To celebrate the luxury travel specialist Kuoni opening in branches of John Lewis we were invited to spend the evening in the company of the charming, affable and easy-on-the-eye BBC travel presenter Simon Reeve. Having spent many evenings watching the lovely Simon balance the beauty of travel with the sometimes grittier reality (including a recent episode where we saw him visit a Cape Town drug dealer den) we felt honoured.
As an adventurer, TV presenter and New York Times bestselling author, he has travelled extensively in more than 110 countries. His recent BBC TV series include Indian Ocean, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and Tropic of Cancer. So it probably was safe to assume he would have a few interesting stories to tell. And as we sat with other travel bloggers, Mrs O Around the World and Laura from My Destination he became the extremely good spirited target of a whole hours worth of our questions.
In the flesh, Simon is as youthful looking as he appears on television (and probably one of the youngest looking 39 year olds we’ve ever met), completely devoid of arrogance despite having achieved so much and is clearly passionate about green issues and responsible tourism. We learnt about his near-death experiences, his collection of bizarre travel souvenirs (including a sword used for beheading) and the infamous headless goat polo incident.
In an hour here’s what we learned about Simon Reeve..
He fought hard to get where he is today – Simon grew up in West Acton, London and after a period of not knowing what to do with himself career wise he saw an advertisement in The Sunday Times for a job in the newspaper’s post room. While not exactly the giddy heights of journalist fame, he got a foot in the door. He sorted the post by day and researched and wrote stories at night and at weekends. Through a combination of hard graft and ambition (and no doubt bags of charm) he managed to get his first big break as a junior reporter. His next big break came when he found two foreign terrorists on the run in the UK, and he began conducting investigations for the newspaper into subjects such as arms-dealing, nuclear smuggling terrorism and organised crime.
He’s been banned from bringing back any more travel souvenirs to his flat. He’s built up quite a collection of unusual gifts and souvenirs from around the globe and now his wife has put her foot down and said no more! He also said he’s had trouble getting swords, spears, tribal shields and a treasure chest back through customs in the past (naturally). Stand-out souvenirs? A tribal beheading sword that has several notches to mark each ‘usage’ and an official Somali diplomatic passport.
Unsurprisingly he’s had a few near-death experiences. He said that Somalia was the most dangerous and volatile place he’s ever been but there’s also been quite a few times he’s feared for his life. A sniper shot over his head while filming in Mogadishu, he was on a boat that nearly overturned in a storm in Mozambique, he’s been surrounded by a pack of hungry cheetahs and he also nearly died of Malaria five years ago in Gabon, West Africa. It was at the start of his adventures in the tropics and after contracting the disease became ferociously ill, had a temperature of nearly 40 degrees and was vomiting blood. Luckily he was able to get life-saving treatment in time.
Having a family has changed his outlook on travelling to dangerous places. He now has a two year old son who he obviously adores. He said travelling to dangerous places when he has a family has changed his perspective on things – now the paternal instinct kicks in and he realises he has to keep himself safe for his son’s sake too.
He loves eating weird local delicacies. He said it’s one the quickest and easiest ways to immerse yourself in the local culture. Most unusual foods ever eaten? Penis soup (and not just any penis – quite a hefty one from a zebu apparently), grilled squirrel, a camel hump, curried fruit bat, sheep’s eyes, dried caterpillars and grilled llama.
Overall though (and weird delicacies aside) the cuisine he’s been especially impressed with is Ethiopian food.
He has a fondness for Somaliland and spoke very highly of it. Although it’s not officially recognised as a state (Somaliland declared independence after the overthrow of Somali military dictator Siad Barre in 1991) it has a democracy, police, armed forces, a president and border guards. Contrast that to the volatile neighbouring Somalia which is a completely collapsed state, run by warlords and is the most violent country on the planet. He said that Somaliland is quite an incredible country with incredible people and really admires the way they rebuilt the country from scratch with nothing.
Strangest experience while travelling? Playing polo with a corpse of a headless goat in Kazakhstan (which is probably now a well known story amongst his fans). This was actually where his true love of travel first started “It was just so exotic, so different that that was when I knew I wanted to be well travelled.” He also spoke fondly of the time he was ‘adopted’ by a tribe of former head-hunters in Borneo.
Green issues are close to his heart. Simon is an ambassador for the nature conservation organisation WWF, and has been awarded a One World Broadcasting Trust award for an “outstanding contribution to greater world understanding”. How did he feel when when filming things he felt strongly against? He said it was a tough question but he gauges the seriousness of the offence and then reacts according. The situation would have to be put into context – for example what is unacceptable in ‘Blighty’ (as he affectionately called the UK) could be considered normal or not a priority in certain cultures.
He believes tourism when done right can aid countries and not harm them. He believes that “there are many beaches, reserves, sanctuaries that wouldn’t exist without tourism”.
Even though he’s travelled to 130 countries he still longs to go to Japan and also Russia, he has a fondness for the Russian people although he light-heartedly admitted they could probably drink him under the table.
He’s believes there’s never been a better time to become a travel writer. Simon said with the rise of blogging and self-publishing it’s much easier to get yourself noticed. Any advice for budding writers/reporters? “Just get on with it, learn how to tell a good story and work until your effort eventually pays off”.
If he swears on camera – even a word like ‘bloody’ – he’ll have to personally reply to every letter of complaint. Since this rule has been imposed he laughingly said he’s been much more careful about his language as “the complaint letters can reach into their hundreds.”