After watching this German documentary, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants to hop on a motorbike and explore the desserts of the Earth.
"The light of the crystal clear morning makes up for everything."
Maybe it wouldn't make up for a cold night sleeping outdoors with low oxygen levels for you, but for Michael Martin, it does as he photographs a beautiful sunrise in Bolivia. German photographer Michael and his camerawoman girlfriend Elke Wallner spent 900 days on a quest to take in all of the world's deserts, visiting every continent except Antarctica.
This isn't the first time Michael Martin has taken such a journey, since he started exploring deserts at age 17 and has taken more than 80 trips into desert regions. However, it is the most comprehensive. The plan was to photograph and film the world's deserts for a book, slide shows, and a television documentary series, according to his Web site. Part of the result was this documentary series of 12 half-hours, Exploring the Deserts of the Earth.
The story starts out not in the Gobi or the Sahara, but on the A95 in Munich in the snow and cold. "Maybe it is a little too ambitious to cross all the deserts of the Earth on motorbike in nine hundred days," the narrator intones. The pair will be driving to Venice, then sailing to Turkey. This part of the journey is shown, briefly, as the two sip capuccino to ward off the chill at an Italian roadside cafe and relax on the boat. The last leg of the return journey, in snow, is shown as well, with reminders of the couple's grueling time.
The first adventure they face is with customs officials, as Elke has to don a veil for a driver's license photo, "which she puts on very unwillingly." The pair will find problems with border crossings later on, since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington occur as they are traveling into Pakistan and they must race to reach India before the border is shut down.
There are some splendid sights in these episodes, such as a fire crater that's been burning natural gas for 30 years in Turkmenistan and the horses and riders that dot the white sands of Mongolia, and the documentary leaves lots of time to introduce viewers to the people Michael and Elke meet along the way. The couple camps with a Bedouin tribe and takes photos of racing camels, examines the situation of aborigines in Australia ("no work, no future"), goes to the horse races at Birdsville, and watch bread being made in a clay oven in Timbuktu.
The trip has its hazards, with Elke suffering a leg injury when the motorbike tips over, several places requiring escorts, mine fields in northern Chad, and a host of natural problems from driving through sand, water, and mud. At one point, a hotel in China has the couple bring the motorbike into the lobby for the night. As with the customs difficulties, these become a recurring theme in the series.
One thing you get from a German travelogue is a slightly different perspective on the United States. Michael seems mostly enthusiastic, although he doesn't like the roadside cuisine. "Fast food haunts us for the next three months in the U.S.," the narrator intones as Michael and Elke take in a meal at a Taco Bell in Los Angeles. Of course, Michael and Elke "feel completely out of place with our motorbike" in Las Vegas and head out for the desert to camp instead of staying in a hotel. The pair makes a detour to New York to see the World Trade Center site.
Michael Martin's narration has been replaced by that of the verry English enunciator David Ingram. Ingram does a good job and has a smooth translation to work with, but his voice seems a bit too formal to match that of the long-haired motorcycle rider seen riding through the deserts. Michael's actual voice is heard—in English—as he presents a slide show, showing the odd contrast.
The documentary could use better maps. When it shows them, the narration gives too much information too fast and the type's too small to boot. Of course, that did distract me from the fact that the maps were in German. Legends on the screen to show the names of the deserts Michael's visiting would also help viewers take everything in.
Michael and Elke relied on natural light throughout their travels, so the spectacular images are offset by the occasional image that's too bright or too dark. The ambient sound comes through nicely under the narration and music.
The original journey acquits itself as a most fascinating endeavor, provided a trip through the world's deserts is your cup of tea. The English-language adaptation is guilty of a few flaws, though, since the narrator doesn't seem to fit and more on-screen information could have been provided.
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