“These have been the greatest journeys of my life,” Simon exclaims at the end of the second series. That is certainly saying something for a man who has travelled around the Equator, the Caribbean, Australia, the Tropic of Capricorn, the Indian Ocean and much more! He turned 50 this year… I think he must have found the fountain of youth on the way.
The first series was broadcast in 2019. It was to be followed quite soon by the second, but when the pandemic happened, putting the brakes on global travel, Simon made the Cornwall and Incredible Journeys series instead. Oh yes, and he wrote another autobiography.
As always, this programme is beautifully filmed with an interesting variety of landscapes, wildlife and people. The dominant themes, as usual, include climate change, conservation, human rights and migration. It really is an epic series which broadens your knowledge of the world and brings important issues to light.
Here’s my review of the first series, North and Central America, which I wrote in 2019 and had saved in my drafts up until now:
- Stunning icy shots of Alaska are the beginning of the first episode. Simon looks very cold but happy to be there. Climate change is seeing the ice recede, however. A quick venture into Canada sees Simon trying a traditional cocktail with a human toe in it and then witnessing the drug addiction crisis in Vancouver. There’s a safe place for users to go, so that if they overdose, help is there immediately.
- The North American bison is being reintroduced to the prairie, along with other iconic species. I love this idea of populating the landscape again with animals which were wiped out in previous times. Simon then visits a small town which has a legal cannabis factory selling any format and flavour of the drug you could want. In Colorado there’s a town with 11 prisons and we see how in one of them, inmates are being prepared for life outside with virtual reality.
- A whole episode is devoted to California. Giant redwood trees are fantastic. Simon, despite not being good with heights, climbs into the canopy. He’s even taken inside a redwood so old that, we are told, ‘this tree was 1000 years old when Jesus walked the earth’. Emerging from the forest, Simon drives through the ruined town of Paradise, which was the victim of a deadly wildfire in 2018. Then we’re on an operation with the elite firefighters to start controlled fires, clearing away brush and dead wood which would otherwise become fuel for larger fires. After a tour of the mega-rich neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, we get a sad glimpse of the thousands of people living on the streets.
- The US-Mexico border is a sad place to be. We see the fence (possibly to become a wall?) which separates the countries but it’s not all along the border. Thousands of migrants cross over and wait to be picked up by the patrols. On the other side, Reynosa is a violent city in the grip of the Gulf Cartel. Further south into Mexico, Simon enjoys eating some crickets and marvels at the ancient ruined Mayan city of Yaxchilan while thinking about the devastating impact of European invasion on the indigenous populations.
- Central America is a fascinating yet scary region, with wonderful wildlife under threat from deforestation. Simon is ‘hugged by a manatee’ at a rehabilitation centre for the rare creatures in Belize. In Guatemala, drought and unpredictable weather is causing poor harvests and an estimated half of the children are malnourished. We meet the volunteer paramedics in El Salvador who risk their lives helping the victims of gang violence. In contrast to the previous countries, Costa Rica is recovering its forests and treasuring the natural world.
The second series, titled ‘Simon Reeve’s South America’:
- On the stunning Mount Roraima, Venezuela, the landscape is incredibly ancient, a lost world. At the border with Brazil, a refugee crisis. It’s very upsetting to hear families talking about their reasons for leaving. Then to Eteringbang, Guyana, where payment at the bar / pharmacy / general store (it’s the same place) is in gold nuggets. In Suriname, Ronnie Brunswijk, a political figure and controversial character, shows us his environmentally devastating but lucrative gold mines in the jungle. We then meet sloths who have lost their homes, rehabilitated by Monique, who is passionate and knowledgeable about these creatures. At the European Space Agency in French Guiyana, the launch manager Hugh lets us into the control centre. Then we’re out on patrol with the French Foreign Legion on the hunt for illegal gold mining operations.
- Staying with the Waiapi tribe in the Amazon rainforest. They have been in contact with the outside for decades but still have their unique culture and are defending their territory. The filming resumes 20 months later due to the pandemic. When Simon returns, he sees the devastating effects that the virus has had on Brazil. He goes bat hunting, where the suburbs are on the edge of the jungle, looking for diseases which could cause the next pandemics. In Rio de Janeiro, an inspiring community leader, Ale, shows the amazing work she does to improve children’s lives in the favelas. The final adventure of episode 2 is seeing golden lion tamarins, primates which are being vaccinated against yellow fever.
- Exploring the Andes, beginning with the amazing Machu Picchu and staying the night in an aluminium cabin tethered to the side of a mountain. Down through Peru where he meets the farmers trapped into growing coca, then goes out with the police, where they blow up a cocaine lab in the jungle. It’s just a drop in the ocean, however. More than 3 miles above sea level, La Rinconada is a ramshackle Wild West gold mining town, a dangerous place to live and work. It’s so absolutely bleak that even Simon admits he can’t find any positives. Across the border to Bolivia, travelling around La Paz by cable car with Yolanda, who explains how things have changed for indigenous people.
- The strange landscape of the Bolivian salt flats, where a family are mining the salt. Underneath it is lithium, an extremely valuable resource. On to the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland, which is under threat from climate change. Simon stays with Rivaldo, a traditional farmer who has worked very hard to reclaim his land, then goes looking for jaguars. One is spotted almost straight away, having a rest in the road. Eco-tourism is now a thing around here, helping to conserve species and boost the economy. At night, they observe a beautiful mother jaguar and cub. A visit to a Mennonite community in Paraguay is very odd, isolated from the modern world.
- The final episode begins with stunning views of the Atacama Desert, seen from a paraglider’s perspective. On the ground, however, outside the city of Iquique there are thousands of tonnes of dumped clothes, the effects of ‘fast fashion’. Simon discovers some are posh labels, still with tags on. Exploring the cost of living crisis in Buenos Aires, including a visit to one woman’s soup kitchen, then to Chile where the actions of the Mapuche people are considered terrorism by some, while on the other hand the indigenous group want their land back. Simon’s journey ends at Tierra del Fuego and a marvellous colony of sea lions.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for over a year.
Image taken from BBC iPlayer.