Denali National Park, Alaska Simon Reeve - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jonathan Young
Interview Words : Zara Gaspar | 08 October 2019

Simon Reeve on Alaska, going green in Costa Rica and filming BBC's The Americas

From drinking toes in Canada and starting fires in California, to tree-planting in Costa Rica, Simon Reeve's been busy experiencing the Americas. Here, he tells Wanderlust all about his journey (so far)...

So, how did the show come about?

Simon Reeve in Colorado (BBC/Craig Hastings)

Simon Reeve in Colorado (BBC/Craig Hastings)

That’s a good question. I think I was just looking, as I often do, at a big map of the world that I’ve got on my desk. I was thinking about what would be an exciting journey, and where Michael Palin hasn't been, and what would be interesting and challenging and extreme. As poncy as that probably sounds. You know, extremes of landscapes and people and climates and conditions and everything – and the Americas just kind of jumped out. 

I think the challenge with it was thinking big enough, because I’m not American so I’m always thinking: ooh I couldn’t do that, oh they wouldn’t let me do that.

But what the hell! It’s quite ambitious, it would take forever, and maybe they’ll say no, but then I started thinking we should try to do it in a mega big way, instead of trying to do the whole of the Americas in three programs or something ridiculous like we often do in TV, and the BBC eventually said yes.

It wasn’t a huge challenge, to be honest. I just went in to see the boss at BBC Two and took a single sheet of A4 paper with a child’s map of the Americas. I just went, 'What about ‘The Americas?' I said it in a slightly silly voice and it worked. So, that’s how it came about.

How did you plan the trip? Where did you go?

Simon in Kings Canyon National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

Simon in Kings Canyon National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

So, I’m travelling the length of the Americas, which is two continents that make up a quarter of the land space of our planet, and I’m doing that over two television series.

The first TV series is North America, north and central down to Costa Rica. I’d planned it by working out what was viable, what was interesting, what could be done in the available time - because we don’t have an endless budget to go traipsing around the planet, and we’ve got to find stuff to film. 

And it becomes a slight chicken and egg situation, I suppose, but it’s sort of testing out. Would this work? Would that work? I knew I wanted to start in the north and work my way south, and Alaska was the obvious place to start, but I did think about the very far north of Canada, as well. There was one point where I thought, should I go south to north? - but only briefly.  

It was a case of really looking at the map, talking with the team and thinking about what sounds plausible as a TV journey. ‘Cos it's got to make sense to a viewer - who’s got a lot of other things on their mind, and we’re trying to trap their attention and keep their eyeballs. It’s got to work with things to see, things to do and extremes to experience. 

So, the first half of the trip is done...

Yeah, I’ve made the first series, and there'll be two in total. The first series is five one-hour episodes, which I got back from [filming] on Friday [20 September]. I’m totally shattered at the moment. It starts on TV fairly imminently actually. [The first episode aired on Sunday 6 October.]

We've only just finished filming, and we’ll be sort of editing the final program until about two days before it’s broadcast, which sounds MADNESS - but hopefully it’ll be OK.

Tell us about the first part of the trip...

With caribou hunter Charlie Swaney in Arctic Village, Alaska (BBC/Jonathan Young)

With caribou hunter Charlie Swaney in Arctic Village, Alaska (BBC/Jonathan Young)

Goodness. So, the first part of the trip was from Alaska down to Vancouver, and that was just over three weeks of quite hardcore travel in remote places and very, very tricky temperatures for our equipment and for us. I think it got down to minus 40 at one point, and that was in Feburary/March 2019.

Alaska sort of blew me away, actually. I’ve heard over the years that it’s an adventurous part of the planet and that it’s beautiful, but I’m sort of a cynical, contrary type and when people say that to me, I think they’re talking tosh. But it’s bigger, more impressive, more overwhelming, in scale and in substance, than I expected.

It was really, really ‘blow your mind’ impressive. Cities aren’t much to write home about, but people don’t spend a lot of time in those in Alaska, it’s the wilderness and the wild that you’re looking for. 

And you know what? For a long time I’ve been wondering where the hell adventurous Americans go, because as I’ve travelled this planet, you don’t see a lot of Americans relative to the size of their population in far-flung parts of the world. 

