For a man who’s visited the world’s most dangerous prison, been cornered by a gun-toting gang and hunted deadly box jellyfish, you’d think a bog-standard holiday would be a bore, but Simon Reeve is excitedly telling me about plans for a family trip to Romania: “There’s mountains and bears, and wild honey – I’ve heard it’s spectacular.”
This passion for places shines in his BBC documentaries – he’s been everywhere from the Indian Ocena to the Mediterranean, Kyrgyzstan to Cornwall – and why his live stage show is such a hit. But life wasn’t always so joyous. He was a disillusioned teenager, at one point on the brink of jumping off a bridge. But Simon says it was a spontaneous trip that changed his path.
How did you become a professional adventure traveller?
“People assume that, to be on telly, you must have gone to a top school or come from a connected family. The truth is, I left school with no qualifications; I spiralled down to a very dark place. Then I had this mad idea of taking a journey. I’d never been out of London on my own, but my mate Dwight had Highlander on VHS, so I thought Glencoe in Scotland would be great. Climbing a mountain put me on a completely different course.”
In your stage show, you speak candidly about your mental health. How can travel help people’s wellbeing?
“The act of putting one foot in front of the other gifted me a sense of purpose and meaning. Getting out of your comfort zone and broadening your horizons is essential – it can be as simple as going for a walk. Travel has been therapy for me.”
Most people would turn and run if faced with the situations you’ve been in. How do you stay strong?
“In most cases I’m not. I’m very affected by the tragedy and problems I’ve seen, just as I’m affected by the inspiring and hopeful stories – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t want to be hardened or flippant about travelling this planet and seeing life as it’s lived. I want it to touch me, and move me and upset me. That’s one of the great wonders of travel.”
What would you say to someone who just wants to lie by the pool?
“I’m not great at chilling by the pool and the experiences you get by not being horizontal are much more thrilling. Does anything else really matter the way travel does? All the stuff you buy is just going to end up in landfill, but our holidays and experiences lodge in our hearts and minds: they mark our passage through life.”
In your TV shows, you meet a lot of… interesting people. How can we do that without visiting prisons or encountering drug cartels?
“Personally, if I’m not meeting somebody, I’m not on a proper journey. I’m always trying to learn about us and our world, and we can all do that anywhere we go by talking to people. The key is not to be shy or put off. The best rewards come from a tiny bit of risk taking. Challenge yourself to do a little more than feels absolutely safe. That can be as basic as drinking in a local bar and asking questions.”
Should we really advise people to take risks?
“Sure, we should be careful, but terrible things can happen anywhere – thousands of people are hospitalised each year because they had an accident putting their trousers on. Put risk in perspective. Don’t live life on your knees. Get out there and embrace it while you can.”