Dogsledding in Alaska, elephant riding in Sri Lanka — the actress likes to go wild
I grew up by the sea in Southport, where the tide always seemed to be out. We never really went abroad for holidays, but as a teenager I’d get up at 5am and roam alone in the marshes, communing with the birds. It was very romantic in a Dickensian kind of way, though it’s just as well it wasn’t Victorian times. They’d probably have locked me up as a loon.
When I was 11, a kestrel flew into the wires of the tennis court where I was playing. She was injured, and I sat with her all afternoon: she eventually hopped on my shoulder, and finally away onto the church tower to be reunited with her mate. It was a defining experience for me. I became obsessed with wildlife, I suppose, and it often sparks my travels.
I’ve been involved with the Galapagos Conservation Trust since 2003, and this month I’m going there with Sanctuary Retreats, on a fundraising cruise to mark the Darwin anniversary. I’m interested to see the impact of tourism first-hand. Andrew Marr famously said he’d visited once but would never return, and maybe I’ll feel the same.
But I’m also undeniably excited about the encounters I’ll have — especially observing the interaction of animal communities there. Did you know the blue-footed boobies have their own ritual dance? That fascinates me — but then so does the behaviour on the boat. Oh yes, I’ll also be keeping an eye on my fellow passengers!
A cruise is a great character study for actors. I went on one to Alaska and it was astonishing: all this thrilling scenery, yet half the people never left the casino. They’d glance out of a porthole occasionally — I guess it was like Alaska TV.
It was in Alaska that I tried dog-sledding, and got hooked — so hooked, in fact, that last winter I signed up for a dog-sledding challenge in Arctic Norway. Not one of these celebrity things, just me and 12 others, raising money for Battersea dogs’ home. It was like being in the army for a week: physically and emotionally utterly absorbing.
Ironically, our departure was delayed by the snowstorms in London — someone joked we should stay and do the whole thing in Richmond Park. But it meant we arrived at the dog camp at night, and had to set off immediately to make up time. Exploding through the darkness, snow coming at you, clinging on for dear life — it felt like flying into the Star Wars credits. Then, suddenly, the northern lights flashed up, which was surreal. You know that it’s a natural phenomenon, but it feels virtual. Like a gift.
It got down to -30C, we stayed in basic cabins and personal hygiene wasn’t uppermost, let’s put it that way. Also, tired as you are, it’s hard to make yourself eat — your body wants to shut down, somehow. But it’s hard to describe the intensity of running with the pack like that; you just have to learn very, very quickly. The joy of the huskies really moved me — they live to run.
Hollywood tends to pigeonhole actors, and usually they want me to be a bit deranged, a knife-brandisher. But it’s true that I like edgy parts, different from anything I’ve done before, and that’s true of my travels, too. I’m drawn to extremes; I like to be thrown back on my resources a little.
In Sri Lanka, I did some filming to raise awareness of a project working with stray dogs. Then I went on to my favourite place for bird-watching, the Kandalama, a pioneering eco-hotel near Dambulla. It’s lovely, sort of soaked in the forest: the restaurant has this vast window, so you can watch the monkeys eating while they watch you. I’m still a novice birder, getting my eye in, but you can trek out with a guide, and they bombard you with all the species you’re seeing.
You can also ride elephants there, which I was a little uncomfortable about. Hotel elephants have a better existence than some, but you’re aware that they’re domesticated, very much in service. I made sure I took mine plenty of treats — lots of bananas. And afterwards, I asked if I could bathe her.
Miranda Richardson talked to Vincent Crump