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M. Sanjayan

A broadcaster and conservationist who likes places that are exotic – and London shops

Samantha Weinberg | July/August 2015

WORK OF ART HAND AXE FROM EAST AFRICA
If you walk in the Rift Valley and keep your eyes down, especially around an ancient lake bed, you may see teardrops of stone. These are ancient hand axes, the Swiss army knives of homo erectus. There are fields of them in Kenya, and they’re not made from the local stone, so they must have been brought in from a distance. They are works of art. I’ve picked up many; each one fits perfectly in the palm; it’s just the right shape and weight. The idea that an upright primate held it is amazing; nothing else I know of connects us with our ancestors so concretely.

VIEW CENTENNIAL VALLEY, MONTANA
I could choose almost any view in Montana. I can’t count the times I’ve been driving somewhere, and have stopped in awe at the beauty of the light and the scenery. This valley is a piece of America that has remained fairly untouched. If Lewis and Clark walked across the country now, this would be one of the few places they would recognise. They’d see the same plants and animals – elk, moose, bears, wolves – yet it’s a working landscape, with real cowboys working cattle. It’s very cold in winter and really windy and dusty in summer, but it has a magic to it. This is now my home. I came here after reading “A River Runs Through It”; I went fly-fishing on the same Madison river and was hooked.

JOURNEY AROUND THE WORLD
Over the last two and a half years, I’ve been to 25 countries, from the Intangible Zone in the Amazon to the Arctic, across Uzbekistan and China, paragliding with vultures and floating on Lake Malawi. It’s been an almost perpetual journey to ask: is there hope for wild animals and the places that I care so much about on a planet with 7 billion people; and are we humans still part of nature? I had this belief that if we recognised that we were, then we would have a reason for saving it. Spending time at the Chengdu panda sanctuary in China was amazing – the Chinese have cracked the code of how to breed them, but, more impressively, they’ve taken the audacious step of reintroducing them to the wild. Going into the forest with a two-year-old panda was an unbelievably magical moment. At the other end of the scale, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was sobering; you cannot believe the scale of the loss of the sea. You get out and walk, not on sand but on fishbones and shells, and all that’s left of this once-massive sea is a sliver of water so salty that nothing can live in it. It shakes you up that this all happened in your own lifetime, because of our desire for cheap cotton.

HOTEL CAPELLA, WASHINGTON, DC
It’s everything a city hotel should be: well situated – in the heart of Georgetown – with great food, fireplaces and a barman who mixes a terrific Old Fashioned. The staff know you instantly, and you can run or bike along the canal. Sitting in the rooftop infinity pool in the middle of the night in winter, with snow coming down and the lights of DC all around, is something special. I spend a lot of time in Washington, working with governments around the world. My big message is: save nature and live better.

BUILDING MINNERIYA TANK, POLONNARUWA, SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka has something like 30,000 ponds and lakes – we call them tanks. Yet, incredibly, none is natural; most were hand-hewn from the rock between 3BC and 3AD. There’s always water coming down at some point on the island, and the ancient kings figured out ways to move it around. This particular tank hosts the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world. They come in the dry season to drink; they’re the reason for Sri Lanka’s extraordinary density of elephants. As children we would bathe in these tanks – I remember swimming with water cobras and monitor lizards. Some of the tanks are holy: every temple has one.

CITY LONDON
When I close my eyes and think what city I most want to visit, it’s always London. I grew up in Sri Lanka until I was five and my parents had to flee, and then Africa – my father worked for the UN. Once a year, we’d fly to London; it was like going to the pinnacle of existence. The damp and the rain allow you to spend time indoors. The British Museum was hallowed space as a child – my folks allowed me to roam it free. But mostly, London was where we did our shopping. We’d pore over strange catalogues; Mothercare, Ladybird books, M&S – even now I love M&S sandwiches and cakes. Then we’d return to our house in the back of beyond loaded with stuff.

BEACH THE SKELETON COAST, NAMIBIA
There’s something extraordinary about a coastal desert: on one side you can fish for supper, on the other there are endless dunes. It’s the best beach to walk along; past shipwrecks, colonies of seals and the odd strand wolf – a brown hyena. If you walk far enough north, you can actually run into a lion. I like being near the ocean, and this one’s cold and windy. My favourite thing is to get some smoked snook for dinner from Walvis Bay, and a six-pack of ice-cold Castle beer, climb one of the tallest dunes and sit there watching the sun set. It’s magical.

 

M. Sanjayan was talking to Samantha Weinberg. Earth: A New Wild is available on DVD

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