MICHAEL PALIN SAYS he always wanted to see the world. As a child growing up in the north of England, he'd been enchanted by the wild tales of the fictional pilot Biggles and by the real-life adventures of the explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Even as his career as a comedian, actor and founding member of the Monty Python troupe took off, there was always the desire to get out there and see more, he says.
That Palin has eventually been able to do so, through his work on eight TV series and their corresponding books, and through his association with the Royal Geographical Society (he served as RGS president from 2009 to 2012), brings a shine to the 70-yearold's eyes as we sit down for a chat inside a sprawling suite in the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. Palin has been in town to help launch an exhibition of photos taken on his travels with Hong Kong-born photographer Basil Pao, and to give a few talks about his many and varied experiences on the road – and he's clearly enjoying the experience (“Not a bad place to get over your jet lag, is it?” he laughs as he looks around the suite and out across Victoria Harbour).
Palin has plans to hook up with long-time friend Pao for dinner on Cheung Chau island the next night, and says he relishes returning to a city that always excites him and always promises something new. And that's the thing about travel, says Palin – your horizons are always expanding.
Can you remember the very first time you travelled or went on a holiday?
I so distinctly remember our first holiday when I was about five years old. We went to Sheringham in Norfolk. My father was a Norfolk man who'd moved north during the Depression to find work in Sheffield. We went by train and it was a terrific palaver with all our bags, and my father taking his bicycle. Travel wasn't easy at all then, but it was the excitement, which is of being somewhere different and just seeing the sea for the first time, getting that first sniff of the sea. It's an excitement that I still get when I travel today.
Had you grown up reading travel books, or stories about travel?
I was always interested in stories that were set in foreign countries. I was always just fascinated by waterfalls, volcanoes, deserts – places that were just different from where I lived. There was a sense of wonder in me, even then, but never the slightest inkling that I would ever go to all these places. But those stories took me out of Sheffield, where I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life. My getaway was these foreign countries in my mind and imagination. I wanted to be an explorer. I wanted to be the first person to see this or that. It was very frustrating, as I was growing up too slowly and everywhere was being explored. When they climbed Everest in '53 and I was 10 years old, I thought, “Oh no. The bastards!”
When did you first go overseas?
The first time I left the country was when I was 19 and at university, and I went with the ski club to Austria – a place called Solden. But I didn't really travel much after that as I was establishing myself with Terry Jones as a comedy writer, working for The Frost Report and The Two Ronnies, and eventually with Monty Python. Everything I earned went into the home, paying the mortgage. But in 1972, Terry and I decided to go to the United States, because we'd been so influenced by the culture there, the music and the films.
Was America the wonderland you'd expected it to be?
It was mind-blowing. It was fantastic. We had our adventures. New Orleans was fun. We went out into the Delta and stopped in a little bar and the owner couldn't believe two English people had got that far south. She put records on for us and wanted to dance. Eventually, once she started to talk about her new waterbed and her daughter, we thought perhaps it was better that we started to head back home.
How much do you think the experience of travel has changed since then?
I think we all expect to be able to travel anywhere now. It's become such a part of our lives. It's become easier to get to places. But that's not really special. You have to go off the main drag. It doesn't have to be spectacular; it's just getting some place where you can have your own sense of wonder restored. Seeing natural wonders, for example.
What are the natural wonders that have left the biggest impression on you?
I'm a great waterfall fan, so the first time I saw Victoria Falls is one of my favourite memories, just to see that force of falling water. It's humbling.
And the biggest disappointments?
Well it sounds a funny thing to say, but the North and South Poles were both pretty anti-climactic. The North Pole, because it's just a point on a surface of some floating ice. It was exciting to land there on an ice floe, though. The South Pole is a depot, so you have pallets and skips and things. So I was a bit disappointed by the Poles!
What has all this travel added to your life?
It's the feeling of discovering something. It adds such drama. The great thing is that I can go to a place and observe people, rather than be observed, which is what I used to do as a boy. I used to just love watching the world go by. I wasn't an exhibitionist. I just used to watch and write down little things about what I saw. That's what I still like to do. The [TV] programmes and the book have documented what we've done so well that I just have to revisit one of them and it all comes back. I'm not actually a collector of countries, as some people are. There's just something about foreignness that I like – the experience of going to some place that's just very, very different. It's like the mountain villages in Pakistan or Yunnan in China. You think, “My God, this is so different.” But then people will give you a cup of tea and have a laugh, so you find there are these things that unite us. That's a wonderful feeling.
Is there something that's always the first thing you throw in your suitcase?
That has never really changed – I have to have a notebook. We don't have a script when we travel. We make it up from the encounters we experience along the way. But I've always taken notes. I love to write things down. I like to open up a notebook five years later and see the wine stain at the end of a page. It's something you don't get from a computer because it's of the moment. You get a great feeling, it takes you back to the moment. More and more I've learned to take less and less – and one thing that's changed is the materials they use for travel clothing. You used to wear what you wore at home. People climbed
Everest in thick tweed trousers. Now it's compact, lightweight and quite extraordinary.
What do you think makes your long-standing relationship with photographer Basil Pao work?
Well, we both like the buzz and travel, and being on the road. That's the essential thing – the common enjoyment. And Baz is a brilliant packer. Down the back of his bag there'd be a little zipper and in there would be tins of oysters, which he'd bring out when we're in the middle of Ethiopia or somewhere. “How about an oyster?” He's a great provider. He also believes in charcoal tablets as a cure for any digestive problems. Never worked for me. I've lots of them and they only gave me black poo. But he's great for remedies and making things as comfortable as possible.
What have you learned from your travels?
I think it's just one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have. Both mind and body are at work. When you go to somewhere different, remote, off the track, and you have to be alert and your body has to be in shape. It means you're using your whole system. It's really engaging, and occupying all of your time. It's just totally absorbing. And the total sheer thrill of it for me has never changed – and I hope it never will.