Nick Middleton's visit to a remote indigenous group in New Guinea had been planned months in advance. But things weren't exactly going to that plan. In fact, as the Kombai tribe's 'welcome party' deliberated over whether or not to put their bows and arrows to good use, the situation was looking decidedly dicey for Middleton and his TV colleagues. "The missionary who was acting as our interpreter couldn't actually speak the Kombai language," says the 43-year-old presenter. "He had previously been regaling me with stories of people who'd gone off in search of newly contacted tribes and never been seen again. Sometimes their bodies were later found riddled with arrows."
Thankfully, these Papuan tribesmen, wearing only penis gourds, chose to accept the strangely dressed foreigners. They even invited Middleton to climb up to an especially high tree-house perched precariously in the jungle canopy, for which he had to overcome severe vertigo. In that same episode of his recent Surviving Extremes series, Middleton went crocodile hunting with just a broom for protection and was ravaged mercilessly by mosquitoes. Given all this, few would suggest that the Oxford University geography lecturer ever need prove his bravery again.
What's refreshing about Middleton's derring-do, however, is the distinct lack of machismo involved. His programmes are more a personal learning experience shared with the audience than a lecture. "I prefer to learn from people rather than pretend to know it all," he says. And in the best tradition of armchair travel, Middleton gives viewers not only a glimpse of the places he visits, but how a Westerner copes in them--or doesn't. "A lot of people watch because it's interesting to see Mr Mid-latitude going to extraordinary places and being frank about how difficult life is there."
Following on from 2001's Going to Extremes four-part series--for which he spent a month in the world's coldest, hottest, wettest and driest inhabited places--his second series features four types of environment that represent the limits in which humans can survive. From the icescapes of Greenland to New Guinea's foetid swamps via Niger's Tenere Desert and the dense forests of the Congo Basin, Middleton visited various groups of mainly nomadic peoples who frequent these lonely places. "Choosing which desert to visit was quite hard," says Middleton, a desert specialist by training, "but then I heard about the Tubu people whose women make an incredible journey on foot each year to buy dates with which to barter. I hadn't heard of the Tubu before, but the role of the very hardy Tubu women intrigued me."
When I meet Middleton, Britain is languishing in a stifling heat wave. "Today is an exception, perhaps, but we usually don't have anything to really complain about, relative to many places," Middleton says. As he points out, the people he met consider their lives and environments normal, rather than extreme. "One of the things that struck me about the people I met was that almost without exception, each group was happy with their lot and thought where they lived was normal, which of course to them it is," he says. "That's the beauty of travel: it puts everything, including where you're from, in perspective. In Siberia, I explained to a couple that I would be travelling to very wet and hot places, and they said, 'Ooh, it must be awful to live there.' it was 50[degrees]C outside."
Middleton may be unique among academic TV personalities in that he describes himself as a geographer. "It's quite surprising there are so few of us who say we're geographers, given that geography is so much about everywhere and has a lot of attractions," he says. "Geography has had an image crisis. People of my generation and older associate geography with capital cities, and where the coalfields are, and coloured pencils--all a bit tedious. Yet for the past ten years, geography in schools and universities has been …