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Profile | Around the Rim in 10 Weeks

Michael Palin Travels In Pacific Circles For Pbs Audience

September 14, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Intrepid traveler Michael Palin went "Around the World in 80 Days" back in 1989 and journeyed "Pole to Pole" five years ago. On his latest and most arduous expedition, "Full Circle With Michael Palin," he explores the exotic countries of the Pacific Rim. The 10-week series embarks Monday on PBS.

The Monty Python alum doesn't know how he caught the travel bug, but acknowledges he was always curious about "what was around the corner."

In fact, Palin, 54, recalls that the greatest day of his life was when he got his first bicycle as a youngster.

"I was able to go off on my own and be an independent traveler, cycling into the hills around where I lived and exploring places," the charming, good-natured Palin, recalled during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

"I love the idea of exploring. I read books about explorers and places like the Amazon and the Nile. Those places were incredibly romantic, possibly because I was born and brought up in Sheffield [England]. It's a sort of an ugly industrial city. Great people there, but it's a place people generally wanted to get out of when I was young."

After finishing "Pole to Pole," Palin didn't expect to be packing his bags again for another major trip. But since the series was so well-received, "I thought of all the options of all the work I could be doing, and another travel show would not be a bad one. People kept saying, 'What are you doing to do next?' "

So after appearing with fellow Pythoner John Cleese in the film "Fierce Creatures" and writing a novel, "I thought I would go back and do something I knew I would enjoy if we could find a route."

Palin and his producer came up with the idea of the Pacific Rim. "Most of the countries I haven't been to in the world tended to be grounded around the Pacific Rim, especially South America and Southeast Asia," he explains. "There was an entity to the Pacific Rim--a political entity and an economic entity. A lot of business is done between Europe and the Pacific Rim, yet most of the general public doesn't know much about it."

On his "Full Circle" journey, Palin covered 50,000 miles over 245 days. He traveled through 18 countries and 89 cities, chatted with 300 people, traveled on 33 trains, 37 ships and 16 helicopters. (Next month, St. Martin's Press will publish Palin's lavish companion book to the series.)

Palin and his crew of seven--all of whom had accompanied him on "Pole to Pole"--began "Full Circle" at Diomede, a tiny island in the middle of the Bering Strait. Before returning there the following year, they visited Russia, Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, the United States and Canada.

"We didn't travel the whole thing in one go," acknowledges Palin. "It's not fair to expect a crew to work [that long]. The longest period we worked was three months solid from Cape Horn back up to Diomede. We would have had divorces on our hands [if we didn't take breaks]."

What makes Palin's travel series so unusual and fun are the various adventures he encounters in each country. In "Full Circle," he sings with Russia's Pacific Fleet choir, learns to drum with Japan's famous Kodo drummers, meets his No. 1 Japanese fan who takes him around Tokyo, has dinner with the Dyak headhunters in Borneo and navigates the Pongo de Mainique, the most treacherous rapids in the Amazon.

Though the trip was meticulously well-planned, Palin and his crew still ran into their share of road blocks, like the time they were told to stop filming a cricket match in Saigon.

"Halfway through, some guide appeared from the Vietnamese army," he says. "It turned out the grounds were actually [leased] from the Vietnamese air force. They were convinced that we were just using the cricket as a cover to film their latest weaponry. We had to stop. In the end, they stopped us from taking still photographs."

When he got to Australia, the producers lined up a "series of manic stunts" for him. "I barely survived," he says.

"The most physically demanding, bruising day I ever spent--and that includes even [making] 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'--was the day spent with some central Australians," Palin relates. Their job: capturing camels.

"There are enormous herds of camels which were brought there to [help] build the railway because they survived the desert conditions," Palin explains. Hearty Australians, known as jackeroos, make their living in the outback capturing the animals and selling them to zoos and parks.

"I was just going to watch this thing," he says. "It turned out I was given the job of going out to catch these camels. I stood on the back of a flatbed truck hanging on to a rail in the front and one behind me, with a stick with a loop of rope at the end of it. You're going over very bumpy ground, doing these amazing 360-degree turns. And the camels are very agile and they toyed with us completely."

The cameras capture Palin kicking the truck in utter frustration. "I couldn't do it," he says. "I was getting so angry and battered and bruised. My tired body was aching."

Eventually, he managed to lasso a few. "I got a bit of Aussie praise, which is quite something," he says. But not worth it. Had he known at the outset what he was getting into, he confides, "I wouldn't have done it."

"Full Circle With Michael Palin" airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on KCET.

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