Simon Reeve has been round the world twice in the past two years – a nice enough assignment, you might think, but if the BBC’s coffers had been a little deeper, he would have gone five times.
“The original idea was: one series, five journeys,” he says. “The equator, the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and the Arctic and Antarctic circles. But when they costed it up, they realised it might be a tad expensive.”
No kidding. Instead, the project was scaled back to a slightly more licence-fee-friendly single trip round the equator, but it justified the BBC’s ambition. In a series that was by turns exhilarating, revealing and moving, Reeve contracted malaria in Gabon, dived with sea gypsies in Indonesia and went on patrol with the Colombian army – all the while following an invisible line on the map.
Like much of the best ‘travel’ television, Equator was no Wish You Were Here? catalogue of exotic destinations, but a punchy blend of adventure and current affairs journalism, tackling issues such as illegal logging, political corruption and the damaging effects of tourism. You voted it your second-favourite TV travel programme in last year’s Wanderlust reader awards.
So now it’s on to part two of that ambitious first-draft plan – the Tropic of Capricorn. Reeve has spent the past year researching and then travelling along the line 23° south of the equator, the lower border of the tropics, through Africa, Australia and South America: ten countries in all, 37,000km. Like the series – which airs this month – the actual journey was conducted in four chunks, each a month long, with a different camera crew on each leg.
“I was the only one who did the entire trip, and it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” says Reeve. “It was the longest journey, and we were moving on every couple of days, constantly being confronted by new sights and smells. It was a huge privilege – but exhausting.”
As well as filming, Reeve was also writing the book of the series, which created its own demands. “My original plan was to dictate my thoughts as we went, and get them transcribed, but from day one it was a disaster. I’d be in the truck saying [adopts Alan Whicker-ish voice] “As I gaze over the vast dunes around me...” and the crew would be in hysterics. So I had to write it on a laptop, balanced on my knees, as we went. I even learned to time my keystrokes according to the ruts in the road.”
It’s a typically self-deprecating anecdote, and illustrates why he’s such a good TV travelling companion. For – like ‘the great god Palin’ (his words) – Simon Reeve is impossible to dislike. When we meet at his publishers, he’s been up since 3am proof-reading the book that he wrote on the road, and confesses to being knackered.
But he is overwhelmingly friendly and interested. He buys me a coffee, says how flattered he is by Wanderlust’s attention, and how he’s “not a great traveller at all really – I got lost on the Tube today”. When a mobile rings, he pauses in mid-sentence and grabs at his ankle, muttering, “hang on, have I put my phone in my sock? I do that sometimes.”
He is, in short, utterly disarming – someone you can imagine anyone in the world warming to. And they do. I ask him how he deals with the extraordinary hotchpotch of humanity he encounters on his travels, and he shrugs. “I take the same approach if it’s a tribe in Paraguay or a Major General in Australia: I just talk to people as if I’ve met them through friends in everyday life.”
Such interpersonal skills were much in demand on the Capricorn journey. The line brought Reeve into contact with desperate gem miners in Madagascar, the threatened Wichi people of northern Argentina, torture victims in Paraguay and Aborigines living in squalor in the shadow of Uluru. “People think about the wealthy north and the poor south,” he says, “but in fact it’s the Tropics, this thick band running around the planet, which is home to the greatest concentration of human suffering.”
I ask him if any of these causes affected him particularly strongly, and he tells me about driving along the border fence between South Africa and Zimbabwe, watching Zimbabwean border-jumpers “literally tearing at the ground, trying to get under the razor wire. One guy said to us, ‘there’s no food, no money, the country’s collapsing. I’ve come across because I want to be a man, a man like you. I want a family, the normal things.’ My eyes were welling up.”
Reeve has a background in investigative journalism – he wrote the first ever book on Al Qaeda, three years before 9/11, and was a government advisor in its aftermath – and in Capricorn he undoubtedly tackles serious topics. He says that nobody can ‘travel blind’ these days, and talks about using his adventures as a kind of Trojan horse to cover burning issues that would otherwise never get air time on the BBC.
But the series is still a romping good travelogue, in which he gets to go sandboarding in Namibia, eat penis soup in Madagascar and fire an Afrikaaner’s AK-47. And then there are the travel icons, with which Capricorn is amply endowed: Chile’s Atacama Desert, Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – all are on the line or nearby.
The Kalahari was a personal highlight for its sheer natural beauty (“it’s not a traditional desert, it’s more like an overgrown orchard really”) and for the experience of meeting the San people.
“I don’t want to romanticise them – Laurens van der Post did that 50 years ago – but they are extraordinary people. They have a symbiotic relationship with the lions. They call them their cousins. And there are a lot of lions about! One night I was out at 2am with an upset tummy and a shovel, and I could see all these eyes out there on the edge of the torchlight. My heart was going ‘lions, lions, lions’ while my head was saying ‘hyenas’. I still don’t know which they were.”
Well, maybe they were lions, and maybe they were hyenas – but either way, I can’t help feeling neither of them would really have gobbled up Simon Reeve. It would be like, well – eating Palin.
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