You are one of the country’s best-loved travelogue writers. Have you always been inquisitive?
I have. I’ve always been fascinated by knowledge, by learning things, by having experiences. I certainly didn’t shine at school, but I loved finding information outside of it – I was inquisitive in the sense that I always wanted to know what was over the next hill. When I was young my world was quite restricted. I grew up in Acton, West London, and my life tended to revolve around my little part of London rather than London as a whole. One of the most enjoyable things I can ever remember doing was my gran would take my brother and I on “mystery tours”, when she would pop us in the car and give us control of whatever direction we wanted to go in. It was a means of exploring in a safe environment, and I believe important in the development of my interests as well.
Did you travel in your childhood?
My childhood holidays were in Dorset, mostly to a place near Studland. It has what I believe to be one of the best beaches in the UK, and is still very special to me. We used to rent a tiny little cottage and go there twice a year. It was a more innocent time so we could go off exploring, in a way that you might not let your kids do now.
How did you get into journalism?
I left school at 17 and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had dreams and thought journalism could be interesting but had no connection to it. I was on the dole for a bit, then my dad saw an advert in the newspaper for a post boy at The Sunday Times and I somehow got the job. I was very excited because suddenly a whole new world was opened up to me – I was working with grown-ups in an incredibly proactive environment and ready to jump on any editorial opportunities. Because my job involved getting to know who everyone was quickly, I soon identified who was influential and started badgering them to give me some extra work. Eventually some kindly souls took pity on me and got me to do some chores, which then built and built. By the time I was 19 I was doing basic research into the smuggling of nuclear materials and some quite serious arms-dealing investigations. My big break was finding a couple of South African terrorists on the run in the UK, though I was actually late to meet them because I’d gone to the post office in Lincolnshire to send a postcard to my mum!
Your first book The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism was a New York Times bestseller after the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. Where did your interest in terrorism stem from?
The more I’d found out about the South African terrorists the more intrigued I was by terrorism. These people had had a significant impact on the peace process in South Africa – they’d blown up taxi ranks and killed innocent people – and yet they were fundamentally really pathetic individuals. Once I’d seen how ridiculous and socially inadequate they were I was amazed what they were capable of and the subject became even more interesting to me, so I did some investigations. Then in 1993, mysterious figures attacked the World Trade Centre for the first time and I started looking into it within a few hours.
Was it for work or your own interest?
Both really. The beauty of my career is that it has been the chance to explore what I find interesting, while earning a living at the same time. I started working on it personally and we wrote a couple of articles for the paper, and then public interest subsided. But the more I researched, the more I realised that there was a much bigger story behind the scenes, so I came up with the idea of writing a book when I was 21. It was outrageous, but I was young, I didn’t have any responsibilties. It took about five years to research and write it.
How did you conduct your research?
I was just pulling in information from all sorts of places. I didn’t have a lot of money but I had a lot of time, so I was able to track people down.
I tracked down militants, friends of the new group that we now call al-Qaeda, FBI agents, Pakistani intelligence, and because people weren’t really listening to them I think they were quite pleased to speak out. It was very exciting – I was meeting with Benazir Bhutto, special agents, covert agents, all kinds of people – but it was also quite lonely as well, because it was just me working from home.
What was the reception when the book was published?
There wasn’t much of a reception really, there was one very negative article in The Sunday Times, that basically said my theory that this group had aims for an apocalyptic attack one day was ridiculous and I was quite wounded by it. No one took much notice until 9/11 happened and it was the only book on al-Qaeda or Bin Laden on the bookshelves.
Was it odd suddenly being called upon as a terrorism expert following the attacks in 2001?
It was very bizarre, even more so because my father had just died so I was in the midst of trying to deal with being knocked sideaways, when suddenly something I’d written a book about was not just the story of the moment but perhaps the biggest news event of modern history. I had spent a lot of time in the Towers and I knew people who died, it was just awful. Within minutes of it happening my phone was ringing for comment and it didn’t stop for two years. My world changed on that day – I was one of the only people who’d written extensively about it, so I had film crews turning up at my home and places I’d lived previously, it was a crazy time. And it was frightening – I got calls from a lot of people in power who should have known about this group, who needed to have it explained to them by a young British hack who’d written a book on zero budget. It was an extraordinary responsibility.
