Having touched down in over 60 countries and written four travel books, John Gimlette is a highly experienced travel journalist. A regular contributor to a number of nationals including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph he is also a travel photographer as well as being a barrister. Earlier this week Impact sat down to chat with Gimlette about bed-bugs, philanderers and bear-trappers.
Gimlette’s first experience of travel, and one that subsequently whet his appetite for future excursions, occurred at the tender age of 17 when crossing the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway – an extraordinary journey which took a total of eight days, with only three stops per day.
Beginning in Nakhodka near Japan and ending in Moscow, Gimlette was “spied on, admonished (for talking to the locals), and half-pickled by the Soviet soldiers.” After completing such a challenging and bizarre trip where he could neither wash nor eat any hot food, Gimlette says he “felt that anything was possible.”
Confessing to be someone who easily gets lonely on the road and is happy to team up with just about anyone, he has consequently met some odd characters on his travels: “Over the years I found myself travelling along with drunks, bums, philanderers, a fascist lawyer in Paraguay, bear-trappers in Labrador, and a homeless tramp in the Scottish Highlands.” Perhaps the most interesting
character of all however, came in the form of a man called Fridge, an ex-cannabis farmer who guided John along the Berbice River in Guyana: “As a guide he was superb, and had a nose for the 18th century”. Along the way Fridge had proved a dab hand at pointing out sites of interest and remaining debris from the aftermath of the great Berbice slave revolt in 1763.
As well as meeting shady characters, Gimlette has stumbled into his fair share of shady situations when travelling, particularly as his destinations usually wind up to be parts of the world “without fluffy towels.” Constantly stumbling into misadventure, John admits to being “mugged by a Corsican pig” as well as finding himself “amongst a herd of buffalo on the edge of the Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania.” Yet ironically he seems to think that his inability to look dangerous is what often causes him the most trouble: “In Bolivia, customs officers left me in charge whilst they went shopping” and in Thailand, “the navy…recruited me on a patrol of their frontier with the surly Lao-Pathet.”
“Look out for travel writing competitions that will help you get noticed. Start writing articles before you build up to a book, and get another job to have in the background.”
Of all the countries that Gimlette has travelled to, for him, Paraguay holds the most fascination. In 1982, on the eve of the Falklands War, Gimlette happened to be working on an estancia in Northern Argentina. As the hostilities got under way, he crossed the border into Paraguay. “It’s remarkable in many ways; it has its own architecture, its own music, its own art and its own indigenous language (Guarní)” He adds that during the Paraguayan War of 1865, “they took on all their neighbours at once (including mighty Brazil). It was the bloodiest war mankind has ever known, with 80% of Paraguayan males being killed. The people are as tough and resourceful today as they were back then.”
Everything that I have been chatting to Gimlette about is exhilarating, but I am curious to know what the biggest reward is in the life of a travel journalist. “Obviously the prizes (The Shiva Naipaul and now the Dolman Travel Book Prize) have been very encouraging! However, it’s a rather transitory thrill. There’s no doubt that the best bit of any book is the travel itself. I’m not going to lie on my deathbed and say I wish I’d never been to any of those places – although I’d probably skip North Cyprus next time. It looks almost derelict.”
I asked Gimlette to spill the beans – what’s the secret for someone considering a career in travel journalism? “Look out for travel writing competitions that will help you get noticed. Start writing articles before you build up to a book, and get another job to have in the background.” After absorbing all of John’s adventurous tales I was feeling truly inspired to jump the next train to the back of beyond – instead I settled for the more pragmatic approach by typing up the interview, and wistfully dreaming of a career that would lead me on a road just as exhilarating.
Photo of John Gimlette