The TV presenter, explorer and photojournalist has walked the Himalayas and the entire length of the Nile, but reveals that his perfect day begins much closer to home…
Interview by Susan Gray
Where would you wake up on your perfect day?
In my new house in Hampton Court – when it’s completed, that is! (It’s currently being built, and I’m choosing between different shapes of toilet). I can look out the window and see the deer descended from Henry VIII’s original herd roaming among the oaks of Home Park, and the River Thames: it’s beautiful.
What’s your perfect walk?
London can be an adventure with or without Google Maps, so I’d head west along the Thames with no particular start point or end point. When you’re not against the elements I like walking to be serendipitous: you wake up and off you go. Obviously for more remote places, the route has to be planned in far greater detail.
And your ideal companion?
I do like walking with company, but I’d prefer not to name names!
What’s your favourite walking lunch stop?
Ideally not the goat’s eyes and brains I ate in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Instead I’d opt for a nice pub lunch along the Thames with a pint of real ale.
Why do you like travelling on foot?
In remote parts of the world, where there’s no road, walking is the only way to reach your destination. Also when you’re travelling by foot you face the same risks and vulnerabilities as the local community, so they’re more likely to see you as a human being, the same as them, rather than as a tourist. This means the local people are more inclined to invite you into their homes for a cup of tea, or feed you. For me the people you meet along the way, and their stories, are the whole point of the journey.
Is access to the countryside important to you?
It’s very important that people can access the countryside and enjoy it. The countryside in Britain is part of our national psyche and we should treasure it.
Do you think it’s important for young people to get outdoors?
Hugely important. That’s why I got involved with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – I now help to present the awards at St James’s Palace. It’s a chance to congratulate the youngsters who have taken part and thank the volunteers who enable them to have these incredible adventures. My own DofE experiences were a real eye opener. At 14 I worked part-time as a warden’s assistant in a national park, and went on expeditions to the Peak District, the Lake District and Scotland. Those were formative experiences that enabled me to do what I do now.
How do you prepare for expeditions mentally and physically?
When I commit to something there’s no looking back, you have to be prepared to cross all boundaries. Of course there will be some second guessing, but you train yourself not to have doubts. Part of this comes from being in the military, but you have to believe in yourself. By committing to taking risks and making sacrifices, you overcome your fears. Failure is also great for overcoming fears: no matter how many times you fall down, you pick yourself up again and keep going. If you keep doing this, you will achieve more than you ever thought was possible.
Is there one piece of kit you wouldn’t be without on expeditions?
Boringly, it has to be a compass. But also a clean linen shirt, to look smart at border crossings, and to have something to wear if you get invited to an important ceremony or to meet local leaders or politicians.
How can we all become more adventurous?
The hardest thing is to get started, so make the commitment to a date and and say ‘on that day I’m going to the South Downs or the Peak District or wherever, come rain or shine.’ Make the decision and see it through.
Does any destination stand out for you?
Nepal is very special to me. I was first there in 2001 as a 19 year old, and then again when I was 27 as an army captain leading paratroopers on a climb of Mount Meera. It was very moving to return there after so many years and be reunited with the landscape and my old friend and guide Binod. But I’ve now been to 80 countries, which means it is always difficult to choose just one.
After walking the Nile and the Himalayas, where’s next?
I’ve been doing lots of photojournalism this year, and visited Burma, Iraq, Morocco and South Africa. My next big expedition will be to walk 1,700 miles along the spine of the Americas from Mexico to Colombia, through eight countries including Belize, where I trained as a soldier with the British Army.
People of all ages have been celebrating the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme’s Diamond Anniversary by taking on the DofE Diamond Challenge in 2016. Find out more at DofEDiamondChallenge.org