Sahara (with Michael Palin) (2002)

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Released 4-Nov-2002

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Menu Animation & Audio
Featurette-Video Diary (11)
Deleted Scenes-16
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 2002
Running Time 236:00 (Case: 308)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (0:00)
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By John-Paul Davidson

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Michael Palin
Case Amaray-Transparent-S/C-Dual
RPI $49.95 Music Elizabeth Parker

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    I must admit up front that travelogues aren't usually my cup of tea. For the most part it's a bit like sitting down and watching someone's home movies, cringing through all the true and tall tales and seeking the fastest exit you can make without appearing rude. Watching Sahara, which could be said to be Michael Palin's own version of a home movie travelogue, initially had much the same effect. Small doses were taken at first, but as I warmed to the series it became a lot easier to watch and digest The progression from Gibraltar through the Sahara was a fairly long and involved one and it does take some getting into, but once you've crossed over from civilisation into the vast stretches that comprise the continent of Africa, it's hard not to become engrossed, especially since the man presenting the material has a certain comic charm which lends itself to being the ultimate tourist.

    The series is comprised of four separate episodes which meander their way across Africa in some sort of order which I later came to realise was more predestined by the ability to secure visas and also to link up with certain groups or parties than any form of linear progression. Still, that adds partially to the charm and certainly breaks up any monotony. For me, the final clincher was meeting the Wadabi tribe whose mating ritual includes males dressing up in ceremonial costume, putting on make-up and dancing. The funny part of this, though, is that they widen their eyes and display their teeth while chanting in a monotonous manner - all this to attract a female. It reminds me of the times I went to discos and saw very much the same thing, only then it was hairy chests, splashings of gold chains and high platform shoes, but still the same eye and gum movements. This had me chuckling for days every time I thought about it, and it's little things like that that snare you and make the series memorable. As for Michael Palin himself, he's the typical Englishman abroad and out to have a good time, no matter what comes. As evidenced by his other series (Around the World in 80 Days, Full Circle and Hemmingway Adventure), he is certainly no stranger to the travel bug and his obvious enjoyment adds another element to the whole series.

    The four episodes are as follows:

   Line in the Sand - 58:55
    The series starts off in Gibraltar, then a sea trip to Tangiers, where he gets his first ride on a camel, a steam bath and a game of soccer on the beach before moving off to Morocco and investigating the local sights. Travelling around Morocco, Palin meets various colourful people, including an ex-pat with an eccentric rooster called Birdie. From here he takes off towards the Altas Mountains and visits Fez and an old tanning factory, then onto Marrakesh and a chance to submerge himself in the marketplace and a chance to try his hand at some bartering. From here it's into the Berber region and a journey by truck along a barely discernable mountain track to visit Aremd, a remote mountain village. Day 7 and Michael takes the longest coach ride of his life along the Altas road, stopping at the African equivalent of a motorway service station along the way, then onto Ait Benhaddoir, one of the most renowned film sets in the world where they shot scenes for such movies as Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. After this, he heads into the Sahara and a refugee camp at Smara, where 40,000 people live and water is tankered in. Finally, after a delay due to a sandstorm, Michael takes a ride on an iron ore train, in Rubbish Class to an old French fort, Fort Saganne.

   Destination Timbuktu - 58:59
    It's Day 30 and Michael crosses from Mauritania into Senegal and black Africa. At a small town called St Louis, founded originally by the French, he learns a bit about Senegal's history. He also meets some of the locals including a young woman who works on their version of EastEnders. From here he travels 160 miles south to Goreé, one of the homes of the infamous slave trade of the 18th and 19th century. Then it's onto Dakar where wrestling is king as it is in most of Senegal. A train ride takes him to Bamako in Mali and during the ride he has a discussion with a Senegalese woman about polygamy (this seems to be a favourite topic of his, coming up several times throughout the series). He has plenty of time to chat to her, with the train moving at a snail's pace. Once he reaches Bamako he seeks out one of the more famous musicians, Toumani and is treated to some traditional Mali music. While travelling around it becomes obvious that voodoo happily co-exists with Islam as the country's main religion. Then it's on to meet the Dogon people, who have only recently opened up their society to outsiders. He meets a local blacksmith, a hunter and various townsfolk. He moves on then to Djenne, one of the most beautiful cities in the Sahara, build entirely of mudbricks and befriends Pygmy, a local, who finally explains to him what all the sheep are for in Africa when he invites him to a celebratory meal, centred around the feast of Tabaski. Then it's finally onto Timbuktu, but not before being delayed by low water levels and a ferry that isn't going anywhere.

