Simon Reeve enjoying a cuppa in Kenya

Around the World with Simon Reeve

by Karen Shaw

It’s rare. There’s not many folks I interview who candidly declare within the first few minutes of chatting about their latest venture say, “If you’ve seen it before, don’t come back please. Wait for something more interesting! It’s for people who couldn’t get tickets last time around. I feel a bit embarrassed. I’m squirming slightly saying this, but the theatres have waiting lists!”

With sold out signs at theatres around the UK for Simon Reeve’s first ever theatre tour, the much-loved TV traveller will be returning with his thrilling and truly inspiring tales from his adventures in more than 120 countries; An Audience with Simon Reeve promises to be an evening of inspirational stories – moving tales; all threaded together with yarns of hilarity. Audiences will hear Simon talk about his humble start in life, how he became an author and TV presenter, who has since met some of the most extraordinary people on the planet. Seen in more than 60 countries, Simon’s 20 TV series’ explore and explain the world for tens of millions of TV viewers globally, travelling in a unique way that blends adventure with serious issues.

But before we get started on the serious issues, I’m disappointed. I demand to know why Simon isn’t wearing his signature shemagh (a scarf). “I haven’t got it on at the moment,” he grins. “But if it’s a requirement for the show I’ll put it on. On my last theatre tour people turned up wearing them. It’s quite weird!

“I’ve got about nine. I haven’t named them, but they’re rapidly becoming my comfort blankets,” he laughs.

It’s easy to understand why Simon may crave a bit of comfort now and again. In the pursuit of good TV he’s dodged bullets on frontlines, tracked lions on foot and been detained for spying by the KGB. So, who could possibly deny him his shemaghs? Simon then aims to convince me to get one, “I think you need to have one.” I strongly disagree.

Meeting the Kogi people in Colombia
Meeting the Kogi people in Colombia

A ball of effervescent energy Simon’s excited about his tour. “I’m more nervous this time than I was the last time as I know now how much goes into it and what I’ve got to try and remember. I’m literally stood up there on my own, chatting away for hours. I try and give people their money’s worth. I have to remember everything I’m supposed to say and it’s bloody hard. I’m hopeless at learning lines, but I’ll have some prompts. I’m looking forward to it – it’s just a fun thing to do. It’s an incredible privilege turning up around the country with people being mildly interested in what I’ve got to say.

“I’ve been making TV programmes for 15 years now, my family are bored of my tales from the Congo! The audience go on a journey without having to leave their seats.”

Old or young, Simon continues to engage with people from all ages and there’s a real mixed bag of people who come to his shows.

“We have kids and families who come to the show. It’s the most wonderful thing to hear that many of them sit down and watch my programme together, it’s one of the few things they can watch as a family, collectively learning more about the world, and that’s just bloody brilliant!

“Realising everywhere we’re all basically the same, I talk about the challenges and problems people face. It’s not all about issues, it’s also about joy. I like to have elements of dark and light.”

Elements of light and dark have always played a part in his life. With his boyish charm, floppy hair and bounding enthusiasm, it’s hard to ever imagine that in his youth he considered ending it all. “When I was 17, I nearly jumped off a bridge. I feared life more than I feared dropping in front of the lorries. I had no idea what to do in life. It was a mantra I lived by for years.”

“When I was 17, I nearly jumped off a bridge”

Life was bleak for Simon, but after a lot of mental health counselling throughout his teens and the advice, to ‘take things step by step’ given to him by a lady in the job centre. Simon decided to really challenge himself and travelled from his home in Hammersmith to Glencoe in Scotland to go climbing. He managed to make it to the to the top and despite the fact that he still struggles with depression he now feels more able to combat it.

“It gave me a crucial bit of self confidence and it raised my gaze from my navel and my suffering to see that there was a slightly wider world out there,” said Simon. “I felt for the first time that I was able to claim a little life for myself. It was pretty fundamental but the surprise about it was the experience of going on a journey and having a physical challenge could change my life. I was less scared than I was sitting at home on my butt doing nothing. Having that time at home to think about all the horrors of life that was the scary bit. I struggle with mild feelings of depression but nothing like I have done in the past. My fears range from one end of the spectrum to the other. I can worry about ludicrously stupid little things that as soon as someone says, ‘it doesn’t matter’, you realise they are right. Then at the other end of the spectrum I worry about not being around for my son. I worry about death, loads of colossal things like the fate of the planet and big things like that but I try to move on. I try to distract my mind and get on with enjoying life as much as possible. I’ve been in dark places and that’s not easy. I’m not saying it flippantly at all. I know how hard it can be for lots of us.

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“There’s points where the excitement and the thrill takes over and you shut down your other emotions so the other feelings that should be staying, ‘this is stupid’, ‘you’re going to fall over’, ‘you’re going to freeze to death out here you complete muppet!’, all of those voices are drowned out by the ‘must go on, must get to the top’… that’s probably how there’s seven billion of us across the planet who keep going forward! “Doing things for me, is a massive solution to the awful voices of doubt and fear – doing things, gives me purpose and meaning. That can mean small achievements or huge – little jobs or big ones… it’s doing things. Activity is a gift.”

This chap obviously loves to be busy, but I was curious to discover if Simon’s travels was led by his love of uncovering new places or meeting new people.

