Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

A new six-part series for BBC Two

Indian Ocean: interview with Simon Reeve

Category: BBC Two; Factual
Simon Reeve, the presenter of Indian Ocean, talks about his experiences making the series.

You’ve referred to this as your most exotic and extreme journey. What was the most exotic part of the journey for you?

It’s a tough one to answer, because the Indian Ocean is home to endless stunning tropical islands like the Seychelles and Mauritius. But visiting the Maldives was the most beautiful and exotic part of the journey. We travelled to breathtaking coral atolls, free-dived with dozens of manta rays, and landed on stunning remote islands. When I was a child growing-up in grey west London I had a poster on my ceiling of a gorgeous paradise beach fringed by palm trees. I used to stare at that beach in wonder, never imagining I’d be able to visit somewhere similar. But the Maldives really is like that. It’s truly exotic. I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

And what was the most extreme?

At the other end of the spectrum we also visited Mogadishu in Somalia, which is often described as the most dangerous city on the planet. Conflict has raged in Somalia for decades. The government collapsed after a civil war, then warlords took over and battled endlessly. At least one million people have died. Because of the constant instability and anarchy, Somalia has become the source of the piracy epidemic that plagues the western Indian Ocean. It’s also increasingly becoming a source of international terrorism, and I felt it was somewhere we had to visit if we were to tell the story of the Indian Ocean. We were under the protection of an African peace keeping force that is trying to bring peace and stability to the country after decades of fighting and anarchy. We had our flak jackets and helmets, of course, and even blast boxer-shorts, which can help to prevent blast and fragment injuries to the groin. But it’s not somewhere you ever feel safe. It’s the most extreme place I’ve ever visited.

Your journey took you from the tip of South Africa to Madagascar, the Seychelles, on to Somalia, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Australia, to name a few. What was your favourite place that you visited?

I loved visiting Australia, and Oman, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia. There’s nowhere we visited that I wouldn’t love to visit again. But I’m particularly fond of Bangladesh. The country is beautiful and although the people face enormous challenges, they adapt, they struggle, and they survive. We tend to associate Bangladesh just with disasters, flooding and tragedy, but it is also a lush, beautiful country with some of the warmest and friendliest people on the planet.

You visit some beautiful places throughout the series but also find yourself in a number of difficult situations. What was the scariest situation you found yourself in?

Another difficult one to answer! I was in a drug-den in South Africa, and on the frontline in Mogadishu with bullets whizzing over my head, but the scariest situation was probably driving on Indian roads with huge trucks and buses rocketing the wrong way towards us in our lane. In other scary situations I have a moment to dive behind cover or flee, but there’s not much I could do when I was strapped into the front passenger seat in India, except pray.

You’ve visited more than 110 countries over the years and have encountered many different people and customs. Were there any places on this trip that took you completely by surprise?

I was endlessly surprised by places we visited. In fact there wasn’t a single day when I wasn’t being amazed or challenged by what I was seeing and learning. In Mozambique we visited a former 5-star hotel that used to be one of the grandest in Africa, but has since been stripped bare and is now home to thousands of locals and refugees. It sounds desperate, and it certainly wasn’t luxurious, but the residents are an inspiring lot who have elected their own mayor and formed committees for sanitation, housing, security and so on. That all came as a surprise. So did finding a vast, stinking, toxic rubbish island in the Maldives, which they don’t put in the brochures, and visiting an island off Kenya where locals recycle the world’s discarded flip-flops into toys. We also discovered a place where smugglers race illicit refrigerators to Iran on super-powered speedboats, and visited ship-breaking beaches where the world’s huge tankers go to be ripped apart by an army of workers. The journey was fascinating, shocking, hilarious and amazing. And always surprising!

The series hits on a number of wildlife and conservation issues. Did you set out with the intention of highlighting these?

Yes, we wanted to learn more about wildlife in and around the Indian Ocean, and particularly about sharks, elephants, manta rays, penguins, dolphins, crocodiles and lemurs, and we had some extraordinary experiences filming with them. From the beginning the plan was to try to give viewers a real picture of life in and around the Indian Ocean. Although the series is mainly about the people who live on and around the Ocean, their lives intertwine with the wildlife of the region as well, so it was important we filmed wildlife and conservation issues. I think it’s vital we learn more about this part of the world and how we’re fishing our oceans to death, for example, because ultimately it has a direct impact on the lives of all of us.

Have you any idea how far you travelled in total?

We travelled through 16 countries by ship, car, plane, train, helicopter, taxi, 4WD truck, and even a bullock cart. But I haven’t worked out the distances involved. It’s not a single journey following a line, so the whole adventure involved endless diversions, and comings and goings. The distances involved were certainly enormous. I went up the east coast of Africa, around India and back down through the west of Indonesia to West Australia. I’d imagine I travelled tens of thousands of miles.

How long were you away from home for?

Each programme takes at least a month to film and a lot of that time is taken up with travelling. It can be hard being away from family and friends for long stretches and on this journey it was especially tricky because at the start my wife was heavily pregnant. So I filmed the first two programmes in this series and then had a break for a few months while my baby son was born. There was no way I was going to miss that. I stayed at home and learnt to change nappies and placate a screaming baby, and then I had to go back on the road and finish the journey. I’ve been away for a third of his life so far, and it was a shock to come home from each trip and see how much the little lad had changed.

What are the challenges for yourself and the crew in filming a series like this?

Apart from wanting to film an action-packed adventure series, we also try to make sure we’re including some real issues that help to inform the viewers about life in far-flung parts of the world. Getting that balance right is a huge challenge. Then when we’re on the road obviously there’s the heat, exhaustion, bad food, nights of no sleep, jet-lag, viruses, blood-sucking mozzies and the sheer challenge of moving us and our endless bags of equipment long-distance through some tricky countries. In the really dangerous locations, like Somalia, the biggest challenge is making sure we’re being as careful as we possibly can while still seeing what we need to see and telling the story we want to tell. 

We also have a lot of challenging and frustrating experiences with officialdom, and I confess I’ve started compiling a muppet list of the most ridiculous encounters. I’ve been doing these journeys for a while now, and my muppet list is a way of channelling the increasing travel-rage I feel as I get older and slowly turn into Basil Fawlty. But of course I’m not after sympathy. These journeys are an amazing adventure and I’m having extraordinary experiences every day we’re on the road.

What is your top tip for somebody setting off on their own travels?

Prepare for your trip. Read up before you go. You’ll get so much more out of the journey if you learn about the country and the place you’re visiting. When you’re there don’t sit by the pool topping up your tan. Get out and about. Travel with your eyes open, and see the reality of the place you’re visiting. Meet the locals, eat the local food, and order dishes you don’t like the sound of. Try something new and do things that excite you and even scare you. That’s how you have experiences you’ll remember forever.