16th March 2017
I have to say I did stress about this event probably more than any other I have been involved in before. I am not sure why. I suspect having an A-lister of the stature of Michael Palin involved was one reason. Talking about a journey I made 20 years ago was probably another – would I remember it! But above all I expect simply having to stand up in front of 750 people, give a speech and compere the evening, would give most the collywobbles.
I need not have worried. Michael, hot-footing it from his mother-in-law’s 104th birthday party, was a true gent and charm personified. Within about a minute of meeting him I felt as if I’d known him years. I managed to remember most of the nuances of my journey through Afghanistan and the audience where, as usual, in high and generous spirits.
But the highlight for me was the talks from our three guest speakers. Once I’d finished telling the tale of my journey through Nuristan, Michael took up the reins and gave a wonderful eloquent and amusing account of his journey through Pakistan for his TV series Himalaya; he even showed off his full set of sparkling nashers he bought in the Peshawar bizarre for the princely sum of £17.
Our own tour leader Spike Reid then took over and told an incredible story of his loopy journey down the Ganges from source to sea on a paddleboard. I had never seen Spike speak before but with Kate Humble cancelling due to filming commitments, he filled the void admirably, giving a highly entertaining account of his journey.
But saving the best till last, Benedict Allen flew us all the way down to the South Pacific for the most remarkable talk I think I have ever heard. With his travel partner, Frank Gardner, in attendance he spoke for over half an hour about the trip they just made for the BBC, searching for the birds of paradise, and his own journey 30 years earlier into the wilds of Papua New Guinea. And my goodness, if I thought Spike’s paddle-boarding escape was somewhat loopy, being taken in by the headhunting tribes of PNG, going through violet initiation ceremonies – to make him ‘as strong as a crocodile’ – which in effect amounted to extreme torture, was truly beyond the pale. But as usual Benedict delivered his speak with so much humour he brought the house down.
That said for all his bravado and whit he did finish on a poignant and sober note, reminding us all that we are blessed with each day we get to enjoy and that it’s our duty to make the most of them.
With their help the evening raised over £7,000 for the Kalash, the last of the pagan tribes to inhabit the Hindu Kush, which will be used to build a flood defence wall to protect their village and their unique way of life.
All in all it was a great evening and something I was very proud to be associated with.