Interview by Lisa Grainger, The Daily Telegraph, September 06, 2013
The 63-year-old founder of the Virgin Group started business life at 16 with a student magazine, despite being dyslexic. By the age of 20 he had launched a record business, later sold to EMI for $500 million. The self-made billionaire has traversed the globe by boat, plane, windsurfer, foot and balloon and next year will be one of the first commercial travellers in space.
How many holidays do you take a year?
I’ve no idea; for work I travel all the time – often to places I am lucky enough to call home.
Why so many homes?
I love creating hideaways. My idea is to go to the most beautiful, unspoilt places, buy the land and make sure it is never damaged. I’ve always admired John D Rockefeller, who bought up tracts of land to ensure they were left wild in perpetuity.
Favourite spots in the world?
As a teenager I went to Bali a lot, but it’s a long, long way from England. Which is why, when we bought Necker Island, we made it like a mini Bali.
Where do you stay on Necker these days?
We lost everything when the house burnt down [in 2011], but we’re about to move into a new one. What’s important is that no one got hurt. Material things are delightful but they’re not important.
Where else in the world do you call home?
I love Africa, and Ulusaba, our home in South Africa, is pretty special. It’s on a rocky hill overlooking the bush, and from your room you can see lions stalking zebras by the waterhole.
Why did you also buy a property in Kenya?
A wonderful man called Jake Greaves told me the great migration was in danger of being choked by the farms in its path. He suggested that, if we could lease land from the Masai, we could keep large tracts of the migration path free, local people would make more money than they did from cattle-herding, and the migration could continue. A win-win situation. So that’s what we’ve done.
Any parts of the world you’ve never been?
South America, which I would love to see with the children and grandchildren.
Your idea of a perfect holiday destination?
We’re very active, so somewhere we can kitesurf, play tennis, windsurf, paddleboard. As a family we do lots of adventure holidays and once a year set ourselves a challenge. Last year we climbed Mont Blanc. In 2008, we tried to break the transatlantic record in a boat called Speedboat, but the mast broke. We’ve kitesurfed across the Channel, too. Sam, my son, got a medal for the fastest crossing and I got one for being the oldest competitor.
Do you ever holiday in Britain?
Er, not really. Necker Island or rainy Britain? Having said that, I do love Cornwall and Devon. The west coast of Scotland is beautiful, too.
Are your holidays always luxurious?
Not at all. For my dad’s 85th birthday, I took him and his friend on a tented safari to follow the migration. It was pouring with rain and we shared a tent, which had a hole as a rudimentary lavatory.
Have you ever roughed it?
You can’t go round the world for 21 days in a balloon without roughing it. You have to be able to cope with extremes and I love that challenge.
The most remote places you’ve travelled?
Last year, our family went to the Antarctic with Al Gore to see first-hand what was happening there. I also joined my son for a week on his three-month dog-sledding trip to the Arctic, which was breathtakingly beautiful but pretty basic.
Favourite spots in Africa?
I loved Namibia and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where we saw wild dogs; the way they work as a pack is inspiring. Madagascar is also extraordinary but broke my heart. About 95 per cent of the rainforest has been destroyed. We’re campaigning to help protect what is left; we even have lemurs on Necker to try and breed them.
Best cities for a weekend break?
I’m no good at cities; I spend as little time in them as possible. Sydney is one of my favourites; it has good food, wine and beaches, the winters are warm – and everyone should try surfing on Bondi .
I would rather be in a farmhouse in the countryside – although Halepi in London serves delicious Greek food. In Sydney, Icebergs restaurant on Bondi Beach is great. And Chicago is a brilliant food destination, with Nightwood, Avec, Au Cheval, The Purple Pig ... the list goes on.
Your next challenge?
To go into space later this year or next year. The great thing about setting yourself challenges is that you have to train to make sure you are capable of doing them. Three years ago we all ran the London marathon. I am not a runner, so that was really tough. But once you have got into training, you realise most things are conquerable.
How are you preparing yourself for space?
The headquarters of Virgin Galactic has a centrifuge unit which duplicates the flight, so your body can learn what is going to happen to it. I am doing zero-gravity flights next month, and a couple of months before we go, we’ll quit alcohol and make sure we are 100 per cent fit. The first flight is going to take just the family; it will be the trip of a lifetime. After that, about 700 people have booked [a seat on the two-hour trip costs $200,000/£128,000].
Next, the Moon?
One day, yes, there will be a Virgin hotel on the Moon – or floating round the Moon. Guests could then go off on a two-man capsule that could explore the little mountains and valleys. The engineers probably won’t manage this while I’m still alive, but they will do so in my children’s lifetimes. Scientists are developing things all the time; and if you allow people to dream, most of them can achieve what they hoped.