The reason I travel can be reduced to one name: Tintin. Most of you must know the adventures of the young Belgian reporter, the creation of Hergé – a genius and one for your list when you are asked to name five famous Belgians. As a boy I had a map on my bedroom wall and I put a pin in every place that Tintin visited, swearing that I would do the same.
I have finally done it. My last trip was to the Congo where, in true Tintin style, I was trying to find out more about a supposed monster that lived in a remote and perfectly circular lake in the north of the country. The monster was known as the Mkele M’bembe (“the blocker of rivers”) and although I’m sad to report that I did not find him, I was tied to a tree by an angry group of villagers who threatened to finish off my travelling once and for all. It didn’t matter though, as with Tintin, it’s the adventure that is the story and I managed to escape to tell the tale.
It was like when I went to the Himalayas looking for the Yeti. I felt almost at home in Kathmandu as it was so similar to what I’d seen in Tintin in Tibet (even though he was in Nepal). I trekked up to Everest Base Camp, actually found some Yeti footprints and felt very pleased with myself. I decided against an actual ascent of the mountain – even adventurers have their limits, and besides, Tintin didn’t do it, so why should I?
My favourite Tintin moment however, was when I made a documentary on him for Channel 4. To get into the spirit of things, I dyed my hair ginger and donned similar-looking clothing to the boy reporter. Frankly, I looked like Tintin after a mid-life crisis. Of course, Tintin was always accompanied by his dog, Snowy, a white wire fox terrier. We were filming in Brussels and my production team found someone who would rent us such a dog. We were about two hours into filming when the rain started. After about 10 minutes, something very strange happened – our Snowy started to change colour.
It soon became apparent that the owners, in an attempt to make some quick money, had unbeknownst to us, dyed the poor dog white for our filming purposes. The Belgian rain was rapidly reverting him to his original colour. We were down a little alley in the centre of Brussels and, as we wondered what to do a police car drove past. It slowed down as it reached the entrance to the alley and the policeman looked down. Who knows what he thought as he spotted an out of shape Tintin, crouched beside a bedraggled Snowy dripping white dye onto the alley floor? I think it was too much for him as he gave the scene a second glance, shook his head and drove on. There are some things too surreal for even a Belgian policeman.