Sahara with Michael Palin
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Watch starting Sunday, September 27, 2015 beginning at 11am on WMHT TV.
Michael Palin’s epic voyages have seen him circumnavigate the globe, travel from the North to the South Pole and circle the countries of the Pacific Ocean. But perhaps the greatest challenge facing an intrepid explorer is crossing the vast and merciless Sahara Desert.There is no easy way to do it.This is Michael Palin, engaging explorer-adventurer, at his very best.
The journey began in spring 2001, and in the months that followed, Michael and his team travelled through nine countries, meeting a myriad of fascinating people. As the journey unfolds, the Sahara reveals not just extremes of temperature and a vast, parched emptiness of endless sand dunes, but a diverse range of landscapes, including lakes, waterfalls, crocodile-infested rivers and extraordinary mountain ranges in the middle of the desert.
There is also a wide variety of cultures and a long history of civilisation, trade, commerce and conquest stretching from the ancient Egyptians to the oil-rich Islamic republics of today. Ancient monuments have been preserved by the hot dry climate like nowhere else on earth and, besides the famous creations of the Pharaohs, there are Carthaginian castles, Roman amphitheatres,World War II battlegrounds and, in Mali in the southern Sahara, extraordinary mosques built with mud.
There is no easy way to cross the Sahara by land and Michael encounters the same problems and difficulties that travellers have for centuries.To help him, he must learn from those who live in this harsh environment and Michael, always easy with his fellow man, develops many interesting relationships along the way.
The desert is rarely empty for long. Camel caravans and car rallies cross it, there are smugglers and refugee camps and secret conflicts, and towns and villages alive with the different character of countries we know little about.
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There are few tracts of planet Earth that do not bear the stigmata of some cameraman’s tripod. But the Sahara Desert is one. Moreover, it is a mere three hours flight from the United Kingdom.
The British tend to avoid the Sahara – "sand and the French", very off-putting. But for Michael Palin, these drawbacks are stimuli, and from the comforting Britishness of Gibraltar he plans his assault on Saharan Africa – a mere 12 miles by ferry to Tangier – famous once for naughtiness, before the late King Hassan put an end to all that.
Before he reaches the Sahara proper, Michael must first pass through Fez (spiritual capital of Morocco), Marrakesh (tourist capital of Morocco), and finally the High Atlas, that sits astride Morocco like a sentinel.
Where the borders of Algeria and Morocco meet is a blot on the landscape – a huge refugee sprawl of over 160,000 men, women and children who fled their country,Western Sahara, when it was annexed by the Moroccans. They have lived in this harsh and hostile place for 27 years, largely forgotten. Michael stays at Smara, one of the biggest camps before he is escorted to the Mauritanian border by a Polisario escort.
Further South, Michael rides The Longest Train in the World (it carries huge consignments of iron-ore, and a few passengers) to Chinguetti, seventh holiest city in Islam, and site of a perfect Foreign Legion fort. At Chinguetti, Michael enjoys the finest hour in a long and triumphal career. Challenged to a game of daemon (desert draughts, played in the sand with pieces of straw versus camel droppings) he prevails against the local grandmaster.
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Crossing the Senegal River to the old French colonial capital of St Louis, Michael leaves the desert behind and savours the delights of cosmopolitan Black Africa. He meets up with Senegal’s Queen of Soap, Marie-Madeleine Yakouba. Over lunch, the topic of polygamy comes up and it is one that will resonate throughout the thousand-mile trip to Timbuktu. Marie-Madeleine will have none of it, a view shared by schoolmistress, Dhadi Ba, with whom Michael shares a carriage on the train to Bamako. “Co-wives get jealous and there’s no two ways about it,” she exclaims, pointing out how black magic and accusations of witchcraft are endemic in polygamous families.
For the men, be they champion wrestlers like Morf or jazz club owners, the fact is that polygamy is taken for granted in the same way as the tardiness of the Bamako Express train.
Leaving the Senegalese capital of Dakar behind, Michael finally arrives in Bamako after a two-day train journey and meets up with renowned kora (African harp) player,Toumani Diabate. He has the rare privilege of a personal recital at Toumani’s home before heading off to the Dogon people.
A week with the Dogon allows Michael to get to grips with their extraordinary culture and, after narrowly missing having his head blown off by an ancient flintlock rifle, he decides to head on to the most appealing of all the Saharan towns: Djenne. Met by a diminutive Fulani guide called Pygmy, he is shown round the town with its beautiful mudbuilt mosque and market full of sheep. For he has arrived on the eve of Tabaski, the most important Muslim festival. Sharing prayers, sacrificial sheep and the story of Pygmy’s love for the milk seller, Michael is surprised to find out that the sacrificial sheep testicles are meant to make you clever…
But the call of the magnificent Niger River lures him away from the festivities and he manages to hitch a ride on a pinasse, one of the large wooden hulled cargo boats that ply the river between Mopti and Timbuktu.