I still ask myself, ‘Did I say and do the right things?’ I always go for a peace and love approach but a lot of people just wanted to know, ‘Where are they and what size bombs can we drop on them?’
Then you went on to tackle a range of issues in your travelogues, from political corruption to the damaging effects of tourism…
After 9/11 I did a lot of TV punditry, and then started talking with the BBC about other parts of the world they should be interested in, and it just evolved from there. The first one I did was Holidays in the Danger Zone: Meet the Stans, which was a journey around central Asia. I’d done nothing like it before so it was hugely exciting and adventurous – thousands of miles travelling across this huge area that no one knew anything about. There are still parts of this world that the rest of the planet doesn’t really know are there. Nobody goes there and life continues as it has for thousands of years.
Is it satisfying to tackle issues that are often left out of the public eye?
Initially I wasn’t so conscious of ‘I am conveying this information to other people’, it was more ‘I am learning this information for myself and having a conversation with my friend who was holding the camera’. It was very much like a video diary, very unscripted and unstructured, which is the way we wanted it. The tricky aspect is working out what story you want to put across to the viewer and showing it visually. You can’t just talk about an event that happened in the past.
Are there are any experiences that particularly affected you?
There are endless, and I’m quite an emotional person so I put myself mentally and emotionally into the life of the people I meet, and their experiences stay with me. Most recently I walked from a remote part of India into Burma, where the Chin people live. These people are having a very tough time under the military dictatorship in Burma, and live essentially under military occupation, in a way that is not dissimilar to living in German-occupied France in World War II. They live in constant fear that soldiers could turn up at any time and take their cattle, their wives or just randomly kill, and to experience that fear – even for a very short period of time – was a hugely emotional experience that still brings a lump to my throat now. Another memory that’s always stayed with me is from when I was travelling around the Equator – I went to the Dadaab refugee camp on the border between Kenya and Somalia, which houses 160,000 Somali refugees from the war who’ve been there for over 15 years. They’re not allowed to go further into Kenya and they don’t want to go back, so they’re trapped there in no man’s land – they’re allowed to move only within four kilometres of their camp. While I was there I met a 17-year-old girl called Fatima who had lived there her entire life. She was amazingly bright and had picked up fluent English from the aid workers but was trapped without any hope of change on the horizon. It felt so wrong to be waving her off and boarding a plane just because I had that magical thing – a British passport. Fatima will always be my reminder of the awesome privilege that travelling is. I think there’s a risk of us taking it for granted.
Have people always been welcoming?
Surprisingly, yes. When I first started going to more far-flung places I thought people in troubled countries would hate us, but they’re desperate for the rest of the world to take an interest in them so they’re actually fantastically welcoming. In a way that – as much as I love this country – I know that people wouldn’t be as welcoming if a Kazakh or Congolese film crew turned up here.
Do you ever feel frustrated by the amount of airtime that our celebrity culture gets?
I think it’s sad that people need to live their lives through other people’s. There’s no excuse for it, you can hop on a plane now and have your own extraordinary experience. I think we’re living through a unique period – our ancestors never had the oppurtunity to travel like we do now, and I suspect and fear that our generations to come will not be able to travel the way we can now.
What do you think about carbon offsetting?
I think it’s an attempt to legitimise unsustainable behaviour. I hope that because I only fly long-haul for work and what I’m filming is about how the world is changing, that is some kind of justification for the trips we do. I live a fairly frugal life in Britain but even so it’s going to be the equivalent of a small African town, that’s the reality of being a Brit. It worries me when I’m in Bangladesh, seeing people lose their homes because of climate change. I think one of the trends in travel in years to come will be that people will try and get more out of their trip and have a purpose for the journey, whether it’s finding some remote community that’s desperate for 10 sets of spectacles and taking those with you, or whatever. There are ways of making a journey more interesting and justifiable.
Your new BBC series, Tropic of Cancer, is airing this month. Did you enjoy filming the last of the trilogy?
