|As if this werenít enough, Basil was much vexed by the
lack of appreciation of his work on the part of small, predominantly elderly,
Berber ladies. Whether they had been previously let down by Mario Testino
or had been promised contact sheets from Helmut Newton which never showed
up I donít know, but these doughty mountain matrons seemed to have a thing
about stills photographers, and all their pent-up resentments spilled onto
Basil like a dam bursting. At one border crossing, the discreet attentions
of his Canon Eos1, with a 17-35/F 2.8, drove one of these colourful old
ladies into a positive paroxysm of protest. Shrieking like a banshee, she
threatened to redirect his lens into somewhere quite painful. For sheer
unprovoked ferocity it was quite without parallel, until the morning Bas
chose to record the wares on a juju stall in downtown Bamako. This time,
young, enraged men, probably tipped off by Berber ladies from the north,
sprang out of the crowd and would have dragged him out of the minibus by
his lens, if less photophobic locals hadnít intervened. Bearing all this
in mind, itís pretty extraordinary that we have this book at all.
So, what was in the Sahara for Basil? Well, I think, like all of us, he
had never seen anything to rival the space and scale and immensity of the
place, and, like all of us, he knew that the same reasons that made it so
hard going made it hugely memorable and rewarding. To penetrate to the heart
of the Sahara, as well as into largely closed countries like Libya and Algeria,
was an achievement on everyoneís part, an achievement secured at times by
a mixture of cussedness, dogged determination and much-needed communal grumbling.
Communal is the key word here. Itís the reason, I think, why Basil not only
survived but also produced some of his finest work. On these journeys time
is rarely on his side. He, like all of us, has to be a team player, going
with the flow, even when itís taking you rapidly in the wrong direction.
To do this, and deliver the goods at the same time, requires a combination
of quick thinking, mutual tolerance, natural talent and a hefty sense of
Which is why, though this may have been the least comfortable journey Iíve
made with Basil, I hope it wonít be the last. Thereís much grumbling still
to be done.
Michael Palin. March 2002