I think the older you become, the more you pine for places you know, in your heart of hearts, you’ll never visit again. I think that’s the same for any traveller, any explorer, any adventurer. There are certain countries I may never cross the border to again. I might not look out over the Bismarck Sea from Papua New Guinea again; I might not gaze across the Yamuna River towards the Taj Mahal. But sometimes, it’s the rather unspectacular things that leave a lasting impression — stumbling across tribespeople in the Amazon, or a simple meal after a day in the field that replenishes every last ounce of your body. I think that’s what travel is really about.
And we should remember that everything, everywhere has its own beauty and wonder. Personally, I’ll always come back to diving what many people regard as the most spectacular reef of all, the Great Barrier Reef. It astounded me then as it astounds me now. Raw, natural beauty, with a presentation and imagination that not even computer software could achieve.
Closer to home, I’d actually like to head back to Ireland soon. I sometimes feel I’ve exhausted the dramatic destinations without truly appreciating what we might regard as the more accessible ones. Simply from a zoological point of view, Ireland is at the very edge of the continent and that makes it interesting. Land-based ecology has moved to that furthest point and then it stops. So for that reason, there are many things Ireland has that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s not people’s first choice for making natural world programmes, but the Skelligs, off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, is a wonderful, wonderful place. And the chapel on Skellig Michael is one of the most haunting locations I’ve ever been to. Perched on a pyramid rock, battered relentlessly by the Atlantic, one wonders quite how the monks who lived there survived.
The world is certainly a far smaller place than when I started in my career 60 years ago. Anyone can go anywhere these days with enough money. With the extraordinary advances in aviation, there’s nothing to stop you being anywhere on the planet within 48 hours.
But I’ll always want to keep within the gravitational boundaries of the Earth! I think, in centuries to come, our take on travel may take on solar proportions, but for me that’s of little interest. Unless you can feel, breathe and envelop yourself in the geography and nature of an area, I’m not sure there’s much point going there.
The longest I spent in the field was four months, charting the orang-utan in Borneo — a wonderful, proud creature that has encountered and continues to encounter an immense threat to its very existence. We were looking at how orang-utans interacted and how they looked after their families. It was at a time when I had a young family back home, and being away for so long was very difficult. Travel is a wonderful, enriching experience, but only when you’re there with the people who mean the most to you.
Next, for me, is China. I’m examining dinosaur fossils found near the Great Wall. After that, I head to the Amazon to work with spiders — filming them making their webs, in 3D.
One of the most startling changes to have confronted us in the past 20 years has been eco-tourism. Many people view it as a negative thing, but it’s been a saviour to countless habitats and species. Without it, the Galapagos wouldn’t remain the pristine jewel in the Pacific, because the Ecuadorian economy is so heavily reliant. And the same can be said for the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Without the monetary benefits, they would easily have died out. We must stay open-minded to travel, and very aware of the benefits it brings.
Sir Attenborough is one of the world’s leading authorities on wildlife and evolution, having committed over six decades to his passion for the natural world.
The 86-year-old, who started 2013 with three TV series on air (Africa, Galapagos 3D and Natural Curiosities), has penned almost 30 wildlife and nature books, as well as having numerous species named after him. They include one of the world’s largest carnivorous plants, Nepenthes attenboroughii, and Zaglossus attenboroughii, an echidna (mini-anteater).
A former controller of BBC2, he lives in Richmond.
Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)