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In Michael Palin’s Himalaya: Journey of a Lifetime (BBC Two), the presenter recalled meeting some Masai tribesman near Kilimanjaro. They could probably climb it with ease, he remarked. They were baffled. “It’s cold, it’s wet, the wind’s blowing,” they said. “Why would you want to go up there?”
It gave Palin a chuckle, and cause for reflection. “I realised it was this very Western thing to want to climb mountains to get to the top,” he said.
In the diary he wrote while filming the original Himalaya series in 2004, Palin wrote of the mountains: “What do we know, we who romanticise them, we who fly in and use them to prove something to ourselves, to plant our flags, talk of conquest then go home? I can almost feel the shoulders of the local people heaving with laughter.”
If somebody wrote that now, they would probably be accused of wokeness. Sixteen years ago, it was a typically thoughtful response from this Englishman abroad. But Palin also acknowledged the Boys’ Own adventure element of his trip and spoke of his boyhood worship of Sir Edmund Hillary. Rarely has a grown man looked so thrilled as Palin recounting his meeting with Sir Edmund and showing off his signed copy of The Ascent of Everest.
He was also delighted to visit the Potala Palace in Lhasa, former home of the Dalai Lama, because as a child in Sheffield he had pored over pictures of it in a book. Do today’s children do that any more, or has Google Earth taken its place?
This was the concluding part of what has been a wonderful series revisiting Palin’s round-the-world adventures, elegantly narrated and wonderfully understated. It felt like a relic from a bygone age, when people travelled to far-flung places for the experience, not for the Instagram likes. Although, memo to TV producers: please stop interrupting your documentaries with talking heads who want to talk about themselves.
Parts of the journey were genuinely gruelling. But while you marvelled at his determination to keep going in the face of altitude sickness and freezing temperatures (“I don’t think there was a heater in the whole of Tibet”), it was Palin’s humility and humanity that made his adventures such a treasure.