You see Brits everywhere, you see Italians, you see the French, but you don’t really see Americans - not in proportion to the number of them. But now, I discover they all go to bloody Alaska, because it’s beautiful and it belongs to them, as well. It makes other European wild spaces look a little bit pedestrian by comparison.

Mount Denali, Alaska (Shutterstock)

Mount Denali, Alaska (Shutterstock)

I think Wanderlust readers will love Denali National Park, which is shown at the very start of the series.

Denali NP is ‘blow your mind’ awesome. It's just completely extraordinary.

In Alaska, did you play bingo with an Iñupiat community?

We did, we did. Why not? Yes, it’s perfectly normal in a northern Alaskan Iñupiat settlement.  

Is it important to you while travelling to immerse yourself in cultures and communities?

Simon marvels at Denali National Park, Alaska (BBC/Jonathan Young)

Simon marvels at Denali National Park, Alaska (BBC/Jonathan Young)

Yeah. I’m not sure that I’m immersing myself in the ancient culture, but I do think it’s important to try and show a little bit of the reality and, if you can, show a slightly different side to life in a community. 

As long as it’s not a set-up-for-the-camera event. There’re a lot of TV shows where, when they go somewhere wild and remote, they're very keen to just show that remote otherness and keep the people in the t-shirts and the football shirts out of the shot, to deny the reality that we’re a globalised species.

In Kaktovic - in the very northern tip of Alaska, in the very depths of winter - they’re gathering in the community centre to play bloody bingo. And it's weird, but it’s completely human at the same time. 

They're a community that's been critiqued and criticised by outsiders (and insiders, occasionally) because they are remote. They've had a tricky time in terms of interactions with the outside world, due to the oil industry and alcohol and some of their hunting practices. You know, they hunt whales there. So, there's a nervousness about outsiders portraying them unfairly. I hope we got a balance on their lives and how they’re living. 

We did a few other things in Alaska. I think Wanderlust readers will love Denali National Park, which is shown at the very start of the series. Denali is awesome, completely extraordinary. We got some amazing footage there. The camera team were staggeringly good, too.

Next up, you went to Canada. What was that like?

Simon in Vancouver, Canada (BBC/Jonathan Young)

Simon in Vancouver, Canada (BBC/Jonathan Young)

We went to big, wide Yukon, which is very much Wanderlust territory as well. Bloody amazing place. We went to Dawson City, which is stuffed full of adventurous Canadian types and I met Caveman Bill, who is quite the character.

You can probably guess why he’s named Caveman Bill. He survives the harsh Canadian winter living in a cave which, really, has a front on so it looks more normal than it sounds. It’s still not a house in the suburbs, that’s for sure. 

A sour toe cocktail. Yikes. (BBC/Simon Reeve)

A sour toe cocktail. Yikes. (BBC/Simon Reeve)

He took me for a flipping cocktail in the town and it turned out it was a sourtoe cocktail, which has got somebody's severed toe popped into it. You have to drink the drink and let the toe touch the lips, which is completely disgusting, quite frankly.

You can't really taste it, and thank God Canadian health and safety means it’s been well preserved. I don’t know what sort of sicko has that idea in the first place, but [it’s a] bit of fun and definitely memorable. 

And in California, you started fires to help control fires?

El Dorado National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

El Dorado National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

Yeah, it’s a weird one. But in California, they’ve been very reluctant to let fire work its natural way through the ecosystem and let it perform the function it's supposed to: clearing off dead wood on the ground, so that there isn't a mega-load ready to burn in a proper natural wildfire.

Basically, they stop fires before they are really able to perform their natural cleansing function. And that means that every once in a while, a fire uses the fuel that’s still on the ground to become a firenado or a megafire and rip its way through forests - and towns, even.

You’ve got an enormous problem with wildfires in California, because it’s drier than it has been in generations due to climate change. Then, there's the amount of wood on the ground, because no-one wants to start any fires in the first place. They put the smaller fires out, and it means that bigger ones are a massive risk. That's the best way of describing it, probably. 

What the fire crews and forestry service are trying to do now is allow fire to happen, allow fire to work its way through the woods and clear out some of the dead wood, and I was involved in lighting fires and hopefully regenerating woodland as a result. 

