Simon Reeve is quite a traveler as he has made it to over 120 countries including faraway unknown lands like Somaliland, Abkhazia and Transnistria. But he wanted more. So he tried to convince the BBC to send him on a trip around the world. Actually he wanted to make three trips circling the globe following the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. And they agreed. So he packed his bags and went on a documentary travel mission around the world following the Equator and the both Tropic lines that are so present on the world globe in your bedroom while uncovering environmental, political and human stories from some of the most remote places on the planet.
Simon describes himself as having a passion for “travel, wildlife, history, current affairs, conservation and the environment.” And he is indeed that. It shows in all his TV work as he has presented more than 60 programmes for the BBC, including TV series such as ‘Pilgrimage’, ‘Indian Ocean’ and ‘Australia’ (Winner of the 2013 British Travel Press Awards for Broadcast Travel Programme).
On his travels Simon has braved frontline conflict, hunted with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, dived with sharks, survived malaria, walked through minefields, tracked lions, been taught to fish by the President of Moldova, adopted by former headhunters, and detained for spying by the KGB.
THE EQUATOR (2006)
In 2006 Reeve went on a trip around the world, taking a spherical view of it by following the Equator. The idea was relatively simple – follow that imaginary line at zero degrees latitude, the centre of the world, the border between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern and make a full loop.
When Simon embarked on the first equatorial leg of his self proclaimed travel trinity (Equator, Cancer & Capricorn), most people were quick to ask why he wanted to travel such a long journey around the warm waistband of the planet. Reeve was quick to reply that – in spite that the equator for most of us is little more than an imaginary line running 25,000 miles around the globe – in reality it is actually a unique region with a distinct identity.
Following the earth’s zero degree line took him across ancient rain forest, paradise islands, and through a gorgeous region with the greatest concentration of natural biodiversity in the world. Yet, equatorial countries are also among the most troubled on earth and have perhaps the greatest concentration of human suffering.
Visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo took them to the country experiencing the most violent conflict on the planet since the World War II. And following the line to Colombia took them through the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere.
Do not enter
Reeve logically wanted to travel as much overland as possible while visiting every country that the equator crosses through. However, they were barred from several parts of Indonesia by the government, they were unable to land in Congo-Brazzaville because an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. And as if Ebola wasn’t bad enough, the World Health Organisation warned them that locals were blaming foreigners for the Ebola outbreak and that – even if they would go – they had a good chance of being killed by those locals.
Somalia was also out of bounds due to the endless rumbling conflict in that tragic, forgotten land, that was quickly becoming a war zone.
Short stints across the line
One of the main problem in Reeve’s mission was – like in any big travel plan – that not much worked out according to plan. From drivers abandoning them deep in the rainforest, to falling ill and getting lost. With their shoestring BBC budget (he was a beginning and unknown tv maker at the time) and because they didn’t have bottomless pots of money to spend on private jets or helicopters (like other big BBC productions do) they had to plan their route carefully. On the one hand they wanted to stay as close as possible to the imaginary equator line, in some areas the equator was fantastically hard to reach and leave, and they couldn’t risk getting stuck in a single location for a month when there was an entire planet that needed to be circumnavigated.
Because the equator is just so long they had to find a balance between what they wanted to film, and what was physically possible. So Reeve and his team decided to make short leaps along the line – hopping between countries – spending an even amount of time in each country, not long enough to put down their roots, marry locals nor open a pub, but they did get a good sense of the lives being lived and the challenges facing people, animals and the planet in this unique region of our world.
THE TROPIC OF CAPRICORN (2008)
Ten countries, five deserts and one giant mountain range in a 20,000 mile journey around the world sticking as close as possible to the tropic of capricorn. It resulted in a four episode tv series originally broadcasted on BBC Two.
From distant memories of geography lessons at school, most people are vaguely aware that the Tropic of Capricorn is one of two lines around the earth, quite near the Equator. And if you even remembered that the Capricorn is the southern one, whereas the Tropic of Cancer lies to the north, we will grade you an A! Your former geography teacher would be proud of you.
The tropic of Capricorn cuts through South America, Southern Africa and Australia, as well as thousands of miles of empty ocean. Reeve encounters breathtaking landscapes and truly extraordinary people: from Bushmen of the Kalahari and Namibian prostitutes battling with HIV to gem miners in Madagascar and teenagers in the Brazilian favela once described as the most dangerous place on earth. It is a collection of daring adventures, strange rituals and exotic wildlife, all linked together by one invisible line
But what is it exactly this imaginary Capricorn line?
The answer to that question is not as straightforward as you might think.
Tropic of Capricorn defined
The best and pithiest definition appears to be that the Tropic of Capricorn is the point furthest south where the sun can be seen overhead. This occurs at noon on the Summer solstice in the Southern hemisphere.
75.67% of the Capricorn is over sea – mostly the Pacific Ocean. Of the 24.33% that covers land, the country with by far the biggest section is Australia at 2350 miles.
