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On top of the world, and underneath it
on October 24, 2007
After the success of Around the World in Eighty Days, Michael Palin embarked on a highly successful career as an adventure tourist. Each of his journeys has a hook: circumnavigating the Pacific Rim, going across the Sahara Desert, or in this case making the journey from the north pole to the south pole following as best as possible longitude 30 degrees.
Along the way, from snow to savannah, from Norway to Nairobi, the charm of Palin's travels comes from the unassuming way he interacts with the people he meets on route. His personality carries the relatively unstructured travalog along on a sea of well-meaning interest and curiosity. He tells us when he's tired, anxious, and bored. We are touched by the genuine friendships he makes, however fleetingly, and the partings are often touching. In Pole to Pole the meat of the journey is Africa and we travel from relatively cosmopolitan Egypt to what in politically incorrect days was referred to as Darkest Africa. Even in 1991 witchdoctors outnumbered the western kind, and random violence was never far from view. Indeed, at one point Palin stays with a European estate owner in Zambia and his family and after the visit is concluded we learn from the voice-over that they were slaughtered six months later.
I spent a few formative years in southern Africa and it was shocking to me to see how little had changed since last I saw it. If anything, most of the change was for the worse: the old trains and buses simply have grown older, the disorder greater. Only in South Africa did time seem to have moved on. For the casual viewer the sheer range of experience in Africa should be fascinating, even though we get the merest glimpse. How can one capture a continent in just a few minutes of video? Like many people, I suspect, my favorite moments were of Palin sitting on top of the slow train creaking its way through Sudan, talking with those who can't afford to travel any other way, and seeming perfectly at home. Somehow Palin makes us forget how unlikely it all is: a well-paid BBC personality squatting among the illiterate and impoverished, interacting with them as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps no other TV presenter could really pull it off convincingly.
In the end the "hook" seems a little forced: Palin flies in to the north pole and he flies in to the south pole. It's not really much of an epic journey but it was more hazardous than it might seem: when he made the trip to the South Pole there was inadequate navigation and infrastructure and it would have been all too easy for him to have perished due to half-baked preparation and execution on the part of those tasked with ferrying him around. Fortunately all survived and went on to make several other telejourneys to various parts of the world; journeys which are now slowly being remastered onto DVD and released by the BBC. If you don't have the chance to travel much beyond the usual tourist haunts, by all means pick up a copy of Palin's travels and experience the sights, sounds, and people you will otherwise never know of.