“A lot of us in the west have lost contact with the natural world,” says Kate Humble ahead of her new BBC2 show Living with Nomads, which sees her meet hunter-gatherers in Nepal, reindeer herders in Siberia and goat and yak herders in Mongolia.
Humble admits she wanted to be a nomad when she was younger, and glamorised this free way of living outside of society. “It’s easy to romanticise nomadic life, and I did for years,” explains Humble. “Now I’ve lived cheek by jowl with three different nomadic groups, there are still things about it that hugely appeal to me, but there are a lot of things that are affecting nomadic groups in the 21st century that they have no control over,” she says. “They have a place in the world that we don’t inhabit anymore.”
Previously journeying 2,000 miles across the Middle East, living with Wakhi locals in northeast Afghanistan and exploring the local customs of Madagascar, Humble is as intrepid as travellers come and believes we can learn a huge amount from venturing into the wild.
“If you are of that mindset, go and spend time with people who live differently from us, there is so much to learn from them and such extraordinary knowledge,” says Humble.
“The route of our discontent and misery in the west is that we don’t know what our identities are,” says Humble. “[Nomads] have a sense of purpose and contentment that we’ve lost, and that’s enviable.” She offers seven top tips for journeying into the wilderness…
Be sure you want to go off the beaten track
“If you get out there and two hours into your walk you decide you don’t like it, you’re scuppered,” explains Humble. “You have to think about the reason you’re doing it, what’s inspired you to do it. The first time I went to Afghanistan, for example, I went in a group with a guide – it was a really useful thing to do. Having a guide doesn’t mean you’re a wimp, it means that you’ve got a really good font of local knowledge with you… Where’s the fun in scaring yourself rigid everyday?”
Do your research
“Sometimes when you are going to places that are off the beaten track, things that you think are normal behavior are not,” explains Humble. “I went to Madagascar about 20 years ago, we put our rucksacks on and started walking through a region called the Central Highlands. I’d done quite a lot of reading beforehand, which is a great thing to do. I was aware of this system called ‘fady’ – the easiest way to describe it is ‘taboo’. Every village and community in the Central Highlands has their own system of fady. As a stranger or foreigner you have to make it your duty to find out what is taboo, otherwise you could put your foot in it massively and cause all sorts of untold rifts within that community. The advice we were given is that when you get to a community, ask for the head man. Due to language barriers the person we would be taken to almost always was the local teacher, who would speak a bit of French. We would then find out where we could camp, where we couldn’t drink the water because it was fady, perhaps they prefer you to not eat meat in this village only vegetables. We found out things that allowed us to not put our foot in it. If you haven’t done it before – consider going with an organised group.”
Choose where you want to go carefully
“You need to think about the impact you are going to have on other people,” explains Humble. “I was at 5,000 metres in Peru and at 4,500 metres in Afghanistan. I swell up at altitude, I look hideous, like some kind of cosmetic surgery disaster, but I feel fine. For everyone else looking at me it’s not very pleasant but I can cope, I’m not going to have a major disaster that’s going to put other people at risk or in a position where they have to save my life. It’s useful to not do something so extreme that you put the onus on other people. Local people will feel an enormous amount of responsibility for your wellbeing and safety, even if you don’t ask for it.”
“You wont always be able to get stuff you need in off the beaten track places,” advises Humble. “Even when you’re in a big city on your way to getting off the beaten track it’s not necessarily going to have the resources that you’re used to at home. Don’t think, I’ll get out there and I’ll buy a penknife and a stove. Think about what you need and be prepared. Make sure you have the right sort of clothing, make sure you have the right sort of medicine, take a first aid kit. I’m completely anti-hand gel, I think it’s ridiculous, but for god’s sake take some plasters and some Asprin. Have a think about what might hit you when you’re out there. You might get an upset stomach, not because the food is bad, but because it’s different. Take a good supply of medicines you know work for you, and make sure that you’re self-sufficient. Don’t buy a tent and take it with you wrapped in its plastic. Take it out in you garden or the front yard and have a go at putting it up, practice putting it up. Check all your kit rigorously.”
Take something from home
“If you know you are going to be relying on the generosity of people, take something that allows you to reach out,” says Humble. “Have you got some postcards or pictures from home, taking something that allows you to give something in return for a kind gesture or hospitality. If you take somebody’s photograph it might be impossible to get someone those photographs, but try. In Afghanistan, one of the organisations that helped us was actually a wildlife conservation charity called WTF, and they were based in the valley that we were in. We knew that they had contact with the people we’d met and we could send them stuff and they could pass it on. It’s really important to take something; it doesn’t need to be heavy or expensive. Slip in a couple of extra t-shirts that you can leave behind.”
“This is something I learned from Alexis Girardet, who’s the director of Living with Nomads,” says Humble. “He’s an old hand at this kind of stuff. He has what he called the ‘Delhi Peli’. When we’re moving delicate stuff like camera kit, we use what are called Pelican cases – these are indestructible, float on water, and amazing hard plastic cases. Alexis has a Pelican case full of treats. His treats might be a very nice bottle of red wine, some nice chocolates, and some lovely nuts, whatever he feels like. I know it sounds ridiculously frivolous but there are times when a treat is exactly what you need to life your spirits at the end of the day. When I first when to Afghanistan I was slightly scathing at people who thought they had to bring things from home. I thought – you’re coming to a place you should immerse yourself, eat local food and be fine. That first time in Afghanistan all we could get was plastic cheese, Russian salad in a tin and really nasty pilchards. When a man on the trip brought out a Waitrose fruitcake, he was practically killed for it. It’s really worth taking some little treats with you to perk things up when you’ve had enough of boil-in-the-bag food.”
Take some entertainment
“For me its books, because I might spend an awfully long time on buses or sitting waiting for a local bus,” says Humble. “If you’re heading out to the middle of nowhere, having reading material is essential for me. For some people it’s games or videos (but you do have to remember that you’re probably not going to be able to charge anything up). Every publisher in the land is probably going to hate me – but a kindle is a fantastic thing. I went cycling in Cuba one year, before Kindles were invented, and in my paniers there was one T-shirt and one pair of pants and the rest was books. I was very smelly, anti-social and could barely pedal my bike. The Kindle for me is an absolute revolution and it’s got a battery life of about a month. Take something that is going to help you while away the bored times. I was stranded in Madagascar for three days, because there was no bus, I was in a place where there was quite simply nothing – you have to have some kind of resource that is going to keep you sane.”
Watch Living with Nomads at 9pm, Fridays, BBC2