‘It wasn’t just tiring, it was risky’: Simon Reeve on his new series Wilderness

Thigh-deep in viscous mud, miles from anywhere in a hot and humid forest, Simon Reeve is struggling: “Bloody hell!” This will not be the first time he utters the phrase. His guide, the steadfast Congolese wildlife activist and conservationist Adams Cassinga betrays a flustered glance as he searches for solid footing to continue their slow progress through the world’s largest peat bog, thought to be the size of England.

They are trekking through the Congo Basin – at 1.3 million square miles (3.4 million sq kim), the largest forest in Africa and one of the most important wilderness areas left on Earth, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Some scientists believe this relatively untouched forest is now globally more critical than the deforested Amazon, since it encompasses enough trees to absorb substantially more carbon than it emits.

In another part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Reeve is plastered with biting insects and trudging in wet boots through seemingly impenetrable jungle, where he and his guide, Lambert, are fast running out of drinking water. It’s as if the forest is saying “do not pass”, throwing everything it can at the crew to thwart their progress. Lambert quenches their thirst by hacking down a rainwater-filled vine.

The following evening, the crew is forced to stop while a sack of eggs laid by a jigger flea that has burrowed under the skin of cameraman Jonathan Young’s ankle, is removed. It makes for toe-curling viewing.

Remote access

This rainforest is one of four habitats explored by Reeve in his new BBC series Wilderness. He shines a light on some of the most remote, least-disturbed corners of the planet, covering forest, desert, sea and mountain: the Congo Basin, Kalahari desert, Coral Triangle and Patagonia. As we’ve now come to expect of Simon Reeve, this is not a “glossy travelogue.”

He begins with a tough, days-long trek in search of the Congo’s indigenous, nomadic Baka tribe. It is rewarded with a warm, and life-affirming reception – the community sings and dances as Reeve and Cassinga enter their village; shelters are intricately constructed for the crew by some of the women; food is shared; hands are shaken with genuine affection.

Later, while out hunting for “aggressive jungle bees”, a young Baka man scooping honeycomb from a swarm 20m up a tree laughs when he realises that a sneaky taste has been caught on the GoPro he is wearing on behalf of Reeve, who adds, “I can’t climb that tree!”

“The people we encountered in ludicrously remote parts of the planet were such strong, fascinating, welcoming characters”, he explains. “Our focus is resolutely towards the great cities as being the places where we identify as being at the pinnacle of our lives, but the people [we encountered] are the most sophisticated human beings of all, living in very difficult environments and situations.”

He points to the Baka’s small and discreet footprint in the forest, which Cassinga adds are deeply entwined: “in the modern world it’s about how much you have. They do not take what they want, they take what they need.”

There is also a deeply felt sense of community and equality. “I learned more from them than I was expecting,” Reeve tells i. The fairness is fascinating, how important it is for them that the gap between rich and poor is as small as possible, how vital it is that everything is shared – not just among a family group but among all of them.

“Their close community … and time spent with family and friends is something many of us might still envy”, he adds. “It is a mentality and a culture that is so alien to our grasping, land-owning existence. They’re a civilisation that we can look to as an example.”

Close encounters

In another part of the rainforest, Reeve is searching for bonobos, one of our closest living relatives. “I got separated from the rest of the team, and I was running through the jungle, wielding my iPhone and a GoPro, when I got caught up in some vines and couldn’t get free. There were a couple of bonobos 30m ahead that came back to look at me. I thought we weren’t going to be able to get the footage as my arm was trapped,” he says.

Reeve admits that this, this series – now spanning more than 100 programmes over a 20-year broadcast career – was his toughest and most important yet. That includes getting the series commissioned, from conversations that began 13 years ago when he was filming series such as Tropic of Cancer, Indian Ocean and Cuba.

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Simon Reeve with Conservationist, Adams Cassinga in the Congo rainforest (Photo: Jonathan Young/BBC)

Then came the filming: “It wasn’t just tiring, it was risky.” These risks were mitigated, as you’d expect, which included Reeve running around wearing a 15kg weighted body vest while at home in Devon, so he was physically up to the treks. Patagonia, he says, “was one of the most knackering things I’ve ever done.”

The intention was to shine a light on places that viewers are unlikely to know much about, yet to which we are all fundamentally connected. “[These places] govern and help to shape our weather systems and the climate on this planet” Reeve explains. “Unless we care about them, we will ultimately lose them.”

The Baka talk about their biggest challenge – not climate change nor deforestation, as he had expected: “Our neighbours, the Bantu [the catch-all used by the Baka to describe the many ethnic groups that collectively represent the region’s majority population], don’t like us,” the community’s spokesperson tells Reeve, who explains that hundreds of Baka have been killed in conflicts. “As soon as there’s a small problem… they beat us up.”

Into the blue

There were “some proper moments of fear and panic” during filming, including while diving off the coast of New Guinea in the Coral Triangle, the marine area that spans the Pacific Ocean between the Philippines, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. “We were swimming and filming with whale sharks, and they were behaving a little unpredictably,” Reeve explains.

The whales were being fed by the crew’s guide, fisherman Nurdin. Reeve compares the experience to being “a little bit like being on a skid pan while a single-decker bus is doing doughnuts”. Filming was halted, but Reeve was still trying to get close to the sharks when he collided with one. “It’s not soft and rubbery – it’s like getting hit by a ton of concrete. I was very lucky.”

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Simon Reeve with San hunter Tui in the Kalahari
(Photo: BBC/The Garden/Piers Leigh)

There were also twisted ankles and dangerously high fevers among the crew, the gravity of which was compounded by how remote they were. Yet Reeve seems genuinely eager to keep going, to embrace the light and dark at each turn. He says he enjoys being “in situations that are surprising and a little bit unusual. I want it to feel like it’s a privilege and a bit out of my comfort zone – that’s part of the reason to travel.”

He believes we all need “the wild” in our lives. “I speak from my own experiences growing up in west London, and finally encountering the world and feeling the change that it brings.” Now living in Devon, he points out it is also possible to find wilderness close to home. “I live in a wooded bit of Dartmoor National Park where I still feel a sense of peace and solitude, where I can go for a dog walk and not see another human being.”

“What I saw [while filming Wilderness] gave me more hope than I expected. We have not yet destroyed all of Mother Nature. There is still a magnificent, gorgeous planet out there worth learning about, worth caring for … even perhaps worth fighting for.”

Wilderness with Simon Reeve starts on Sunday at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer