Life on the lines
Talking to Simon Reeve, the writer and broadcaster who circles the world
“There’s a lot to be said for choosing a random line and following it around the world. It’s going to take you off the beaten track, it’s going to take you to places that travellers don’t normally go to – let alone TV crews, let alone me. I had never been to any of these countries, so it was all completely fresh to me.”
I’m talking to Simon Reeve, the author and BBC television presenter, in his local watering hole in Hampstead, a mere moment from London’s Northern Line. He’s very comfortable here. Little would you know that he has just returned from an epic journey around the Tropic of Capricorn – the second such trip he has made, after his journey around the equator. Both journeys were made into successful television series and books, and both were named after the lines he followed.
Yet his own career has not followed a straight line at all. Initially he worked as a post boy at The Sunday Times. His big break came when the foreign editor needed someone to go to Boston to locate two South African terrorists who were on the run. Reeve ran around the office excitedly telling everyone of his trip, only to discover it was to Boston, Lincolnshire, not Boston, Massachusetts. “It was a bit of a downer,” he admits.
On finding and meeting the fugitive South Africans, Reeve realised that “people like that can have a colossal impact, far beyond their obvious means.”It was a pivotal moment. His career since then has seen him continue to seek out such unreported but important news stories; and though he has now become widely travelled, he remains not so much a traveller as an investigator of people and the stories borne out of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
“I find a lot of people just think of the ‘Big World’,” he reflects.“I started to see countries as individuals and stories. And I became fascinated with the stories that emerged from them.”
The TV programmes he has gone on to make “are not even largely about the rigours of travel, they are more about the people you get to meet along the way and the stories we get to see and hear about. When we made Tropic of Capricorn we wanted to meet the Wichi people in northern Argentina. There are very few people who speak their language, but one of them happens to be an English anthropologist who’s lived out there for decades and has married into a Wichi tribe. An amazing guy.”
As he moved along the Capricorn line, Reeve investigated the unsustainable slash and burn of forests in Madagascar, saw more forest logging in Brazil, met the Catman of Namibia who rehabilitates cheetahs into the wild, encountered Bushmen in the Kalahari, talked to Namibian prostitutes, and met Australian Aborigines in abject poverty just minutes from the world’s greatest natural tourist icon, Uluru. He discovered forgotten genocides, investigated elephant culling, and cooked with teenagers in Brazilian favelas.
I started to see countries as individuals and stories. And I became fascinated with the stories that emerged from them
From all of these situations he found away to string together such stories – by following an almost random line.
“It’s just a line, but it goes through these incredible regions. It marks the southern border of the tropics. The right on thinking is that there is a north and a south world: but it ain’t really like that, it’s really the bits at the top and bottom and the bit in the middle. The tropics are really this extraordinary zone – they have the biodiversity, but they’ve also got the concentration of poverty.
“There’s a ludicrous amount of poverty on the equator. Because there are climactic conditions that harbour disease and create great forests that colonial powers like, and that leads to everything that follows. That’s the same case in many parts along the southern edge, but you do get temperate wealth almost bleeding into the tropics there. But even wealth in Australia is concentrated to the south of Capricorn. Again, in Brazil, just south of Capricorn, you’ve got Sao Paolo, you’ve got great industrial wealth.
“And to the north in the tropics, you’ve got poverty. There are only two or three high-income places in the tropics.”
His proudest moment, however, came from work for an earlier programme, Places That Don’t Exist, an award-winning five-part series on places like Somaliland, Transniestria and South Ossetia – breakaway states and unrecognised nations.
“Somaliland is quite an incredible country with incredible people. They basically rebuilt the country from scratch with nothing.
“Whereas Somalia is a completely collapsed state. It’s the most extraordinarily violent place on the planet, is entirely run by warlords – there’s no police, no army –it’s an absolutely lawless place where we had to pay off a dozen drug-crazed local mercenaries to keep us alive.
“But Somaliland has democracy, police, armed forces, a president, a minister for tourism, traffic lights, uniformed border guards who put a stamp on your passport. Yet is not recognised as a state by any country.
“It was one of the proudest moments of my humble career when the Daily Mail wrote an article about what a scandal it was that Somaliland was in the state that it was. And how often do you see reports about these sorts of places?”
His next journey must surely be around the Tropic of Cancer, I suggest.
“I am but a pawn that is poked around. I don’t know,” he replies. But he goes on to list all the countries this northern line runs through, and its clear that he’s eager to do it.
“That would be an amazing journey, bigger than this – and Capricorn was by far the biggest I’ve done, by sheer virtue of the fact that it was four months rather than the three in which we did the equator.
“You know we had a slight promotion from Equator to Capricorn. They said Equator was ok but ‘we’ll give you four programmes this time’. Maybe we’ll get five for the next time… or four and a half.”