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: April-July 2008
Countries visited: Ireland, Isle of Man, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, United Arab Emirates, India, Nepal, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia
Ireland to Sydney by Any Means is a total game-changer.
After completing Long Way Down, Charley Boorman and director Russ Malkin came up with a strange, counterintuitive plan: to travel from Charley’s hometown of Wicklow, Ireland to Sydney Harbour in Australia, avoiding commercial airlines if possible, and using as many forms of transportation as possible, especially modes of travel historically or culturally significant to the places visited.
Basically they do whatever they can think of for four months on a journey halfway around the world. Teaming up with a hotshot young cameraman named Mungo, Charley & company ended up with one of the warmest, most eclectic travelogues I’ve ever seen. It is the most colorful and arguably the most watchable of all the Big Earth documentaries. And the intro slaps.
In the spirit of that other all-time classic Pole to Pole, By Any Means racks up a decent number of flashpoints– albeit flashpoints that have been somewhat forgotten in the decade since. Already discouraged from visiting soldiers serving in Afghanistan, our three dad-joking daredevils visit Georgia during the buildup to the August war with Russia, find themselves in Nepal during the overthrow of its monarchy, and are forced to fly directly from Kathmandu to Guangzhou due to both a Tibetan uprising and a horrific earthquake in Sichuan.
And while most of the countries visited are ones we’ve seen before in this retrospective, it’s endlessly fascinating to see how the accumulated decades of history have changed the way people travel; most notably when Charley, inspired by Michael Palin, attempts to charter a dhow from Dubai to Mumbai only to discover that they have become off-limits to passengers due to terrorism and human trafficking. Because of this, and because of the surprising number of mechanical and medical problems that crop up on the trip, it is all the more impressive for how our adventurers are able to keep things friendly and lighthearted without seeming above it all.
But By Any Means is equally fascinating, if not moreso, for what it represents– made possible as it was by the ongoing revolution of digital filmmaking that defined media in the 2000s. Gone are the truckloads of videotape and filming equipment; all we need in 2008 is three men– director, cinematographer, star– each with just one or two bags. It is no hyperbole to say that this one series democratized the travelogue, and there’s no going back.
And in watching these pals wander around, shooting the shit, trying to make each other laugh, and really, getting to know the people who use these vehicles and live in these places, I realized that I am part of that democracy. I may not have made my own documentary…yet…but is how I travel and how my friends travel: to see the world from the ground up, on the human scale, and form the inside out.
This series resists the usual Five Star/One Star rating system, so instead I’ll give you three weird facts:
1. This journey began on April 12, 2008, the same fateful Saturday that Stephen Fry, Barack Obama, my first girlfriend, and I all found ourselves visiting San Francisco.
2. This is the second travelogue I’ve reviewed to feature a chance encounter with Peter Hillary, son of Edmund Hillary.
3. Mungo almost doesn’t get into Iran because he has an Israeli stamp on his passport, which is officially a bar to entry. He gets away with it because he’s a globetrotting cameraman and has around 60 other stamps in there. I would be a prisoner of war.
Next Time: It’s time for an instant sequel with Right to the Edge.