Adventure traveller Simon Reeve on Australia

The travel journalist speaks about handling poisonous jellyfish, dodging crocodiles and meeting renegade bikers, during his latest BBC show set Down Under

Simon Reeve is about as adventurous as travel journalists get. The man behind BBC documentaries House of Saud, Equator and Indian Ocean has investigated terrorism, been shot at and suffered malaria, all to bring us thrilling TV. This time he’s off to Australia to hang out with biker outlaws and hunt the single most venomous creature on our planet – the box jellyfish.


We caught up with the explorer for more on his new three-part series Australia with Simon Reeve, and watched him actually tear up while talking about the most inspirational man he’s ever met…

What should we expect from the new show?

Lots of wonderful things. It’s an attempt to look at Australia, a country we think we know, and we think we’re very familiar with it. We’ve been indoctrinated with propaganda and Australian television. Is that reality? Yes, but there is a whole lot more to the country than that. We do three trips of different difficulties. There is a lot of long-distance hardcore travel, some spectacular sites and some lovely local people, those Aussies.

What did you actually get up to?

We didn’t go to Ayers Rock, because they didn’t want us to film it, but we went to Mount Connor. It’s a short distance away and in some ways more spectacular, but has the same spiritual allure. It’s a flat-top mountain, and very, very impressive. So we flew around that in a helicopter and made dramatic statements like “Here we begin, a journey across this vast continent.”

In past shows we’ve seen you in battle zones and scary situations, surely Australia is too tame for you now?

In some ways it’s tame, there are rarely bullets flying around there, but in terms of being an alien, threatening environment, there are few other places like it on the planet. At one point we were with a venom hunter on the Cape York Peninsula, which is one of the wildest and remotest bits of Planet Earth. He goes out looking for the most venomous creatures in the world, and I went out hunting box jellyfish with him – the single most venomous creatures on our planet. We were looking for these little jellies that could kill 15-20 people each and were grabbing them out of the water, in an environment with crocodiles, deadly sea snakes, sharks and threats from everywhere. Australia is unlike anywhere else I’ve been – you have to completely re-frame your way of thinking.

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Is it the wildest place you’ve been?

When you’re in the African bush, you may think “This looks very much like Surrey, but this isn’t Surrey on a hot sunny day, because there could be man-eating lions.” In Australia you have to think about all of the small creatures that can kill you, large creatures that can kill you, and creatures that aren’t scared of you as well.

Do you feel you have a responsibility to show the bigger picture in the countries you visit?

In the shows I’ve done we use the idea of the journey to tell a darker story that wouldn’t necessarily make it on to primetime TV. Whether it be Bangladeshi children working in a glass factory, or an Australian biker gang that, according to the police, is responsible for the most organised crime along the east coast. We also find out more about the lives of Aboriginal people and remote communities – a complicated and upsetting story – but we can work these into an amazing adventure. 

What part of the show did you enjoy most?

Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory was spectacular. It is one of the largest national parks in the world, stuffed with all manner of species and wildlife, hundreds of different types of reptiles, mammals, migratory birds, four major river systems, stunning rock plateaus and breathtaking rocky escarpments.

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What do you think of the locals? 

I do like Aussies. They are good fun and they’re not the slightly bumbling ‘four X’ that some advertising makes them out to be. There were a lot of times when I felt like the hick cousin. Australia is not the place it used to be. It’s a sophisticated, multicultural, connected country, and has gone from being perceived as a European backwater to being a country on the edge of Asia, connected to the most dynamic region on the planet, they’re making a fortune from their resources boom – they are making gob-smacking sums of money.

Who were the most interesting people you met while filming?

We met the Finks motorcycle club. The police say biker gangs are involved in ludicrous proportions of the organised crime. The police in Australia say they’re involved in drug production, drug smuggling, murder, arson and anarchy in most forms. We went to see one of the most serious gangs of all, and they were willing to meet us, partly because they like BBC documentaries, I kid you not, and partly because they want to put over their side of the story, and explain that it’s their members not them as a gang. We turned up to meet the hulky, tattooed blokes with biceps the size of my waist and with names like Nick the Knife and Ferret. They were very welcoming, but very intimidating and quite exotically alien in a way that I have rarely experienced on my travels. It was right up there with meeting Mr Big Beard in a market in Mogadishu, and it was happening in an industrial estate outside Brisbane – just completely surreal.

