One of our favourite celebrity explorers gives us an insight into his life on the road.
Who’s inspired you the most?
I watched the great man Michael Palin when I was growing-up and found his journeys very inspiring. One of the many things that was brilliant about him was that he didn’t patronise or talk down to the exotic locals that he met. He sat with them and had a cup of tea and let them listen to his Walkman. I loved that. It’s a style I’ve tried to incorporate into my own programmes. Obviously I’m not as funny as Michael. Or as nice. He really is a lovely bloke. Other travellers who I’ve inspired me include Bill Bryson, because I love his self-deprecating humour, and the hardcore telly traveller Sean Langan. Nobody too poncy.
What was your longest journey?
There’s been a few! I suppose for distance it’s probably an episode of my Tropic of Cancer series when we travelled across North Africa from Western Sahara through Mauritania into southern Algeria and across a border into Libya. We covered huge distances, mostly by land, and crossed borders that outsiders hadn’t been allowed across for decades. The route took us through a completely other-worldly landscape, where anything could happen. I had one of my most memorable encounters on that journey, when we were sitting by a fire in the middle of the desert and a tuareg nomad suddenly appeared out of the night and sat down next to us. He just nodded at me as if he was sitting down next to me on the Tube. Desert rules mean we shared our food with him, and he ate and then disappeared into the night.
Where would you never go?
I don’t think there’s anywhere that I wouldn’t go. The world is an incredibly welcoming and safe place, so long as you wear a seat-belt. I like places that are quite extreme, and give my buttons a tweak. But that can be extremely beautiful, extremely surprising, or extremely exhilarating. I suppose I’d rather avoid anywhere boring.
Biggest lesson from your travels?
Travel has been the making of me, giving me confidence and insight into so many different aspects of us. If I had to pick one big lesson it would be that after basic security and bit of grub, ultimately the thing that all of humans on this planet really desperately need is a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. That could come from the traditions of our tribe, or football, or our stamp collection, or anything. But we have to have it, otherwise we feel lost and adrift.
What’s the best thing to do when lost in a foreign country?
Don’t’ worry, don’t panic. Enjoy the experience if you can. Remember that the world is safe and friendly and use your instincts to find your way out. If you’re in a city don’t go down streets where you don’t feel comfortable. If you’re in the wilds then look for high ground that will give you a view and track the movement of the sun to give yourself some basic orientation.
Who is your travel hero?
My Grandma. She had polio when she was a child and always walked with great difficulty and with calipers on her legs. But she had a mobility car and she’d take my younger brother and me on magical mystery tours where we’d drive around somewhere really exotic like Wembley Park Trading Estate and James and I could say left Grandma turn here, and we’d get to explore somewhere we’d never been. It was a complete thrill of discovery. I could hardly see out of the windows I was so small but I still remember the feeling today.
Where would you advise our readers to travel to this summer?
If you’re adventurous then you’ve got to head to Africa, to somewhere like Mozambique, which has a distinctly Latin vibe. Or magical Madagascar, which is like the Galapagos, but on a bigger scale. Or Colombia, which is now finally opening up to tourists. Or the stunning Maldives, where you’re almost guaranteed beauty above and below the waves. Whatever you’re thinking about doing, don’t delay. Just get out there. Don’t waste a moment. Life is so short!
Does travel ever lose its appeal?
No, not yet. I have some of my most memorable life experiences when I’m on the road travelling, so it’s not something I want to give up. In truth there’s not a day goes by when we’re filming when I don’t learn something new or have a completely memorable experience that will linger in my mind forever. That’s what I love about travelling.
How do you decide where next to go?
Well I have to think of journeys that other telly people haven’t done for at least a while, and they have to be simple and ideally make viewers think and feel they’ll be a joy to watch. We’re not controlled by ratings, but we have to make sure a few people are going to watch. ‘The Urals’ might be an interesting series, but it’s not telly gold, that’s for sure.
Where did your interest in terrorism stem from?
I’ve always been interested in the extremes, and my big break when I did newspaper investigations was tracking-down a couple of South African neo-nazi terrrorists who were on the run in the UK. They were scary guys who’d blown up queues of people waiting for taxis in South Africa, but when I met them even I could see they were quite pathetic characters – and I was just a pathetic 19-year-old lad from Acton. So I was intrigued and appalled that these no-hopers had been able to affect the political process in South Africa, and I began specialising in investigating terrorism. I spent five years writing a book about al Qaeda that came out in 1998 and nobody really read until the events of 9/11. I have a very different career now, but I’m still fascinated by life and people and the big wide world. To understand us and our planet you really have to get out there and explore.