An epic 25,000 mile adventure following the Equator, this was Simon Reeve’s third series for the BBC. In turns fascinating, sobering and crazy, this journey is a focus of the book Step by Step. There’s a raw edge to the programme’s style in comparison with the more recent series. Here are some memorable moments:
Episode 1: Africa
- In Gabon, Simon is extremely excited to be crossing zero degrees latitude while on the train. None of the other passengers care; it’s a frequent occurrence for them. After getting stuck in the mud while driving to Makougue village, he and the guide Linel arrive to an energetic dancing display. The government has put aside land for wildlife conservation, meaning that villagers who formerly lived off the land are now keen to make their living from tourism. After this, Simon and Linel are abandoned by their drivers in the rainforest – ‘what a bunch of [BLEEP]’ – whose bosses demand more money.
- A halt to the journey as Simon is struck down with malaria. Luckily we don’t see anything more unpleasant than him lying in bed looking pale, but in the book he goes into a lot more detail about what it was like. The programme resumes after he’s recovered back in the UK.
- The eastern part of the DR Congo is unstable and prone to conflict. Simon is flown to the UN base by a missionary pilot called Dan, then taken by helicopter with a UN escort to a goldmine. The mine is under control of a militia, which charges locals a fee to sort through the mud and pan for gold. The conflicts have partially been over the abundant natural resources of the country.
- In Uganda, there’s a crashing in the canopy above, which indicates monkeys. The producer passes a banana to Simon in the hope of tempting the creatures out for the camera. It works and soon there’s a group of vervet monkeys. Feeding bananas to the monkeys is like feeding bread to the ducks, apparently.
- Arriving at a Kenyan village, it’s in chaos, with two bulls fighting amid a crowd of men. A boy is injured (ironically the son of the bullfighting chairman) and is taken in Simon’s car to the hospital. Also in the car is a circumciser, who operates on hundreds of boys as a rite of passage. Simon squirms and crosses his legs as the elaborately dressed man (somewhat wickedly) talks about how he can ‘go crazy’ with the knife.
- At a refugee camp on the Kenyan border, people have been escaping from Somalia for 25 years. A young woman, Fatima, has grown up there but although she’s well-educated and ready for life’s adventures, she’s not allowed any further into Kenya. It looks as though the refugees will spend their lives there, because they’re certainly not going back to Somalia. Simon comments upon how an accident of birth means that he can leave, while Fatima cannot.
Episode 2: Indonesia
- The isolated Batu Islands look like paradise but life is tough for the people there. They’re very excited when Simon arrives, because foreign visitors are so rare. During his stay, a child dies of an unknown illness and is quickly given a Christian burial. There is no healthcare system and our guide Amalia says that deaths may be attributed to curses rather than medical causes.
- As the sun sets in an orange blaze, we set off on a boat to Sumatra, which means sleeping under the stars. At an awful poultry market in Bunkkittingi, Simon is coerced into putting his finger up a live chicken to check if there’s an egg. There isn’t.
- Borneo is famous for orang-utans. Zacky, a zoologist, shows us the sanctuary at the national park. There are 6000 of these amazing animals. After feeding time (bananas, obviously) one of them chucks sticks at the crew and we get a rare glimpse of Fred, the cameraman. The babies are taken for an outing to get them used to life in the forest – Simon carries one called Osborne. The major threats to their habitat are illegal logging and palm oil plantations. Palm oil is not a bad thing in itself but it requires a large amount of space and it’s wrong to replace the forest with it.
- Simon is adopted as the twelfth son of Robert, a community leader of the Dayak people (head hunters). He takes part in a ritual dance with a white-powdered face and wearing a sword which had seen action in the recent fighting with the Madurese people (another ethnic group). Understandably, Simon has ‘mixed feelings’ about the Dayaks – they’ve been very welcoming to him and in a way he’s now part of the family, but at the same time they are brutal killers who have no regret.
- The Bajo people are ‘sea gypsies’. Simon swims with the children (who are like little fishes) and admires the men who can hold their breath for five minutes when diving for sea cucumbers. The journey back to shore is somewhat hair-raising as a storm approaches and the shallow boat is about to sink. Simon is too heavy and has to get out.
- Conflicts in other parts of Indonesia mean that we can’t progress much further, so Gorontalo is the last stop. There’s a serious flood going on and Simon joins the people wading thigh-deep through brown water, battling through the strong current. A group of men, perched on a crate in the water, are shouting cheerily about English football – they’re definitely looking on the bright side.
Episode 3: Latin America
- The isolated Galapagos Islands have an amazing number of species which are only found in that location. Simon swims with sea lions and meets the famous Lonesome George, a giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station. George was known as the last of his particular subspecies and wouldn’t mate (note: he passed away in 2012 at around a century old).
- Climbing the volcano of Pichincha, near Quito in Equador. It’s an exhausting endeavour in the high altitude and awful weather. Moreover, it’s dangerous because there could be a sudden eruption, like the one which killed two vulcanologists at the crater in 1993. A very short picnic near the crater in the rain and it’s time to descend.
- The conflict between the Colombian army and the guerillas still continues, which means that the army is keen to escort Simon and the crew through unstable territory as they attempt to trace the Equator. The problem is that the Colonel with them has a price on his head, making the whole convoy a target, plus there is the risk of foreigners being kidnapped.
- Having set up camp by the Putomayo River, it turns out that someone forgot to pack the food. D’oh! Luckily, there’s rum. So they get into the boat to try fishing. Expletives (or bleeps) fill the air as a huge tarantula is spotted in the boat. ‘These are desperate times – every man for himself,’ Simon says, swigging the rum. The guide then says, ‘you shouldn’t make any noise – there’s an alligator’. A tiny fish is caught, most of it being sharp teeth. The jungle is turning out to be a lot of fun.
- A remote Amazon tribe are welcoming, or at least the children are. After tense negotiations with the elders and a ceremonial dance with panpipes, the crew are taken to a sacred monument which was noted by the tribe as the centre of the world, long before it was scientifically proved. The figure drawn on the rock represents their god and the sun. This is why they don’t look at it for long.
- On the Araguari river in Brazil, the Pororoca is the longest wave in the world. Two expert surfers are excited and yet a little apprehensive to ride it. Simon and the guide also have a go, but we only see the aftermath. They failed, which is completely understandable because they’re not even surfers. There’s a surprise during the night, which they spend on the boat – it turns out that the wave arrives twice in 24 hours. Stanley the surfer’s mattress is overboard, a camera crew person steps on broken glass and the chef was in the shower at the time. Rock ‘n’ roll.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a year.