Lots of the flora and fauna need fire to play its natural part, you know? There are seeds that only germinate after a fire, life returns after a fire and grows much more dramatically. And so the hot shot fire crew were letting fire play its part. It’s quite a brave thing for them to do because if it goes wrong and starts burning out of control, then the local taxpayers kick off about it.

They've got to let mother nature do its thing. So often humans try and control and shape their landscape and the wildlife, and are then shocked and surprised when it goes hideously wrong. So, we’ve got to try and return to a situation where the wild is allowed to be wild and nature is allowed to be nature, even when that’s difficult for us. And so fires are allowed to burn their way through a landscape. 

Interesting, but probably not a 'normal' travel experience. Is there a reason you chose to focus on it?

With forest firefighters, El Dorado National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

With forest firefighters, El Dorado National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

The reason to do it was to get up close and see a fire, and see how it tracks through dead and decaying forest, which is part of their problem. 

Climate change means they’ve had an infestation of beetles in the trees in California and throughout the Americas. That means there’s millions and millions of dead trees, which are like giant matchsticks ready to burn.

So, it was a way of exploring that whole story and explaining how much of a danger fire is. Whether it's started deliberately, by accident, by nature or by man, it’s a massive problem in California. Scores of people are dying in horrific fires and thousands of homes and buildings are being lost, so it was really a way of exploring that.  

You’re right, it’s not something a normal traveller could do. There are quite a few experiences in [the show] that would be very difficult for a normal traveller, but that’s the benefit of telly really. It can take you into places.

Telly is allowed access because it’s telly. I’m only there cos the camera’s with me. It’s not because they like me, it’s because of the bloody TV camera. 

With forest firefighter Travis Thane, El Dorado National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

With forest firefighter Travis Thane, El Dorado National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

So often humans try and control and shape their landscape and the wildlife and are then shocked and surprised when it goes hideously wrong.

We've got to try and return to a situation where the wild is allowed to be wild and nature is allowed to be nature...

Speaking of climate change, how do you feel about green travel?

On Usumancita River between Mexico and Guatemala (BBC/Jonathan Young)

On Usumancita River between Mexico and Guatemala (BBC/Jonathan Young)

It can be a little bit of a contradiction, can't it? Obviously, unless you’re walking, most people in some way are burning fossil fuel. And I think we have to recognise that. There’s no point travellers denying it. 

I’ve never been hugely impressed by the idea of carbon offsetting and planting trees to mitigate the impact of our travels, and I talked a lot about it with people when we were in Costa Rica, both before and during the journey.

In the past, I’ve felt a bit like it’s a medieval indulgence, and you know, saying a prayer to offset your sins or something like that. I think it’s not ideal, in the sense that it’s like having your cake and eating it.  

But I was quite taken, throughout the journey, by the absolute need for us to get more trees in the ground as a way of mitigating climate change. I wanted to get some trees in the ground so one of the things I did in Costa Rica was go out with a community and dozens of schoolchildren to plant trees in the Costa Rican tropical forest, which is totally spectacular and beautiful. It was absolutely brilliant. 

Costa Rica is one of the greenest places on Earth. What was it like?

Costa Rica was jaw-dropping, I’d never been before, it’s stunningly beautiful, and completely different to the other places I visited in central America.

In the sense that it's like the Switzerland of the region, much more beautiful and well-run. They’re very focused on developing a carbon neutral greener economy and nation, and that does seem to run very much through their DNA. 

It’s an amazing country, very inspiring. Yes, they’re working towards a green economy, all credit to them, but obviously millions of tourists get there every year by burning jet fuel and travelling there, so in some ways, it is contradictory. We’ve got to work that out, we need electric planes.

In the end, I was won over by the arguments of people that, if you are going to travel, at least put some bloody trees in the ground to mitigate your impact and because we as a planet and a species need it.

On to Mexico... did you enjoy your visit? How did you find the country?

With armed police, Tamaulipas, Mexico (BBC/Jonathan Young)

With armed police, Tamaulipas, Mexico (BBC/Jonathan Young)

Well, it’s a huge place, and it’s got a massive population. It’s got a population bigger than Russia, it’s going to be one of the biggest economies in the world in just a few years, and our view of Mexico is so often formed by bloody American movies that make it look as though it is some sort of backward donkey country.

