As David Attenborough's new series begins on Netflix, the globetrotter tells Louise Flind he's happier at home
You’ve travelled all your life – is there anything you can’t leave home without?
My front door key. It has little charms on it that my dear wife, Jane, gave me.
What do you really miss from home?
I’m very fond of my bed.
Favourite holiday destination?
To be absolutely truthful, I’m a European and I like European things. I like European breakfasts, climates, people, architecture and music. Holidays, as far as I was concerned, were for kids. You got to know them a bit better. I suppose the last holiday I really had was with Jane and that’s about twenty years ago.
Would you ever lie on a beach?
That’s not a holiday – that’s a purgatory.
Where did you go on your honeymoon?
Isle of Wight – that was all I could afford. I thought we had to go overseas, and that was as far as we could manage at the time.
Do you like being away from home?
I liked going to new places when I was in my thirties and forties, but now I’m in my nineties home is where I want to be. This is where I’m happy. I’ve got all the things and the people I love around me. I’ve ticked a lot of the things I was desperate to see and I’ve seen them. I’d like to see them again and I’m not against travelling, but I love home. I love sitting surrounded by books.
Hotel, apartment or igloo?
Most recently for ‘Blue Planet’, we went to Trinidad to film leatherback turtles, and we stayed in a very un-atmospheric, concrete, tropical tourist place.
What is the strangest place you’ve ever slept in?
Probably in a woodcutter’s hut in a very remote part of Paraguay. We were in the middle of a huge rainstorm. Unexpectedly, with no maps, we came to a clearing and there was this hut. The woodcutter said we could sleep in the store room. Anywhere that was dry would have been wonderful. There was a wooden shelf and a couple of planks over huge earthenware pots. As I lay there, I heard a strange, rustling noise. I found a torch, and the wall alongside me was covered with a shining, moving carpet of cockroaches. There was also a hideous stench of dried, smoked fish – that was what was in these big pots and what the cockroaches lived on. I don’t mind cockroaches at all. I don’t like rats. I’ve had rats running over my face in bed in Fiji. The rat in the loo was in rather a posh place in India.
What about diseases?
I’d been living away for four months in long houses with Dayaks in central Borneo. Getting back home was wonderful: crisp sheets and my dear wife. Exhausted, I went to bed and woke up drenched in sweat and thought, ‘This is it – this is malaria – this is what you always dreaded.’ So I woke up my poor wife and said, ‘Excuse me, I’ve got malaria, what do I do?’ While I was wondering what to do, I put my hand on the sheet and it was red hot. While I was away, Jane had bought an electric blanket with dual control. Mine was on all night – I was absolutely parboiled. What a relief.
Most of the animals I’ve brought back went to the zoo. The nicest things we had were bush babies. They’re like monkeys with very big eyes; nocturnal and so, so sweet. We set up a room with hollow logs and had fourteen babies over a period of years. They were just enchanting, but not for cuddles. For cuddles, we had monkeys. We had a little, woolly one called William. William would escape and run down to the laburnums in the garden and sit laughing at me. I knew how to get him back. I would sit on the bench and start cuddling my daughter, Susie, who was about six, and William would get extremely angry and come belting across and insert himself between us.
Do you get emotionally attached to the animals?
You don’t become emotionally attached to centipedes or lungfish.
Strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Caterpillars in New Guinea.
The biggest headache used to be that you’d go away for three months, making 16mm films, but there was no way of seeing any of it. Once in Paraguay, having sent some film back after eight weeks, we received a cable saying, ‘Regret to tell you but there’s a hot spot on the long-focus 200 mill lens.’ A hot spot is when it burns out in the middle of the picture. All the close-ups we’d taken were write-offs.
Have you been sad to leave a location?
I once lived on a small island halfway between Fiji and Tonga, in the Lau Islands. We lived there for several weeks, making a film about Polynesian village life. It was an idyll; the people were lovely and you lived exactly as they did, in a thatched hut. Every morning, we speared fish on the reef for breakfast.
Top travelling tips?
No – I’m a hopeless traveller, really. I wouldn’t offer anybody tips. I’m pampered. I recommend travelling with a film crew – they solve all your problems.