PHILEAS Fogg, the imperturbable hero of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, bet a fellow member of the Reform Club that he could circumnavigate the globe in under three months. The buttoned-up Englishman, who had a fetish for punctuality, had possibly just robbed the Bank of England while a teller was filling out paperwork. During a game of whist, Fogg wagered £20,000 that he could carry out his boast, while secretly acknowledging that it would require spending the same sum (“half of his fortune”) to give him any chance of winning. The entire project was aimed at proving that “the world has grown smaller, inasmuch as one can go round it 10 times quicker than you could a hundred years ago”. He also loved a dare.

Verne’s novel was published in 1872. More than a century later, in 1988, Michael Palin and a BBC crew took up the same challenge – minus the enormous stake and eschewing airplanes – and in so doing changed travel reportage forever.  

In Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime, a four-part BBC documentary, viewers see excerpts from that breathless but successful adventure, and the series that followed, such as Pole to Pole and Full Circle. Footage is interspersed with the now aged Palin reading from his journals, listening to tapes he made en route, and reflecting on his experiences. A chorus of praise is supplied by TV luminaries such as Joanna Lumley and Ade Adepitan.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Patient urges public to remain cautious

In the decades since Palin embarked on these trips, the manner in which he travelled, and the world he encountered, feels almost as remote as Phileas Fogg’s days. At one point, as he spends almost a week on the deck of a dhow, jam-packed with workers heading across the Persian Gulf, they share food, music, and a latrine so hazardously perched on the edge of the boat every visit might be his last. Amid the primitive amenities and the humourful camaraderie, the thrill of travelling in the raw is tangible. Here, and in so many other situations, Palin offers a keyhole onto other cultures and ways of living.

While the pilot flying to the South Pole waits for a 48-hour window of decent weather, the perilousness of Palin’s ventures becomes clear. In the episode where armed soldiers accompanied his party through war-torn Sudan, the BBC’s insurers must have turned grey.

What is striking about Palin’s expeditions is the hopefulness with which he sets out, his interest in international affairs, and the lack of luxury. Climbing onto the roof of a train crossing Sudan so that he can talk to passengers travelling  up there for free undoubtedly makes for good television, but it also shows Palin’s instinct for seeking out the ways in which locals live. The result is gritty and memorable, rather than the airbrushed, air-conditioned version westerners usually enjoy.

This is not to sanctify Palin, for whom these journeys were paid work. The worse the hardships and predicaments he faced, the richer the end product. For all I know, when he and the family take a holiday, they spend it on Mustique. And yet one doubts it. Palin’s curiosity, and his fellow feeling with ordinary mortals, infuse his observations of far-flung countries with colour and charm. Five-star hotels or luxury resorts lack character, even if they do have bath plugs and mosquito nets.

I write as one who has never been bitten by the travel bug. I nearly reached India once, but the inoculations flattened me. As far as I am concerned, Palin goes to the ends of the earth so that people like me don’t have to. Yet the irony is that his documentaries were so inspiring and enlightening, they probably encouraged thousands to follow in his footsteps.

READ MORE:   Country Life with Rosemary Goring: Squirrels, radiators and errant roof tiles

It would be too sweeping and glib to say that today’s travellers take their right to roam the planet for granted, even though some undoubtedly do. As Palin’s running commentary shows, the desire to see other places and gain first-hand experience of lifestyles very different from our own is a natural human drive, even if some of us have less of it than others. Getting out into the world is a definition of education. The 18th-century Grand Tour that the upper classes went on through Europe was the most elite finishing school ever devised.  

We can mock gap-year kids in recent years, whose 12-month break from studying became a definition of middle-class identity, but the impetus behind this fad was, originally at least, to broaden the mind. Nobody can argue with the benefit of widening horizons and shaking off the narrowness of a westernised world view. Nor of helping young adults fend for themselves without their family on permanent stand-by.
Palin’s films make you question where you go, and why. For Phileas Fogg the impetus was to prove himself, but it led to discovering happiness. A chapter headed: “In which Phileas Fogg  descends the valley of the Ganges, without noticing its beauties” shows that not everyone is beguiled by scenery. He reminds me of Jenny Diski, who took a ship to  Antarctica but, when others were disembarking onto the ice, remained stubbornly in her cabin. You might say this rendered her trip pointless, yet her response was original and thought-provoking.

In Palin’s modus operandi, you catch a glimpse of acclaimed travellers such as Wilfred Thesiger or Isabella Bird, Dervla Murphy or Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like them he was all but fearless, protected by self-confidence, and the assurance that all would eventually come good. These days, in certain regions at least, it is difficult and probably unwise to feel so blithe. Yet what serious voyagers seek is their ability to survive, and even thrive, whatever the circumstances. Above all, to escape their own limits for a while.
Few better understood the urge to roam than Robert Louis Stevenson. Recording his journey with a donkey in the Cevennes, he wrote what could perhaps stand as Palin’s credo: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”