Simon Reeve: ‘At a Russian school the headmaster greeted us with a bottle of vodka. It wasn’t yet 9am’

<span>Illustration: Lyndon Hayes/The Observer</span>
Illustration: Lyndon Hayes/The Observer

The BBC’s great explorer Simon Reeve doesn’t like the word “adventure”. He pulls me up a couple of times over lunch when I use it to describe his trips up the Congo river, or into the Kalahari desert. “Forgive me, Tim,” he says, “but adventure is a kind of loaded term” – too many intrepid personal heroics, not enough culturally sensitive traveller, I guess. He thinks a “search for experiences” better describes his one-man quest to bring the world’s four corners into British living rooms. “As a species, we have a constant need for encounters and food and smells and sights that tweak our buttons,” he says. “We’re wired for new experiences and without them we sink into mental slumber.”

His expression of this philosophy, in London restaurant terms, is Jacuzzi, on Kensington High Street, three lunchtime floors of extravagant indoor vegetation and Italian high camp, a little like unexpectedly encountering Bruno Tonioli bearing a tray of canapes in a jungle clearing. Reeve has chosen it for our lunch for a few reasons. One because it sounded fun – he’s not been before. Two because it’s a “B-corp certified” restaurant, which means Jacuzzi adheres to the highest social and environmental standards, “super fucking right-on verging on worthy, thank you very much”. And, lastly, because it reminds him a little of a restaurant called The Vine, on Acton High Street, where his family used to go when he was a kid for a once-a-year blow-out. “It was also Mediterranean – Greek – with a very significant amount of foliage on the ceiling. So: I feel at home.”

As Patagonian gauchos and Indian Ocean spear fishermen and Aussie camel-herders have discovered, it’s impossible not to warm to Reeve. He’s all curiosity and emotional intelligence and grin. While Dean Martin reminds us over the speaker system of the multiple definitions of “amore”, he scans the drinks menu for a suitably primary-coloured cocktail – “I’ll have a Golden Age, why not?” he says and then insists on full eye contact – learned from a hundred far-flung toasts – when we clink glasses.

Of all the drinking cultures he has encountered, Russia’s was by far the fiercest, he says. “I remember arriving at a Russian primary school and the headmaster greeted us by opening a bottle of vodka. It wasn’t yet 9am.” He’s learned over the years, from painful experience, how to curtail serious benders without offending the locals. “My most effective line is: ‘In our culture, we always leave the bottle half full, for the next traveller,’” he says.

When he is not in Myanmar or Somaliland, Reeve is often to be found on stage, performing a live show, with chat and slides, the kind of thing that used to be the preserve of the Royal Geographical Society. The audience questions he often gets asked are about food – offal and insects, best and worst experiences. “The fact is,” he says, “we generally survive on fairly boring, crap food, partly because we always watch the licence fee budget. And it’s not true that the best El Salvadorean chef is to be found in a village in the back of beyond. If he’s any good, he’s generally left for New York a while ago.”

Reeve used to pride himself on being able to eat anything, but now he’s asking if his vitello tonnato or lamb ragu will contain onions. “It’s intolerance, not allergy,” he reassures the excitable waiter. “No epi pens.” For 15 years from 2006, he never lost a day’s filming to illness, despite mooching about in the most hostile environments on earth. In 2021, however, he came back from Peru and was in hospital with a temperature of 42C. Doctors thought he had an infection known as “Vietnamese time bomb”, from a melon-sized swelling on his leg. It was eventually downgraded to something a bit less apocalyptic, but not before he had been entirely flushed out with antibiotics. His “beloved gut bacteria’’ were a casualty. He discussed, he says, the possibility of faecal transplants with his doctor, to fast track the return of his iron constitution. There was talk of hooking him up with the local queen of shit swapping, “apparently an overweight woman in her 40s who existed on an exclusive diet of fast food”. Tests suggested, however, that the process wouldn’t work for him, so he’s stuck with an onion intolerance.

Our starters arrive, and it seems a moment to change the subject. Reeve’s most recent BBC series – he’s done 30 – was a four-part mission in search of authentic wilderness which, among other places, took him to glaciers in Argentina and in search of bonobo monkeys in the equatorial rainforest. The idea, he says, was to offer a hopeful take on the planet, locating areas that were still untouched by humans.

In the event, his team slightly underestimated the presence of humanity: “But what do we expect with a planet of 7 billion?” The positivity came instead from “seeing humans living in relative harmony with their planet”. The great thing about meeting remote indigenous people was that “in a place where nature is overwhelming and challenging, the inclination was not to see other people as a threat. It was more: come on in!”

Reeve gets criticised both for his air miles and for being a middle-aged white man abroad. He makes a robust defence on both counts. First, that journalism, reporting how people live, “is among the most moral reasons to travel” and second, tourism, “done responsibly and appropriately, remains the best way to protect places that desperately need dosh”.

I’m interested that, even sipping his exuberant cocktail, he describes himself as “glass half empty”. He has suffered from depression since his wayward teenage years – he skipped school to drink with his mates and left with no qualifications. He lives these days in a house on Dartmoor with his wife and son, and he’s not proud of the fact that he’s “definitely the most tricky person in the family”. The Thisunderstanding of his own complication and vulnerability, conversely, make him the best of listeners. “I can [meet] an Australian Gold Coast biker gang or get drunk with the president of Moldova,” he says. “The one gift I’ve been given, I think, is that I’ve got a lot of emotion about people in their situations; that’s what I try to communicate.”

He fell into this life after his dad, a teacher, encouraged him to apply for a job in the post room of the Sunday Times. From there, given his charm and determination, it was a short step to being sent to, say, infiltrate neo-Nazi groups in Lincolnshire; in his 20s, before anyone had really heard of Osama bin Laden, he had written the first book-length account of al-Qaida; 9/11 meant he was much in demand. “So much in life is luck,” he says. “Traditionally, newsrooms were a good home for people like me; they could let young people take chances and risks.”

In his stage show he reflects on his rapid transformation from “lost, suicidal, unemployed lovelorn teen”. Having witnessed rites of passage embedded in cultures across the world, he despairs of how a generation in this country seems doomed to delay a proper start in life, largely because of the insanity of the cost of somewhere to live.

He has to be careful in expressing too much of this in political terms in his programmes, but he hopes the truths he finds, about community and co-operation and sustainability, are self-evident.

It’s pretty clear, in this country, here he says, that we lack politicians who can articulate something like a national mission statement. “Like: what the hell are we here for? What goal are we working towards? If we think about it, that has to be: we want to hand over a better world to our kids. Yet we seem to be doing completely the opposite.”

Towards the end of our lunch, Reeve warms to all these themes and plenty more. It’s a bit like watching his programmes over the years, I suggest – his journeys seem to have become more rather than less urgent. How does he avoid getting jaded?

“Honestly, I’m like a goldfish,” he says, laughing. “Wherever I am, it always feels like, ‘Oh my God. I’ve never been anywhere like this before!’ I hear stories about how cynical some presenters get after a few programmes. That’s not me. I can never wait to experience the next thing.” On cue, he offers a minor example of this fact with the arrival of a dessert called nice pear, a name which does scant justice to a massive bowl of fruit and cream and fondant chocolate. “Wow, wow!” Reeve says, delighted. “Look at that.” And then, with each spoonful, he adds plenty more wows for good measure.

Simon Reeve: To the Ends of the Earth tours the UK from 25 April