"Sahara" is a travelogue made for the BBC in 2001. Michael Palin and a camera crew traveled around the Sahara Desert and recorded their experiences. This resulted in four one-hour episodes that were shown on TV, and are now available on DVD.
The trip started at Gibraltar and went all the way around, and sometimes into, the Sahara Desert, through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria again, Ceuta, and back to Gibraltar. Some of these countries are huge, for example, Algeria is four times the size of France or three times the size of Texas. The Sahara Desert is roughly the same size as the United States, and the trip covered 10,000 miles and took three months.
The Sahara Desert is so close to well-known Europe (just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea) and is yet almost totally unknown to most of us in the West. In "Sahara" this veil of ignorance is lifted.
All of the Michael Palin travelogue programs feature his wit and charm and exuberance, and "Sahara" is no exception. It was a very impressive trip, with many special Palin-style encounters with interesting people. And, of course, beautiful pictures from the desert and the picturesque ancient cities like Fez and Timbuktu.
Still, I'm giving only four stars to "Sahara" instead of the five stars I've given to most of the other Michael Palin travelogue programs.
My reduced enthusiasm for "Sahara" is related to the fact that most of the countries he visited this time are ones that represent many problems. Heat, drought, poverty, begging, sickness, cultures in decline, refusal to accept the modern world, political instability, even barbaric traditions (female circumcision).
These are not countries that I feel much desire to visit myself, and this reduces my interest in the program. It is occasionally evident that Michael Palin was not all that happy with things himself, and this is also a negative factor.
Another negative factor is that the trip is presented in a somewhat disjoint manner at times. The trip was simply too much for the time allotted, so parts are skipped and we jump from one place to another. (The associated book does a much better job of covering the entire trip.)
I also felt that some of the things included in the program were very special and not really representative of the area, for example the Paris - Dakar rally, the British WW II veterans' reunion in Libya and the flash-backs to the filming of "Life of Brian" in Tunisia.
The DVD version of this program is on two discs. In addition to the four one-hour episodes there is the following extra material:
- Interview with Michael Palin (16 min.) - very good
- Deleted scenes (30 min.) - very good, some very funny bits
- Video diary (25 min.) - not so interesting
As Michael Palin says himself, "With the wonders of DVD we can show you and bore you rigid with things that didn't actually make the final cut."
Conclusion: Not as good as the best of the Michael Palin travelogues, but still very good.