But there is much more to it than that.
Mick Ashworth, editor-in-chief of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, revealed a first Capricorn surprise to Reeve: the Tropic of Capricorn moves. The angle of the earth’s tilt changes over time – hence its angle to the sun, and hence the position of the Tropic.
Apparently it moves up to 15 metres a year over a 40,000 year cycle and at the moment it is around 23 degrees 26 minutes or 23.4 degrees of latitude.
Finding out the length of the line is a struggle too.
The earth is not a sphere, it is an ellipsoid, and because the position of the line changes so does its length.
On 19 November 2007, it was calculated that the Capricorn was approximately 36,748,889.697 metres long – close to 22,835 miles.
By swiftly consulting something called Vincenty’s formula, it was calculated that the distance between Capricorn and its Northern latitude family member – the Tropic of Cancer – to be 5,186,148.744 metres, just under 3,200 miles.
Night Equinox troubles
For our programme we wanted to demonstrate that on the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere at noon the sun is directly overhead – neatly encapsulating the whole concept of the Tropic of Capricorn.
Our schedule was always going to land us up at the end of the journey just before Christmas in Brazil – where the Summer Solstice fell on 22 December.
But a quick check on the US National Observatory website showed that the Solstice fell at 06.08 GMT – that is 04.08 in the morning in Brazil. Not ideal for solar observations.
It was time for the Geographers to step aside and for us to seek some astronomical guidance.
According to a colleague, Russell Eberst of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh was something of an anorak when it came to matters like this.
With his help it was decided that the best thing would be to see the sun overhead at midday on the solstice in Ubatuba – a small town on the coast of Brazil that lies on the Tropic of Capricorn. Miraculously the sun was out in the notoriously wet town on 22 December and they were able to experience that little moment when the sun is overhead for the one and only time in the year on this line.
So there you have it – the end of a long journey and the Tropic of Capricorn explained. Almost.
THE TROPIC OF CANCER (2010)
Then in 2010 Reeve embarked on the last leg of his mission to follow the world’s most well known imaginary lines. His goal: to circle the world following the line that marks the northern border of the Earth’s tropical region, the Tropic of Cancer.
He turned it in a six episode journey around the extraordinary Tropic Of Cancer originally broadcast on BBC Two.
Reeve started his journey on the paradise beaches of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and then circumnavigated the planet, clockwise by heading east across the Caribbean, the Sahara, crossing borders in North Africa closed to foreigners for decades, and then on through the deserts of Arabia and the remote jungles of Asia, to finish in Hawaii.
This time he visited 18 countries while following the 22,835 mile long Tropic of Cancer.
In Mexico Simon faced a frightful masked female wrestler, while in the Bahamas he uncovered the suffering of Haitian refugees. North Africa was full of surprises, from a long-forgotten civil war to a vast scheme to extract millions of gallons of water from underneath the desert. And in the jungles of Burma he met villagers struggling to survive under brutal oppression.
Simon explored as many challenges facing the Tropics as possible, including poverty, the drugs trade, climate change, industrial pollution, and forgotten conflicts.
But his documentary is also a spectacular travelogue, taking Simon and viewers to some of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.
Reeve says: “Following the Tropic of Cancer, the northern border of the Tropics, was a unique opportunity to explore and witness a slice of life in the most interesting and important region of the world: the Tropics! The whole point of the journey was that tracking the Tropic of Cancer took us off the beaten track, to places we wouldn’t normally visit, and parts of the world that are rarely visited by foreigners, let alone TV crews. It was an extraordinary opportunity and a fantastically exciting journey that was also frightening, uplifting, exhausting, upsetting, challenging and surprising. I heard stories, saw sights, and ate food I’ll be remembering and dreaming about till the end of my days.”
So who exactly is this kickass Simon Reeve?!
Basically he has done loads, both traveling, making tv series & documentaries while simultaneously writing award winning books. In short: Simon Reeve is a TV presenter and best-selling author. He has travelled to over 100 countries, Apart from his wellknown BBC series Equator, Cancer & Capricorn he has made the series Explore and Places That Don’t Exist. He’s been awarded a One World Broadcasting Trust award for an “outstanding contribution to greater world understanding”.
On his kickass travels Simon has been detained for spying by the KGB, taught to fish by the President of Moldova, electrocuted in a war-zone, protected by stoned Somali mercenaries in Mogadishu and tracked by terrorists. He’s hunted with former cannibals in South America, witnessed trench warfare in the Caucasus, walked through minefields, struggled across the country enduring the most violent conflict on the planet since the Second Wolrd War, and wandered through a radioactive-waste dump while protected by little more than a shower curtain.
Simon’s books include Tropic Of Capricorn (published by BBC Books), and The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden And The Future Of Terrorism, a New York Times bestseller, published in 1998, which predicted the rise of Al Qaeda and a new age of apocalyptic terrorism. His book One Day In September, the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, is also an Oscar-winning documentary movie.