Hugh Thomson and the humility of wanderlust

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In this chat, traveller and filmmaker Hugh Thomson talks about how our idea that we have mapped the world out on GPS is a rather arrogant one.

“Isn’t entering a whole new world surely what mountains and life and literature are all about?” | Daisie Thomson


Hugh Thomson is an adventurer. Quiet and lanky in person, he doesn’t immediately give off the impression that he might set out across the Yorkshire Moors with his mule Jethro to rediscover the landscape a la Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine. Nor does he give off the immediate vibe of a mountaineer about to explore the inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi. Or that he might, with a band of other muleteers, journey into the remote Andes to discover an ancient Inca site called Cota Coca. Or that in his other life as filmmaker, he might casually put together a ten-part history of rock and roll. In fact, once you get him talking, you realise he is possibly the world’s most interesting man.

Hugh Thomson’s Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary has recently been published by Hachette India.


The first mountain you climbed was the Tounot when you were 13. You talk about how you made that mountain area ‘your private space’. This is something you echo in your Nanda Devi book as well — how being on a mountain with a group of people is like being alone with other people who want to be alone. What is it about mountains that inspire this?

Yes, the Tounot was a relatively small mountain by Alpine standards, but it had a satisfyingly savage northern face, which dominated the small village where we were staying. And it had an even more satisfying approach up around the back, avoiding that savage face but emerging on top of it.

This approach took you into a ‘hidden valley’, a world with its own small lakes and deserted shepherds’ huts. As a boy of thirteen, it was a perfect place to escape. I suppose for me it was the first mountain area I could make my own, a private place signifying ‘that untravelled world’ which the charismatic mountaineer Eric Shipton had written about and I wanted to explore.

When I did emerge on the summit, there was an impressive view. The small village lay directly beneath me, south-facing and taking the afternoon sun. I could see the main Val d’Anniviers below, with the Rhone valley in the distance and the whole of the Pennine Alps sweeping down to meet it.

But to be honest I’ve never really been interested in getting to the top of mountains. Far more enjoyable is to cross a high mountain pass and find a new valley to explore; isn’t entering a whole new world surely what mountains and life and literature are all about?

I’m also drawn to mountains that have a special spiritual meaning for the people who live in them, like the Andes in Peru which the descendants of the Incas still venerate, or the sources of the Ganges in the Himalaya to which so many Indian pilgrims are still drawn and which I wrote about in Nanda Devi. I can’t see the point in ‘empty mountains’, where all you’re trying to do is climb a lump of rock.


One of the most startling revelations of your book (aside from your copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost which you tucked in a cairn on a hill), is about another object that was tucked away — in 1965 the CIA sent a team to plant a nuclear-powered spying device on the summit of Nanda Devi which has now like Milton’s Paradise, been “lost”. Given that that plutonium capsule has a lifespan of 900 years and we have another 850 years of possible radioactive disaster waiting to happen, can you explain why this is not a bigger story in India?


Sometime it’s difficult to resurrect a story — in this case a literally ‘buried story’ as the nuclear-powered spying device got lost in a landslide. And the Indian and American governments tried as hard as they could back then to keep the story from ever getting out. All the mountaineers — many of them very well known — had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

When my book Nanda Devi was first published in the UK, it was one of the first to reveal the story. And it’s taken until now for anyone to agree to publish it in India, given the previous government restrictions. But I’m very pleased that Hachette India have now taken the plunge and I hope it raises awareness of a very serious long-term problem that, as Captain Kohli, the Indian leader of the expedition, has commented, ‘will keep ticking for the next 850 years’. The plutonium powering the device has never been located — and the Nanda Devi sanctuary is one of the head-waters of the Ganges.


You follow in the footsteps of a certain British nomadic restlessness — Thesiger, Chatwin, Thubron, Newby. You’ve spent a considerable amount of your career discovering Inca ruins. Is there something to do with growing up on a small cold island that makes one predisposed to exploring & also, many talk of the golden age of exploration being over…. Do you agree that there’s nothing left to explore?


No I absolutely don’t! I think we act with extreme arrogance if we presume we know everything there is to know in the world. And we should also be going back to old places with new questions, which is the job of an explorer. A true explorer is not just someone who discovers something or plants a flag in the ground. They have to interpret and understand places, which is far harder — and more important.

That assumption that we live in a completely known world has been common for many centuries — why the discovery of the New World came as such a shock to Renaissance man, or why the Victorians thought that they knew it all — and was no more true in the 16th than the 19th century. We know now that ahead lay the discovery of Machu Picchu and of Tutankhamen's tomb; of polar and jungle expeditions; of whole swathes of natural history of which the Victorians were completely unaware.

We are less ready to admit that we may possibly suffer under the same delusion. We likewise think we live in a totally explored and known planet, mapped by Google and satellite; but my experiences in Peru and elsewhere suggest this is far from true. There are still huge stretches of wilderness in the world about which we know little. Let alone the places in between… We just choose to take certain, familiar paths through it.


You’ve just walked 200 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem through the West Bank trying to take the temperature of what’s happening there. Throughout your work, I see the idea of walking as holiness, as pilgrimage, as yatra — can you explain why walking has this quality of holiness?


Yes, there’s nothing like putting your feet on the ground to take the true temperature of a place. And I’ve always found that only by spending time walking across a country that you can begin to make sense of the confusing detail of a political situation — and few come more confusing or entrenched than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But I was also doing it to appreciate the significance of the Biblical landscape, which was spectacular and elemental. Much as with travelling to Machu Picchu — or, for that matter, Stonehenge — my arrival in Bethlehem after a ten-day pilgrimage was so much better for having been done by foot. And not just because you feel “you’ve earned it”; but because, as with so many sacred sites, unless you understand the geography of the sacred landscape that surrounds them, you can never appreciate their true meaning.

That said, the shock of encountering the 25-foot high wall that now divides the middle of Bethlehem was brutal. While I have mixed feelings about Banksy’s commodification of that wall with his artwork, gift shop and upmarket hotel — although Palestinians I spoke to felt he had at least drawn more worldwide attention to their plight — the physical experience of gazing up at so much concrete and barbed wire is like a smack in the face.

I have immense admiration for the many Indian pilgrims who make the yatra journeys up the Ganges to sites like Badrinath and Kedarnath and one reason for writing Nanda Devi was to pay homage to them.


And finally, speaking of a kind of transcendence — what was it like to interview David Bowie?


I did one of the longest interviews Bowie ever recorded on film because we were covering his entire career for the BBC series on the history of rock and roll I made, called Dancing In The Street. I recreated the set from the final scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (the room with classical proportion where the astronaut reviews his life). Bowie loved that.

He was one of the most charming people I’ve ever interviewed — and by that I mean the true charm of someone who listens as well as talks. He also told me that as a child, he desperately wanted to be someone else — and that becoming a rock star was just one way of reinventing himself, but we all have the opportunity to choose who we really want to be. We just have to take it. In some ways I was following his advice when I became an explorer.

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