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Interview: Simon Reeve on his BBC documentary, Equator

By: Katie Robert

London-based author and broadcaster Simon Reeve has spent the past few years travelling around little-known regions of the world for a series of television documentaries. Katie Roberts asked him about his amazing experiences and why Singapore didn’t feature in his popular documentary, Equator.

You reach the milestone age of 40 this year. Given your well-documented adventures, are you surprised to have made it this far?
Not really, because although I have lots of extraordinary adventures, the world is fundamentally a safe and welcoming place, and a lot of my adventures have taken place in very welcoming and beautiful countries. Although I have done some dangerous things, I have usually thought that I was going to make it through and survive.

You’ve been to 110 or more countries. Which places are on your wish list?
I’ve been very lucky to travel as much as I have. I do look at it as a privilege, and there are still lots of countries I would like to visit. I’d like to go to Canada, West Africa – Senegal, particularly. I haven’t travelled much in Central America; I would love to go there. New Zealand, too.

Do you ever just want to go on holidays, lie on a beach and drink cocktails at happy hour? Or is that your idea of a nightmare?
Certainly not a nightmare; I just get bored after doing it for a day or two. I’m really keen to encourage people to travel in a more adventurous way, not to get seduced into just sitting by a swimming pool with their iPod on. It’s not a sensible way to spend your cash. It’s not going to leave you with a holiday you are going to remember, and there are better ways to spend your money. Get out there and explore; eat local, drink local, meet local and have adventures you are going to remember forever.

What’s your next project?
I’m just finishing a massive travel series called Indian Ocean in which I travelled to 16 countries around the Indian Ocean. We started in South Africa, travelled up the east coast of the continent, around India and back down through Indonesia to finish in southwest Australia. It’s the most exotic and extreme adventure of my life and I’m still recovering from the experiences I had.

I have no idea what I’m going to be doing next; it’s really up to the BBC. I’m chatting with them about a couple of projects – fingers crossed I’m able to persuade them to let me go on the road again!

You contracted malaria while filming Equator in Africa. Tell us about that.
I contracted malaria because I was an idiot and forgot to take all my anti-malaria medicine. It was a very “muppet” thing for me to do. I was incredibly sick, with a temperature of almost 40 degrees Celsius. I was vomiting blood and felt like I was going to die. I survived because I was a white TV presenter travelling in Africa so I was able to access treatment that wasn’t available to locals. I was very sick for a week and ill for many, many weeks after that. It’s easy to forget how dangerous malaria is and what a threat it is to human beings. It has killed half the human beings who ever lived; it’s our number-one enemy. Although the world is a safe place, it’s important for people to take precautions when they travel abroad.

Are your programmes largely unscripted and unplanned? Do you travel by the seat of your pants, like many adventurers, or is this impossible when travelling with a crew?
Programmes are unscripted but they are not unplanned – they are quite unlike other TV series; we don’t go out with a script. Nobody goes out ahead of me and does a reconnaissance of where I’m travelling. For lots of TV programmes, they’ll go, “Right, we’ll set the tripod up here and the presenter will walk from left to right, in front of camera.” We don’t do that and I prefer it that way.

We aren’t travelling just by the seat of our pants because we are travelling for the BBC and it would be extremely expensive if we didn’t make any plans in advance. But spontaneity is certainly not lost – it’s a very important part of the journey. We generally turn up somewhere and start filming as we arrive to try to get a genuine encounter with people. I have a big thing about not having a camera set up somewhere inside a hut or house. When I walk in, I want the camera to follow me so I get a natural reaction and an actual meeting with whomever we may find.

Singapore is very close to the Equator, a mere 100km or so away, but you left it out of your documentary, Equator. Why?
I’m very sorry we missed Singapore, but you need to be a bit closer to the equator, frankly – a hundred kilometres away didn’t cut it! The idea with the series was to follow the line wherever it would take us – and to places a bit off the beaten track, like the Congo and Borneo that are featured in documentaries less regularly.

Amongst countries on the Equator, Singapore is an exception. It is well run, you all are very rich compared to most people on the planet and you have lives that are actually very privileged in the context of the life of most human beings who have ever lived. I hope people remember that.

Equator aired recently on BBC Knowledge (StarHub Channel 407). Stay tuned for news about a Singapore release for Simon’s latest series, Indian Ocean, which is currently screening in the UK.