Adventurer and citizen of the world Simon Reeve comes to Cardiff hoping to get everyone off their feet and exploring. His advice to Carl Marsh? “Wear a seatbelt.”
With the tour that you’re doing, is it just about creating wanderlust for everyone that comes to see it?
There has got to be a bit of that, as we are living in the golden age of travel when people can just about do anything or go anywhere. It is a real opportunity for people to rack up some completely incredible memories. There is obviously a risk that we all get suckered into working our proverbial’s off all the time and not focusing on what really matters, so one thing I wanted to do was shake people a little bit by the shoulders and say “Come on, take your chance while you still can, get out there and enjoy life, take risks, do memorable things, push yourselves out of your comfort zones and bank some incredible memories for you and your family as a result!”
Is it best for people to just get off the beaten track when travelling, and just do it?
It doesn’t have to be although as is often the case, the further off the beaten track, the more memorable the experience will be, but you can also just do it locally. It’s not just about travelling to the other side of the planet. I’ve had some solid advice from people over the years about just explore where you live but doing it in a more adventurous, interesting, and memorable way. It is all about travelling and living with your eyes open, grabbing opportunities while you can and to push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you are on holiday, this can be as simple as not eating in a restaurant that has pictures of the food outside! Just challenge yourself a little bit.
For me personally, travel has brought the richest rewards to me, and gifted me some really incredible memories. That is what travel can do to a person, and that is what I am most keen to pass on to people through the tour. I have been very lucky and have travelled the world, visiting about 120 countries but nobody is more surprised about that than I am. I didn’t grow up like that, I didn’t go on my first plane until I started working; I definitely don’t take it for granted!
Has there been any destination that you have said no to for one of your shows, or is nowhere off-limits to you?
No place is off-limits to me but I am not the only person who decides where we go, the BBC has got to ‘ok it’. I generally come up with the ideas but within those ideas there are different places, riskier places, safer places and sometimes the BBC will say ‘that place’ is too dangerous and we cannot sanction you going there. But really though, there is no place that I would ever say “no” to going to; if we are allowed to go, then we would go. If we can get into a place and we can find people willing to host us and look after us, then we would head there. This is all based on me knowing that the world is a much safer place than most people think or fear. As long as you wear a seat belt, and take some basic precautions, you can go just about anywhere, and do almost anything.
People can become brain-washed with all this fake news, so do you take it all with a pinch of salt all the news that you read before you travel anywhere?
Well there is not a nuance, there aren’t as many dimensions to it. If you look at ‘our’ news about the world, lots of things are happening and we generally only hear the most dramatic and desperate, so if you watch the news you might think the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. I am not denying that there are important problems out there by any means and environmentally what we are doing to the planet is catastrophic, but there has never been a safer time to be a human being, and never a safer time to explore the world despite what people might think. I am very keen that people don’t live their lives on their knees, being put off fear and scare stories. I really mean it, if you wear a seatbelt, that is the single most important thing you can do when you are away travelling. You have got to use your common sense. If it doesn’t feel safe, then you walk. This is honed over time, and honed over experiences – you have got to get out there and do these things to build up that knowledge.
Surely when you were in Myanmar for your last TV series that aired, there must have been things you could not talk about whilst there?
No, there was nothing that we could not talk about because if we felt that it fitted and we could make it work, then we would have put it in. I filmed in Myanmar before with a Christian minority who had faced horrific human rights abuses, and in this series that I have just done, we filmed with the Shan people in eastern Myanmar who are mainly Christian. Their Christian identity isn’t the most important aspect for them but nonetheless it matters but that’s not why they are being persecuted. They want their own Shan state but the Burmese majority don’t want that to happen. Certainly, the persecution of Christians around the world is one of the biggest unreported human rights stories on the planet at the moment. There are hundreds of millions of Christians under threat, and not just in the Middle East, but into South East Asia as well. It is something that we have worked into programmes and I have just been filming in the Middle East, filming that very issue about Christian communities being wiped out, so I am very conscious of it, and it is something that we should never want to ignore. On the programmes I make, they are usually travelogues which blend in ‘light’ and ‘shade’. We don’t shy away from really serious issues, and that is partly because that makes for a more interesting journey. When you learn about a country you are visiting, you learn about the problems and the challenges it faces, you then get a more rewarding understanding of the place. A lot of people shy away from asking questions like “What do you believe in?”, they are reluctant to do it because they get all British about it but actually, everybody just wants to talk about those sorts of things. If you do it in a polite and open way, then you can have a more rewarding holiday and journey as a result.
