Review of 'Sahara'

Sahara by Michael Palin

sahara.jpg A few years after the Michael Palin BBC “Sahara” travelogue television series was broadcast on the BBC I was lucky to have been able to trace at least a portion of his route when I visited Mali in 2004 (see Mali Journal) when a volunteer in Africa. Though he had a huge crew and I was in a much smaller group of somewhat enthusiastic volunteers Palin's frankly enviable travel itinerary certainly captured our imagination and proved it could be done…though for us it was a much more difficult journey. For all of our efforts, Palin went quite a bit beyond our endpoint in Timbuctu to head into the deep desert ending up on the Mediterranean.

If anything the theme of “Sahara” is in exploring the desert that captured the imagination for many years and been so long a key trade route in North Africa. Beginning in Gibraltar, Palin crosses the Mediterranean first visiting the more “comfortable” country of Morocco before heading down to the somewhat less hospitable Algeria, Western Sahara and Mauritania in the West then down through Senegal east to Mali eventually passing into Libya on the Mediterranean again, then a quick jaunt across Tunisia and back into Morocco, returning to where he started in Gibraltar. To anyone familiar with African travel it is exhausting even to think of such a journey with the multiple obstacles along the way: Bureaucracy, lack of travel options and, of course, the ever present concern of security. In many of these places you can't simply call the police or ambulance when you get in trouble, you are on your own. This is truly an epic journey through some of the most inhospitable countries on the planet.

In the book of his television travels Palin details the day to day events of his journey rather than comment too much on what is actually happening, it is enough to share with us simply what is going on as it is an experience most will never have and is quite beyond most people's understanding. It is when he hits the real desert that this book comes alive telling of a place on this planet that most will never see or experience even now. His talent is being able to pick up and examine the smallest details that really help put the reader into the moment but at the same time he seems to be at a distance of what is going on: He is here an observer rather than participant. Indeed, even when he is crossing the dessert with the camel train it is only for a short time and he never has time to integrate with his companions though I suppose true integration is likely to be impossible such is the cultural distances between these dessert people and those of the west. Palin is, however, successful in relaying a sense of context, allowing us to understand the landscape and peoples he meets along the way despite never settling in any one place for any length of time, always moving on.

Another interesting adjunct to a television series, “Sahara” differs from other Palin travel novels in that he is better able to pull the reader into the story and explain the context of what is going on around him. I found this book, though long (255 pages in hardcover, with photos) and often tedious to read, much better than his previous books though this could possibly because of my personal attachment to at least part of the journey he took. It certainly makes me interested in some areas I have never previously visited such as Libya.

In his exploration of these remote frontiers Palin shows us that people are people no matter where you are and there are many interesting places to visit…some more difficult to others.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2020-11-01

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Publication Date: 2002

ISBN: 0297843038

Other reviewed books by Michael Palin: