These days travel documentaries hosted by a famous face are commonplace. But the gold standard are still Michael Palin’s. Part of that is down to the sheer ambition of the Monty Python star’s series (Pole to Pole took five and a half months; Full Circle 10 months). But much is down to Palin’s connection with people. “I always found that my travels gave me a different perspective and a much wider perspective, away from the west as a centre of the world’s ideas,” he says. “And to see your own country and your own people from a different perspective. Remember, we are all members of the human race.”
With foreign travel more difficult for westerners than it has been at any time in the past 50 years, the BBC is to air a retrospective looking at some of Palin’s travels, which still capture and delight the public’s imagination. “I think it’s very, very important to remember that we are this tiny part of a vast world, in which people right across the globe are suffering in various different ways from the pandemic,” Palin says. “It’s a reminder that there are a lot of things that we do share, that you can’t just cut yourself off in certain countries and say: ‘We’re all right, forget the rest.’”
It starts with a look at Around the World in 80 Days, where Palin circumnavigated the world without being able to use a plane. Next Pole to Pole, where Palin did just that. Then, Full Circle: a 50,000-mile trip around the Pacific Ocean, passing through Russia, China, Asia and up the west coast of America. The last it looks at is Sahara. And that’s only half of the series Palin has made. He has visited the Himalayas, many countries in Europe, even North Korea.
The Guardian asked Palin to choose, out of the thousands of places he has visited and journeys he has been on, his favourite seven.
1. Sheffield to Sheringham, Norfolk
It was the first time I really ever remember going on a journey of more than four or five miles away from my home. It was the 1940s, just after the war. My parents couldn’t really afford holidays away.
I must have been five or six years old and we went to the seaside. It was a tremendous undertaking and absolutely thrilling. We went on the train and there were various points where we had to change trains. At every change my father was thrown into complete panic because he had brought his bicycle with him, and he was convinced that the bicycle would be offloaded at the wrong station. Because we made four or five changes, he was in a state of neurotic anxiety throughout.
The last part of the journey was on a coach and went to a place called Pretty Corner. And that’s where I saw the sea for the very first time. It was not just the journey, but the climax of the journey that was a wonderful baptism for me.
There’s never anything as good as the first time for travel, the first time you see something. There is something about that first moment, that moment of surprise and wonder.
2. New York to Los Angeles
It was the first time I went to the US. For people such as myself, brought up in the 40s and 50s, the US was the golden land, the land of plenty, the land from which music and film stars came and everything was exciting and fresh, modern and new. I felt so frustrated with not being able to go there.
It was in 1972 that I managed to put together enough money from my earnings from Monty Python to go on a special trip across the US with Terry Jones. The actual finances were very, very tight, so we had to sleep in cheap hotels.
Monty Python was just beginning to catch on in the US, not widely, but there was a wonderful lady who represented us on behalf of a record company. She got us on to the Johnny Carson show in Los Angeles. This was the show to get on, and here we were … we knew very little about the US and they didn’t know a great deal about us.
I remember it all fell a bit flat. We ended up doing some of the sketches with us dressed as ladies going: “Oh hello dear.” I don’t think it worked, but it was a great climax to the journey.
3. London to Glen Coe in Scotland
I discovered the west coast of Scotland, which I think is still one of the most remarkably beautiful places, when we were doing Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We went up to Scotland because we couldn’t afford to film in studios in London, and up in Scotland the scenery is free.
We would travel up on the train, leaving Euston and the crowded south-east corner of England and end up in the morning at a station called Bridge of Orchy, which was surrounded by waving grass as far as you could see. Then we would drive down through Rannoch Moor, which is as bleak and wild and romantic a place as you could imagine in the British Isles, and then into Glen Coe itself with extraordinary mountains on either side. The west coast of Scotland combines the most beautiful scenery with a sort of accessibility.
I met a wonderful man called Hamish MacInnes, who was a famous mountain climber, but quite eccentric and rather unorthodox in nature. He was very helpful to us while we were filming.
He was head of mountain rescue in Glen Coe, and he had to throw the bodies off the Bridge of Death to the Gorge of Eternal Peril when people couldn’t remember their favourite colour. He would throw these dummies high in the air and into a gorge 2,000ft below. I always thought that was rather wonderful for someone who was head of mountain rescue. It gave him something to work out of his system.
4. From Lake Titicaca to Pongo de Mainique
This is the journey in Full Circle from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, into Peru, through Cusco and Machu Picchu and then north, to an area of rapids and extremely dangerous water that we have to navigate called memorably the Pongo de Mainique. At the end of it there is the most beautiful serene canyon, where the water quietens down just before it becomes the Amazon River.
It was a hugely epic journey with some wonderful places on the way, such as Cusco, a very fine city. The Inca walls are still there. You realise that the Incas never worked out how to build an archway, but they built the strongest walls, which were able to defy the most intense earthquakes without collapsing. The Inca walls have survived in Cusco longer than any of the walls since.
5. From Jomolhari to Paro
It is one of the great hikes I’ve ever done, from the Himalaya series. It’s from Jomolhari, which is a 24,000ft peak on the border between Tibet and Bhutan, down to Paro. I think it must be about 60 to 70 miles.
Bhutan is a very unspoilt country, and that’s deliberately so. They have resisted foreign intrusion. Most people wear national dress, as a normal daily sort of attire. You have harmony in the landscape and also in the towns and villages. But the thing about this journey was it goes down through all the various environments, from the top of the Himalayas to the lowlands. It’s the greatest nature walk you could imagine.
We found some wonderful characters, including a yak herder who is a poet, who sang one of these lovely local songs, and then asked me to sing something for my country. All I could remember was The Lumberjack Song.
6. Across the Atlas mountains
This is something I did entirely on my own. I wanted to go to a place called Taroudant, which is across the Atlas mountains from Marrakech. They said: “Oh, you must hire a car.”
I said: “Is there any public transport?” They were like: “You must be joking. There is a bus service, but it leaves at about 3am and takes hours.” And I said: “That’s the one for me.”
It was the most fantastic journey. We did keep stopping. We stopped for people to get off for a pee, have some tea and stretch their legs. By the time we got to the top of the Atlas mountains we knew each other quite well. There were no westerners there at all. It was entirely Moroccans, which I think was great. I felt very privileged to be there.
7. Bamako to Timbuktu, via the Niger River
This was one of the greatest experiences of my Sahara programme. I knew nothing about the Sahara, but we decided to go there. I just had a whim. People were just going: “Oh, that is sand, isn’t it? How can you make programmes about that?” The Sahara was once quite fertile and was a very important trading area. It was by no means a flat expanse of sand.
This part of the journey taken in Bamako in Mali was enlivened by meeting Toumani Diabaté, who is a wonderful player of the kora, a 21-string lute-type instrument. Hearing him play it to me, just a private audience, was extraordinary.
And then to go on from there to the Niger River. It’s quite a wide river but amazingly shallow in certain parts. There was one moment when the boat came to a halt on the sandbank and the captain just got out and walked through the water. The water only came up to his knees, and he pulled the boat on and off we went.
Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime is on BBC Two on Sunday 4 October at 8pm
• This article was amended on 2 October 2020 because an earlier version referred to climber Hamish MacInnes as McKinnis owing to an editing error.