Writer. Actor. Comedy legend. Michael Palin has worn many hats over the course of his 50-year career – hundreds, if you count the headgear donned during the Monty Python years – but it’s his role as travel presenter that has really taken him places.
Michael has traversed the globe in 80 days and set foot on both Poles, scaled Himalayan peaks and explored the vast Sahara. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to try and distil some of his travel wisdom.
Where was your last trip?
My last trip was to the Antarctic Peninsula. A very generous friend organised a private charter. We took a small boat and explored for two weeks from the northern tip, down beyond the Antarctic Circle and all through the islands – we went as far south as we could go, where it was still unfrozen. It was spectacular.
Where is your next trip?
I’m going to do a talk in Copenhagen – a city I like very much indeed.
What is your first travel-related memory?
It’s difficult to define travel. My first and earliest memories involve taking bike rides into the Peak District just outside of Sheffield, where I was born and brought up.
It was a wonderful escape from city life; very quickly you reached valleys, reservoirs, woodland and the Crags, these extraordinary rocks which were like something out of a western movie. For me that was exotic. It was only 10 minutes from home but it was a foreign land.
Aisle or window seat?
Window seat. I always try and get them and I rather resent people who close the shutters as soon as they get on the plane during the daytime. There’s so much to see!
Recently on this Antarctic trip we went on a very long flight from Madrid to Santiago in Chile and I woke up just as we were approaching the Andes. A wonderful bright light spread across the tips of these spectacular mountains and I thought, if I had an aisle seat I wouldn’t have seen that!
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I pack very carefully and I have to take all my recording materials – which is basically just a notebook, plenty of pens and a little voice recorder – so I know that whatever I see I’ll be able to make a record of it and remember it. My smartphone’s been a brilliant addition, because you can take photos so quickly without having to write down 100 words about something.
You are a keen diary keeper. What do you think about travel blogging?
I’m all for it! I think the most important thing is to record what you see. Blogs are very much in the spirit of sharing experiences with others; the best ones encourage people to see the world, and that’s important these days, when we have so many reasons to fear travel. We shouldn’t really – it’s still a great time to see the world and we should see it as much as we can. So yes, more power to the bloggers.
Do you still feel the same about travel as you did 25 years ago?
Oh yeah, it’s terrific. It’s not something that’s changed at all. I still absolutely love the moment of departure. I don’t have to go far – I could go up to Scotland or Wales and get exactly the same feeling of exhilaration, of being enriched by being in a different place.
Favourite city or country or region?
It is an impossible question, if you’ve travelled a lot. There are just so many places that I remember very fondly.
I’d say my journey through Peru was one of the best I ever did. From Lake Titicaca right through to the Amazon headwaters, there was just so much spectacular scenery. If you want pure adventure, Peru is one of the best.
The Sahara is another favourite. Doing the Sahara series, we thought, what on earth are we going to shoot? It’s just sand and dunes. But not only are the sand and the dunes absolutely beautiful, there are some ancient cities in Mauritania and in Mali which are just magical.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Probably dealing with the effects of eating tainted camel liver in West Africa... My stomach’s quite hardy and used to travel but I just knew I was going to be ill. And not only were we filming, I had to interview guerilla leaders in the middle of the desert. I would ask the general a question, excuse myself and go outside, throw up very gently... go back in again and ask him the same question. It was the most extraordinarily uncomfortable 48 hours of my life.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
My best is a little stool I acquired in north-eastern Uganda. It’s only about eight inches tall and it’s all carved from one piece of wood.
The extraordinary elders of the village in the Kalimajong region carry them around so that when they want to have a council of war or have a smoke or whatever, they have a seat. They’re a brilliant piece of design but absolutely impossible for western bottoms to sit on; I’ve tried it you know, you always fall off.
It’s beautifully worn; it’s obviously been used for many years and it means a lot to me – much more than something bought at a gift shop.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
The worst was given to me just before I first started out for Around the World in 80 Days: avoid eating local food. We took an awful lot of biscuits and tinned tuna with us and rapidly realised that this was far less appealing than anything we were given by the local people.
The thing is, nobody eats bad food. Sometimes it’ll be a bit strong, you might get a bit of an upset stomach, but once you get used to it it’s terrific. So that was a bit of advice I happily disregarded in the end.
You have a knack for connecting with people on your travels. What’s been your most unforgettable encounter?
On the Tibetan Plateau I spent a morning with a yak herder, Sonam, and his family. He invited me into their tent where they were making food – I helped out making some cheese.
Seeing Sonam interact with his children reminded me of my own children and grandchildren back home and I thought, there’s a universal feeling here. In this remote and foreign world, I suddenly felt very much at home.
It’s kind of inspiring that you can travel and make that connection. Even though we have totally different lives, something unites us. I was very fond of Sonam and the way he looked after me.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfill?
I know it sounds rather corny but I’d probably stay at home. I’d look at my photos of where I’ve been before and think, what a lovely old world, what a waste!
That said, there are a number of places I’d really quite like to explore. Places like Madagascar and Central America, which I’ve not really seen much of.
I’d really like to visit central Russia and the ‘Stans, too. I’m particularly interested in the Altai Mountains, which I know nothing about other than the fact that many tribes from that region have shaped our history. I’d like to go there and find out if there are any clues as to why so many people left there and made a permanent mark on Europe and the rest of the world.
What advice would you give a first time traveller?
Prepare yourself. Do some reading before you go. Look at the guidebooks and make sure you know where you’re going and a bit about the people you’re going to meet – that’s going to help you.
Also: be prepared to be confused. Things are going to be a bit odd sometimes, so don’t worry about it – just accept it.
The main thing is is to have a memorable experience. Don't just look through the window of a coach – get out there. Feel it, sniff it, eat it, and generally roll about in it.
Peruse all things Palin and get your hands on signed copies of Michael's travelogues at themichaelpalin.com. You can also find him larking about on Facebook.