Intrepid travel journalist Simon Reeve has been to almost 100 countries.
My first assignment was hunting down terrorists. I started out as a post boy for a national newspaper, The Sunday Times, where I worked for eight hours a day running errands, doing chores and photocopying. Eventually I managed to persuade the foreign editor I could do more. He sent me off to find these two South African neo-Nazi terrorists who were on the run in the UK. That was my big break.
Some of my favourite countries don’t even exist. I’m most proud of the passport stamp for Somaliland. While Somalia is in a state of relative anarchy, ruled by warlords and the Kalashnikov, Somaliland is a democratic, stable, secure and inspirational place with traffic lights and a tourism minister. But it isn’t officially recognised as a country by any other nation on the planet.
I’ve raved about Bangladesh in the past. You’ve got the sixth-biggest population in the world crammed into an area the size of England and Wales, and up to 60% of the country can flood every year. You get this intensity of life and colour there and the people put up with the most extraordinary amounts of hardship, yet remain upbeat and jolly and peaceful.
We need to do more as a species to stop climate change. Dubai is probably the greatest example of human folly. It’s a totally unsustainable city in the desert where they’ve built a ski slope, for god’s sake! We need more voices to say ‘Hang on, this is wrong, this is crazy. We can’t go on living with that sort of carbon footprint’.
Travel and tourism aren’t just a force for ill. If people didn’t pay to go to national parks in Borneo to see the orangutans, the parks would be turned into palm oil plantations. Tourism has a role to play in creating and sustaining the biodiversity of our planet, because tourists generally do give a damn about the world.
I really like Cuba. It is hard not to. It’s sultry and warm and lovely, and it’s in the Caribbean. They have amazing alcohol too.
I love airline food. Although I was once on a flight in the former Soviet Union where our in-flight meal on an eight-hour flight was an apple and a hard-boiled egg! It was slammed down in front of us and that was it.
I’m amazed at how oppressed people in cut-off regions ‘get’ the power of the camera. The Chin people are one of the most persecuted minorities in Burma and were keen to have their voices heard. They really have a sense that they need someone from outside their part of the world to tell their story to the rest of the planet. My guide risked her life to take us there, because she knew what was needed for her people.
Madagascar is one of the most extraordinary places on the planet. It’s packed with amazing animals, people, wildlife, flora and fauna – like the Galapagos Islands but on a much bigger scale. The people have had thousands of years cut off from the world to develop their own eccentric customs and traditions.
The president of Moldova taught me how to fish. He got me completely drunk on fine Moldovan cognac or brandy – I can’t remember which, I just remember the bottle diminishing. That was one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had. It makes me nauseous just thinking about it.
I do feel guilty about my carbon footprint. I’d have no soul if I didn’t, particularly when I’m seeing its impact on Bangladeshis and people in southern Egypt. I’m seeing it regularly on my travels now. It’s something I do struggle with. I don’t travel long-haul for pleasure – only for work. I suppose the justification is that we’re trying to raise awareness of some of the issues affecting our planet. Unless people know what’s happening to the world, unless they know how special and how in need of protection it is, then it’s going to be hard to spread the message that climate change is the biggest threat to our species.
Fleeing the Burmese army under the cover of darkness was quite scary. I’ve heard about other TV crews who pretend to be in Burma when they’ve just been creeping through the bushes in northern Thailand, but we really were there and we certainly felt under threat. That’s all part of the story of life in Burma. Being there for just that short space of time really did make me realise, in some small way, what it’s like for people to live there under its military regime.
I don’t have many qualifications. Travelling has been an education for me. I’ve been to nearly 100 countries but I’ve still got places I’d like to go to.
Reeve has travelled to more than 90 countries, circumnavigating the globe for the BBC series Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and Tropic of Cancer.
His books include: The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef and Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, (a New York Times bestseller, published in 1998).
One Day in September, the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, is also an Oscar-winning documentary movie. shootandscribble.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)