On a wet, windy evening in the city of Bath, the Forum opened its doors to an expectant and intrigued crowd, all of whom had come to see Simon Reeve, in what was a sold-out venue.
It would be selling Simon Reeve short to describe him as well-travelled, as the 51-year-old who comes from humble beginnings in Acton, West London is a globetrotter extraordinaire who has documented his nature and travel documentaries for the BBC across a stellar 30-year career in media.
Simon Reeve’s talk began where his journey started, with stories from the jungle and his first big primetime show for the BBC – a six-part series that would take viewers on an adventure along the Equator.
Across the course of the evening, Reeve took us from the wet to the dry places and from the hot to the cold, with anecdotes from the permafrost of Greenland to the dense jungle canopy of Burma.
The hot and the cold, the wet and the dry
With Reeve’s journeys taking place at a time of unprecedented global warming and industrial expansion across the Global South, Reeve has had a unique view of the destruction of some of Earth’s most precious and important ecosystems.
Reeve described how the Amazon has been particularly affected, with the indigenous communities that have lived there for millions of years in a harmonious relationship with nature now finding that their way of life is being threatened by factors they have no control over.
One particular community known as the Wayampi tribe are one of the Amazon’s oldest communities. The group, who have been described as the ‘guardians of the earth’, are one of many native communities that struggle to comprehend the ‘intellectual idea’ of harming our environment.
Reeve described how the Wayampi have a rare hierarchical structure in which females are in charge, something that has often occurred in the past and which their chief Nazare has brought into the present.
According to Reeve, Nazare brought the idea of environmental protection back to simplicity, with the tribe leader saying how “if we harm the environment, we harm ourselves”. While the Wayampi only came into contact with other humans fifty years ago, the community have quickly realised that they need to protect their ecosystem. Nazare’s son, Visali, described how the Wayampi “will not tolerate the destruction of our land”.
Another area of environmental importance that Reeve has visited on his extensive voyages is the Central African country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo is home to a lesser known but equally as significant carbon store – the peatlands of the Congo Rainforest – which after the Amazon is the second largest tropical forest in the world.
Reeve was keen to emphasise this environmental importance as the peatlands of the Congo rainforest store the equivalent amount of carbon that is 20 years’ worth of USA fossil fuel emissions. Furthermore, this Central African country is a hub for biodiversity – for insects, plants and animals alike.
Among the diverse flora and fauna exists the Bonobo monkey, a human’s closest living relative. Humans and Bonobo monkeys share a remarkable 98.7% of each other’s DNA, however, the Bonobo are surprisingly understudied, only being recognised as a separate type of ape in 1929.
Reeve described how the Bonobo monkey, similar to the Wayampi tribe, has a unique social hierarchy with females in charge. However, the real point of interest in Reeve’s story was the uncharacteristic way of settling disputes for monkeys which is often done through sex, and with greetings between the monkeys also done more intimately, with Reeve imaginatively describing it as a “Bonobo Handshake”.
Away from the hot and wet, Reeve went on to describe his time in the tundra landscapes of Greenland and Siberia. Greenland, which is owned by Denmark, is the second largest island in the world after Australia and is known for its cold climate.
Here, Reeve described how he found himself hiking for days on end across an ice sheet that was up to a mile deep in some places, and resting on top of a colander-like shape. Once again, Reeve was keen to point out the key role that Greenland plays in regulating our climate.
Holding trillions and trillions of tons worth of ice, the glaciers and ice sheets help to store huge amounts of water and if temperatures were to rise, the melting of this stored water would lead to a potential rise of sea levels by up to seven meters, a consequence that would have catastrophic impacts.
Elsewhere, this time in Siberia for his documentary on the Trans-Siberian Express, Reeve described how Russia’s security force, the Federal Security Service (FSB), would give them a difficult time. Upon touchdown, in the remotest terrain of Russia, Reeve and his small tight-knit group of producers and cameramen were asked to empty all of their bags and equipment which was rigorously checked for any potential espionage devices.
While the FSB checked the equipment, someone whom Reeve titled “the work experience guy” due to his oversized suit and boyish looks was whining and whimpering about how Russia lost the Cold War.