And that's totally unfair. It's a complicated country, and it’s got lots of problems, definitely, but it’s also got areas of incredible beauty and great wealth. 

To divide it up in a very simple sense, we were up in the very far north of Mexico, perhaps the most dangerous part of the country, which is suffering the endless trauma of the drug war. 

There’re enormous issues with human migration coming through that area, very few people now migrating from Mexico to the US, but Mexico is the transit country from other places, usually from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. There are more Mexicans leaving the US now than there are entering it. 

Yaxchilán Mayan Archaeological Site, Chiapas, Mexico Simon Reeve (BBC/Jonathan Young)

Yaxchilán Mayan Archaeological Site, Chiapas, Mexico Simon Reeve (BBC/Jonathan Young)

I was up there in a flak jacket and helmet in a part of Mexico that is considered to be a category four war zone. It’s rated alongside Yemen and Libya by the US state department in terms of the danger and the insecurity. We had combat soldiers protecting us at one point, because it is very dangerous, very tricky up there. 

Then we went down to the middle, the centre of Mexico, where you’d be lucky if you saw a policeman. It’s totally different, much more industrialised and normal and touristy. And, of course, what did we do there, we went to a VW car plant of all things! Just to show that other side of Mexico. It’s not all chaos and drugs.

We also went to the far south of Mexico to Chiapas, which is remote, full of properly Central American jungle and ancient Mayan remains. We went to the ancient city of Yaxchilán, which is an old Mayan ruin but it feels like a lost kingdom and is staggering, absolutely staggering.

And I learned loads about the culture and community that was in Central America before the arrival of Europeans and absolutely loved it. You don’t see the security problem in the far south. It’s totally different and just epically beautiful. 

What’s been the best part of filming The Americas (so far)?

With Los Angeles street doctor Brett Feldman in California (BBC)

With Los Angeles street doctor Brett Feldman in California (BBC)

It’s very tricky because for natural beauty, I’m going to say Denali National Park in Alaska. It was as if we stepped off this planet, actually, and [went] somewhere from science fiction. It was awe-inspiring and empty and silent and the Northern Lights were extraordinary. We stayed in this ludicrously luxurious chalet high in the mountains, just at the foot of the biggest peak in North America, Mount Denali. 

But also, exploring the forgotten, ignored side of Los Angeles was very, very memorable as well. Going through the urban jungle, in every sense. Street doctors in Los Angeles are taking medical help to the homeless, and that was just incredible. We were on Skid Row with people who’ve lost everything but were still open and funny and welcoming.

I crawled into a hollow concrete railway bridge and I met a homeless lady called Amy, who was really one of those characters who sticks with you in your mind and your heart. Just warm and thoughtful and nonjudgmental and living in a very extreme situation.

With Los Angeles street medics Gabrielle Johnson and Brett Feldman, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

With Los Angeles street medics Gabrielle Johnson and Brett Feldman, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

And she was asking me about the BBC and she was saying how she listens to the BBC podcast. I was saying, ‘How the hell do you get the BBC podcast?’ and she was saying, ‘Oh well I go and stand outside Starbucks and download them.’

She’s living in a hollow concrete railway bridge, for God’s sake. It’s such a screwed-up, mixed-up country, and with such breathtakingly honest and wonderful humans. That was extremely, extremely memorable and humbling. I’m going with Amy and Denali, on that one, for just highlights and just incredible moments on the trip. 

What are you looking forward to the most for the next series?

I’ve gotta look forward, haven’t I? Well, I like planning them, I like doing them, I like scripting them afterwards, so I like the whole thing.

In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing the Andes. And finding out if there’s any of the Amazon left, after it’s been burnt to a bloody crisp by the Brazilian government. I’m hoping there’s still more to see.

What's the plan is for series two, right now?

With arborist Jake Milarch, in canopy of giant redwood trees, California (BBC/Craig Hastings)

With arborist Jake Milarch, in canopy of giant redwood trees, California (BBC/Craig Hastings)

Haven’t got a clue yet, honestly. We haven’t even begun planning that out. I really don’t know. That’s what we’ll be filming next year. But the series that’s starting imminently this year is North America.

How long did you spend making the first series?

In total, a year and a half, from planning it out and working out what we were going to do - that was early last year - and then the actual journey I started in February this year. I’ve done it in chunks since then.