“It’s a really key point actually because a lot of TV can be a lot about the presenter’s experience, often they are fascinating, funny and extraordinary but for me in my programmes I’m really keen for it to be about the people I meet. That’s what I love about going on a journey. I’ve met the most wonderful people out there and as a result it’s like a gift that doesn’t stop giving – wherever you go you can find interesting, wonderful, inspiring, challenging fellow human brothers and sisters. That’s the draw that keeps me going back. Even though some places might seem grey or uninteresting there will be people there who are the opposite of that.

“I get stuck in as much as I can, but I’m making TV programmes we’re not lingering around for very long. You’ve got to be professional in every aspect when you’re on the journey. I want to experience all aspects of it, even if it involves knocking back a cocktail in Dawson, Northern Canada, which has someone’s frozen toe in it. You’re not really a local until you’ve drank a sour toe cocktail,” he giggled.

“In a lot of the countries I visit they’re forcing booze on you. I’ve become such a lightweight, I can manage a couple, but I can’t really handle it anymore. I’ve started inventing all these ‘ancient British traditions’ insisting that the bottle must be left full so I can take it to new friends. I’ve discovered that I’m quite a good liar. You just have to be convincing!”

“I’ve discovered that I’m quite a good liar. You just have to be convincing!”

Convincing, he certainly is, but I’m positive he’s not lying when he tells about the time he came under fire from Islamic militant group Al- Shabaab on the front line in, Somalia. “We had to run across open ground to armoured personnel carriers and get the hell out of there. I remember sprinting, carrying our medical kit, and there were bullets whizzing around. As I ran, I had a glimpse into a bombed-out building and saw one soldier giving another a haircut. A radio was playing incredibly loudly, and I could hear crackly music, despite the gunfire. It was a picture of utter normality in a sea of chaos.”

Mmmm… normality. My view of normality differs tremendously to Simon’s and involves tea, bath, bed and sleep, but then I’m boring. His obsession with travel is powered by his love of not just the places, but the people in them.

“I think the walking away is the toughest bit of all,” he sighs. “I don’t handle it very well in truth and I get quite emotional and quite affected by the situations, but I suppose I selfishly taught myself to realise that my job isn’t to try and transform their lives and lead them to revolution or wealth. My job is to get their story out there, and staggeringly more often than not they understand that, and they want to share their story with the outside world. They hope change will come as a result, but our job is just to spread that ripple across the pond. It’s not a giant wave of change that is suddenly going to come crashing down on them, I explain that, nevertheless people always still want to share their story and that’s what helps me to deal with the very tricky bit where after someone shares their life and sorrow with you and you have to get up and go. That’s the nature of going on journey, it continues. You meet someone, have a moment with them, share a momentleaving people in difficult situations is very painful.”

As a young child Simon still fondly remembers the happy times he spent with his grandma exploring and believes it was these days out that inspired him to travel.

“She made such an impact on me,” says Simon. “She would take me out in a converted Ford Escort, she had callipers on one leg, due to having polio as a child. We’d explore exotic places like Hounslow or West Ealing, he laughs. “We’d be going out to the edge of our known world and seeing what was around the corner and it was bloody brilliant. After growing up on the edge of the inner city these jaunts showed me there was another world beyond where I lived. ‘Oh look, there’s the McVities’ biscuit factory… wow!’”

“Always take the opportunity. I think that’s a pretty good mantra. I’ve always volunteered, I’ve always said ‘yes’, and thought let’s see what happens… and once or twice, that’s got me into trouble. I’ve struggled to remember, but generally it’s gifted me a great career and an amazing son. I feel very blessed.”

“I fear death in very deep ways”

Simon’s face literally lights up when he talks about his eight-year-old son Jake who he has with his wife Anya. “He’s transformed my entire existence. My main job is providing him with entertainment. He’s rocked my bloody world! All the experiences I’ve had elsewhere on the planet nothing comes close to the joy and the emotion and the love, the sheer experience of having a little one.”

So, Simon’s advice would be to ‘grab life by the horns’?

“Definitely,” he replies. “You must take chances and be prepared to put yourself out there for humiliation. I sense that’s a big problem for folk now that they are so worried of making a tit of themselves especially with the impact of social media. We should all be able to feel that we can fail and not have that failure thrust back at us for the next few decades via people’s sodding social media fields.”

Simon’s just returned from Alaska and will be travelling the length of the Americas, from Alaska down to Argentina over the next couple of years for a new TV series. But where would he like to go if he had a time machine?

“I would love to go back to the Americas before the Europeans arrived. They might not have had the wheel and they might not have had horses, but they had sewerage and sanitation. It would be a fascinating place to go before Europeans arrived with their guns and their germs and their horses and annihilated millions of people!”

Wouldn’t you worry about contracting a disease, or worst, getting shot?

“I’d have a force field around me – that’d be an added extra of the time machine – I’d be alright,” he laughs.

Despite coming close to death on numerous occasions, ironically there’s nothing much that Simon fears apart from death.

“I fear death in very deep ways. I struggle with that still as a mental health issue. I’ve also got a fear of heights, but I can deal with that. The idea of standing on stage in front of thousands is completely bloody bonkers and for a lot of people that’s their worst possible humiliation imaginable. But what’s the worst that can happen? We have to try things. We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. That’s where the best memories lie.”

An Audience with Simon Reeve tour dates

  • Sheffield City Hall – 17th October
  • York Barbican – 18th October
  • Middlesbrough Town Hall – 19th October