Life

How The Man With ‘The Best Job In The World’ Turned Travel Into A Career


Ben Southall has made a career of traveling the world. A few wise decisions paired with some good old fashioned luck have afforded Southall a life that most of us only dare to dream about. But it’s also really hard work. Being a working traveler means you have to be part journalist, part photographer, part videographer, part curator, part TV personality, and part biographer. Let’s not pretend that’s an easy job.

I sat down with Southall recently to talk about how one can pursue a life on the road, the joys of traveling the Islamic world, and travel’s continued importance in the current political climate.

Let’s start off with the beginning and how you came to a life lived on the road. What were you doing before you decided to start traveling and what got you into it?

I suppose the catalyst for everything was a trip I did at the end of my university. I did a degree in automotive systems engineering and car design. And at the end of university, I was pretty blown away by what the hell I was going to do next really. I had no preset idea of how I was going to utilize my degree for the rest of my life. So, I sort of looked around that summer in England for any opportunities that came up in terms of work.

And a friend of mine happened to work for a PR company for a big international champagne brand, Champagne Mumm. And they offered me to work in the summer in their events team in the UK, and that sort of ran for five months. I did that and got to the end of it, and the English Summer, and they offered me the opportunity to work for them in Cape Town for Round the World Yacht Race.

I did three months out there. I loved the climate, the people, and the culture so much that I decided to go and spend the next four months spending my hard earned English Pounds and traveling up the eastern coast of South Africa. And I found this lovely little town called Port Edward that I stayed in. And I sat there and worked for about another two months for a little four week drive tourist company. So I’d sort of been teased with Africa from that stage, and when I came to the end of my visa regulations, I went back to England. And it was almost time for another English Summer, so I started working for the champagne company, and kept basically swapping southern and northern hemispheres summers for about five years.

That’s a great introduction to living and working abroad. What happened after that five-year stint?

Africa had this big draw to me while I was exploring and discovering a lot of southern Africa in a vehicle. But I had not done the big trip from London to Cape Town — it’s quite a well known journey for a lot of Europeans. They know the route, and I thought that might be a bit gold to go and do. I really enjoy the idea of travel when you don’t know what is around the next corner — it’s really exciting.

I love that trip. How’d you prepare for it?

So I bought myself a Land Rover back in the UK. I spent three years finally using my degree with my dad and did something with a vehicle. I built what became I suppose my house, my home, my office, my bedroom, and basically what I lived in for a year. And that was the big drive from London to Cape Town and all the way back up the east coast — all the way around Africa in one year. And that was really, I suppose, the start of my big adventures and travels.

And you know, it’s such a massive continent. People sort of see Africa on the map, and it looks small, and it’s so deceiving when you get there and the reality of how huge it is sets in. And it’s so diverse. The north completely different from the center, completely different from the south. What sort of tips can you give someone going through a continent that big in one go?

A lot of people mistakenly talk about Africa like it’s a country. Like you said, there is so much of a cross section of different people, and tribal movements, and culture, and religions, and foods. And there’s so much to it that I think it scares a lot of people.

I think the big part of the problem with a lot of media is that we only get the bad stories. It only seems to be the bad stories that come out of Africa for hunting, and war, and rape, and famine, and all those things. So that’s all we have in our heads. It’s only when you go there and you test those ideals that someone’s thrown you and you experience it for yourself — then you get to really realize that people across the world are very, very similar. A lot of them are extremely encompassing and warm and welcoming. And that was what I found throughout virtually all of Africa.

For sure. If someone’s thinking about getting their feet wet in Africa, where would you recommend them starting?

I think for a first timer’s perspective, there’s two or three countries that you could go to and have a very, very easy experience as a westerner or an international. I’d probably put Morocco, South Africa, Kenya, and to an extent Egypt in those brackets. A lot of international tourists go there so it’s very set up for tourism.

If you went to some of the other countries, maybe the central belt of Africa or the west coast, it’s a lot less visited and a lot less set up. So you’ve got to, not necessarily keep your wits about you, but just be a bit more conscious that you are very much an attraction as an outsider. And that can be a good and a bad thing. It naturally formulates conversation between people and people’s curiosity, but I suppose if you’re driving around Africa in a big, bright, yellow Land Rover, all of a sudden you become, not a target, but you become something that is a greater interest to people I’d say.

