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Michael Palin - SaharaThe French empire was interesting, but it had come and gone. The Sahara is a potent, evocative reality. It is one of the world's great brands. No one name so completely epitomises an environment. Oceans can be Atlantic or Pacific or Indian, mountains can be Himalayas or Andes or Alps, but if you want to convey desert, you only have to say Sahara.

It embodies scale and mystery, the thin line between survival and destruction, the power to take life or to transform it. A self-contained, homogenous, identifiable world, uncompromising and irreducible. In other words, a challenge. And by no means an easy one.

As big as the United States, with a population the size of Norfolk, the Sahara is only 15 per cent sand, and though the great ergs, the sand seas, are among the most exquisitely beautiful landscapes I've ever seen, there is a dark side. The Sahara is also a killer, scorching the life out of crops, people, and all but the most tenacious living creatures. It's growing larger every year as drought turns pasture back into sand, which the remorseless desert wind carries into towns and villages until they die of suffocation. It has its share of war and conflict. Many areas we wanted to see were inaccessible because of minefields and military activity.

Yet how close it is to us. The Sahara lies just beyond the borders of Europe. The heart of the desert is three hours' flying time from Paris, four hours from London. This proximity is not lost on the many thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who cross the desert to escape what they see as poor, unstable and oppressive regimes back home.

Today, the Sahara, far from being a cosy date-box illusion, has become a bridge from Africa into Europe, and a bridge that is increasingly well used by those prepared to risk their lives for a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean. If the Sahara was my fantasy, Europe is theirs. Perhaps they will learn from their journey, as I did from mine, that fantasy and experience never quite match up.

Michael Palin, London, 2002

Sahara was filmed between February 2001 and February 2002. For various reasons, it was impossible to shoot it as one continuous journey. Summer heat and all-year-round bureaucracy forced a number of breaks upon us. The diary days in the text represent days at work, give or take the very rare day off, and not time spent travelling out to the desert.

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  • Series: Sahara
  • Chapter: Introduction
  • Country/sea: England
  • Place: London
  • Book page no: 7

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