A modern explorer, Simon Reeve is the Michael Palin of our generation. Having grown up on Palin’s exploits himself as a child, Simon became more interested in the outside world than the one in the classroom.
As Palin first went into other disciplines before becoming a traveller, Simon initially began writing about terrorism in the 1990’s. While working as a post boy, he had the privilege of being mentored by the chief investigative reporter of The Sunday Times. His first eye level experience of the perils of modern terrorism was “my tracking and subsequent interview of a pair of South African Neo-Nazi’s who were on a visit to Britain”. This was to whet his appetite for dangerous and unpredictable situations.
The man with the biggest gun usually leads the biggest gang.
In 1998 Simon published a warning about Al Qaeda in his book, The New Jackals. After 9/11, the subsequent explosion of media interest in Simon’s work lead him on to the BBC to make such programmes as Meet The Stans, House of Saud, Places That Don’t Exist, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn/Cancer, Indian Ocean and most recently a one hour documentary on Cuba. His current project, one of many, is a three part documentary on Australia, to be released this summer on BBC 2.
Considering Simon’s experience, his views on current events in West Africa should be heeded by current policy makers as well as future leaders of this country. “In the vast under-populated regions of the Sahel, the man with the biggest gun usually leads the biggest gang. What many also fail to realise about this region of the world is how disconnected it is. The past history of tribal loyalty not necessarily allying with that of the recognised government is decades old.” Simon was particularly struck by the galvanising effect that a preacher with a Koran in one hand and an AK47 in the other could have on a man.
As well as terrorism, Simon has meticulously catalogued the effects of wildlife extinction, mining, deforestation and the destructiveness of palm oil plantations. For those wishing to help protect these environments his advice is: “Contribute to the local society, get the money into the pockets of the local people wherever you travel, rather than fill the cash registers of the resort bar”.
Compared to the supposed golden age of the ’60s, travel is vastly more affordable. Students must grab hold of this opportunity.
Further to this, Simon joked that the cheapest way to fund travel abroad is to “get in on his profession”, i.e. get the BBC to pay. His more serious advice indicated that the choice of destination has the greatest effect on price, with his example of Cambodia being cheaper than Thailand. Other avenues include volunteering in such programmes as VSO, Nottingham’s own Study Abroad programme, as well as the affectionately named WWOOF-ing, Willing Workers on Organic Farms.
The one piece of advice that Simon stressed vehemently was “the need to leave the hotel and gain some real foreign experiences. The cost of travel as compared with the supposed golden age of travel in the 1960s is vastly more affordable. Students must grab hold of this opportunity”.
When asked about the role of travel journalism in particular, Simon explained that “to me, my job is to document foreign cultures for those who cannot experience it”. While he currently derides journalists who review the best five star hotels, he does accept that with advancing age certain ‘luxuries’ are more sought after, maybe even by himself. Another thing that draws the ire of this veteran explorer is the supposedly “common occurrence of writers passing off second hand experiences as their own”.
Simon’s vision for the future of his profession is rose tinted. He sees that “an honest and accurate description of life on our world will only grow more intense and personal with the currently ever-increasing population of 7 billion people”. His advice to those who feel they need to write about our world is echoed across the industry; “badger people for work, build a large portfolio, make every sentence count, try to be original, volunteer and most of all be tenacious in getting what you want.”
My final question to Simon, whether I could come with him on his next project, was evidently a joke, though I half hoped that it would be answered in the affirmative. Instead he is training up his son, rather than me, to be his bag carrier on the next far flung expedition.