I was in the Congo for six weeks — eastern Congo around Goma — and you can’t blend in. It’s just impossible.

Yes. Very much so. I mean the same for me. A problem with working and traveling through Asia last year. My wife could be from virtually any country in the world. And she fits in, and I was the one that in Singapore stood out like a bloody sore thumb to be honest with you. But, it’s quite funny.

I get the same thing. I have Native American roots. So when I’m in central Asia, everyone just thinks I’m from there. We were in Kabul, and everyone would come up to me thinking I was my wife’s guide, and started talking to me in Dari, and I’m like ‘Eh …?’

How was your Kabul experience?

I really, really like it there. I found that — this was last decade around 2007 before Obama’s surge — so, it was very much, for lack of a better term, a normal city. It was extremely historical and old, and full of lots of life. The city is situated on a few different hills. So you have different neighborhoods based on the hills and then more of the city in between along the river valley with all the markets and mosques.

It’s one of the more liberal places in Afghanistan. So the women will have their scarves all the way back, practically on the back of their necks, like they do in Iran. And, at the time, it was all about moving forward and inclusion.

Yes. Out of all the countries we drove through two years ago, the Islamic countries were the most open and welcoming of all of them in terms of accepting of foreigners. And you felt part of something as opposed to just crossing the border.

Yeah, it’s sort of the polar opposite of how people are when you travel around places like Europe where you’re almost expected to be there so there’s nothing special about it.

Yeah, crossing into Europe from Turkey for instance, no one asks questions. No one wants to know. Everyone just goes about their business, and that’s very isolating. And you just don’t get it in the Islamic countries in terms of the medinas and the mosques and the markets. They’re all so engaging anyway. So to go there and sort of lose that element, and then also change over from what is Islamic culture into Christianity, it’s a very different way that society embraces you when you’re traveling.

Absolutely. I found that true especially when we were in Pakistan. It was so embracing and convivial. You couldn’t go get an orange juice on the street without striking up a conversation with someone.

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Pakistan is still one of our favorite places. Just given the beauty of the geography, but also the people. I’ve rarely met people more engaging and welcoming than in Pakistan.

Yeah, I 100 percent agree with you. When I’m doing speeches these days I tell people, Pakistan is always our number one. Last year, when I traveled, we were in the homes of locals during Autumn, so it was apple and apricot season. The people around the Karakoram were very special. Peshawar was a very different, but engaging city. And we had such good hopes throughout Islamabad and Lahore. We just had an amazing time. And I can’t rave about it enough as a country now.

Peshawar was our last stop before heading into Afghanistan. It was our introduction into a more intense world so to speak. It’s such an amazing crossroads — still to this day — between the subcontinent and up into the central Asian mountains. It’s just a fantastic place. So from Peshawar how’d you make your way to Turkey?

I had arranged my Iranian visa prior to getting to India. So when I got to India was only when I heard back — it’s quite an engaging application process for U.S., Canadian, and British passport holders if you’re traveling in an independent vehicle. If you’re not, or in a tourist group, it’s easier. But if you’re there by yourself, they want to put a government guide in the car with you, which means you gotta again pay roughly 100, 120 U.S. dollars a day to have that guide with you. Generally for a country that’s about two-and-a-half thousand kilometers across that you also want to spend some time in, that’s a significant extra bit of budget. So, I wanted to do it. It was the country that I probably looked forward to the most, and then the Iranians do a massively stringent background check on you before they give you the visa go ahead or not. And because I’ve got a few media connections and then an online presence, they turned around and refused the visa and said, “Look, we won’t give you a visa. We’ll give you a media visa, but it’ll take you at least six months to apply for, and we’ve only ever issued three. So good luck.”

Ha. Yeah, that’s big old no.

So, there’s me in India with Sophee [Ben’s wife] who’s Australian. Her visa was going to get issued no problem. And we had this decision. Do we take a ship from Mumbai all the way to Turkey which would have totally destroyed the whole idea of what we were gonna do which was travel overland. Or do we just sit down and look at the map and go for another route? And Pakistan obviously, in my head, I knew my route through. I was gonna go through Tafta and Quetta. I was gonna race across the police and military escorts to the border and literally see none of it.

