Taking a chance and turning left instead of right can lead us down new paths – to discover more about the wild world around us, according to TV presenter, author and explorer Simon Reeve as he prepares for his new tour, which comes to New Theatre Oxford in October.
Simon’s own experiences of growing up in inner city London, escaping from a mental health crisis to flee to Scotland and finding his feet – quite literally – see him well placed to suggest ways others can discover more personal wild moments.
And he hopes his latest tour, To The Ends Of The Earth, which sees him visiting 36 towns and cities across the country in October and November, will encourage people to take a few more risks and find the value in nature, wherever it may be.
“I loved getting out there and being with a live audience on my last tour, and that was a big part of wanting to do another,” Simon said.
“But the real motivation was that I was getting a bit depressed about the state of the world and how digital our lives were becoming, and I want to remind audiences there’s a really beautiful, wild world out there for us to love and experience, individually and collectively.
“My theme for the tour is ‘wild places exist, and we need to find them’. There’s not much in life that I am sure about, but I am sure about this.
“The value of getting into nature is very simple, whether it’s a local park, a remote national park, or somewhere elsewhere in a far-flung corner of Planet Earth. It all counts.”
Simon, whose travels and award-winning TV series have taken him to more than 130 countries, across jungles, deserts, mountains and oceans, acknowledges many people reconnected with their local world in recent times due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and is keen to remind us not to forget those moments.
“Millions of people reassessed their lives during the pandemic, and while yes it was hellish in a lot of ways, it gave people time and space to reconnect with their local area,” he said.
“We were forced to stay close to home, and there is something powerful in re-discovering what is around you, seeing it with fresh eyes.
Even by just turning left instead of right on a walk or run, you can have a completely new experience, adding a heightened sense of value to your love of the place.
“Going wild can be in any environment – whether the inner city or a remote island. The important thing is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things, which help us see the world differently and prompt us to raise our eyes from that screen we all carry with us.
“Noticing nature around you is a bloody tonic. It’s a lot cheaper than therapy or other exercise but super-valuable for us as individuals and collectively.
“So if you aren’t great at taking chances or eating in restaurants that don’t have photos of the food outside, come along and let’s see if I can persuade you to have a few more adventures.”
On his new theatre tour, Simon says he’s also planning to talk about the craziest places he’s been, the adventures he’s had and the amazing people he’s met. “I’m really hoping to inspire people with my tales, and I’m planning to tell some stories I’ve never shared before, about my adventures and also about my background.”
Simon, best known for his travel documentaries combining current affairs, history, wildlife, culture and conservation, followed a far-from-conventional route to a life in the spotlight.
Making petrol bombs at 11, on the brink of suicide at age 16, and chancing upon a job as a newspaper post-boy, Simon is all too aware that while he now speaks from a position of privilege, it wasn’t always the case.
“I don’t come from an outdoorsy, wild background,” he explains. “I grew up in inner-city London, didn’t get on a plane until I was working as an adult, and that was only to Newcastle.
“The Great Outdoors started out as a mental health tonic for me. One of my real formative experiences as a lad – I was on the dole, very depressed, stood on a motorway bridge – was when I went wild to Scotland on my own and found a shed-load of physical self-confidence, exploring and discovering and feeling the grass under my feet.
“That kind of experience can truly transform a person.
“We have been lulled into thinking that we can experience the world via our screens, but the benefits to head health of being in nature and getting wild are so much greater.”
Simon has spoken of the life-changing – or perhaps more realistically life “saving” experience of climbing in Glencoe in Scotland, shortly after stepping back from the brink where he’d stood on a motorway bridge preparing to jump, and how the lessons he learnt at that moment have carried him through life since.
“That experience, getting on a train to Scotland, climbing Glencoe in jeans and trainers – I shouldn’t have made it up and back safely, but I did.
“The most useful mental health tonic I had in the darkest time of my life was to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving, and I’ve found that ever since.
“That simple action provides help, answers and solutions to almost everything I come up against. The simple act of moving, ideally in Mother Nature, gives you self-respect, mental openness and clears the head. And when I found that, and realised the value, I knew I wanted to share that knowledge with others.”
