John waxes lyrical about Balkan venture

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The Borders Group of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society will welcome their third speaker of the season at Galashiels this month.

John Pilkington presents adventure travel documentaries on BBC Radio 4 and is a well-travelled speaker as well as an avid adventurer.

His current talk is titled A Balkan Adventure – the listener will be guided from Trieste to Istanbul on various modes of transport in John’s captivating style.

This sojourn in the Balkan states passes through the dereliction of massacres, the remnants of poverty and through the majesty of the Albanian Alps.

In late spring 2013 John wrote an update on the early stages of his Balkan journey.

“Italy came to an end just five miles from the city centre, and in the Slovenian port of Koper I left the Adriatic and set off between red-roofed houses into the Balkan hills. I was still firmly in Western Europe – Slovenia felt like Switzerland. But once into Croatia the surroundings began to change. Men scythed the fields, chickens wandered in the villages, and pungent farmyard smells greeted me at every corner.”

A far cry from John’s place of birth in Sheffield. John told us that his family upbringing had certainly not instilled the wanderlust in him, rather it was the romance of a book.

“My earliest memory is of a school atlas. It had places with romantic names like the Hindu Kush and the Mountains of the Moon, and I wondered what such mountain ranges could possibly be like. I daydreamed about exploring them one day to see for myself.”

“Eric Newby’s ‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ was also an early inspiration. 

“There’s that mountain range again! The book came out in 1958, but I only discovered it in the 1970s. He had an understated, self-deprecating sense of humour which was very British – perfect travel writing.”

These were small but effective influences on John’s decision to study geography, but it was his intelligence and dedication that gave him the opportunity to undertake his study at the University of Cambridge.

John said: “I am still a passionate geographer. I love coming to the RSGS because its members have this passion too.”

John’s talk in Galashiels on November 24 will be his 50th in Scotland and his 46th for the RSGS.  

But his busy schedule of adventuring and talks does not seem to make him homesick, he said.

“Most of the time I’m too busy meeting and talking to people to think about much else.

“Of course, I do still miss close friends, but with email, Facebook and Skype it’s easy to keep in touch.

“What a contrast to the 1970s, when I spent hours writing letters which often never arrived. Mainly, I miss pizza and wine with my friends!”

John was one of the first western journalists to report from the Central Asian republics after the break-up of the Soviet Union, so world events often still determine where he will venture to.

Recently, he spent a month in Afghanistan, and this year he was in Ukraine and Russia.

Although some journeys have come about through chance suggestions, for example, in 1997 he visited Bolivia to find out what happened to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

John Pilkington will present his lecture, A Balkan Adventure, at Heriot-Watt University’s Scottish Borders Campus, Galashiels, on Tuesday, November 24, at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £8 for adults, free for RSGS members, students and under-18s.