This persecution of Christians series sounds very interesting, will this be airing soon?
It will be the end of the year and it will be a series traveling around the Mediterranean, which no doubt sounds like a lovely gig to get, and it is indeed and was fantastic to film but parts of it were filmed in North Africa which were quite tricky. So was the Middle East of course through Lebanon and Israel, into the Gaza Strip. There are lots of issues around that sea, I can tell you!
Well your shows do depict the pros and cons of each place you go to, and it’s not all about “what a beautiful place this is”.
We do try really hard to make it work like that; we try to mix in unusual stories from places, stories that people won’t have heard before, counter-intuitive stories to try and surprise people. We want to show how a country or region is really changing, frankly.
You said that you didn’t go on a plane until you had started working, so how did you get this opportunity to get into this line of work that you do now?
I had a slightly unusual route in that a lot of people that work in TV happen to have gone to public school, and Oxbridge Universities. My background is a bit more hopeless in that I left school with no qualifications and went on the dole. Leaving school was very traumatic time for me and I really, really struggled. It was a really horrific time in my life and I was completely lost and very low. I tried for a job as a white van driver and was rejected for that, even though I was the only person that applied, which really hurt! Eventually I got a job as a postboy for a newspaper and that is when my world began to open up. I would sort the post for hours every day but one day I had my big break when I was sent to find these two South African Neo-Nazis who were on the run in Britain.
I went and found them, as you do! So that was my first big break which led to me going on other jobs and which led to writing, where I wrote books on terrorism. That was ultimately how I got into TV because I wrote a book about al-Qaida before 9/11 that nobody read. When 9/11 happened, suddenly I was pushed onto the TV to talk about it. So that led to my little career really. Initially, the discussions that I had with the BBC, well, let’s just say there were some daft ideas such as me infiltrating al-Qaida for a TV series – not such a great idea! We then settled on making programmes in parts of the world that weren’t always on or were never on the TV. And that is what I have been doing for most of my time ever since.
Are you never tempted to do somewhere like the USA as the controversy that comes from over there is massive?
I’d love to! It is definitely one that we have talked about but I don’t just get to pick what I would like to do. I have to put forward ideas to the BBC and discuss them, they also have their own suggestions and priorities as the BBC works across different channels where they have people making different programmes, in different parts of the world. The BBC certainly wants to make sure that they are covering the world in different ways so I get to suggest places and ideas, and if it fits, and nobody else is doing it, and if I am very lucky, I get a gig.
My biggest passion is for telling stories about “Us”, our brothers and sisters on this planet. It has been an endless source of delight to me to meet exotic, unusual, eccentric, bonkers and wonderful people around the world and to discover our similarities as well as our contrasts, our differences. That is my favourite aspect of the job. I love the wildlife, I love the landscapes, I don’t even mind the food to be honest, as it is all different and varied but I do really love filming the environmental stories.
On your trips, what has been your ‘highest high’ and your ‘lowest low’ whilst filming?
That’s a great way of putting it! My ‘highest high’ for me was coming out alive from a prison in Honduras that was controlled by the inmates. We went in there to talk to gang members from some of the most dangerous gangs on Earth. To get in there we had to take a bodyguard. We were thinking “do we take a Special Forces guy” or some self-defence expert but no!
