Michael Palin: Sahara

I love travelogues. Not only can travel enable you to see the world, but the act of traveling itself can open your eyes to the world at its best. Done well, a travel documentary can take you on that same journey, open a window into a world past and present, and provide comfort and inspiration to those of us stuck at home. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. This is Travelogia.

Journey time: Various points, 2001

Countries visited: Gibraltar, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Libya, Tunisia, Spain

Throughout the 1990s, Michael Palin’s travel series for the BBC got longer and longer, maxing out with the rather sluggish and uneven Full Circle. Afterward, the series continued with Hemingway Adventure, in which our host followed in the footsteps of his favorite author. At this point, the entire conceit of celebrating travel itself had been abandoned, and with it a great deal of the humanity present in both Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole.

I’m only skipping Hemingway Adventure because I couldn’t find it. Luckily, 2001’s Sahara brings Palin and Passepartout back to their roots, going smaller and closer to home. And while the show was actually filmed in four separate segments throughout the year, the sense of having gotten somewhere is mercifully back. And instead of covering the beats like most of Full Circle, Sahara fully commits to connecting with the colorful personalities living in and around the world’s largest desert, from an expatriate libertine in Tangier to racers on the Paris-Dakar rally and Wodaabe and Touareg nomads. How much of this, I wonder, resulted because longtime Passepartout member Roger Mills took over as executive producer?

Starting in Gibraltar, during an alarming (but failed) power-sharing proposal between the UK and Spain, Palin sprints down to Morocco, taking in the sights and sounds. It’s simply beautiful, and would only have been better if he’d shown off some Moroccan food. From there, he goes south and spends half his time on the Sahel, the borderland between desert and tropics, including (but not terribly dwelling on) Timbuktu, often with musicians but mostly regular people he meets, exposing a world past and present that I had no knowledge of but now dream of seeing for myself– a sensation Britons now refer to as the Palin Effect.

Foremost, Sahara is most concerned with boats and camels and people, and that’s as it should be. Palin would never again take a journey as ambitious as those he had previously, but of his subsequent smaller-scale adventures, Sahara is by far my favorite.

Next Time: Palin and Passepartout get topical– and pay tribute to a late friend– in Himalaya.