I recently watched Michael Palin looking back on his Sahara TV series of 2002. I think it was the last of his big travel shows for the BBC.
I remember thinking there was more ‘Sahara’ in the show’s title than the actual programmes, and watching what they chose to use in the recap, it looks again like he – like most people – was more at home in cities like Fez, St Louis and Algiers, or places like Gibraltar than in the desert.
I must admit I never fell for the Palin ‘nicest-man-on-TV’ schtick, though I haven’t watched his other travel series. Palin was born in 1943 so it could be a generation thing: many encounters felt set-up and shallow. Perfect Sunday Night telly, then and now. I remember him bristling a bit when this necessary fakery came up as an audience question at a talk he gave in London to promote the Sahara show.
Similar TV travel presenters like Bruce Parry (what happened to him?) and even Simon Reeves were among some fawning luvvies wheeled on to shower accolades. Both of them come across as equally genial and far more intrepid, immersive and engaged in their similar TV travels But all this is a bit like complaining about the Long Way… Ewan & Charlie motorbiking shows relying heavily on back-up vehicles. It’s a mainstream TV show, not Storyville.
As for Sahara, I can’t help thinking he didn’t like the actual desert. Fair enough; not everyone does. During the Niger episode (as deep into the Sahara as he got, afaik: a night or two in the Tenere and just after 9/11) he sits on a stool and sleeps in a tent rather than. getting down with the Tuareg. Disingenuously or not, over a snack he assumes they’re mocking him while teaching him local words. I’ve commonly experienced this ribbing and take it as no more than that.
He gets his own back later by getting them to repeat ‘bottom’ – as in ‘Bottoms Up’ which all Brits say several times a day when having a cuppa.
‘Such a lovely scene…’ chirps Parry.
‘That’s what you get when you put the time in.’
He observes that the locals in Agadez seemed barely moved by 9/11 (or were less exposed to saturation news coverage) and resented this insensitivity.
You get the feeling that like so many with a list to tick off, he was attracted by the romance of the desert: its mysterious veiled nomads and shimmering front-of-a-date-packet oases. Then he got there and found it hot and dusty, poor and dirty, with tiresomely chauvinistic guides, begging children, toilets from hell and all gradually exhausting. To his credit, the online diary certainly doesn’t hold back as the book (as I recall it) and especially the TV show had to do.
Oddly skipped in the show and the book is the fact that he travelled with Polisario escorts 1000-km overland from Tindouf down to Zouerat, partly along a route which has only recently re-opened. It was perhaps played down to appease the Moroccans, but also our man had a bad se of the runs which, as we all know, can make life miserable. Then he took the train to Choum and carried on to West Africa. Even with regular breaks back in the UK, by the time he got to Niger (‘in temperatures of up to 55°C…’), he must have had enough.
‘It’s a bare, dispiriting place.‘
So it can be if you’re there in the wrong season with a busy agenda of encounters to record. As mentioned elsewhere, I was struck that the Algerian Tree on Route L2 from my old book (visible on Google sat and pictured above in 1998) epitomised the essence of the desert for Michael Palin.
‘… this spare, uncluttered, beautiful spot was one of my favourite places in the Sahara‘.
Well, he’s easily pleased!
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