It is the same journey that the great Scottish explorer Mungo Park took 200 years ago, but this time less dangerous – the main obstacles being an intransigent Norwegian missionary and a large sandbank which grounds the pinasse a day’s journey away from the legendary city that Mungo Park never reached.
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Michael reaches the legendary city of Timbuktu, along with a camel train carrying the giant salt blocks that made the city one of the greatest centres of Islamic learning up until the 16th Century. Michael wanders thorugh the rubble that is 21st-century Timbuktu, to find the Imam who shows him original astronomical textbooks that pre-date Galileo’s discoveries by 200 years.
Leaving one of Timbuktu’s most famous addresses – the house of Alexander Laing, the Scottish explorer who had his thoat slit for not converting to Islam – Michael heads East to the land of the Wodaabe. These nomadic herders are some of the last true pastoralists of the African continent, famous as much for their male beauty pageant as their stylish cattle. Living in the bush with them, Michael watches the complex rituals surrounding this extraordinary annual pageant, the Gerewol, where the girls get to choose the prettiest boy.
It is the season after the rains, a time of relative plenty for the nomads, and Michael’s Wodaabe family, led by Englishspeaking Doulla, travel to Ingall for the Cure Salée – a gathering of clans that takes place every year. Amidst the chaos of camel races, shopping and general mayhem, Michael meets up with a group of Tuareg for the next leg of his journey: a camel train across the Tenere desert to Algeria.
Omar, the cameleer’s cameleer, introduces him to the delights and vicissitudes of life on the move in the most desolate landscape on the planet. Walking 12 hours a day, eating the odd sheep that has tagged along, and learning the rudiments of Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg, Michael finally gets to grips with the heart and soul of the desert. The going is tough, like the sheep, but the sense of comradeship with both the other cameleers and the camels, who are their lifeline, is palpable. When the time comes to leave Omar and his retinue the tears are not all crocodile ones.
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Still attired in his Tuareg indigo howli, Michael is dropped off in a wilderness that is completely featureless, except for a short iron pillar, which marks the boundary between the Republic of Niger and the Republic of Algeria.There is one other feature, the carcass of a car abandoned in the desert, stripped of all colour by wind and sand.The journey North is a via dolorosa mile-stoned by the wrecks of 2CVs and Peugeots, memorials to the people who never made it in this hellish terrain.This was the desert in which Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark famously went missing when the Paris-Dakar Rally passed through. Before reaching the spectacular Hoggar Massif, Michael encounters a fellow countryman travelling in the opposite direction, 68-year-old Tom Sheppard, former RAF Test Pilot and desert enthusiast, on his own and unarmed in country where lawlessness and banditry are rife.
Still forging North, Michael reaches the oil and gas fields of Algeria, on which the economy of the nation depends. He pauses at Hassi Messaoud, where the installations built by the French in the 1950s have turned the desert into a piece of rural Europe – including a herd of very English-looking cows that supply the oil-workers with fresh milk.
Across the border lies Colonel Gadaffi’s Great Socialist People’s Arab Jamahariya. It is quite a coup to get permission for a production team to film in Libya, a country just rejoining the world from its isolation following Lockerbie. Michael journeys West along the North Coast, past exquisite – and totally deserted – Roman sites at Cyrene and Leptis Magna. His destination is Tunisia – where he once was crucified.
Much of the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian was filmed in Tunisia, and Michael revisits the old film locations in El Haddej, Monastir and Sousse. But this is more than a trip down Memory Lane. Tunisia is the only Arab country in Michael’s Saharan odyssey where mass tourism plays an important role. He visits the island playground of Djerba, where one of the locals voices his grave disquiet at the rise of sex tourism. Then, after a lightening tour of a Roman brothel and a Roman public toilet, Michael boards the Maghreb Express to the dangerous and Frenchified city of Algiers.
In a country which has seen the death of 100,000 Algerians and a hundred foreigners in a vicious civil war that has been waged since 1992, Michael cannot move from his hotel room without a substantial bodyguard. Undeterred however, and to the horror of the Foreign Office, he tours the Casbah, centre of Algerian terrorism, before boarding the 8.00 am to Oran, one of the most famous trains in the world because it has been blown up so often in a region South of the city, called The Triangle of Death.
There is only a short stay in Oran before Michael arrives by ferry in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco (in effect, Spain’s Gibraltar). More to the point, Ceuta is a little chunk of Europe on the African mainland, and as such is a magnet for Africans who cross the Sahara to breach the citadel of Fortress Europe. He is almost home. An hour’s trip on the ferry will take Michael back to Europe. Before the journey’s end he sees disturbing evidence of illegal immigration on the delightful beaches of Tarifa.Thence to Gibraltar, and in his year away much has changed.There is the smell of betrayal in the air. The locals are facing another referendum on joint sovereignty with Spain, and as the ancient Ceremony of the Keys is performed in the Central Square, the words, “The Citadel is safe, and all’s well”, ring out. But is the citadel safe, Michael wonders?