My Life In Travel: Frank Gardner
'I dodged pirates and went skinny-dipping in Thailand'
Saturday 07 November 2009
Frank Gardner is the BBC's security correspondent and is speaking today at The Luxury Travel Fair at Kensington Olympia, London. Tickets from 15 (luxurytravelfair.com).
First holiday memory?
Being driven to Switzerland when I was eight. We were living in Holland which is not noted for its mountains, so my first glimpse of the Alps was hugely exciting. The road seemed to wind up and up for ever. When we got to the hotel, it didn't have enough rooms so I had to sleep in a hayloft, which was brilliant. One morning I woke to see a golden eagle gliding past the window.
The best trips have not really been holidays in the normal sense. Hacking through jungle in Sumatra or Ecuador was not exactly relaxing but it allowed us to get to rarely seen places. The best holiday was probably in Botswana when my wife who was my girlfriend at the time and I went camping and canoeing by dugout in the Okavango and woke up to see lion scat all around our tent!
Favourite place in the British Isles?
Dartmoor. I love its wild, barren lines, its craggy tors and rich, purple colours it's so different from the organised patterns of the surrounding farmland. I went to Exeter University so we often used to go down at weekends and stride over the moors then end up with a cream tea by a fire.
What have you learnt from your travels?
That people often have a distorted view of Britain sometimes overly complimentary, sometimes not. In remoter parts of the world I've found that people tend to have no idea that we are a multi-cultural society.
Ideal travelling companion?
A close male friend of a similar age. Last year I went backpacking in Cambodia (in my wheelchair) with a mate I'd done plenty of travelling with before my injuries. We seemed to pick up where we left off, though he did have to give me a shove up over the kerb a couple of times.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
None! I get bored on a beach after a while but I love exploring underwater reefs, either by snorkel or scuba. I like the visual appeal of places like the Colosseum or Europe's great cathedrals, but there is only so much history I can take. A bit of adrenalin is always fun but I'm not into dangerous sports.
Greatest travel luxury?
A digital or video camera, if you can call those a luxury. I get a lot of pleasure from taking photos and filming but then there's always the risk you can end up seeing the trip through the lens instead of being open to what's out there.
Preferably something evocative about the region I'm in. I loved reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez in a hammock halfway up the Sierra Nevada in the Colombian rainforest.
Where has seduced you?
Thailand. I know it's an incredibly well-visited destination these days but when a mate and I first went there in our university holidays in 1981 it was the epitome of the exotic. We arrived at Bangkok airport in the middle of the night, slept on the floor, woke up, drank a bowl of spicy tom yum goong soup then spent the next 12 hours commuting to the loo. Koh Samui had no airport so we had to take a day boat to avoid pirates then stayed in an airless shack on the beach, feeding off coconuts and skinny-dipping with Australian nurses.
Better to travel or arrive?
To travel. That said, pulling into Khartoum railway station at midnight after the 36-hour ride across Sudan on the roof of a train felt good. Unfortunately, all the cheap hotels were locked up so I had to blag my way into a bed in the hospital.
Worst travel experience?
Battering a rabid dog to death in Sumatra. The villagers thought this poor dying animal was a huge joke and we couldn't convince them how serious it was. We went to fetch the village policeman with his pistol but he was drunk, so we had to put it out of its misery ourselves. The experience haunted us.
Southern Spain in 2002. We left it until the last minute to book because I was stuck reporting from Guantánamo Bay where there was no mobile signal. The hotel was a plate-glass monstrosity and a howling wind blew through the garden and pool all day. Then our daughter got head lice.
There's a really lovely hotel whose name escapes me on the island of Capri, with an infinity pool that merges into the deep blue of the Med. It's surrounded by gardens and a 300ft cliff drop to the rocks below. Greta Scacchi was staying in the suite next door but she never once asked for my autograph!
Sadly, walking is off the menu for me since being shot up in Saudi Arabia five years ago, but I really enjoyed quad biking in Egypt's southern Sinai recently. Unfortunately there were also about 50 other tourists all burning up and down the valley at the same time, which rather killed the effect. One of my favourite drives is along the Interstate 66 west from Washington DC. Within two hours of leaving America's capital you're in the Blue Mountains of Virginia, with nature all around and bears ambling across the road.
Best meal abroad?
Fresh fish on Turkey's Buyukada Island in the Bosphorus, washed down with chilled white local Doluca wine. It's hard to beat stepping off a boat in early summer to be greeted by crisp, white tablecloths and the scent of pine woods and grilling kebabs.
First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?
I go off and explore my immediate surroundings. I like to get a sense of the place and where it fits in. I'll perhaps chat to a taxi driver to get the local gossip, which I suppose is the journo in me.
Papua New Guinea I'm working on it.
Jeddah. It's Saudi Arabia's main Red Sea port and something of a cultural melting pot for all the nations of the Red Sea. In one street you might find Yemeni craftsmen fashioning elaborate shisha pipes, in another Indian cloth merchants. Turn down another and you hear the language of the Abyssinian hills, walk upstairs to an open-air caf and find Somali pilgrims sprawled out on cushions drinking scalding hot cinnamon tea. It's a place where life is lived out on the street, not behind closed doors as it is in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
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