Simon Reeve is a London-based author and broadcaster, who has spent much of the last few years travelling around little-known regions of the world for a series of television documentaries. We spoke to Simon about his amazing experiences. His popular travel documentary Equator airs on Saturday, 12 May at 10pm on BBC Knowledge (StarHub Channel 407).
1. You reach the milestone age of 40 this year. Given your many 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.
2. You’ve visited some of the world’s most isolated and misunderstood countries, but also some of the most beautiful – where else is on your wish list?
I have been to more than 110 countries which is more than half the number of countries around the planet. I’ve been very lucky to travel as much as I have. I do look at it as a privilege and I’m very grateful but there are still lots of countries I would like to visit. I would like to go to Canada, West Africa – Senegal, particularly. I haven’t travelled much to Central America; I would love to go there. New Zealand, too.
3. Do you ever just want to go on holidays, lie on 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 of two. I’m really keen to encourage people to travel in a more adventurous way, not to get lured or 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.
4. What is the next project you are working on?
I am just finishing a massive travel series called Indian Ocean where I travelled to 16 countries around the Indian Ocean. We started in South Africa, travelled up the east coast to 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, which were memorable and magnificent every single day we were on the road. 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!
5. What does your mother (or father) say to you when you depart, and return, from your adventures? Does she say the same to your photographer brother?
My father died many, many years ago, and it’s a great regret of mine that he never got to meet my wife, or see my travel shows. I would love to be able to show him my adventures. My mum is still alive and worries every moment I’m away, but I think my mum worries every moment I’m not in the house with her. Sometimes she rings up when it’s a bit cold in London to remind me to wear a woolly jumper. I have to say to her, “Mum, I’m a big boy now; I have done a few things on my own. I have written a couple of books for crying out loud, I know when I need jumper on!” She says exactly the same to my photographer brother and will do so for the rest of our lives. She is our mum after all, and it’s one of her responsibilities to care for her boys and we love and appreciate her for it, of course. Thanks Mum!
6. You contracted malaria will filming Equator in Africa. What medical treatment, if any, could you access at the time? How long did it take to recover?
Yes, I did contract malaria because I was an idiot and I 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 was able to get treatment was 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 treated with a drug derived from Vietnamese sweet wormwood, which is an effective treatment.
I was very sick for a week and ill for many, many weeks after that; I never really felt the same. It’s easy to forget how dangerous malaria is and what a threat it is to human beings. It 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.
7. Singapore is very close to the equator, a mere 100km or so away, but you left it out of the documentary. What comment could you make about this country, in the context of the countries you filmed for the series?
I’m very sorry we missed Singapore out of the documentary series, Equator. It was a major omission for which I apologise but you need to be a bit closer to the equator, frankly. A hundred kilometres didn’t cut it. The idea with the series was to follow the line wherever it would take us. and the whole point was to take us to places a bit off the beaten track, like the Congo and Borneo which 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.
8. 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. Is spontaneity lost?
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 the left to right across, 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.
9. You’ve visited over 100 countries, can you count off one country for each letter of the alphabet? What letter, if any, is missing?
Equator airs on Saturday, 12 May at 10pm on BBC Knowledge (StarHub Channel 407). In Equator, Simon Reeve takes a thrilling 40,000-kilometre journey meeting headhunters, piranhas and malaria along the way.
For most people, the equator is just an imaginary line running 25,000 miles around the globe. However, the countries along the equator are among the most troubled on the planet. It is the region with the greatest concentration of natural biodiversity and the greatest concentration of human poverty and political turmoil.