The World According to Monty Halls

Fresh back from his great escape to Ireland, Monty Halls gives us his refreshing take on the world of travel

4 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

It has to be ocean really! The perfect combination is where the mountains hit the sea though – all my favourite places around the world seem to have this. Cape Town, the west coast of Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand – they all have that grandeur about them when the land and sea combine.

First travel experience?

The first I can remember is camping trips in Gozo with my mum, dad and big sister. We were living in Malta at the time, and we’d all pile into the family car (a Fiat 600 – it was like a world record attempt) and rattle across on the ferry to Gozo. I remember hot sun, white sand and clear shallows, not a bad effort as I was three at the time! Amazing the impressions these early trips make on you…

Favourite journey?

Strangely enough it’s really close to home. I think driving down to the south Devon coast, car full of stuff, when it’s a warm spring day, just brings the memories flooding back. That palpable sense of excitement as a kid as the beach gets closer, massive scraps with my sister, getting stuck behind a tractor/caravan/little old lady and virtually exploding with frustration, the dog being sick etc etc. I’ve done this journey countless times since, and somehow the excitement has never faded.

Top five places worldwide?

Blimey, where to begin? Again, close to home is greatly under-estimated. The west coast of Scotland, Ireland, and Devon and Cornwall are right up there. Aliwal Shoal off the coast of Natal in South Africa is one of the most exciting reef dives on earth, the archipelago of Palau is stunning, and New Zealand never, ever lets you down when you visit. British Colombia is very special, the Galapagos is everything it says on the tin, and a little bit more. Shall I just say five places I haven’t been yet, as in my mind they’re awesome – Cocos, Komodo, Bora Bora, Bikini Atoll, and Ningaloo Reef!

Special place to stay?

There’s a place called Ponta Mamoli in Mozambique that is really special – a series of simple beach huts on the fringe of mile after mile of sugar white sand, with rolling Indian Ocean breakers only metres away. The Cary Arms is a real hidden gem in Babbacombe in Devon if you fancy something closer to home.

Three items you always pack?

Tragically one of them has to be the laptop. I really enjoy writing things down as I travel, and there’s no finer feeling than finding a really good coffee shop and letting rip on the keyboard. My camera is one of the other ones – even an imbecile can take great images nowadays. And finally, if it’s travelling in the UK, I always pack the dog.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

It’s got to be South Africa in 1993. I was posted out there with the Royal Marines to aid the peace process after Nelson Mandela was released. A fascinating time, you could feel history evolving around you, and as a nation they have done wonders since.

Passport stamp most like to have?

Probably Komodo. The diving is superb – you’re pretty much at the heart of the Golden Triangle, the place of maximum marine diversity on earth. And every small boy wants to see a dragon, but this small boy more than most.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Have I mentioned the laptop? All this travel writing on it is very commendable, but watching the box set of The IT Crowd night after night probably isn’t. Oh, and coffee. I’m a hardcore addict.

Window or aisle?

Window. I’m fantastically anti-social when I fly. I just think the gamble of starting a conversation with someone who turns out to be a total spleen is too big a risk to take. I mean, you HAVE to sit next to them for however long it takes. Having a window there means one less person to ignore.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Ruebs (my dog), closely followed by my missus Tam, with my best mate Bodders hot on our heels. One is an oasis of grace and calm, one is massive and chases squirrels, and one is inadvertently funny and politely laughs at all my stories. I’ll leave you to guess which is which.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

I had a curry in a roadside tin shack in Tamil Nadu once that was probably the best meal I’ve ever eaten. The worst are often the most expensive aren’t they? Pick pretty much any motorway services if you want to pay an astronomic sum of money for a plate of heinous sludge.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

I was invited into Soweto in 1994 – a very different place to the tourist-friendly destination it seems to have become today. This was at the height of the township wars, and yet we were treated with great kindness and courtesy. There was also a vibrant, defiant feel to the place – a monument to the human spirit really, pushing on amid some fairly horrendous scenes. It was a celebration of life. The most disappointing place was Bimini in the Bahamas, because we got ripped off and it was essentially crap anyway. Not that I’m bitter.

Where do you NOT want to go?


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

Shackleton was the man. Everything a leader should be, and one who made the most of his time in a great age of exploration. Dr David Lewis is another – when you read “Ice Bird” – his book about circumnavigating the Antarctic in his yacht – you realise what a journey really is.

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

Love Bruce Springsteen. That’s always been the backing track to my travels. Sigur Ros when I’m feeling mellow – if ever a band created music that personified a place (Iceland, where they originate), it’s them. And recently, much to my surprise, Adele. Because I am very young and plainly down with the kids. One Day Like This by Elbow takes me straight back to the Outer Hebrides.

What do you read?

I read ferociously when I travel. I think it’s one of the few times in life when you really get a decent opportunity to read – on planes, on trains, in hotels etc etc. My favourite book is Papillon – if you’re ever in a tough spot in life, just read it to realise that your problems are really fairly insignificant. Read a terrific book recently called The Other Hand. If you want to laugh like a loon, read Tim Moore – a travel writer with a touch of comic genius. Oh, and anything by Monty Halls. He’s brilliant that bloke.

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

Wow, big question. I met Mandela in South Africa, albeit very, very briefly. I can’t really say anything about him that hasn’t already been said, but some people are just born into their destiny. That man saved a nation from turning in on itself. The dive boat operator in Bimini made me lose my faith in humanity, as well as several thousand dollars. Not that I’m bitter…

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

I know masses of swear-words in Greek, as I worked briefly as diving instructor out there. Aside from that my languages are pretty much non-existent (classic Englishman). I do know a good phrase though, told to me by an Aussie underwater cameraman on a shoot in Australia. “Mate, there are two states to be in. P****d, or Queensland”. Says it all really.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

I can go into my shell a bit. I do like my cave time, and if that means lying on a bed watching CNN in a faceless hotel room, I’ll do it. Having said that, I generally try to get out and explore – the effort is never wasted.

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

I do enjoy telling a good story. A great many of them are exaggerated, and feature me in a central and heroic role. A mate said to me recently “It doesn’t matter where you are, but if you’re with the right people, with the right attitude, then the setting is just wallpaper.” Wise words indeed.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

Probably in Connemara filming the last series of Great Escape, although the west coast of Scotland runs it close. It felt terrific to actually be doing something useful out there (working as a whale and dolphin conservation officer), and there really are very few welcomes in the world quite like an Irish welcome. It was a bit of a coming of age really, the culmination of everything I’d ever wanted to do.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Wet foliage! This came as a bit of a surprise to me, as it happened when I was riding a big inflatable inner tube down a river in Jamaica with some tourists. But suddenly the banks crowded in on us, the light turned a dark green, and the smell of jungle was overpowering. It took me straight back to a few jungle expeditions I’d done when I really started travelling.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

Probably the turn of the last century. This was the era of the greats – Scott, Shackleton, Mallory. It was a time of the epic conquests, when nations vied to compete the globally recognised firsts. What a time that must have been.

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

Cape Town, Bristol, and Edinburgh. Although obviously no-one on earth could afford to buy a house there…

Monty HallsMonty Halls’ Great Irish Escape starts Thursday 11 August on BBC2. The boxed set containing all three ‘Great Escape” series will be released in September. You can pre-order you copy on Amazon now.

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