Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Pole to pole” by Michael Palin.

I remember watching and very much enjoying the travel documentary series, ‘Pole to Pole’, on television many years ago. While browsing in a second-hand shop recently I found a copy of the book that accompanied the series, for the remarkable price of 25 new pence. I was more than happy to hand over my pennies for this gem of a publication.

pole to pole
“Pole to pole” by Michael Palin (1992)

As with other books accompanying Michael Palin’s television travel documentaries, this one is laid out in a diary format, detailed by day number rather than date.

The original idea for the programme was to travel from the north pole to the south pole, along the 30 degree East line of longitude. Using this line as a guide meant the journey would cover the largest amount of land possible between the two poles. In fact, although the journey did weave west and east of the 30 degree East meridian, it rarely stuck to the line, owing to geography and transport restrictions.

The full journey would take an exhausting 141 days, and began on a Saturday afternoon in the high Arctic. The only feasible way to get to the north pole was by small plane, and filming time was very limited after landing. Unlike the landmass of Antarctica which is thousands of feet thick in places, the Arctic is an ocean covered with only a feet feet of ice. By Michael’s account, landing near the north pole was a fairly nerve-wracking experience, the first of many throughout the trip.

From the north pole he flew to Greenland and on to the Svalbard Islands, before boarding a supply ship for Norway. I particularly enjoyed the section on Svalbard, although I don’t know how I would cope with sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut in the middle of an icy wasteland with nothing but the snow outside to wash in. This is the joy of armchair travel: imagining the horrors of different environments without actually having to endure them.

South of northern Europe, the journey took him through the old USSR which, in the early 1990s was going through a period of enormous political changes. I remember the Gorbachev era (I was in my late teens then) and was interested to read Michael Palin’s notes and thoughts on how Russia was changing.

After leaving the USSR, and travelling south through Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, Michael and his film crew arrived – on day 52 – in Africa. His first port of call was Egypt, another section of the book that particularly captured my imagination. His descriptions of Luxor and Aswan transported me to the heat and mystery of the Nile valley, an area I felt perfectly content to experience from the the comfort of my own home.

Africa produced some of the most challenging and memorable parts of the whole journey, from some seriously unsanitary conditions to the incredible wildlife, beautiful scenery and diverse peoples and cultures he encountered. While travelling through Africa, as he’d done in the USSR, Michael kept abreast of local politics. Some of the names of political leaders he mentioned rang bells with me, but others I had never heard of and it struck me how little I know about many of the African countries.

The original plan for the trip involved joining a survey vessel sailing out of Cape Town to the Antarctic, but some time before arriving in South Africa the team learned there were no spaces available for them on the ship. There being very few ways of getting to Antarctica, and no alternative ships they could join, they had to rethink their plans. They had two options: go way off the 30 degree meridian by flying to South America and into Antarctica from there, or fail to complete their epic journey to the south pole. The latter was unthinkable after the 130 days of travel they’d already undergone since leaving the north pole, so South America it had to be. Even when they reached Santiago in Chile, they were still at 33 degrees South, the same latitude as Cape Town in South Africa. It was, to coin a phrase, a long way round for a short cut.

On day 138, they finally arrived in Antarctica. Two days later, they flew into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, run by the United States National Science Foundation and housed under a 150-foot wide geodesic dome. It must have been a bizarre experience, to have travelled all that way through so many different countries and climates and arrive at the south pole to find a little bit of America built into the ice. It was made clear to the team that although they were welcome at the base, the US National Science Foundation were unable to supply material assistance to visitors. The poor travellers were invited in for coffee, but taunted with the smell of hamburgers and chips from the canteen. It was perhaps understandable not to have been offered food, given how difficult and costly it must be to get supplies into such a remote place, but I felt sorry for Michael and his crew having to resist such temptations after such a long and enervating journey.

The book ends with Michael and his team standing together at the geographic south pole, the position marked by a small bronze post stuck into the ice. I was left wondering what it must have felt like to stand there at the pole after completing such a mammoth trip, travelling all the way from the frozen north to the frozen south, through some of the hottest countries on Earth. Thanks to Michael Palin’s vivid descriptions, I felt I’d been through some remarkable experiences while reading this book. I take my hat off to him.

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6 thoughts on “Book review: “Pole to pole” by Michael Palin.

    1. That’s interesting to know they’ve been repeated recently, I wouldn’t mind seeing the series again. It must have been an incredible journey. The book was terrific, I really enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I love Michael Palin’s books too – he writes with such honesty and humour. He has done so much to transform travel writing (and travel programmes) by including the less pleasant aspects of travel – making it more ‘human’.

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    1. I totally agree and that sort of diary style is hard to do well, but he has it down to a fine art. It’s very readable and has a definite flow. No doubt he’d credit his editor with knowing what to leave out as well as what to include, and there may be something in that, but I still think he’s a master of that sort of writing. That’s a good point about his contribution to the genre. I hadn’t thought of him as being a travel writing pioneer in that sense, but you’re right. I’m sure he’s had a big influence on many successful travel documentary makers. There are several coming to my mind now whose style mirrors his, but I can’t remember anyone doing it like that before him. Hats off to Michael Palin. 🙂

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