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Michael Palin - SaharaMy father was in charge of the Export Department of a steelworks and every Christmas he received an enormous box of dates from their agent in Algeria, addressed to a Mr E. M. Palm. I remember wondering if he should tell them, but he never bothered. Perhaps he thought the supply of dates might dry up if they discovered his name wasn't Palm.

I didn't want them to stop coming either, not because of the dates, but because of the box they came in. The illustration on the packet fuelled powerfully romantic fantasies of somewhere hotter, drier and even more exotic than south Yorkshire; a place where men with turbans, baggy velvet pants and wicked moustaches reclined under palm trees with veiled and sequinned ladies, whilst their faithful camels stood in picturesque silhouette against the setting sun. The first 'proper' book I was ever given was Tales from the Arabian Nights. Its seductive illustrations, by A. E. Jackson, combined with the date boxes to fan a precocious fascination for things of the desert. Curved swords, soft silks, tassels and see-through skirts. Mirages and genies, huge jellies and lubricious oils and unguents. The desert world seemed, apart from the odd beheading, to be a place of complete sensual fulfilment. Even delight itself was Turkish. Almost fifty years later there came a chance to expose my childhood fantasies to the harsh glare of reality.

In the first spring of the new millennium I met up with Roger Mills, director of many of the travel programmes I've done, at a pub opposite Notting Hill police station. Over a pint or two he suggested a journey through Francophone Africa, those huge and empty countries from Cameroon northwards, once loosely federated as part of the French empire. Rarely visited by British television, they might provide fresh pickings and new discoveries.

I got home, unfolded a map, and saw one word spread across most of these countries. Sahara.
Choose another day from Sahara


  • Series: Sahara
  • Chapter: Introduction
  • Country/sea: England
  • Place: London
  • Book page no: 6

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