I don’t do it all in one go because logistically that would just be impossible for the team and I’ve got a family who I like to see, even if they’re not too bothered about me disappearing for most of the time. 

How does it feel having done just half of the Americas journey?

Simon in Chiapas, Mexico (BBC/Johnny Crockett)

Simon in Chiapas, Mexico (BBC/Johnny Crockett)

Well, if people don’t watch and the BBC cancel it and say, 'actually Simon don’t bother doing the next bit, because nobody’s interested', I can live with that. I’ve still had this completely epic adventure. Much more of an experience even than I was expecting. The characters and people we met were absolutely incredible 

Like a week ago, I was in the back of an ambulance, driving through San Salvador - the capital of El Salvador - at night with an 18-year-old volunteer paramedic, and in the back of another ambulance there was a volunteer, trained 14-year-old first responder.

People join medical organisations there to escape from being in the gangs that control many poor communities in the country and the city. We got to the scene of this traffic accident and there was a 10-year-old first responder who’d got there before us.

A 10-year-old, for goodness sake. With a medical backpack that was almost bigger than he was. So many amazing people and incredible situations in the first series, and I know that on the second series, travelling down through South America, it’s only going to get wilder and crazier. I can’t bloody wait. 

The second series, travelling down through South America, it’s only going to get wilder and crazier. I can’t bloody wait.

Overall, what was your aim with The Americas?

With Mexican army combatting oil theft, Hidalgo, Mexico (BBC/Jonathan Young)

With Mexican army combatting oil theft, Hidalgo, Mexico (BBC/Jonathan Young)

It’s always to try and combine adventure with issues, to learn about the places that I’m visiting, and at the same time to have proper, genuine experiences.

What I’ve liked is that it’s like an old-fashioned journey, where you go away with your eyes open and you’ve heard rumours of dragons and sea serpents, and you’re looking for them but you’re willing to accept the reality, as well.

I try to come home with some stories and different tales to tell people, other than what they’re expecting. Hopefully, it'll show a few people the reality of life being lived out there, but it is an adventure as well, so hopefully it’s entertaining.

Hopefully, it shows people a bit more of what’s going on in our world. The feeling I get is that other people would quite like to do [this kind of work] as well, so I’m clinging onto the job for as long as I can. 

What have you learned about this part of the world, personally?

With members of the California Conservation Corps, Kings Canyon National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

With members of the California Conservation Corps, Kings Canyon National Park, California (BBC/Ruairi Dunne)

We think of the Americas as being – particularly the US  – the route to a lot of our environmental problems, appalling polluters of the planet.  

But it’s also an area that’s really suffering the consequences as well, they’re really experiencing our changing climate and a lot of people there recognise that, which makes the ignorance of the government there all the more baffling. Because Americans can see it, Californians, Alaskans, they can see what’s happening to their climate and the world.

Rugged Alaskans in remote parts of the country will say to you, ‘This is because our climate is changing’, and they say it in a very normal, understated way, because they accept it and they have for a long time.

Overall, it’s very beautiful, very troubled in places, but the people, the characters are as big and as bold as any I’ve met anywhere in the world. 

Generally, I think, most of us travel for the people we meet along the way. Because the Americas - north, and I'm sure south too - offer up millions of possible experiences and encounters with us. We’re the most wonderful, infuriating, brilliant and beautiful, aspect of this planet.

Human beings are just endlessly fascinating. For that alone. And then there’s the landscapes, the crazy food, and the cocktails, what’s not to like? 

You've travelled a lot. What's your approach to travel, generally?

On Usumacinta River between Mexico and Guatemala (BBC/Jonathan Young)

On Usumacinta River between Mexico and Guatemala (BBC/Jonathan Young)

My tip, more than anything, is travel with your eyes open and take chances. Wanderlust readers obviously do that anyway, but push it further. Take more time to get yourself out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself with the things that you do.

Be open to learning evermore about the place you're travelling through and the people who live there. Acknowledge the impact and the privilege and the responsibility that comes with it. To put something back into the environment, and into communities that we’re visiting, is absolutely essential.

More of us recognise that now and I think we can see that doing that and accepting that is only going to make our journeys more interesting and more memorable.

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