I’m not really what you would call a “good traveler”. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just who I am. There are certain qualities you need to be one of these people, one of which is the curiosity to get out and explore. That has never been my forte.
Sightseeing, for example, is not an experience I find comfortable: when it’s too hot, I feel uncomfortable; when it’s too cold, I feel uncomfortable. Also, I have a simple palate: I’m a meat-and-potato guy. I love Italy because there’s always good food to eat, but eating in new places on holiday – without knowing what the food is going to be like – always made me nervous. Warthog sausage and crocodile schnitzel are not for me. It would be generous to say that I have a low sense of adventure.
I also never had a travel bucket list. I’ve always been content with a decent hotel, where I can make good use of the amenities and where things can be kept simple. When our kids, Dan and Sarah, were younger, my wife Deb and I used to take them to beach resorts. That was ideal. There wasn’t much on the agenda: we would go down to the pool every day, have a nice cool drink and decide where to go for dinner. There wasn’t a lot to think about.
So, as you might imagine, I was hesitant to do a travel show that was essentially about pushing my limits, really putting myself out there, and bringing all my silly little weaknesses to the table. But it turns out you’re never too old to surprise yourself.
We’ve traveled all over the place — across the world — during the making of The Reluctant Traveler, and time and time again I’ve found my reservations spectacularly (or at least partially) unfounded.
South Africa was the biggest surprise. I never really wanted to go on safari and wasn’t thrilled with the view. I know people say it’s exciting, but I just didn’t get it. I always thought I had a very strong sense of what these animals look like, I’ve seen them on TV so I have to get up at 5 in the morning to see a giraffe walking across a field? Well, apparently I did. When I was actually there, I suddenly understood.
We stayed at a beautiful hotel, the Kruger Shalati, and I have never seen anything like it. It is housed in wagons on the Selati Bridge over the Sabie River. The train first brought tourists to Kruger National Park in the 1920s and stopped overnight on the bridge because it was a hotspot for spotting the “Big Five” – these are lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo. In the early 1970’s this train route was discontinued until recently someone came up with the idea of putting this train on the bridge permanently and converting it into a hotel.
The wagons are suites with floor to ceiling windows so I would wake up every day and look out to see elephants and water buffalo and see crocodiles migrating up the river. Even more surprising was that I began to develop a great affinity for the landscape and animals that I could never have imagined. We visited a rhino sanctuary where they care for orphans and rhinos who have been badly injured by poachers and hunters and I got to bottle feed these beautiful 600 pound babies and hand feed a black rhino. When I was there, the thought of how much danger these animals are in on a daily basis hit me hard.
Of course, there were experiences I didn’t enjoy – ones I wouldn’t normally have had and wouldn’t do again – but which I’m happy to say, “at least I tried.” . Do a night hike in the Costa Rican rainforest with snakes and spiders? That’s an experience I didn’t like, but at least I tried. Soar over Horseshoe Bend in Utah in a helicopter and land on the sandstone peak of Tower Butte? Also. It drove me crazy: I’m scared of heights, my stomach turned and it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I can give myself a pat on the back for that.
But even the less pleasant things often had a silver lining. For example, I went ice fishing in Lapland, which was generally cold and miserable – but I loved the huskies, and dog sledding across a frozen lake was a really exciting experience. Also, in Tokyo, I was brought a tray of sushi, eel sashimi, and sea urchins. I’ve never had sushi – for me, cook the fish: put it over a fire and grill it – but the wagyu beef was exceptionally good. So good I had it again in Costa Rica, made with a crust of local coffee, and it was wonderful.
And then there were the tents. In Costa Rica I was told that we would be staying at Nayara Tented Camp and having never slept under canvas tents before I assumed the worst. And then – a miracle. When I arrived I found luxury tents on stilts at 30ft, a delightful surprise with an incredible view (at the base of a volcano that I’m told was dormant for only 10 years. That was a bit tight for comfort, but man can’t have everything).
But the most memorable aspect – and what made every moment that was difficult or uncomfortable (or terrifying) worthwhile – was the people I met. Getting to know their families and immersing themselves in their culture was wonderful, but more than that, it was good for me. I’ve always been a very withdrawn person – rather shy to be honest – who never pushed myself or liked to talk to people I didn’t know. But the experience of meeting so many new people from so many incredible, fascinating places has been a very positive thing, allowing me to shed some of the cobwebs that have been forming for many, many years.
I’ll never be the most adventurous traveler on the planet, but seeing the world has helped me shed my natural cynicism and made me a more positive person. That’s what travel can do – it can turn your head in a way that nothing else can. I’m still not exactly a gung ho traveler, but at least I’m making progress.
As I said to Lara Kilner
The Reluctant Traveler is available now on Apple TV+