Simon Reeve explains how his new series goes beyond the stereotypes to present a fresh perspective on the land Down Under
Simon Reeve's Australia was recently voted top TV programme by you, the Wanderlust reader, in the 2014 Travel Awards. Here we re-publish our interview with him about the series.
Popular TV presenter Simon Reeve has a new series starting this week. It's focus is Australia, with the press release promising 'a riveting journey that blends a travelogue with current affairs, history, culture, wildlife and conservation' offering 'unique insights into life in glorious Australia.'
As an Australian, I always approach such series with a certain trepidation. Documentary series about my home country tend to follow a universal template: a bit about the deadly wildlife, big landscapes, a couple of larger-than-life characters and a bit of chin-stroking about the aborigines.
When I put this to Simon Reeve he just laughed and said: "Oh my God! You’ve seen the series!"
So, is your series different?
There’s certainly some of the familiar, old sights and scenes because, in some cases, these familiar sights are the reality, Australia is quite large and it’s quite important to capture that.
Having said that, we start the series by saying that this is a land that us Brits think we all know. We have been overwhelmed, quite frankly, by endless Australian propaganda which comes in the form of soap operas, Kylie Minogue and Four X adverts. I thought we should go and see if it’s true or whether Australia has changed from the old images I certainly have of it being an outpost of Europe on the other side of the planet.
Has it changed?
Rather than being European, Australia has actually become very Asian. More than 10% of the population classify themselves as Asian-Australians. It’s not just demographically. Australia looks to Asia now politically and culturally much more than it has done in the past. And it’s connected with Asia economically.
So that’s a fundamental shift and we certainly cover that. We also went to see Australia’s first Muslim ladies AFL football team – which you don’t see in your normal Aussie documentary.
So you've tried to find new angles on the old cliches?
Yeah, we try and put a slight spin on things. We cover some of the biting, snapping wildlife, but in a new way. We went out with a venom hunter in Cape York. It’s a great title but obviously he’s a very professional scientist who goes out sampling the most venomous creatures in the world to come up with treatments and medicines for some of our most intractable human ailments.
What do you think will surprise viewers most?
A lot of Brits don’t quite realise the scale of Australia’s resources boom. You can’t really avoid it while you’re there. Lots of foreign folk are taking advantage of that, going there and earning a fortune. We went to see a former bin man from Hull who is now working as a truck driving instructor outside of Perth and earning a whopping good salary and has a house with a pool and a boat in the garage.
You touch on some of the environmental issues facing Australia too...
We go into a lot of detail about the environmental challenges that Australia is facing of which there are many, particularly with invasive, alien species. Goodness knows how you’ve managed to get as many as you have. Australia has a spectacular problem with invasive species. So, rather than going out and filming kangaroos in the Red Centre, we’re looking at camels and the world’s largest wild herd which roams around in the centre of Oz, causing no small degree of havoc to vital and traditional waterholes.
And you look at the issues facing Australia's aborigines...
We do cover and incorporate, in some part, the story of Australia’s first people. I certainly can’t claim that we come up with profound solutions and answers. That is asking too much of a simple, foreign traveller. But we do go into much more detail, I’d like to think, than other shows have done.
We filmed in Cape York with a young woman who is leading her community in Arakoon, near Weipa. She is an amazing woman. She is trying to get everyone there off sit-down money by getting them all to start up and run their own mining project.
Before I came to the UK, my wife and I bought an old Falcon and drove around Australia. One of the things that shocked me was the aboriginal situation. As a Sydneysider, I thought it was something the government was sorting it out. It was difficult to comprehend how bad things are.
That’s the modern surprise, the ongoing shock that you have as a local encounter the problems, or as an outsider. It’s really quite gob-smacking. For me, particularly, because I’ve had the privilege of visiting many countries where indigenous people have collided with modern, industrialised civilisation and I’ve never seen as profound a problem as I have in 21st century Australia, which by some accounting, is one of the richest countries in the world. The situation in some remote aboriginal communities is horrific and defies easy explanations and simplistic understanding.
What is Australia doing wrong? What are they doing in these places where you’ve seen more success with integration or co-existence?
Well, those are two slightly different things aren’t they? I’ve seen both. And it’s certainly not a case of "These people have got it right and Australia has got it wrong.” It is often a spectrum on which I’d put Australia at one far side, simply because of all the factors; the relative wealth of the country and yet still there’s the suffering of the people.
In Paraguay, indigenous people were being shot on organised hunting expeditions, even into the 70s. Now, as a country, people there have rediscovered a respect and a love for their first people and recognise them as a national treasure, in a way that Australia and Australians haven’t quite. Aboriginal people in Australia are thought of by many urban types as being almost something for advertising purposes, something that speaks of the deep soul of Australia, rather than as a people who need to be incorporated into the national thinking in every way and on every level.