   Absolute Desert - 59:03
    Niger, the heart of the Sahara and the home of Timbuktu, where salt is brought down by donkey from the mines. The city itself is very run down and decaying, but he visits a mosque and meets with the Imam and learns some of the history behind one of the most famous cities in the world. Then it's onto the Wadabi tribe and their amazing mating rituals (detailed above for my amusement). Day 59 and it's Cure Saleé, an enormous festival at Ingal where the Wadabi from all over the country meet for a once-a-year dancefest. Michael then visits the oasis at Tabelot and joins up with a camel train to the salt pans of Bilma, but before they leave there is a big party. The next morning he meets up with the 9 cameleers with whom he will spend the next couple of weeks and off they go. This is where Michael explains about dehydration and conditions in the desert itself and actually gets a first-hand example of what dehydration can do to you. He explains how seeing a single tree can mean so much and does an inordinate amount of walking during these days. He shares meals with the tribesmen and much to each other's amusement learns bits of their language and learns to dress desert style. While they are travelling through this desolate region they come across a Frenchman paragliding who agrees to take some aerial shots for them. Finally, on Day 73, Michael takes his farewell from his travelling companions and heads off for his next appointment.

   Dire Straits - 59:03
    Day 74 and Michael is on the border of Niger and Algeria, the 10th largest country in the world and made up of 85% desert. He starts off in a car graveyard of stranded vehicles, showing how cheap life is in this part of the world. On his journey through this desolate landscape he meets an ex RAF test pilot, Tom Shephard, who writes books and prefers the loneliness to that of human company for the most part. Next it's a trip over the Hoggar mountains, made from extinct volcanoes that have created a totally bizarre landscape with their magma flows. Amidst all this desolation is Algeria's major form of income - the huge oil fields which have created an oasis in the sand. Next step on the journey is a rare trip to Libya. Not exactly the most hospitable place in the world for westerners, Michael is lucky enough to have his expedition dates coincide with that of the Rats of Tobruk, most of whom are making their last annual pilgrimage. Libya is the world's 3rd largest oil producer and some of the sights to be seen are spectacular. The journey continues on through Leptis Magna, an ancient Roman city in Southern Tunisia and then it's on to Djerba, Day 88. Here he catches octopus, visits the world's 3rd biggest Coliseum and observes the month of Ramadan. He then moves into Algiers and the Casbah, centre of foment against the French in the 1950's and the place where the Battle of Algiers took place and where foreigners are killed as a matter of course, then finally onto the Ferry at Ceuta and back to Gibraltar the starting point for most illegal immigrants trying to get into Europe.

    As I mentioned earlier, it's a great series if you are into travelogues and even if you aren't it has a lot of native charm and some very funny moments. The beauty of it is that you'll probably never get to see most of the places he visits, so you can at least learn a little about the more exotic parts of our planet without ever leaving the comfort of your armchair, plus it's a great looking series which helps enormously.

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Transfer Quality


    The quality of this series is pretty exceptional given the conditions under which a lot of it was made. 54c days might not be the norm but they don't help. The camera work is truly remarkable considering the distance travelled and the footage they shot, is an obvious testament to the filmmakers and their endurance. Suffice it to say that the transfer to DVD does this total justice and this is an exceptionally clean set of discs.

    The transfer is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is 16x9 enhanced.

    The sharpness is excellent with minimal edge enhancement used for the most part. Deep shadows show plenty of detail and the sense of grandeur and distance is well supported by the depth in the video. Background detail is highly visible with fine lines showing the quality of the series. Grain can be seen but is minimal for the most part with only the open skies and some of the less cluttered shots exhibiting anything more than the usual background graininess. Low level noise was not an issue.