Besides sharing the many benefits of getting into the great outdoors on his new theatre tour, Simon also plans to share his experience of nature in a broader sense – talking about ecosystems around the world and the impact humankind has had on the planet.
“I’ve travelled through so many completely different environments and am looking forward to sharing some of that… What it’s like to be in the desert, in the mountains, the coldest places on the planet, and all the other extreme locations I’ve visited.
“In terms of learning about myself and the world around us, almost everywhere I’ve visited has taught me something. But there are also specific people who have opened a page in a book at a particular time or shone a light on something which has surprised me.
“I’ve met some incredible people in remote parts of the world with very different outlooks on life. In the developed world, we are very much about driving forward, acquiring, and insulating ourselves from the outside world and other humans. But I’ve spent time in remote communities where everyone is raising children together in solidarity, and it’s breathtaking to see.
“A big lesson for me has been staying with people who take what they need from Mother Nature, not what they want. Their footprint is so small and delicate that their impact on the world is very different to our own. I’ll talk about some of those remote communities on my tour – I won’t romanticise their lives, and often, there is comparative poverty, but it’s worth being reminded of those ways of living.
“Nobody who travels should be unaware of the impact of our journeys or our lives on Mother Nature.
“Everywhere I go to, the impact of modern world is visible, or the consequences of burning fossil fuels, plastic pollution etc. It’s seen all around the planet; there’s plastic at the deepest depths of the oceans and at the top of the tallest mountains.”
While keen to encourage responsible tourism and travel and seeing sights beyond the obvious, Simon – described as ‘British television’s most adventurous traveller’ – also reminds people that exploration is a ‘fundamental’ part of human nature.
“There is an enormous value to travel,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget we have done it since the beginning of our species. It is part of human history, and we need it in our lives.
“It’s a fundamental aspect of our humanity, that desire to see what’s around the corner or over the next hill. We haven’t just done it to look for food but for adventure and experiences.
“We need to hold on to the idea of travel and to do it responsibly. I’m always keen to nag people to not just sit by a pool. Get up, get out and go, and do things when they are away.
“Obviously, I’ve got no right to tell people how to live their lives, but I still want to remind them they can have seriously enriching experiences when they step out of their comfort zone. I don’t want people to think they can’t do ‘adventures’.
“We, humans, are incredible. The world is amazing.”
While he’s travelled the world in the years since scaling Glencoe as a trainer-wearing teen, Simon hasn’t (yet) been back to the summit where he reassessed his life and found a new verve. And he hopes to be joined by a special companion when he gets around to a future return trip.
“In a way, Glencoe is the place where it all began for me. I do want to go back there, and soon, with my son. He’s 11 now and doing so much better at life than I was at that age… He’s not off making petrol bombs!
“It’s a challenge bringing up kids in today’s world. We want to keep them safe, but we want them to flap their wings and fly as well. So we are all looking for ways to get them outdoors to discover themselves and take risks which can, yes, be uncomfortable and scary.
“Balancing reality and screens is a huge issue for parents, whether you’re in a town or in the countryside. It is in our family too, as we try to balance what’s fair and right. I don’t want my son to miss out on playing screen games with his mates, but I also want him to have meaningful experiences away from all that.
“Kids also need to be bored so they find their own ideas and games. I know, for me, those moments when you’re on your own and away from screens are when I get time to think and dream.”
With destinations just this year, including the likes of Indonesia, Patagonia and the Kalahari Desert, what is it that Simon dreams about?
“Places like that are reminders that there are still pristine, beautiful environments that deserve and need to be protected,” he says.
“As humans, we’ve left our mark on the world, and that can’t be easily wiped out. It’s an impact that future generations will be shaking their heads at on our behalf. But we can certainly still protect and save beautiful and diverse life on the planet.
“It’s one of the greatest challenges we face, and we need to do it by changing our behaviour, managing what we have got and making more sustainable choices.
Simon wants to remind us that the greatest benefit of travelling and going on adventures is actually the chance to meet other people: “Hand-in-hand with that dream of supporting Mother Nature, my journeys are about people, and that’s what viewers remember and talk to me about. I love that.
“There are eight billion human beings on his planet – that’s eight billion different stories to be told.