Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve is the award-winning travel writer's latest BBC series, tracking the coast of this vast region in search of adventure
Simon Reeve is a bestselling author and presenter of the best travel shows to come from the BBC. From Meet The Stans, his introduction to the new states of post-Soviet central Asia, to Places That Don’t Exist, a tour of the world’s unrecognized states, Simon has continually surprised audiences with an unusual, incisive and colourful slant on travel. Following on from his Equator, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn series, “Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve” is a tour around the nations that girdle this vast area: countries of extreme beauty and danger. In this first part of our interview, Simon speaks of his adventures in Somalia, The Seychelles and Oman.
Your travel shows usually take you to extremes, is the Indian Ocean no exception?
Yes, and strangely it is more apparent here than in other places I’ve been to. There’s light and shade throughout the planet, but never so stark as it is in the Indian Ocean. You’ve got the Seychelles just off the coast of Somalia, for instance. The Seychelles is about as good as life gets on earth and Somalia is just about as bad as it gets. This journey really was a journey of extremes – no PR balls about it.
Part of the character of the Indian Ocean is transit, but many people forget that it’s still the highway of the world’s shipping. Does that really come through in your travels?
That very idea was one of the underlying justifications, and the basic idea behind the series. This is an area of the planet that really does matter to all of us. It’s home to so much of the worlds trade; it all flows through it, like oil. As a result, problems and conflicts there affect us all. It’s got great history, wildlife, and issues that we should al know about – and it’s beautiful as well. The general perception from people is that it’s smaller than it actually is. It’s the third largest ocean, covering a vast stretch of the planet. It was the first ocean that was properly explored, too. Our ancestors have sailed it for thousands of years. You really feel that when you travel round it.
Is the Indian Ocean still capable of throwing up real surprises for travelers?
Completely. Take the island of rubbish that’s festering in the Maldives, for example. I thought that was one of the weirdest places we saw. The Maldives is a paradise on earth, and as close to natural perfection as I’ve seen, yet they are just as prone to the same problems as the rest of us. It was upsetting to see just round the corner this island that’s had all their rubbish dumped on it: tonnes of it arrive every day, into this festering landfill that was once a pristine coral island. The rubbish is now cascading off the edge of the island into the sea, there’s so much of it. It was disgusting, toxic really – you were gagging from the fumes from where they are burning it to try and get rid of it. I was baffled by the fact that this is just a short distance from the capital of the Maldives, but to their credit the government didn’t stop us visiting it. People in the Maldives express a lot of concern about the changing environment of the planet, so they’re conscious of their environmental responsibility. They get their living from people flying round the planet to get there, but then they’re really worried about climate change and sea levels.
One destination that many won’t have heard of is the Musandam Peninsula – even though it’s in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes! Where is it – and why is it so secluded?
It’s a small part of Oman that’s separated from the rest of the country, and surrounded by the UAE. It’s an ancient part of Oman, and quite a sleepy little place that’s a total contrast with its neighbours, Dubai and UAE. Roads only arrived there a decade or so ago, and people live at a different pace of life. Remember that Omanis are one of the original seafaring empires, with a culture that goes back centuries. One of the great surprises in Musandam was that Iranians come across the Strait of Hormuz on superfast, supercharged speedboats smuggling white goods across to Iran. There are dozens and dozens of them roaring across the straits, dodging supertankers and coastguard to get fridges back to Iran to avoid sanctions and Iranian government restrictions on imports. There’s something very odd about it, because it connects you suddenly with other places in the area. You realise you’re very close to a very tricky and troubled part of the planet.
The Indian Ocean is also home to several superpowers, but did you feel their presence across the whole region?
You don’t feel these smaller countries are being overshadowed, but you can feel the presence. Not in a negative way, either. Smaller powers are being wooed by big superpowers, which they really love. You feel it less in the Musandam peninsula, which is strange considering you’ve got Iran over the straits and the US fleet down the coast in Bahrain. It’s the most important piece of water on the planet, a choke point on the gulf that controls the oil. You do feel it in Mauritius and Sri Lanka though, where India and China are getting a foothold. Of course, the USA is still the dominant force in the Indian Ocean, but China is building a naval force that will soon be able to project its presence into the Indian Ocean – and beyond.
At the other extreme, you have places like the Andaman Islands near Indonesia, where some tribes are practically uncontacted. Did you avoid them on purpose?
We didn’t get to the Andaman Islands, and I kind of regret it a way. After we left that part of the world, we heard stories about Indian tourists going there in a very negative way to basically go on these voyeuristic, awful tours through tribal areas, offering chocolate bars to locals who are reduced to begging by the side of the road. We missed a trick by not getting that info in advance. The Indian officials in charge seem to be being bribed to let these people in. This is a place that the Indians were meant to be protecting and looking after, and they’ve failed in that respect.
Your journey took you to Somalia, whose pirates are constantly in western news. Is it a local problem as well, or just a threat to western ships and tourists?
I think the focus has been entirely on the threat piracy poses to western ships or rich white yacht owners. Of course, if you go on holiday and you’re taken hostage that is a catastrophe for you and your loved ones, but you shouldn’t forget there are several hundred sailors from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Thailand who are being held along the coast of Somalia as well, and that local fishermen around the coast are also deeply affected by the piracy problem that plagues the western Indian Ocean. In the north of Kenya, for example we met communities of fishermen who are frightened to go to sea because they are harassed, beaten and robbed by pirates. It affects much more than wealthy foreigners and western shipping.
So what lies behind the piracy problem? Did you meet any on your travels?
Yes, we met pirates who were in jail in Somaliland and The Seychelles. They tried to explain to us how they first went to sea as pirates. There was, and is, no real government in Somalia. These guys were originally fishermen that were angry about people coming in from abroad and fishing in their waters, so they went to sea to scare them off and then thought, “Hang on, we’re Somalis, we’ve got guns, there’s no government, we could kidnap these people and take their boats.” That‘s how they started doing it, and it’s become a massive industry. Part of the reason we went to Somalia was to try and learn a bit more of this back story, as well as showing the reality of life there today. What is happening there really matters to all of us, not just the military threat on land but also the pirate epidemic. The problem is at sea, but it can only be solved on land.
Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve is on BBC 2, Sunday nights at 8pm from 22 April.