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During all your travelling, have you ever thought: I’m not going to get out of this alive?

Numerous times, to varying degrees of utter terror. I came to a crossroads in Mogadishu while being protected by 12 heavily-armed stoned local mercenaries from one gang, and I also had a flak jacket up against the vehicle to protect me from fire. We collided with members from a rival gang and everyone got out and started screaming – there was absolutely nothing I could do to determine whether I lived or died. Meanwhile, in Australia, filming not far from Alice Springs we were doing a camel round-up, driving around in souped-up Mad Max vehicles, which have got scaffolding and roll cages built into them. We were tearing through the bush to round up these feral animals. They’ve got a huge problem with camels in Australia, around two million of them roam around and drink the local water sources and Aboriginal spiritual watering holes, etc. Anyway, so I had the split second realisation that we were going to hit a tree stump and you do have that split moment where you think – I’m toast. However, we just drove into it and came to an extremely abrupt halt. Another time we were driving along and the ground disappeared beneath us into a riverbed. There have been a lot of times like that. I’ve had malaria, I’ve been shot at, I’ve investigated terrorism. There might be an element of protection that comes from working with the Beeb, but jellyfish don’t care. You have to work as a team and realise the force field of a camera crew may not protect you in certain situations.

You put yourself out there when travelling, is that what you think makes a good travel TV show?

We don’t bullshit, we don’t invent like the way other television offerings might do. Sometimes we may stay in a nice hotel, people quite like exotic and aspirational journeys, but if we stay in a hut infested with maggots or flies – we’re going to film that as well. 

What’s the best county you’ve visited?

I’ve been to a lot, around 110 or 120, but I’ll always be going back to Denmark, I think. That’s where the in-laws are and it’s an antidote to the countries I travel to for work. It’s the least corrupt, jolliest and safest country in the world. There is nowhere that I wouldn’t want to return to, I’ve found appeal everywhere and that is partly because I’m not just looking at the beaches or hotels, I get to discover and meet great people. In Cape York I met an incredible Aboriginal woman who is trying to create a better life for the members of her community, she has been through a lot of suffering, I’d like to meet her again.

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What do you never leave home without?

Several torches – they’ve saved my life on numerous occasions. Also, as well as a multi-tool, I always take flapjacks – in terms of weight and calories, they are very good.

Who’s the most inspirational person you’ve ever met on your travels?

Tangil Raman from Bangladesh, and I can’t help crying when thinking about this. He was my fixer in Bangladesh when I was travelling around the Tropic of Cancer and the Indian Ocean. He’s a very charismatic, energetic and involved guy in a country that is alredy experiencing dramatic environmental changes and where people live amongst Bibilical suffering. Bangladesh is poor, it’s packed, it’s hammered by floods – it suffers. Tangil Raman is an incredible man, who was running a climate change road show explaining to vast crowds of Bangladeshis what was going on in the wider world, to crowds of thirty-forty thousand people each night. I’m constantly reminded, by thinking of him, about the potential for each and every one of us to do amazing things. He was filming in the Sundarbans, the huge area of mangroves with tigers lurking. They had a cook in their party, who said “There is a slave boy in the village over there and he seems very bright, can he work with me?” Tangil said, “No, no no, we can’t have the slave boy in.” This slave boy had been sold off to someone to pay a debt, Tangil “It’s far too dangerous to bring this slave boy.” The chef said, “Oh please please,” and Tangil said, “Oh all right then.” The ‘slave boy’ is now one of the world’s leading experts on tiger conservation. It really gets me, because I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken people around this planet, who live in utterly desperate states, and so many of them could be experts in something. It makes me eternally grateful that I was born in this country, and I have this passport, so I can travel anywhere.

Watch Australia with Simon Reeve at 9pm on Sundays, on BBC2. See below for the trailer…

Photos courtesy of Matt Brandon, Richard Fitzpatrick, BBC,  Luke Gribble, Craig Hastings


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