The British TV travel show market is as overcrowded as a Cairo bazaar. It is overflowing with cheap frills, dodgy knock-offs and dusty antiques but every now and then you find a real diamond in the rough. Athena Learning have just unearthed one such treasure — Joanna Lumley’s Nile. Some of you may be surprised to see the one-time Bond girl fronting a travel documentary but Joanna has been gradually expanding her horizons with shows about Bhutan and Greece. Those were decent enough but The Nile is the piece de resistance. Simply put, it’s the best travel series I’ve seen since Michael Palin toured the globe in 80 days.
Joanna Lumley grew up on a princely estate in Kashmir and staying true to her roots, she has developed a reputation as a good old fashioned English aristocrat. As such, it is no surprise to see her beginning her epic voyage sipping champagne on a luxury liner. The series was filmed just before the tumultuous events of 2011 and the Egypt she saw was a rather calmer place than the Egypt of today. Although the Nile is the focal point of this four part series, Lumley spends most of her time onshore exploring the people and the communities that run alongside the river. Inevitably, her jaunts include a quickfire tour of the pyramids and a little stroll through the bustling streets of Egypt’s crowded capital.
So far so good, but things get really interesting when she continues her voyage further down the river. Soon enough, she is waving goodbye to the finer things in life and hopping aboard a raft-like ferry full of Sudanese immigrants. Surprisingly, Lumley embraces her humble surroundings and eagerly samples the modest offerings available from the ferry’s kitchen. She even ventures into a squalid bathroom and has a nap surrounded by empty bottles and Bedouins on the ship’s top deck. Don’t be fooled by the accent, Lumley has no heirs and graces.
As her journey continues, Lumley explores Sudan’s Pyramids that were once at the heart of the vast kingdom of Kush. Hotels are pretty scarce in the desert but Lumley finds shelter in a hovel made from mud and sticks. Again, she willingly embraces the local customs and bravely samples dishes in places where even basic sanitation is sadly lacking. Sudan isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourists so it’s absolutely fascinating to get an insight into this massive and largely isolated nation. However, Ethiopia with its surprisingly lush hill tops is the most eye-catching place that she visits. Whilst there, Lumley gets baptized by a coptic priest and gets boozed up in a backstreet saloon.
Having explored the Blue Nile, Lumely heads East, passes through Uganda and Rwanda on her way to the source of the White Nile. The mighty river’s source isn’t as spectacular as you might expect but she has a heck of a time trying to find it. I can’t think of another show where someone has had such an arduous 4,000 mile trek.
Joanna Lumley’s Nile hits stores on 16 July. The four episode, 184 minute set costs just $39.99. Plan to start watching it early in the day because it’s truly riveting so you’ll probably end up watching it all in one showing. (Continued below)
Somebody at Athena must have a thing for rivers because the company’s other July 16 release is Bill Moyers: On the Hudson – America’s First River. Don’t make the mistake of comparing this with Lumley’s Nile because Moyers is a master story teller rather than a travel show host. He isn’t as energetic or melodramatic as Lumley but he does his research and he molds his material into a compelling and easy to understand format. In this show, he explores the impact of the Hudson river on American culture, history and society.
It is a mere 315 miles from the Hudson’s source in the Adirondack Mountains to New York Harbor. However, rather than just tracing its geographic boundaries, Moyers recalls the role the river played in events ranging from the American revolution to a pollution scandal involving G.E. Over the course of 2 episodes and 231 minutes, Moyers brings “America’s Eden” to life. However, if the onscreen content whets your appetite you can learn even more by delving into the accompanying booklet. It includes biographies of figures such as Henry Hudson and Robert Fulton. It also has an interesting feature on Moyers himself. Bill Moyers: On the Hudson America’s First River costs $39.99