Long Way Down

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: Spring 2007

Countries visited: United Kingdom, France, Italy, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa

I’m starting to notice a pattern.

Say you made a travelogue, and it was a lot of fun: spontaneous, adventurous, you learned a lot. Then you do it again, try to recapture that magic. And maybe we shouldn’t be away from home for so long, eh? And can more people come? And before you know it, the magic is mostly gone.

Long Way Down is the archetypal follow-up documentary, and among Big Earth fans it’s mostly famous for the uncomfortable tension around Eve McGregor wanting to come along for part of the journey. Basically everyone complains about this, and though this occasionally (by which I mean frequently) veers into sexism, the fact is that, rather than go on a separate motorcycle journey with her husband, she inserted herself into this project for people to watch and into her husband’s friendship in a fairly thoughtless way, and everyone was too British to put their foot down. My mom was a bit more sore about this than I was.

But that element of the series tends to get blown out of proportion, when there are far more difficulties at play: in order to cut the journey shorter– Long Way Round having taken over three months– Ewan and Charley chose a route from the tip of Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa, a distance which is shorter on paper but considerably deeper in culture, nature, or overall experience than the Russian steppe, so a mere 75 days is not nearly enough, forcing our companions to joylessly rush their way through the length of Europe and North Africa, as well as the medic and security expert warning their way through every new country (for my money, eastern and southern Africa are far more well-traveled and safer than Russia).

Things do settle into a nice pattern around Ethiopia, and you’ll get everything you want out of these series, but it’s a far cry from the best this team has to offer, about which more to come soon.

Five Stars: In spite of the rush, the European part of the journey is a lot of fun. They camp out at Silverstone raceway, wander hopelessly through convoluted tunnels in the Alps, and get a home cooked meal from some fellow travelers as well as some authentic nonnas. Ethiopia is similarly spectacular, as is a solemn if hopeful visit to Rwanda and of course the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

One Star: South Africa. They just kinda rush through it, though that may be a consequence of the slightly-condensed version of the series I watched on YouTube. I definitely remember scenes that weren’t in this cut.

Next Time: I indulge my homesickness and awkward nostalgia with Stephen Fry in America.

My own travelogue, An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel will be available later this year via Amazon. You can read an excerpt here.