x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Palin takes old route to find lost shipmates

Traveller's world We will hear what the celebrity traveller Michael Palin thinks of Dubai this week.

Michael Palin in his office in Covent Garden, London.
Michael Palin in his office in Covent Garden, London.

We will hear what the celebrity traveller Michael Palin thinks of Dubai this week. He returned to the Middle East quietly in October to film a one-hour special marking the anniversary of his classic travelogue Around the World in 80 Days. BBC One will air the programme, Around the World in 20 Years, this Tuesday night at 9pm. The new show is based on one of the most memorable segments of Palin's voyage in an open dhow from Dubai to Mumbai two decades ago. I spoke to him a few days before he left for his trip and he said he was excited about the prospect. He had passed through Dubai airport several times since but had not penetrated any further. "I'm fascinated by the growth," he said. "It's almost as though we didn't see it coming. There is so much money in the Middle East with such small populations and they have so much influence." He compared Dubai with Beverly Hills and said that he wanted to explore how the cultural and ideological differences fitted into such an extraordinary city.

The main thrust of the programme, though, is trying to find the Indian crew of their boat, Al Shama, which means candlelight. It was an emotional moment when he said goodbye to them 20 years ago. During the agonisingly slow journey across the Arabian Gulf on one of world's oldest surviving kind of sailing ship, the engine broke down, bad weather was forecast and Palin fell violently sick, with neither group speaking each other's language.

Explaining why they had chosen this particular sequence to revisit, Palin said: "It was the most extraordinary period. We had no radio and no means of contacting the outside world so we depended on them entirely for our lives, and yet we couldn't even speak the same language. Mutual incomprehension gave way to friendship and affection. Our lives - and the success of eighty days - were in the hands of this band of ragged, underpaid sailors from Gujarat."

His words on screen when they parted were: "At this point, it's impossible to accept that I shall never see them again." In defiance of that prediction, Palin goes in search of the dhow and its captain and crew. He begins in Dubai, staying at the Sheraton Creek Hotel and reacquaints himself with the city, describing its transformation from "a dusty trading port into a mini-Manhattan." He meets two officials who helped to organise the original voyage but they don't know what has happened to the captain, Hassan Sulyman and there have been no sightings of the dhow in Dubai in those 20 years.

This time, Palin takes the three-hour flight to Mumbai - as opposed to the seven-day dhow journey - and discovers that the broking firm, which handled Al Shama's cargo years ago, is still in existence. While its new owner asks around, Palin takes a second look at the city where he once arrived as an unshaven and exhausted traveller. The good news is that the captain and some of the crew are living in a village called Mandvi in Gujarat, north-west India, which he discovers is an unspoilt town given over to the construction of such wooden boats. The bad news is that Al Shama sank only five months before his arrival. The broadcasting rights for Around The World In 20 Years will go on sale after the programme airs in the UK, and given the worldwide success of Palin's programmes, including the UAE, it is bound to be shown on television here soon.

If Dubai feels full of Brits at the moment that's because it is. The invasion is hard to quantify but some evidence comes from British Airways, which has revealed that it will fly 1.6 million people between London, Heathrow and Dubai during the peak season from Dec 17 to Jan 4.

There is never a good time for a ski lift to collapse but the timing could not have been worse for North America's leading resort, Whistler, coming only four days after the grand opening of its new US$28m (Dh103m) Peak 2 Peak Gondola car. Connecting both mountains - at 3,024m long it holds the record for the largest single-span lift- it was trailed as the biggest development for skiing this year. It also meant that the world's press was there to witness the collapse of the older Excalibur lift when a pylon broke causing two gondola cars to drop. Fortunately, they stayed on the cable, with one hitting a bus shelter and another hanging down close to the icy waters of Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs through the resort. The forced evacuation of 53 passengers in freezing conditions took more than than three hours. Ten people were taken to hospital and thankfully only suffered minor injuries. It is seen as a major disaster for the resort, however, as it has undermined public confidence in safety measures, as well as nullifying the huge PR push, which included road shows, for the Peak 2 Peak lift's opening.

There has been drama of a different kind in some of Europe's ski resorts. For several years no snow has fallen before the new year, eliciting debates on whether it is viable to have a skiing season before early January. This year, however, some resorts are suffering from a surfeit of the stuff. Lift closures and avalanche warnings have hampered a number of destinations. Isola 2000 and Montgenèvre have had so much snow that roads were cut off for several days. The resorts south of Tignes in France were buried in snow, as were those in Piedmont and the Aosta valley in Italy.

It looks as though some respite is now on its way. The skies are clearing and resorts will get a chance to clear the roads, secure the most unstable slopes and get the lifts going again. On the flip side, weather forecasters are beginning to talk about a really frigid blast of Arctic air. sryan@thenational.ae