So, who’s getting it right? Who’s getting it wrong? Who’s co-existing? I think Brazil, for example, has got it spectacularly wrong in the past but gets it right, in many cases, more than Australia does now.
But it’s not just a State that has to do this, it’s people as well, and I think there’s been a dearth of decent leadership among aboriginal communities that has condemned many of them to long-term suffering. It’s not just something that white liberals can blame on themselves or on their country. There has to be steps taken by everyone involved to resolve it.
Australia’s mining laws haven't really helped the situation by saying “You have the topsoil but we own the State and if we want to mine your land we will, but we'll pay you for doing so. Here’s a cheque that you can spend as you wish and, by the way, you take control of your community.” This 'sitdown money' is a recipe for poor leadership and abuse and addiction. You see welfare dependency in aboriginal communities in Australia that is worse than anywhere I’ve seen in the world.
Funnily enough, it’s similar to what I’ve also encountered in former mining villages in south Wales, for example. People who’ve lost a sense of purpose and meaning, and that’s a horrible thing, a horrible situation to be in, particularly if you’re a young guy with plenty of adrenaline, looking for meaning in life.
You’ve been to Australia a few times now. You were there filming The Tropic of Capricorn. You were back again for your series about the Indian Ocean. What changes did you notice between trips?
With Australia being the size it is, I went to almost completely different areas of the country for this series. But I had been to Perth before. The buildings are going up at a rate. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country. You can see the impact of the resource boom most dramatically here. The amount of money that’s flowing through Western Australia is enormous. You see more restaurants opening, you see flashier foreign cars driving around where previously you would have seen old local Holdens. People talk about the foreign holidays they’re going on, thanks to the money they are earning through the boom.
There were times when I was travelling in Australia where I felt like a hick cousin, frankly, and that’s not the experience that most people expect to have there. They expect to say “Hey I’m coming from civilised, cultural old Europe’ and, really, times have changed and Asia is now the dynamic region on the planet and Australia’s right there, selling to Asia and on the front line of it.
What about the often-heard claim that it’s easier to find culture in a yogurt than in Australia?
That’s an interesting one. 'Culture' is probably one of the few things that we didn’t really explore or go into. I didn’t step into a gallery on this journey. It’s not really that sort of series. The culture we experience comes more from the people. I did have a wine tasting lesson from Bill Hardy, great-great grandson of Thomas Hardy, which was fantastically enjoyable. That was about as close to the culture as I got.
I certainly get the impression that having been there six years ago for the first time and coming back now, I do get the sense that Australia’s cultural cringe is diluting and diminishing quite dramatically. Far fewer people, when we’re talking with them, apologise. Fewer wives apologise for their husbands by going “Oh dear, you're going to think we’re terrible”, that sort of thing. Which is good to see.
The country is just becoming more confident. You pitch up, as we did, on a remote farm in the outback and you’re not meeting hicks who have not had contact with the outside world. You’re meeting people who are very connected and have got a stack of The Economist sitting in the lounge as reading material. Australian culture isn’t something we explore, but we did get a sense of it.
On that point, Australia has become a fiendishly expensive country to visit compared to what it used to be. Is there enough there to justify people spending 24 hours on a plane?
There’s definitely enough there to justify going. Yes, it is a long way. Yes, it is expensive and you’ve got to be careful how you spend your money there. There is the flash side of things. But there is still a cheaper way of living that does involve a bit of budgeting and supermarkets and not buying barramundi or the finest foods in the restaurant every night.
You’re not going to get fantastic bargains in Australia, but you can travel around on a budget. There are ways of cutting costs. Don’t commit to things too far in advance. Car hire companies, for example, will often do sudden discounts and you want to be flexible and be able to take advantage of them. We saved a couple of thousand dollars at one point by shifting from one car hire company to another at the last minute, just by asking around at the airport.
So it is possible to travel affordably. But you’ve got to be careful about it. Just don’t go there thinking that you’re going to Laos or somewhere where your foreign funds will go much further perhaps.
What are the must-sees?
That’s really hard. That’s like asking what are the must-sees in Europe. Australia is just so damn big. Personally, I thought Karijini National Park, Kakadu National Park and the Great Barrier Reef are sights that stand up alongside any on planet earth. Cape York, The Kimberley. I thought the Blue Mountains were spectacular.
So there are sights all around Australia. Decide what you want, You’ve got great options on the cities. Fantastic options on the beaches. And you’ve got an interior just begging to be explored, for an adventure you’ll remember for ever.