Interview Words : The World According To ... | 05 September

The World According to Chris Morgan

Chris Morgan gives us the bear facts about his world of travel

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Mountain all the way! Something has always drawn me to them – actually, not something – I know exactly what it is – it’s the wildness. It’s the same thing that draws bears there too, and I get that.

First travel experience?

Camping around southern Spain with my mum and dad when I was five years old. I remember two things: the sound of crickets, and somehow getting a bike for Christmas. My folks had managed to hide it in the back of the tiny camper for several weeks before the big day! My travelling bug was born.

Favourite journey?

From the UK to the Canadian Rockies when I was in my early 20s, and onwards to Alaska. I went to work on a grizzly bear research project near Banff National Park – capturing and collaring bears, then tracking them through the wilderness. I covered about 2,000 miles on foot and learned everything I know about grizzlies. Plus had a whirlwind road trip to Alaska with my buddy Hugh that I will never forget. “The Grizzly Boys” were born.

Top five places worldwide?

Are you kidding? You said this would be easy. I like so many places for so many reasons. Part of me (I discovered recently) loves chilling on a beach in Mexico with a gold-fish bowl of margarita, but then there’s the side of me that craves zero company in a wild mountain meadow many miles from anything human. Given a choice I’d take the latter any day, but here’s a stab:

The Alaska Peninsula – pound for pound, more giant, wild bears here than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s brown bear heaven, and a place more isolated and inaccessible than most.

Svalbard – like the Swiss Alps sliced off and plonked in the sea. Add a sprinkling of polar bears, walrus, and millions of shorebirds and you get a place so dramatically awe-inspiring it is hard to beat. I’m a northern guy who likes northern places – Svalbard is (nearly) at the top of the list for me.

South Georgia Island – I guided an expedition here a few years ago on a trip that also took us to the Antarctic Peninsula. All of us went to experience Antarctica, but came away in love with South Georgia. To me, it was like stepping into Noah’s Ark – the second you hit shore you are surrounded by 100,000 king penguins, Antarctic fur seal pups nipping at your ankles, and albatrosses swooping overhead.

Alaska’s Brooks Range – certainly one of the wildest places that I’ve ever been, and a place that most people have never even heard of. It’s the most northerly major mountain range on earth and a cross between the Scottish Highlands on steroids, the Himalayas, Siberia, and the Yorkshire moors.

The Pacific north-west, where I live – Every day I think about how lucky I am to have ended up in Washington State. Ocean one side of my town, mountains the other, Canada 20 minutes up the road, and Seattle 90 minutes south. It’s a great mix, and a place that seems to breed happy, warm, friendly people.

Special place to stay?

Alladale Lodge, Scotland – my friend Paul Lister owns this place – incredible setting, wildlife aplenty, service to make you feel spoiled-rotten, and single malts by the fireplace.

A tent on any mountain ridge.

Three items you always pack?

Moleskin notebook (you never know when inspiration will kick in).

Water treatment (you never want giardia more than once, but I’ve had it twice. Nasty).

My camera, or at least some kind of recording device. I love to be in the wilderness, but I also love to share the experience with others.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Malaysia. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it, because this was our first real BEARTREK destination – we went there to film and support the work of my friend and colleague Siew Te Wong who has dedicated his life to saving sun bears and their tropical rainforest habitat on the island of Borneo. At that point I had been dreaming of making BEARTREK a reality for seven years, and here it was, happening.

Passport stamp most like to have?

Mongolia – I’ve been dying to see this amazing country for years. I think I would love the grand landscapes, the welcoming culture, the strange wildlife. I wouldn’t go without my motorcycle though – I’m just yearning to belt across the dusty roads, with the sun setting behind distant rugged peaks.

Guilty travel pleasure?

A camping pillow. With a noggin this big you need some serious support. Why do I feel guilty about that?

Window or aisle?

