Kate Humble talks about the highs and lows of being a compulsive traveller15th Aug 19 | Lifestyle
It’s all about wildlife-watching, Tanzanian hitch-hiking, and temperatures of -56, as Luke Rix-Standing finds out.
If Kate Humble has a scratch map, it’s probably now just an ordinary map.
The 50-year-old BBC presenter and devoted globetrotter has spent her career travelling most of the known world, from a 2,000-mile odyssey across the Pacific, to investigating the shepherds of Afghanistan.
We discover her best and worst travel memories, and the causes of her wanderlust. If you think her programmes are intrepid, wait until you hear what she got up to aged 19…
What first fired your interest in travel?
“I come from a restless family – my grandparents were great travellers, in a time when travel wasn’t easy – and I’ve inherited those genes in spades. My parents gave me a small blue wheelbarrow for my third birthday, and I was found pottering down the lane with it a mile from home.
“When I was doing O-levels at 16 – back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth – they introduced a European rail card, and for £100, you could get on every train round Europe. I thought this was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard, so I saved and saved to buy one.
“My dad then gave me £100 spending money, so I had £100 for a month in Europe. I slept in a lot of stations and under a lot of benches, but it was such an adventure.”
Was that trip your formative travel experience?
“When I left school, I had a burning desire to go to Africa, and that trip was really the formative one. At 19, I flew to Johannesburg by myself with £800 and a backpack. I was away for the best part of a year.
“There were two stand-outs from that trip. First, the wildlife – when you see unfamiliar animals, you can’t help but notice them, and when I came home, it made me appreciate the wildlife on my doorstep. Secondly, I learnt a huge amount about people, and the extraordinary generosity and depth of human spirit among the people with least in the world.
“It was incredibly brave of my parents, who would rather I’d have gone to university. But for me, this was a far more valuable experience. It was the most amazing, amazing journey.”
What have been your cultural highlights?
“I made three films about nomadic people a few years ago, and I spent some time with Mongolian nomads living in the Gobi Desert. I was blown away by their understanding of their environment, and how they work with the land rather than battling against it.”
“Even more extreme are the Nenets – reindeer herders living in Russian Siberia. The day I was with them, it was minus 56 – you couldn’t breathe it was so cold – and then during summer, it reaches plus 40 with mosquitoes the size of aeroplanes.
“These people are living in the last vestiges of existence, and they have amazing knowledge we could really learn from. Don’t ever think that because people don’t work in offices or buy loads of plastic crap, they aren’t just as sophisticated as us.”
You always seem very positive about your experiences abroad. Have you ever found yourself struggling?
“Oh yes, it can be miserable. When you’ve been in the back of a truck with no suspension for 14 hours, squashed with six people on a seat made for three, often getting out to push through potholes, you do think ‘wouldn’t it be nice to have a private jet’.
“I’ve been really cold so many times, and resented how hard it is for women to go to the loo in the middle of nowhere, while it’s so comparatively easy for men. When I cycled round Cuba with my husband, we did 100 miles in a day to reach the place we were supposed to stay. There was nothing there, and we had to sleep in a ditch.
“That is what travelling is all about though. I travel to have experiences – if I wanted to stay in a swanky hotel, I could do that in London.”
You’ve been to some quite dangerous places – have things ever gotten hairy?
“Of course there are hairy situations. I was filming in Kenya a couple of years ago and someone threatened to kill me – they had spears and everything.
“On the other hand, I remember hitching a lift in Tanzania on my first ever journey, and getting picked up by a truck filled with workers. They missed my turning and I suddenly felt very vulnerable – there were 15 blokes and me. When I told the driver, he looked absolutely stricken, and said ‘I’m so sorry, you must have been so scared’. I said I hadn’t been – a lie – and would walk back, but he wouldn’t hear of it, flagged down a taxi, and paid.
“There may come a time that it doesn’t end so happily, but I have huge faith in basic human nature. If you behave the best that you can, I think you get back what you put in.”
How do you shoot in these places – do you have camera crews, lights and make-up?
“No, this isn’t Strictly, there are no lights and definitely no make-up – why do you think I look so s**t on the telly?!
“The types of documentaries I make have minimal crew. It’s partly economic, but partly because it’s the best way to make a programme. You want to be as mobile, low-key, and low-impact as possible, and we’re often on foot, so you can’t have a huge entourage.
“The main crew will be me, probably a cameraman who is also the director, and maybe a sound recordist. Occasionally, you also might have an assistant producer, but any other people will be local.”
With so many trips, do you ever get road-weary?
“I get airport-weary – airports are horrid. As I’ve got older, things have changed and two or three weeks away in one stint is probably my maximum. You just get really tired.
“These days, I start to miss the silly things – being able to cook for myself, and my funny morning routine of getting up and going for a run with the dogs. I’ve never got homesick before, but now I almost do.”
What’s your Desert Island Discs item – the one thing you can’t travel without?
“It would be a book. I do have a kindle, which I’m slightly cross about, because I love the tangibility of a book, but it’s unbelievable to be able to take thousands of books away at less than the weight of one.”
“Cycling round Cuba with ten books in my bag was b****y hard.”
© Press Association 2019