It’s by far the biggest journey and project I’ve ever done – it’ll be two years roughly from beginning to end. I travelled in 18 countries, to some of the most remote parts of the world, from the most remote island chain on the planet to parts of south-east Asia where they had never seen foreigners before. Hopefully you get a snapshot of life at the edge of this most fantastic and fantastical part of our planet. The Tropics have the most biodiversity, two-thirds of the human population of the world and the greatest concentration of human suffering, so for me it’s an exploration of the most interesting part of the world.
What was your highlight?
Obviously every leg of the journey had its charms and delights, but travelling across parts of the Sahara was jaw-droppingly beautiful. I remember we were camping at a really remote edge of the Sahara, we got a fire going and our guide was cooking some bread in the sand, and this Tuareg nomad appeared out of the darkness and came and sat by our fire. The code of the desert is if you see a fire, you can go over and share food. He ate with us and then just went off into the darkness.
Have you ever got into trouble for anything you’ve reported?
I was arrested by the KGB once when we were filming for Places That Don’t Exist. We were in Transnistria, which is a breakaway state between Moldova and Ukraine, and were caught red-handed creeping through bushes trying to film a secret Russian military base. The KGB turned up, took us away for questioning and then locked us in a cell. I was pretty worried because we were in a country with no diplomatic links with Britain. Luckily I had told one of our guides a couple of days before that my distant ancestor supposedly was involved with the architect Christopher Wren – my family’s one claim to fame, and the guide turned up at the KGB headquarters and said, ‘What are you doing? He’s related to the Queen of England!’ So the KGB let us go in the middle of the night and gave us cap badges as a souvenir; it was bizarre.
Have there been any moments travelling when you’ve feared for your life?
I’ve been to Mogadishu in Somalia which is perhaps the most dangerous place in the world for a white European and I was very scared – there are people with guns everywhere. But most frightening moments happen when we’re on the road. We’ll meet a tree trunk or a bull and the drivers are usually driving too quickly. When we were in Laos, we were driving with a de-mining charity and the driver pulled over because he saw some rocks in the middle of the road, which turned out to be a cluster bomb! There have been lots of times that I’ve feared for my life but for some reason when you’re filming you feel like you’re in a forcefield. I definitely feel braver and less vulnerable when the camera’s rolling.
Do you have any tips for getting underneath the surface of a culture?
I would say walk, go beyond the gates of your all-inclusive hotel. Walking will mean you interact with where you are and you’ll meet people.
I was walking around Taipei in Taiwan, and it was only by walking that I noticed that they paint their electricity substations on the side of the road with murals. Taiwan is so well-run that they beautify their country to that extent.
Often potential risks can put people off travelling to lesser-known locations; do you have any advice for staying safe?
My number one piece of advice is to wear a seatbelt. So often people go abroad to a country where you don’t even have to pass a driving test and think it’s fine not to wear a seatbelt. In my job I am more likely to die in a traffic accident than anything else, and the same goes for most people abroad. Generally the world is a safe place and the dangerous parts are easily identifiable. Go with your gut feeling, don’t walk around with your gold bracelet dangling out, try and blend in and walk with a purpose.
Where, if anywhere, remains on your wishlist of places to visit?
West Africa, Russia, Japan and Canada. I’ve been to nearly all the former Soviet countries but not the motherland. I want to go to Japan because everyone says it’s like visiting another planet, Canada because it’s big and beautiful, and I would quite like to do more outdoorsy stuff, and West Africa because that part of the continent I haven’t visited and it sounds amazing.
If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
It would be between Denmark and Greece. I judge where I’ve been by Somalia in terms of it being one of the most conflict-ridden, corrupt states, in contrast with Denmark, which I believe is the least corrupt and happiest. My wife is half-Danish and they’re lovely people, and I love Greece too – it’s beautiful with a stunning coast, fantastic food and ancient culture.
What do you miss most when you’re travelling?
Family and friends, home, Hampstead Heath, Radio 4 and Innocent drinks, probably in that order.
Do you see yourself making travelogues for the forseeable future?
I’d like to, it’s a fascinating and fortunate job. I get to explore the world, learn about our planet and meet really wonderful people. It’s been an amazing experience and a privilege.