[1 September 2009]
BBC presenter Simon Reeve circled the globe in the 2006 BBC show Equator. This time, he has tackled the Tropic of Capricorn for TV, while also writing a companion book. You guessed it: Reeve is currently traipsing around the Tropic of Cancer, with a TV series and book soon to come.
The Tropic of Capricorn is the most southerly latitude at which the sun appears directly above your head during the summer and winter solstices; the Tropic of Cancer is the most northerly latitude where this occurs. Reeve notes at the start that “nature blesses the tropics with resources and riches, but bedevils it with boiling heat, hurricanes, poor farmland, and demonic diseases”. And off he goes.
Reeve divides his travels into four chunks—Namibia and Botswana; South Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar; Australia; and Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. During one travel break, between Madagascar and Australia, he marries Anya, a videographer, who joins part of the trip.
Reeve’s excursion feels a bit story-boarded because it probably had to be for the TV production. This journey is not an organic one—Reeve has fixers at each location, is on a tight schedule, and knows exactly the social and environmental issues he wants to explore at each stop. For the reader, this means that you get a lot of interesting background information. He has not just stumbled upon the genocide of the Herero people at the hands of their German colonizers, he has researched it beforehand and is able to meet the people who make this history personal. For a book about an adventure, however, it can feel quite controlled.
Early on, Reeve admits that the book is “a journalogue, written on my laptop on the move, in the early morning, or before bedding down at the end of the day”. As every traveler knows, a lengthy trip is exhausting and exhilarating, frustrating, and inspiring. So it is not surprising that an author scribbling under these circumstances also has his ups and downs. Reeve’s prose is occasionally glib and clichéd. Writer’s block must have hit after a day spent chatting with a Bushman community in Botswana: “They have very little. But the people of the Kalahari have each other”. Later, while stalking a lion in Mozambique, he channels the tired phrasings of a Westerner in Africa: “[w]e creep through the grass, our senses on full alert. In Africa, this feels right ... I feel like a Maasai warrior”.
However, Reeve can also be insightful and thought-provoking, as when he explores the shockingly poor state of Aboriginal communities in Australia, ponders why the Herero of Namibia adopted the clothing of their oppressors, and identifies the short-sightedness of South Africans who “pursue [Zimbabwean] border-jumpers with unseemly zeal”. Many experts believe it is the remittances from Zimbabweans who work outside the country that have saved the country from collapse—which would have a much more profound on South Africa than the border-jumpers. The most adrenalin-pumping part of the book is when Reeve tracks the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, spots some border-jumpers, and races into the bush for a breathless chat with them and their people-smuggler.
On his travels, Reeve’s favorite issue to explore is the tension that exists between indigenous cultures and the natural world on one hand, and modern-day demands for resources and tourism on the other. Humans are upsetting the delicate eco-system of Botswana’s Okavango Delta; soy production—driven by the demand for bio-fuel—is causing deforestation in Paraguay; a whale sanctuary in Western Australia is under threat by plans for a mammoth salt field. He makes us pay attention.
On the whole, Reeve is refreshingly critical about what he sees and experiences. He questions, analyses, and usually avoids passing along undigested impressions. And, the book does what good travel books should do—opens your eyes to new people and places and encourages you to think more deeply about the connections that exist between your life and the lives of people in far-off lands.