    The colour in this series is the colour of life. Plenty of variety in parts and in other parts total drabness, but it's all part of the travelling experience. Colour bleed can be seen here and there (20:00 on a child's shirt in Line in the Sand), but natural saturation and no chroma noise was otherwise the order of the day.

    I didn't notice a single film artefact throughout the four episodes and only minimal compression artefacts were on display. Some of the rooflines exhibit shimmering here and there throughout the series but it never really breaks out into full-blown aliasing. The worst example would probably be at 22:44 on some railway louvres in Destination Timbuktu. Moiré artefacts pop up here and there (eg 5:56 on the rooftop in Line in the Sand) but if you don't look too hard you won't see them. No pixelization or other MPEG artefacts were detected during the various episodes.

    The subtitles are fairly well placed and easy to read except when they get lost in the background. They appear white with black borders, and occasionally shift to the top of the picture so as not to interfere with the on-screen action. They are reasonably accurate, although some of what is said is missed here and there, but only a word or two at worst.

    Although nominated as RSDL discs, no layer change was detected on either. Quite possibly the episodes were contained on the alternate layers.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is only one soundtrack on these discs; an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack at a reasonable bitrate of 192 kilobits per second. Don't expect anything dramatic here - this is a monologue/travelogue and you have Michael Palin speaking out of the front speaker and the odd occasional bit of music and that's it. The soundtrack does what it is meant to do - it keeps Michael's patter going while you are watching his home movies. There is some separation across the fronts, but nothing to get excited about.

    Dialogue was fine, clean and precise and the syncing wasn't an issue

    The series music was by Elizabeth Parker and was nicely done without being too memorable. There is plenty of incidental music, both from the native tribes and various overlays to show off what was popular in which country. For the most part the music is totally secondary to the dialogue you are listening to and anything more than pure background would have spoilt the series.

    There was no surround channel or subwoofer usage on these discs, although your processor might be capable of giving the rears something to do.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Menu Animation & Audio

    A yellow map with live action insert and music from the title theme overlaid in a 30 second loop

Featurette - Video Diary - 24:52, 4x3 Full Frame

    A short series of excerpts and outtakes where filming was either impossible due to conditions, bad lighting, too much brightness, stuffed up lines, Michael being sick, and so forth. Most of it was obviously destined for the cutting room floor but has been resurrected for an interesting half hour journey through the not-so-romantic bits.

Deleted Scenes

    Comprising 16 deleted scenes in all, most of these were simply cut for time and/or the fact that they concentrated too much on one location and the editors wanted to keep the series moving along. Displayed in 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced they come with a short introduction by Michael Palin as to why they were cut, where they are from and other relevant details.


    A short series of very high quality excerpts from an obvious interview conducted with Michael Palin after the series had been shot and at his offices. The format is in the form of a series of short questions that you don't get to hear, then the answers edited into coherent, linear replies. Running for 15:49 this is displayed at 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced. The topics covered include September 11, walking with the tribes, comparisons with Western society, and dehydration and its effects upon him. Also included are remembrances of Dogon dancing, filming with camels and what it's like to live with them and the best memories he brought away from the series as a whole. All-in-all, this is like a summing-up of what has passed before and his final thoughts on the series. Decent, interesting and extremely well made.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

     No Region 1 release of this series seems to be available, although it is available in Region 2. Both releases look precisely the same so I'd go with best price since both are PAL versions anyway.


    Another in a series of travelogues by Michael Palin and this one delivers again. Although not strictly my cup of tea, the simple charm and wit with which he delivers his monologue over his visual travelogue simply keeps you glued to the screen. Deftly made with a real touch of class - definitely one for the collection.

    Superb video which has few faults and many pluses.

    The audio is mostly dialogue. Nothing special here, but it has no obvious flaws and suits the material perfectly.

    An excellent collection of extras that add another hour or more of viewing time.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Carl Berry (read my bio)
Thursday, January 02, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba SD5300, using RGB output
DisplayLoewe Xelos (81cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderRotel RSP-976. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationRotel RB 985 MkII
SpeakersJBL TLX16s Front Speakers, Polk Audio LS fx di/bipole Rear Speakers, Polk Audio CS350-LS Centre Speaker, M&KV-75 Subwoofer

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