When early cartographers attempted to make sense of our planet, their illustrations of scale and distance ultimately defined much more than the lay of the land. From explorers conquering new territories to pilgrims seeking heavenly salvation, travel lies at the core of human existence; shaping human evolution is in our DNA.
Clocking up much more than the number of miles covered, epic journeys can result in a significant shift of mindset – questioning values, bestowing knowledge and generally reminding us what it feels like to be alive. Stepping out of a familiar context provides a fresh perspective, something we’re desperately lacking right now.
For TV presenter Simon Reeve, who has visited some of the world’s most wild, remote and culturally diverse places, the absence of travel has left a gaping hole in his life. “It’s fundamental,” says the dromomaniac, whose new BBC Two series, Incredible Journeys, airs tomorrow at 8pm.
“Travel is part of our make-up; we need it in our lives, and we lose it at our peril.”
The show reflects upon some of the epic adventures Simon has had to date, and how – whether challenging or life-affirming – every encounter has left a mark. It’s an inspiration to heal months of frustration by planning our own grand tours – to cast out inertia when this is all finally over and get out on the road. Human memory is short, making it easy to forget all the wonders that lie beyond our four walls.
Looking back over his continent-hopping career, Reeve shares reflections on some of the unforgettable trips that have mapped his personal world.
The journey… that changed my view of humanity
Spending time with the San Bushmen in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was an astonishing experience. They are such a sophisticated version of us; such proficient and perfect human beings flourishing within their environment. Existing alongside the nature they love and care for, they don’t try to dominate it. They don’t think of themselves as creatures who are at the top of the food chain; they think of themselves as being people who exist within the food chain.
It made me much more willing to anthropomorphise life on this planet – not from the view that animals are like us, but that we are, of course, just animals. It is completely sensible that creatures on four legs will have empathy and feelings just as we do, because we come from the same stars that exist on the same planet and have evolved along similar lines.
The San helped to teach me this by telling me about their cousins – the maned lions of the Kalahari – and by regaling stories of hunters who could literally tell by the hairs on their neck how close lions were. I realised how connected we are with nature and the web of life, and how we are just one more animal on this planet.
The journey… that provided the wildlife encounter I’ll never forget
I have travelled to 130 countries, visiting some of the most spectacular wildlife reserves around the planet and witnessing glorious wildlife encounters. But from the moment I landed at the Kicheche camps in Kenya’s Mara Conservancies, I was stunned and blown away. It was as close as I’ll ever get to arriving in the Garden of Eden; breathtaking in the abundance of life.
My friend, Paul Goldstein, a photographer who owns the camps, had been saying I should visit for some time. We had these ridiculous moments, where we would look out across the plains, seeing a dozen different spectacular animals. It felt as if somebody was saying, “Keep the camera rolling”. It was the greatest stage for wildlife I have ever experienced. I could tell you about the lioness and her cubs behind my tent at Kicheche Valley Camp, but even that was beaten by watching a family of cheetahs hunting. I had never seen anything like it before, and it is absolutely at the top of my list when it comes to the planet’s best places for experiencing incredible wildlife encounters.
We must keep reminding travellers that places like the Maasai Mara Conservancies represent our last chance of protecting iconic wildlife. They desperately need tourism to provide local communities with an incentive to value and care for these animals and their wild spaces.
The journey… that challenged me culturally
Madagascar was unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. You have elegant, old African women, gendarmes wearing kepis, and ludicrously battered Citroen 2CV taxis driving alongside carts pulled by zebu, a type of horned, tropical cattle. Visually it’s an amazing mix, and culturally it’s very different too. Cut off from the rest of the world, life has evolved in different ways. But it’s not just creatures swinging from trees; humans have had centuries of isolation as well, allowing their imaginations to run riot and create some exuberant, complex beliefs.
One that stuck with me was the practice of removing ancestors from their tombs and redressing the bodies in shrouds. It was that attitude to death that I found culturally very different from our own.
My guide explained that this was a country where death is more important than life; death is the chance for a humble human to become a powerful ancestor. Even a young Malagasy will spend quite a bit of time thinking about where and how they want to die. They’re not fearful of it; they embrace it. As somebody who culturally and emotionally really struggles to talk or think about death, they gave me a completely new take on the most fundamental aspects of human existence.
The journey… that made me fear for my life
It’s a bit obvious, but I’ve been on several front lines, including Mogadishu, in Somalia, which was a world away from some of the glossier journeys I’ve been on. It was a very frightening and horrifying experience, most of which we were able to capture on film.
We were staying in a guarded secret military base, full of mercenaries, spies, a contingent of French foreign legionnaires on a rescue mission to extract hostages, and one strange Japanese tourist. It was all surreal and bizarre.
At some point, suicide bombers managed to get over the wall and one blew himself up. Hearing the blast and knowing an attack could come at any point, from any direction was terrifying – particularly when we had to evacuate because a whole barrage of rocket propelled grenades were being launched.
Somalis are extraordinary, beautiful, wonderful people, and I found the suffering heartbreaking. What surprised me most was my willingness to face danger when the camera was rolling. I think it’s partly down to ego, and partly because you need to get the job done. But it also taught me how lucky we are. Britons, even during the pandemic, are still among the luckiest humans that have ever existed.
The journey… that made me cry with sadness
I was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on one of my first big TV travel adventures. We were outside a café late in the evening having a couple of whiskies – because you couldn’t do anything anywhere in Central Asia without drinking – so I was probably already a bit emotional. I noticed someone going from plastic table to plastic table, begging for money – which wasn’t unusual. But when I looked up and realised it was an elderly woman with white hair, suddenly she represented the tragedy of the collapsed Soviet Union. She was a Russian who had been trapped in Central Asia, and then pensions had become worthless in the crisis that followed.
When she turned around, all I could see was an image of my grandmother, who had died a couple of years earlier. She had been an inspiration to me, but sadly never got to see me make travel programmes. I missed her desperately.
In that moment, it was as if she was there; a ghostly apparition. I cried later, but at the time I just had to swallow it and reach into my pocket and give her everything I had. It was not a lot, but there was nothing more I could do.
The journey… that made me laugh with joy
I’ve travelled across Bangladesh three times now, and it is poor and packed. There is great suffering and sadness, and they get hammered by Mother Nature. In many ways, human life will always struggle to exist there, but my God, they are tenacious, beautiful, brilliant and adaptable.
I have laughed with joy at the humanity of the Bangladeshis, who are generally warm, wonderful, feisty and rebellious; they’re constantly striking if they’re not happy and they don’t take anything lying down. Their humanity comes out in their stories, songs, food, humour and their warmth. They have great jokes, can tell a mean story, and they play kabaddi brilliantly – which is a game a bit like British Bulldog. I loved being there.
They have a knowing, dark sense of humour. When countries have been exposed to satellite TV and they realise that, “Oh my goodness, not everybody in the world lives on rubbish dumps,” they start to see what else is out there. They’re aware of the big wide world, but they see the beauty in their own lives. They’ll say things like, “Oh we can’t move again now the riverbanks have eroded, because you lot are burning the atmosphere up again.” It’s their elbow-in-the-ribs jokes that I love.
The journey… that made me want to hug the planet
The Kogi in Colombia are perhaps the most intact surviving civilisation in all the Americas, going back far beyond the time that Columbus and the Europeans arrived. Because of the way they were treated and the hardships they endured, they are very wary of outsiders now, but they allowed us to come to visit. They talked to me about Mother Nature and their role in the stewardship of their little bit of planet Earth. It is an act of obscene self-harm for us as a species to be annihilating the rainforests at the rate we are; they hold such treasures. The Kogi and other indigenous groups – along with plenty of big pharmaceuticals – know that so many of our critical drugs come from the rainforest.
We are losing the secrets of the rainforest faster than we can understand them. But the Kogi still have those hidden stores of knowledge; they know what plants can be used and they know the value of trees.
Speaking as somebody who was treated for malaria using bark derived from Vietnamese sweet wormwood, which is now being turned into an antimalarial drug, I know the key to understanding and saving us from many illnesses and diseases lies in these rainforests. And the Kogi, explaining this to me, encouraged me to hug the planet tight and keep it safe.
The journey… that made me appreciate wilderness and solitude
There was a moment when I was slightly abandoned, out in the wild, several hours from a remote village in Alaska called, appropriately, Arctic Village. It’s home to the Athabaskan-speaking Gwich’in – which means “people of the land”.
We were following them hunting caribou, which is what they live on and trade with. Some of the team got stuck and the lead hunter had to go off to find them. So, I was left alone, in the wilderness, in knee-deep snow, with a spectacular view of mountains in the distance and the tops of fir trees poking green heads through the endless, deep white.
All I had was a high-velocity rifle for protection – and goodness only knows what risk assessment hadn’t been done on that one. Every creature with claws and teeth seemed to be around, particularly the Arctic fox, which the Gwich’in were very wary of, because they often carry rabies.
It was a moment in life when there were no planes, no engines, no sound; only an overwhelming beautiful silence of the enormous American wilderness. Places like Alaska, Antarctica, and the Kimberley are on a scale Britons can’t really comprehend. It was a moment of isolation and solitude that will stay with me forever.
The journey… that gave me hope
Travelling down through the Americas, I was amazed to find the most spectacular rewilding project I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. In the American Prairie Reserve in the Midwest they are attempting to create a Serengeti-style wilderness in Montana, and it’s rapidly coming to fruition.
The project is an act of American big scale genius to buy disconnected parcels of private land and huge ranches and use those to join up disconnected public lands, owned by different branches of the American state. The result will be a colossal national park, bigger than south-west England. It’ll be a home for creatures that Europeans annihilated when they arrived in North America.
Flying over it and meeting Sean Gerrity, the inspirational project leader, was a real lesson in American big scale conservation, rewilding and protection. When American Big Mac gigantism relates to the size of a wildlife reserve, I’m happy.
It gave me massive hope that things can be done; there is no excuse. There are lots of colossal wilderness areas developing and growing around the world and we need more of them, particularly in Britain. We’re one of the most disgracefully denuded nations in the world when it comes to nature.
The journey… I’m yearning to do
I’m desperate to get back to South America, which is where I was travelling before the pandemic struck in February and March last year. We’d started filming a two-part Americas series, where I would travel the length of North and South America. It was an incredible journey we had from Venezuela, through the Guiana Shield and into the depths of the Brazilian Amazon. We came home to plan the next part but didn’t go away again because everything went mad.
I’ve been to Brazil several times, but I don’t tick off the boxes in quite that way. I know you can have completely different experiences on each visit. I’m really keen to visit the beautiful Atlantic Forest – the great Brazilian forest that most people have never heard of – and in particular I want to pay a visit to a man who has spent 40 years planting a forest of his own. He’s put more than 50,000 trees into the ground, and I’m hoping he’ll let me plant a few of my own.
In Rio, I’d like to meet a former bodysurf champion who runs a group called the Friendly Mailmen, delivering post to some of the most difficult favelas in the city. They take life, love and hope to communities who are often cut off from the outside city and the world. But right now, I’m happy to go anywhere. Last summer, I went to the island of Lundy and that felt like a proper exotic adventure; I camped and went to a pub! It’s funny how your world can change. But whether you’re keeping it local or travelling the world, adventure is about how you do it rather than where you’re going.
Create your own incredible journey
Wonder at the Maasai Mara Conservancies, Kenya
Bordering the national reserve, these community-owned lands are a model for successful wildlife conservation: vehicle numbers are limited, sightings are exclusive and financial benefits provide the Maasai people with an incentive to protect a veritable Noah’s Ark of charismatic creatures. Kicheche operates excellent, eco-friendly camps in three of the conservancies: Naboisho, Mara North and Olare Motorogi. Co-owner Paul Goldstein, an award-winning wildlife photographer, offers tuition, although all guides are experts at being in the right place at the right time.
A seven-night safari staying at Kicheche’s (00254 202 493 512; kicheche.com) three camps costs from £3,526 per person, which includes internal flights, transfers, full-board accommodation and game drives.
Trek to the Lost City, Colombia
A labyrinth of ancient ruins surrendered to the jungle, Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) belonged to the Tayrona civilisation, ancestors of the Kogi people who now look after camps along the trails that lead to the site. It takes five days to reach the crowd-free citadel, which is closed for a month every year for the Kogi to perform a spiritual cleansing. Sleep in hammocks along the way and be ready for sweaty hikes and great rewards.
G Adventures (0344 272 2080; gadventures.com) offers a seven-day Lost City group trek from £500, including accommodation and transfers. Excludes international flights.
Go big in Montana, USA
In a land of neck-craning views, where vast skies are a stage for troupes of dancing clouds, possibilities for adventure are endless. Witness conservation in action by visiting the American Prairie Reserve, where you can volunteer and assist in research work. Camp or stay in solar-powered yurts, which cost from £95 per night. A higher end option for exploring the landscape, The Ranch at Rock Creek offers horse-riding, hiking trails and a chance to test your limits with a survival course in frontier skills.
Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547760; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers five nights all-inclusive from £4,999 per person, including all flights.
Experience the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana
Twice the size of Rwanda, this arid expanse of tangerine dunes, sepia-toned savannahs and gleaming, pristine pans is the second largest reserve in the world. For millennia, San Bushmen have lived here alongside springbok, cheetahs and black-maned lions. Join them on bush walks through one of Africa’s last true wilderness areas.
Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk) offers a seven-night safari staying at Tau Pan, on a ridge overlooking a permanent water hole, and Nxai Pan, on the edge of the desert surrounded by acacias and ancient baobabs. From £3,469 per person including transfers from Maun airport, accommodation, meals and activities. Excludes international flights.
Marvel at Madagascar
Set adrift from the African continent, this Indian Ocean island supports a plethora of exotic species and 18 distinct ethnic groups, whose way of life is so far removed from our own. From fishermen who ride waves on sails stitched from rice sacks, to tribes who exhume their ancestors and dance with the shrouded corpses, it’s an ethnographic marvel.
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1266; rainbowtours.co.uk) tailor makes a 15-day Classic Madagascar Overland tour, which includes opportunities to visit the Antandroy and Mahafaly tombs, as well as the Unesco royal city and burial site of Ambohimanga. From £4,170 per person, including domestic flights, half-board accommodation and activities.