Steve Backshall
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 23 July

The World According to Steve Backshall

Adventurer and TV personality gives us his 'deadly' take on the world of travel

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

I guess an ocean, because after a few weeks on an expedition I taste all salty and smell of fish.

First travel experience?

My folks took me traveling all over the world as a babe in arms, so I have no idea. My fondest early memory was my first safari in Zimbabwe, I guess I was about six years old.

Favourite journey?

Picking up sticky buns whilst passing through Betws Y Coed on the way to Snowdonia, with tent/ropes/fell running shoes/mountain bike or kayak packed in the back of the car, knowing adventures are ahead.

Top five places worldwide?

The Himalaya

The Amazon Rainforest

Alaska

Indonesia

Skye and Knoydart

Special place to stay?

Under the stars on a painfully silent rinsed clean desert night.

Three items you always pack?

Snake stick, superglue, budgie smuggler speedos...

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Hmmmm... Bhutan? Or Cambodia in the early nineties when I was probably the only non-UN foreigner in the country?

Passport stamp most like to have?

Pakistan; the gateway to the Karakoram.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Books; I'm incredibly careful to pare down my packing to the last gram, then add ten kilos of novels and animal guides!

Window or aisle?

Window. Not only for the view, but so you can sleep against the bulkhead, and no one wakes you up climbing over you in the night.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

I'm lucky enough to have a couple of cameramen and soundies I'd happily travel with forever, and I spend half my travelling life in their company.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

In a small town in West Papua, I had barbequed prawns the size of lobsters, there was way more than I could eat for about fifty pence. Worst was rarete, a dish in Flores... Dog meat boiled in its own blood and coconut milk.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Bali. You expect tourist hell, yet there are still so many genuine everyday customs, so much charm and places where you can still find the 'real' Bali.

Most disappointing nowadays is South East Asia as a whole. I spent so much of my formative traveling years there and adored it, but now bicycles have been replaced by squealing mopeds, oil palm has ravaged the forests, and mass tourism is eating away at the cultures and the genuine hospitality one used to receive there.

Where do you NOT want to go?

I've had to go to Vegas a few times, and to me it is everything that is wrong with the modern world. Gambling, vice, excess, huge gaudy tourists glued to the all-you-can-eat-buffet, a loathsome city sucking water out of the desert to fuel salacious greed. Funnily enough, I'm not that keen to go back!

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

My parents inspired me to travel. My real hero though is Alfred Russel Wallace, great naturalist and adventurer of the late 1800s.

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

I listen to a lot of podcasts, comedy, science and natural history. Generally I like new alternative music and am not a nostalgic, but 'No Rain' by Blind Melon takes me back to hitch-hiking across the States when at uni.

What do you read?

Lots of Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery, along with Durrell, Wallace and Darwin. And I always have a stack of insect, bird and reptile guides that I learn cover to cover! It's dull, but you have to be prepared.

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

Alan Rabinowitz, the mind behind the big cat charity Panthera. I've never met anyone so inspiring, he had the power to move mountains, and move hardened scientists to tears.

We were up in the Arctic circle to film polar bears, and a local took exception to the fact that we hadn't used him as our guide. He spent every hour of the day out on the ice with his bear hunting dog, shooting his rifle to scare away the bears. We'd travelled three days to get there, and spent crazy amounts of cash, but there was very little we could do. Nearly lost it with him!

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

Well I speak pretty good Japanese (I spent a year there studying martial arts) and Indonesian (learnt whilst writing the Rough Guide to the region). 'Nihongo ga mada heta desu', and 'Saya Belum lanca Bahasa Indonesia' both mean: 'I don't speak the language that well' and can convince people to slow down when they talk to you. I also know lots of rude words, but I'm not telling you that in a family magazine!

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Well it's not so much a habit, but I have a rampant metabolism because I do so much exercise. It means if I don't eat for a few hours I start to get grumpy... Not ideal when you're on an expedition.

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

All of the funniest times of my life have been spent in snowbound tents. It's inevitably all boys together, and there is a lot of farting, burping and rude joke telling. My personal contribution is to improvise Trivial Pursuits; we've played it for weeks on end making up questions from our heads!

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

Any professional traveler must have the kind of personality that is endlessly enthused. If you're looking at a sunset and saying, "It's not as good as the one I saw in Morocco", or lounging at a Cornish beach and saying, "It's nice, but Fiji was better", then you should be in a different line of work. Which is a long winded way of saying I'm always happy!

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

I guess the heavy musty smell that follows a tropical storm.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

Definitely in the late 1800s, when Darwin, Wallace, Bates and their contemporaries were opening up a whole new world of natural sciences. 

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

It would have the insane culture and history of Jerusalem, the beauty and surroundings of Vancouver, and the food of Goa. And can I have the girls from Sao Paolo too?!

We have five copies of Steve Backshall's new book Looking for Adventure to give away. Just answer one simple question for your chance to win...

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