The only person that could guarantee our safety was the Bishop of the city of San Pedro Sula, he would be able to walk us into the wings of an inmate-controlled jail, and walk us out alive. And that was one of the most extraordinary places I have been on this planet. It was a cross between a sweat shop and something out of Harry Potter! It was hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into a small space but there were little cafe’s, barber shops, people making knifes, candles, clothes. There were all these gangsters inside the jail that were still carrying on activity as normal. We walked through there and it was one of the scariest and weirdest places I have been to. Coming out safely from there, was an epic high. We had felt like we had walked into the den of a lions and escaped alive. It was a really mind-opening place to go to, to see these people who had tears tattooed on their faces to depict how many people they had killed, and talking with them as human beings. One of them in particular was obsessed with telling us about this nativity scene that he had been building from recycled plastics, it was just weird beyond belief. When we got out of there we were on this mega high from what we had done and seen, and the fact that we had experienced and survived it.
The ‘lowest low’ was contracting malaria very stupidly because I wasn’t taking my tablets in Gabon in West Africa. Vomitiing up blood in the middle of the night, I thought I had Ebola; I was actually quite relieved to discover I had malaria! I had a temperature that was a fraction off giving me brain damage. I was hallucinating, I though Mr T. from The A-Team was in the room with me and looking after me! It was all very weird and horrifying and I thought I was going to die and that my life was all going to end there. That was quite a ‘low, low’. I was given a miracle drug derived from Vietnamese sweet wormwood and over weeks, I gradually recovered but I have never felt the same since!
Does your wife wish that you would have a career that kept you a bit more local?
[Laughs] Well I think she keeps on whacking up my life insurance! But in all honesty, she understands that this is the job and this is what I do for a living, as mad as it sounds, and there are much harder jobs out there as I am not away for ridiculous amounts of time, I try to limit trips to 3 weeks now.
So you don’t go for months on end then?
I’ve got a seven-year-old and he would be calling Social Services, haha. We cram it all in but it is a crazy ratio when you look at it, where we have 3 weeks of travel to make a few hours of TV. We have a small team though, and we travel ‘light’, or as best as we can.
When you say ‘light’ and with a small team, how small a team is it?
It’s three or four people for me.
I don’t usually take security and if I do, it is very, very rarely. We rely on local guides for expert advice. Often though when I am actually filming a scene, it is just me and the cameraman. I am just looking down the lens and there isn’t lots of people behind the camera, it feels intimate and I like it that way because I am trying to talk directly to the people who are watching. Three or four of us will travel out, which includes me. We don’t have a sound recordist, the cameraman does everything basically to his immense credit. I generally film with a guy called Jonathan and a guy called Craig, and whoever else will put up with me and is available! Their involvement is never fully acknowledged but they do the heavy lifting and the hard work. When I am walking forwards and nattering away to the camera, then they are going backwards carrying 14 kgs and trying to keep it in focus, it’s a hell of a challenge. Not everyone will do it and we are very lucky that they agree to be involved because they are some of the best in the business. We can’t go dicking around on the BBC licence fee for hours or days, we have to get the footage in the can and move on.
With the local guides, have any come to any harm from their authorities after you have left a location?
As far as we are aware, there was no impact in Myanmar but we are always conscious of these things. I have had situations where people we have met and have been seen on camera have been picked up by secret police after we have left. There was more than one occasion when they have known they were likely to face consequences as a result, and one guy knew that he would be arrested and beaten up, and he was in fact arrested and tortured after he talked to us! So I want people to remember this when they see the programmes because this is what people are prepared to go through to have their story seen and told. I hope it brings home to people the importance that some people attach to that power to have their voice heard, it’s still a very profound thing, and people are willing to risk their lives for people to learn a little bit about what is going on in their part of the planet. That is astonishing. So with that, there is this huge responsibility to tell their story to the best that we can for them.
To end, I guess your message to people is to just go out and explore the world, just experience it themselves?
As much and as quickly at they can! We must really want people to just get out there and enjoy what is possible on the planet. I come back to that point from the beginning of our interview, it’s the golden age, none of our ancestors could ever imagine this would be possible, it is a blessed time to be travelling!
An Audience with Simon Reeve, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, Thurs 20 Sept. Tickets: £27/£19.50 under-16s. Info: 029 2087 8444 / www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk