TV presenter and author Simon Reeve talks to Chantelle Kelly about his love of travelling and what he hopes to accomplish with his documentaries…
Simon Reeve is an easily recognisable face on TV, well known for his captivating travel documentaries as well as his boyish good looks. He’s also a best-selling author and has written books on international terrorism, modern history… as well as his adventures. In fact, it was journalism that started his television career.
“I started out working as a postboy on a newspaper after flunking out of school. I specialised in investigative journalism and eventually left the paper to write a series of books on serious subjects like terrorism and biological warfare. I wrote an early book on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, which came out in 1998 and nobody read. Then 9/11 happened and I was thrust onto TV to talk about the attack, and that led to discussing making TV programmes with the BBC. I was an author, so that helped, but really, I got the job because I had my own hair and teeth.”
This year alone he has travelled to 20 countries and to date has visited more than 120. I decide to get the predictable question out of the way first – any favourites? “I love places that are exciting and interesting, but that can come in different forms. I’m a huge fan of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa, which is an unrecognised country. Other favourites are Bangladesh, Argentina, and the Maldives. Most people think the Maldives are just for honeymoons, but actually they’re a wildlife refuge and a magnet for life from across the Indian Ocean.”
He’s visited a number of dangerous places as part of his job, including Mogadishu in Somalia; one of the most unsafe cities in the world. He reveals that despite this, he thinks the world is actually quite safe: “I think the world is actually a very safe and welcoming place, so long as you wear a seatbelt. But yes of course there are moments when I’ve experienced sheer terror and a near certain feeling that I’m about to die.
“In Mogadishu, Somalia, my team of local mercenary bodyguards met another opposing gang at a crossroads and everyone was screaming at each other. I was looking down the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun that was pointing right in my direction. I would have been completely shredded, but luckily wise heads prevailed.”
Burma with Simon Reeve
His latest documentary on television was Burma with Simon Reeve, in which he heads to the beautiful, yet troubled Burma (or Myanmar as it is now officially known). The two-part series explores the humanitarian crises in Myanmar; a country where almost 700,000 people have fled from since 2017. It’s said to be the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
“Initially it wasn’t too hard to film in Burma because we were in areas that weren’t considered controversial. But we were still repeatedly followed, even though the country is of course supposed to be in transition to democracy. Then we began to explore the horrific stories of how the Rohingya ethnic minority have faced eviction from the homes and a series of brutal military attacks that the UN has said fit the definition of ethnic cleansing, then things became much more difficult.”
The Rohingya represent the largest percentage of Muslims in the country. The government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Over the last few years, thousands of Rohingya have left Myanma to escape communal violence and alleged abuse from the security forces. The latest exodus began in August 2017 after Rohingya Arsa militants launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts. Myanmar’s military launched ‘clearance operations’ against the militants, which the government claims killed 400. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) believe the number is far higher; that at least 6,700 Rohingya, including several hundred children were killed in the month after the violence broke out.
Kutupalong refugee camp is a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, inhabited mostly by the Rohingya Muslims that have fled Myanmar. It is one of two government-run refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and the two have an estimated population of over 77,000. Simon confirms the harrowing nature of his visit there: “It was incredibly moving and upsetting to see such a huge number of people held in the camp. It’s now the largest refugee camp in the world, and it’s a desperate place of endless suffering. I just hope to god that the people there aren’t forgotten by the international community.”
Has he become immune to seeing such traumatic scenes? “I’ve been shocked and thrilled, upset and excited. Sometimes all at the same time. One experience that I will never forget is meeting a young Somali woman in a refugee camp on the Kenya-Somali border. She had been there for most of her life and was forbidden from travelling more than a few miles in any one direction. So, she was stuck out there in the desert in an open prison. I was very shocked by what she told me, and I often think about her experience while I am flitting around the world with my British passport, something that I just have through an accident of birth.”
Simon admits that he hopes to open people’s eyes and make them aware of what’s happening in the wider world, but is he trying to evoke change? “My documentaries are actually pretty simple. I go on a journey and we try to work interesting stories into the adventure. We always try to include the light and the shade, the reality as well as the glory of a place. And yes, I would love it if the programmes made a little change. For a start I’m trying to encourage people to travel with their eyes open and take an interest in the wider world around them. And I’m really keen for people to get out there and experience the world because life is short, and travel is still an incredible way of racking-up powerful memories.”
What does he hope the audience takes away from his documentaries? “I would love it if people watching have a slightly better understanding of the country or region that I’m travelling through. I hope the audience watching also realises that I’m genuinely excited to be having an adventure and being able to share it with them. And I would hope that people watching feel slightly inspired to get out there themselves.”
What has he learnt from travelling the globe? “The main thing I’ve realised is that the world is actually a very safe and welcoming place, despite what much of the media might make you think. You can go just about anywhere. I’ve also realised that after sorting out security, food and water, pretty much everyone on the planet desperately needs a sense of purpose and meaning in their life. Whether it’s from a tribe, a football club, work, family, bike collecting or whatever. And I’ve realised and learned that we are living at a time of profound change for the planet and our environment. Nobody should be in any doubt that 7 billion humans on the planet are changing it catastrophically.”
This autumn Simon embarks on a UK tour. What’s in store? “I’ve been to more than 120 countries, across jungles, deserts, mountains and oceans, and to some of the most beautiful, dangerous and remote regions of the world.
“I’m from Acton, for goodness sake, but I’ve dodged bullets on frontlines, hunted with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, dived with manta rays, seals and sharks, survived malaria, walked through minefields, and been taught to fish by the President of Moldova.
“So, I’ll be gassing on about my travels, and my take on life and the world of course – but mainly I’ll be talking about the people I’ve met on my travels, because I’ve had some incredible encounters with remote indigenous communities around the planet, with former slaves who are now great leaders, and with people with nothing who share everything.”
Simon finishes by revealing that even he still has a lot of destinations on his bucket list. “There’s hundreds of places I would still love to visit. I haven’t been to Japan, New Zealand, much of west Africa and Central America, Finland, Korea. There’s still lots of adventures out there!”
An Audience with Simon Reeve tours in the UK from 17 Sept to 28 Nov, and 29 March to 9 April 2019. For information and tickets, visit simonreeve.co.uk