Colin Freeman
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 02 August

The World According to Colin Freeman

The Sunday Telegraph's chief foreign correspondent gives us his intriguing take on the world of travel

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Mountains and deserts mainly: jungles might have rather too many insects.

First travel experience?

My first travel trip alone was cycling from Edinburgh to the Lake District with a pal when I was 14. Not sure kids would be allowed to do that these days…

Favourite journey?

The rail journey from Dakar in Senegal to Bamako in Mali is one of those classic train trips, although not the Orient Express in terms of comfort. Two days at a snail’s pace, 45 degrees C, and carriages often shared with crates of onions and garlic. But plenty of time to meet fellow travellers – both locals and backpackers – and a great way to nose into the African interior.

Top five places worldwide?

Hatra, northern Iraq. Ancient sun temple near Mosul, like an Acropolis in the middle of the desert. Vast, spectacular and rather spooky – it was used as the backdrop to the opening scenes of The Exorcist.

Band-e-amir, central Afghanistan. Six beautiful mineral lakes, with water so clear you can see about 40 feet down, and a jagged Lord of the Rings-style mountain backdrop.

Imlil, Morocco. Lovely little village on a river that acts as a base camp for the Atlas mountains.

Baalbek, Lebanon. In the Bekaa Valley, and a stronghold of Hezbollah, whose flags are everywhere, but you can still get a great glass of Lebanese red.

Dohuk, northern Iraq. One of many beautiful mountain towns in the Kurdish north, which is far safer than the rest of the country and should be a great tourism draw one day.

Special place to stay?

The Auberge Tangaro hotel, south of the main surfing beach at Essaouria, Morocco. Lovely candle-lit dining room, and rambling villa-style suites that come with complimentary cats and dogs.

Three items you always pack?

Spare mobile – pre-paid sim cards are very cheap worldwide these days.

Satellite phone. No foreign correspondent should be without one.

Salt, sugar, tea, coffee etc. I pilfer them from fast food outlets at airports, great for hotels where room service isn’t brilliant.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Foreigners’ exit visa, Iraq. Not exactly proud of it, but without it, you can’t leave the country. A remnant of Saddam’s time.

Passport stamp most like to have?

No particular passport stamp, but would love to do the hitchhike trip from Morocco down through Mauritania to Senegal, along the edge of the Sahara.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Opening the mini-bar in any new hotel room. I always like to see what’s in it, whether I drink anything or not.

Window or aisle?

Window.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

My old translator in Iraq, Staff Colonel Mohammed Kadom, was a fine guide, drinking companion, bodyguard, and driver, even if his car was a 1981 Nissan.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

Best was an airline tuna sandwich after being released from six weeks as a hostage in Somalia. Tasted wonderful after weeks of goat and rice.

Worst was several pints of home-brew beer in Mopti, Mali. Powerful and almost instantaneous laxative effect.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Most surprising: Bossaso, northern Somalia, where every second person you meet seems to be a government minister.

Never really disappointed by anywhere – they are all pleasing in their way.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Back to Bossaso, northern Somalia, where I was kidnapped.

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

My first visit to Morocco, aged 22. A very exotic culture, yet just two hours’ boat ride from Spain. My travel hero is probably my friend Richard, who proved far better at dealing with Morocco’s numerous hustlers than I was.

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

I never listen to music on the road, although anything by the Bee Gees takes me back to Iraq, where Col Mohammed had a tape of their greatest hits in the Nissan. He did assume they were women, though.

What do you read ?

Usually books or novels about whichever country I am in.

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

Faith in humanity is often restored by the local journalists I meet who have often been jailed/tortured/threatened, yet accept it as just part of the job. Faith in humanity is occasionally lost by travelling on the bus in London, where lots of people seem to lose their manners.

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

Being able to count in Arabic (I can’t do much else). “Elith-fayn wa sabaa-meea khamseen dinar” (the price of a beer at the shebeen near my old hotel in Baghdad) somehow sounded much more impressive than saying “2,750 dinars”.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Not bartering hard enough.

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

Probably by waffling on about previous travel experiences. And then knowing when to shut up…

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

During my first trip to Iraq in 2003 – still my greatest travel adventure.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

The scent of dairy produce that you get in French and Spanish supermarkets. That, and DEET insect repellent

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

The 1950s, probably. The benefits of modern medicine, but long before any sense of globalisation really kicked in.

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

Kabul, with its mountains and woodsmoke smells, Beirut, with its bars and restaurants, and London, with its clubs and open-all-day gastropubs.

 

KidnappedColin Freeman is the chief foreign correspondent on the Sunday Telegraph. He has reported from Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein and was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2008. His account of that experience,Kidnapped: life as a Somali pirate hostage, is available now on Amazon.

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