And that almost defeats the purpose of traveling there…

Yeah, so when I had the decision to make, do I go south that way or do I go north through the Himalayas, all of a sudden it was unknown territory I was really going through. And people had talked about the Karakoram Highway being this beautiful road. But it was just impossible for foreigners.

I sat down with Sophee and we looked at the logistics, and we looked at the visas and it took us an extra six weeks to get to Istanbul. And it took us an extra six countries and about six and half thousand kilometers, but we ended up doing the northern route. So we went through Pakistan into China, from China into Kyrgyzstan, into Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea, into Azerbaijan, into Georgia, and then into Turkey from there.

It was this vast detour, but it probably proved to be the most refreshing, exciting part of the trip, because we’d done no research of the countries. We didn’t know if we were gonna get the visas. I mean, I’d never have gone to Turkmenistan. It is a very, very censored country, almost in the same facet of North Korea. And it’s just bizarre. It’s a whack world. They are so striving to be unique in their identity, that some of them are doing it in a very bizarre way while introducing a lot of tourism. And other ones are just going, ‘Let’s spend money on cladding every Russian building in marble.’ And it’s just the weirdest, weirdest place. So, it was probably the best bit of the journey having to take that detour.

I spend a lot of time in central Asia, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the world because there’s really nowhere else like it. It’s so unique up there. I spent more time in Tajikistan actually, because I ended up kinda living a while in Dushanbe. You know, it’s one of those places where nobody speaks English. And for me, that’s so much more fulfilling — when you have to immerse yourself.

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And it was very, very interesting. We traveled with our friends to split the cost. Because in China you have to have a guide, and it’s a $2,000 expense. And if you get more over-landers it reduces the cost. And we met up with a couple of Australian guys that had happened to contact us on a forum. They were on motorbikes and we split the cost with them. So one of those guides, Harley, said “If the world finds out about this place, it would destroy it in a way. Because it’s such beautiful fresh backpacking that Asia used to be maybe fifty years ago.” And now tourism unfortunately does what it does, and it brings money in, and destroys it in a way. And central Asia hasn’t got that yet which is great.

I think Uzbekistan’s on the cusp. You’re starting to see a lot of tourism in places like Bukhara because of the Silk Road.

And the big tour buses have already arrived…

You wrote a book, The Best Job In The World. Tell us how that came to be?

Yeah, so I suppose the first touchpoint I had with Best Job In The World was about a week after I came back from my Africa trip. So I ran five marathons and climbed the five highest mountains in Africa that year. That was the whole fundraising side of what was ultimately a selfish journey around Africa. It became a bit more of a philanthropic means of getting back to some of those countries. And during that whole time for the charities, I basically decided to keep my own blog and website and do lots of stuff with what was the early days of social media.

By the time I got back to England, a year later after doing the trip, I built up a good audience from just the people that were curious about the adventure themselves. And what that formed was the perfect digital resume. Then I was looking at an application for The Best Job in the World.

What did it take to get the job? And where did you end up?

It’s a very well known global campaign. So what I did in Queensland (Australia) was really a one minute video showing why you were an adventurous, fun loving, almost virtual reporter. And it was exactly what I’d done in Africa with my year on the road. So, it all fit very nicely.

35,000 other people had the same idea as me. Then four months later, I saw that the planning, and the application, and the going out to Australia all payed off. I was lucky enough to get the job and spend six months there traveling the length and breadth of the Great Barrier Reef and all the islands.

I was being thrown anything as an opportunity — from sailing some amazing super yachts to diving some of the most remote and beautiful places on the Barrier Reef. I was up high in helicopters flying over the reefs. It was really anything that a tourist could do on the Barrier Reef. And I was lucky enough to go and do that and then some.

It sounds like a great but very tiring job.