Bemused by the spectacle, Reeve and his team were eventually allowed to pass on. However, it was a sign of things to come. Reeve described how the trip was marked by the “constant harassment” of the Russian security services, who cited their new and demanding boss “Benz” whenever coming into contact with Reeve. Regular pullovers by the Russian police became common as well as operatives indiscreetly following them wherever they went.
Eventually, Reeve and his team found themselves detained by the local Russian police unit, who were once again operating under the orders of “Benz”. Despite the Russian’s police notorious reputation, the local police station seemed to have no desire to hold onto Reeve and his camera crew with the police force encouraging them to leave before Benz returned.
With the help of the local police officers, a train was stopped to let them board and flee the region. However, as the bags were piled onto the train, Reeve recollected how he saw a rather ominous figure approach the platform. As the man approached, the police parted with Reeve assuming this was the notorious Benz.
As the ominous figure approached, he pulled down his hood to reveal… “the work experience guy”. The notorious figure who was shrouded under a cloud of secrecy happened to be the guy at airport security who was still holding grudges over the Cold War.
Reeve would later learn that “Benz” earned his nickname after he was exiled from Moscow to the Russian Far East after he was part of a group of FSB graduates that had partied through the streets of Russia’s capital in Mercedes trucks which compromised their identities.
Reeve’s story detailing his experience with the less-than-scary “Benz” was one of many that kept the viewer entertained throughout what was a comical, knowledgeable and inspiring first half of the talk.
A personal note to end the show
As the second half of the talk commenced, Reeve drifted away from discussing his travels to more personal stories of his life.
Photos from Reeve’s childhood flash up behind him, with one showing him as a young boy doing his first paper round, a humble start to what would turn out to be a stellar career. Dressed up for his first day of work and holding the local newspaper, Reeve laughed at the title on show with Acton’s local paper reading “Pet corner at park disgusting – WOMEN”.
Next up for Reeve in the media world was a job as a post boy at The Times newspaper in London. Keen to make a good impression, Reeve would speak to the journalists as he passed on their necessary papers during the day.
Eventually, Reeve described how he was taken on by a ‘mentor’ and quickly progressed onto The Times’ investigative journalism board. By the age of 23, Reeve was working on some serious investigations, one of which we will discuss below.
After learning the address of an arms dealer by pretending to work for British Telecom, Reeve dressed up as a homeless man with a fake beard before making camp under a staircase across the road to keep watch.
Quickly Reeve learnt that he wasn’t the only one watching the arms dealers’ enclave with MI5 quickly coming over to speak to Reeve fearing that their operation may be under threat due to his ‘slipshod’ journalism approach.
After speaking with MI5, Reeve spoke about how he was recommended to high-ranking officials at the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and Pakistani officials. A young reporter at the time, he was keen to write a book on the new terrorism threats after the terror attack at the World Trade Centre in 1993.
Reeve recounted how it was his knack for asking questions that got him so far in writing this book, having sat in on important meetings for both US and UK security forces.
With Reeve’s book published, entailing information on terror suspects including Osama bin Laden, Reeve described how years later after the 9/11 terror attacks he would experience a surge of requests for media and TV appearances due to being one of the only people to write a book on the notorious Al-Qaeda leader.
As the talk started to draw to a close, Reeve drifted away from the journey of his career and onto his family and personal struggles. The 51-year-old stressed how much his wife, whom he met at the BBC, and his son, Jake, meant to him.
Reeve was also keen to point out the importance of people having adventures and going “to the ends of the earth”. Reeve explained that these journeys did not have to be far, as for him when he was a child, East London was the “ends of the earth”!
The travel extraordinaire wanted to also encourage people to get out into nature, using the phrase “less screen time, more green time”. He told us not to get caught up in the digital world and instead to have “real experiences” in the “real world”.
Overall, Reeve’s talk was a stimulating one, full of rousing experiences and countless remarkable anecdotes, from the extreme places that Reeve has visited to his personal stories and challenges, with an overarching theme throughout the talk being that of looking after the world we live in and also making the most from our beautiful green spaces.