and how we film it, even if we have a basic structure.
We do have to work quickly even though there’s only four of us that go out from the UK. We are on somebody else’s ticket – it is paid for by the licence fee – so we need to crack on and make it work.
The colour comes from the random things that do get thrown your way. I’m guessing you didn't plan to end up in a drugs den?
That is very true! This methamphetamine called tik is wreaking havoc across South Africa. We went to one of the townships to talk to people about this drug and they were basically saying everyone was on this drug. Then somebody said there's a crazy guy down the road you should go talk to. So stupidly we thought 'alright we’ll go and talk to the crazy bloke'.
We walked into his house and as we were walking in, it just went from sunny and light outside to depraved and dark inside. It was a crack and tik den. And this guy wasn't just some crazy man, but also a local drug lord and he had his gun at his side. His lieutenants started turning up and it became quite frightening. They started saying, ‘You should be paying us’, ‘How much is your camera worth?’ In time-honoured tradition, we made our excuses and backed out swiftly.
And do you rate curried fruit bat as a meal?
No. There are times when you eat an unusual delicacy on the road and it is tasty but curried fruit bat isn't one of them. I'm always suspicious of anything that needs to be curried before people will eat it. So no, curried fruit bat won't be on my menu at home.
Did you get to enjoy any of the beauty spots?
We were saying all the time it would be lovely if we could kick back but the journey drives things on – in a slightly pompous way probably! We're really keen to tell stories and tell them in the best possible way.
So Craig and Jonathan, the two camera men who filmed this series, would regularly get up in the night to film the moon or get up at dawn having been up till 2 o'clock to film the sun light. There was a lot of commitment among the team and I was honoured to work with them frankly.
Did becoming a dad change your attitude when going to extraordinarily dangerous places?
Yeah, it certainly makes me feel like I've got much more of a responsibility. But my wife thinks about it in the opposite way, that once a bloke has had at least one child then they start feeling like their job is done and so they can take more risks.
But I'm always more worried about practical dangers like wearing a seat belt and the risks of being in a helicopter crash. We're much more likely to die in a road traffic accident than in a shoot out in Mogadishu, I think.
So you’ve seen some of the most extraordinary places on the planet but what are your favourite places to travel to on your own time?
I do love my own home. When I'm away and I'm in a particularly extreme situation, you do start to crave the normality of Blighty. It becomes quite special when I come back. But when I'm going on a holiday, I tend to go to Greece, France and Denmark. All for family and family tie reasons. My wife is half Danish, my brother lives in France and my wife is obsessed with Greece so inevitably, I get dragged there entirely against my will of course
– the sheer hell that is the eastern Mediterranean!
Indian Ocean begins on BBC2 – and iPlayer – from 22 April
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