I worked bloody hard. It was a good job, but it was also one of the busiest ones ever because it was fully about marketing dollars and getting exposure for the Great Barrier Reef for Queensland. So, there were maybe four or five interviews a week that could have been a half hour Skype interview, or it could be a film crew tracing your movements for three days while you’re on your adventures. So, it was really a multifaceted role of being an additional journalist. It was being a presenter for a series for Nat Geo. It was being a media guru for all of the journalists that were coming out. And then working with all the media organizations around the world sort of speaking of the delights of Queensland. So it sort of morphed into a lot more than it was originally advertised being an ‘island caretaker.’

What came next?

I did a four month kayak elect through the Barrier Reef, which was just a great adventure for me to go and do. I had a support boat, and then we invited media to come and join us to witness life on the Great Barrier Reef. Almost like Captain James Cook had done in the 1770s. Maybe a little bit more advanced than he’d done it.

So Africa and Best Job and Australia all rolled into one and became your book?

That was the whole sort of premise of the book. I had gotten up enough content that people wanted to know the story. Before my travels I’d read lots of lovely, beautiful, descriptive travel books. But I’m not that creative a writer. So, I sort of struggled to be artistic and descriptive in all my writing. So I thought I’m going to put together a book to give other potential travelers the ability to believe in the fact they can go out there and do their first expedition. They can plan it. They can organize everything themselves and make it happen. So that really became a bit of a tool for people to go and plan their own adventures.

There seems to be a lot of change happening at the moment in travel, have you encountered any new barriers?

I mean, borders change so much. Thailand has just introduced a government tax per day for an independent overland, international vehicle. Which you only have in foreign places like Iran, Myanmar, and Libya. And Thailand is very open and a very touristy country that just suddenly introduced this tax, which will close that bridge for a lot of overland travelers. Because $100 a day to go through a county of that size puts on probably $1,000-$2,000 on your budget. So, it’s interesting borders flash up, and open up, and close down again.

Brexit is happening. Trump’s America is a reality now. We have this sort of isolationism coming into our lives. And I feel like what we’re doing, traveling the world and thereby bringing the world to the people is more important now than ever. How do you feel about these changes that are happening?

I was in shock listening on the radio at sort of four in the afternoon as I was hearing the Brexit news come in. Because It was all based around the idea of migration and the idea of not wanting to be a globalized community. I was shocked that my fellow ex-countrymen would all think en masse like that. But sort of the trend has obviously followed that form in the U.S., and who knows what’s going to happen with the upcoming European elections as well.

I was never the best student. I’ve not got the best school reports. The thing that I’ve learned in the world the most is that travel opens the mind more than anything. It’s the best classroom I could study in. And I will continue as hard as I can to highlight the less visited countries in the world, the countries that people fear the most because of what they’re told.

Where’s the best place to start?

I sat down with a group of school kids last week and I talked to them about how beautiful some of these countries were and how not to be scared of them. You could see their eyes sort of light up with, “Okay, we’re hearing this firsthand from someone that we’ve learned to trust in the last hour. And all we ever hear is bad news about these places, so maybe we should start listening to this and making and drawing our own judgements on things.”

And someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you putting yourself and your wife at risk, but you’re also putting at risk the people who might have to come and rescue you from these situations.” I think it’s almost having an entrepreneurial travel experience that needs to be kept alive. Australia, of all countries, is very ruled and regulated. And people don’t have opportunities to think outside the box. So, what they’re force fed is what they believe and they are the barriers that they live within. So, to be able to go out there and sensibly push all travel boundaries then to bring home and publicize the good stories of people in the world, I think is such an essential thing.

How will travel make people less afraid?

As part of our Best Life in the World journey, we interviewed a good number of people about what gave them happiness. And generally, it was down to family, friends, and meeting other people for the first time. Wherever you go across the world, people want to engage with other people and learn about the world through their eyes and their stories. I think it’s still one of the single most important things we’ve got. And whilst Trump and people are trying to build walls, I think travel is one of those things that knocks down those walls by giving people their own opinions and their own mindsets on how bloody marvelous this place is that we call planet Earth.

You can follow Ben Southall’s travels on Instagram and Twitter or his blogs Best Life In The World and BenSouthall.com

More from Ben Southall’s travels:

The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
Watch this series for interviews and profiles with people doing big, wild, bold, creative things with their lives.
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