Window every time – the world from 35,000 feet I will never grow tired of. Plus, I’m 6’4'' tall so once I’m crammed into one of those tiny seats, I’m there to stay.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Bren, my lady. Fun-loving, adventurous, open-minded, inquisitive, spirited, and beautiful.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

Best: Real Mexican tacos from a roadside stand in Jalisco. Seriously.

Worst: Guinea pig paws (one step worse than the whole guinea pig), Ecuadorian high Andes.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Most surprising: Chile – more profoundly beautiful and diverse than I could have ever imagined. Astounding food, happy people, and long. Really, really long!

Most disappointing: I’ve yet to be so disappointed in a place that I’d put it in writing!

Where do you NOT want to go?

I can’t think of a single place I’d turn down. Vegas maybe?

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

My mum was, and still is, a big traveller. When she was little more than a teen, she grabbed her little sister, jumped on a Vespa in Wigan and rode it to the south of France in search of adventure. I get my spirit for adventure from her. 

I’ve always been a huge Shackleton fan – his endless quest into unknown territory and his ability to lead people there... and back, was really formidable. 

And Sir David Attenborough. As a kid I watched all his shows and longed to get to those wild places – remember Life on Earth? I was 11 and glued to it every week. It’s why I became an ecologist. And here we are, over 30 years later and he is still inspiring me and millions of others. Wow – I just listened to the Life on Earth theme tune on YouTube – it all came flooding back!

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I have a song for just about every place and time – I’m big on music and want to build emotional, epic soundtracks into the wildlife conservation films we’re working on. It’s where the goosebumps come from. James’ Born of Frustration is BEARTREK for me. I discovered Jonny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails tune Hurt on the road to Prudhoe Bay in the Alaskan Arctic during filming of Bears of the Last Frontier. Not uplifting but definitely a big, emotional sound for cruising through that crazy landscape on a motorbike.

Another favorite biking tune to crank is Puscifer’s Queen B, and I love the world sound of Kula Shaker – Govinda takes me back to when I first started thinking about conservation through films – beautiful east Indian sounds.

What do you read?

The scientist nerd in me wants to learn facts from the books that I read so I have to work hard to break-away from that into the realm of fiction (still working on it). I also love dipping in and out of books and usually have six sitting on my bedside table – including these right now: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell; Shipwrecked on the Top of the World by David Roberts; and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. And a real must read is Bears of the Last Frontier by Chris Morgan. Oh yes, and I usually have the latest copy of Newsweek in my bag.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

Wow – all the time. I’m very lucky because my work leads me to amazing people on a daily basis. Mostly biologists and conservationists who work hard everyday to make the world a better place for all of us.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

Gracias/shukran/merci/danke/grazie/arigato/kamsahamnida/takk/Teşekkür ederim. Hmm, what’s 'thanks' in Mongolian? Must learn that one.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Wow – this is like a session with a shrink. Letting my laundry build up to the point of it becoming a mild emergency.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

I’d regale them with tales of bears and other wild animals from distant lands until making it to the top of the list for who was going to be eaten first.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

I often hark back to a trip I made solo in my camper van to northern Spain when I was 19. I was on the search for bears and wolves in the Cordillera Cantabrica – a beautiful, lush, wild mountain range that seemed wilder than anything I could have imagined in Europe back then. My camper was bright yellow and covered in friendly graffiti penned by my friends and travellers I’d encounter along the way. It was the best ice-breaker you can imagine, and the whole adventure became a journey of self-discovery in many ways, setting me up for the things I’m lucky enough to be doing today.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Rotten socks. I hike a lot.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

Late 1800’s in NW North America – during the gold rush era, pushing into unknown territory in a land awash with wildlife, mountains and adventure.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Fun question! Santiago de Compostela + Dublin + Vancouver = grand historic buildings and back street tapas bars + fun-loving warmth and music + mountains and ocean.

Bears of the Last FrontierChris Morgan is a British conservation ecologist specialising in international bear research and conservation. His account of tracking North America's three bear species (brown bears, black bears and polar bears) Bears of the Last Frontier, is available on Amazon now.

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