TV review: ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ with Simon Reeve (2008)

‘Imagine a line more than 22,000 miles long that cuts through some of the most remote areas of the southern hemisphere’. This wild, diverse and at times heartbreaking adventure follows the Tropic of Capricorn around the planet. Simon Reeve wrote a book based on this journey (BBC Books, 2009), which I remember followed the programme closely but with extra material. The programme is also notable for the infamous ‘zebu penis soup’ experience.

Episode 1: Namibia and Botswana

  • In Namibia, a fun start to the journey – the sport of sandboarding! Basically whizzing down the dunes while lying on a piece of hardboard. Simon is instructed to keep his mouth closed while sandboarding, but forgets. ‘I’m eating the sand!’
  • Swakopmund is a town influenced by German colonial history. The first genocide of the 20th century happened there, against the OvaHerero people. Beyond the smart cemetery for the few hundred Germans who died in the conflict, thousands of native people are buried beneath the surrounding landscape.
  • Conservationist, a Frenchman called Olivier, looks after wild cheetahs. After driving into their territory to leave food, five cheetahs unexpectedly arrive straight away. The situation looks serious but Olivier knows the right way to behave so that he and Simon won’t be the wild cats’ meal.
  • A third of Botswana’s wealth comes from diamonds. We see diamond sorters at work at the Debswana company and then the huge mine itself. The company started giving their workers antiretroviral drugs for HIV; more of an economic move than a charitable one, but it set a precedent. Thousands of children have been orphaned by AIDS. Simon meets a few of them at a children’s home and one boy in particular takes a shine to him.
  • Crossing the Kalahari Desert seems exciting to begin with, but it quickly becomes challenging. After 10 miles one of the vehicles gets stuck in the sand. Camping in ‘lion country’ (with extra strong tents) and running low on provisions… On the third day, the San (Kalahari bushmen) settlement is reached. The people have moved back there, from the places they were relocated to by the government. There is no electricity, running water or medical care, but it’s the life they want.
  • Simon is rather thrilled to find an official Tropic of Capricorn sign. The second ‘r’ has been missed out but someone has added it in using masking tape.

[Image taken from BBC iPlayer – they could’ve varied the photos…]

Episode 2: South Africa to Madagascar

  • The South African town of Louis Trichart has clearly recovered since apartheid was lifted. However, Simon meets with a group of white farmers who are prepared for trouble and he tries out an AK47, noting the power it makes him feel. Later the same group are on patrol, tracking down illegal immigrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe. They arrest two boys who are carrying possessions in plastic bags.
  • On the border with Zimbabwe, several men are escaping beneath the barbed wire. One man has injured his ankle. He says that he’s jumped the border because there is no food and no fuel. He has no passport. ‘I just want to be a man like you,’ he says. The camera focuses on a crumpled, bloodied 5000 dollar Zimbabwean note.
  • Mozambique is still suffering from the effects of the war, which ended in 1992. The roads are silent and dusty, the people are poor. There are land mines, which giant rats are being trained to sniff out (they scratch the ground where a mine is present). The rats are light enough not to detonate the mines. Simon gets to hold a rat called Nelson and feed it a banana.
  • The Bazaruto islands are becoming known for luxury eco-tourism but more investment is needed from the government. Leonardo di Caprio stayed there. Simon stays in a hut but is kept awake by heavy rain drumming on the metal roof. The producer was sleeping in a tent, which collapsed under the rain.
  • According to our guide Batsola, instead of cups of tea, people in Madagascar have soup made from zebu penis. Simon looks despairing as he realises he’s got to try it. At the restaurant, he looks nervous, but obviously he has to go through with this because it’ll make good TV. The result: ‘I swear to God I think I can taste urine’.
  • Ilahaka has grown from a hamlet to a wild west town, as people rush to mine sapphires in dangerously basic conditions for very low pay. Batsola says that local people don’t benefit from the money. The gems are exported and make others rich. We watch a man disappear into a simple hole in the ground, with tied-together plastic bags as a breathing tube.

Episode 3: Australia

  • We begin with humpback whales in the Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia. These awesome whales rest in the quiet blue water to put on fat before continuing their migration. Unfortunately there is a plan for salt mining nearby (salt being used in plastics manufacture) and it’s likely that the noise will affect the whale population.
  • Wittenoon is a former asbestos mining town which has a population of 8. This contaminated area in the Pilbara region has been removed from maps and utility services stopped. Steckie, our guide, drives through the town, past warning signs. We meet Meg and Frank, a ‘tough outback couple’, who won’t accept the government’s offer to buy their house. They stand on the site of the now-flattened church where they got married. They’re going to stay. They have each other.
  • A visit to Mount Whaleback reveals the largest iron ore mine in the world. Giant trucks mine the ore which is exported to China, where steel is in high demand during the economic boom. Simon walks beneath a truck which has tyres about three times his height.
  • In Alice Springs, there’s a rescue centre for baby kangaroos. Simon gets to hold a cute joey against his chest, in a fabric pouch. Sadly, kangaroos have a habit of jumping across traffic and that’s when the joeys still in their pouches need to be rescued.
  • The Aboriginal communities have a troubled relationship with the government. With a dust storm raging, Vince (an Aboriginal elder, artist and campaigner) shows us his hometown of Mutitjulu, which is near Uluru (the iconic rock formation popular with tourists). A taskforce has intervened in the wake of child abuse reports, but Vince says that this is demonisation and that the poverty and other problems are a result of long neglect by the government.
  • The Queensland town of Longreach is right on the Tropic of Capricorn. There is even a monument. Simon drives across a featureless dusty landscape to visit a farming couple, Peter and Donna. They live in hope of rain and it’s tough keeping a farm of nearly 300 square miles going in the drought. The farmers in the area are reluctant to admit that the conditions are due to climate change, perhaps because this would signal the end for their livelihoods.
  • At the paradise-like Heron Island Research Station, a marine biologist called Selina takes us on a reef walk through the shallow clear water. There are amazing creatures; Simon handles a sea cucumber, an animal which can actually expel its digestive system if threatened by predators. The Great Barrier Reef is in real trouble due to climate change, with even small temperature increases causing coral to die off.

Episode 3: Chile to Brazil

  • Simon hitches a ride on a giant freight train across the barren Atacama Desert. The train is half a mile long and is pulled by three locomotives. Copper mining is a major industry and the train will be hauling the copper across the country, where it will be exported to China.
  • An indigenous guide and campaigner, Rosa, shows us the gorgeous flamingo-populated mountain lakes which are threatened by the mining industry. Simon is worried about altitude sickness, so he tries Rosa’s remedy – dried coca leaves, which are traditionally used for this purpose. It seems to work.
  • At nearly 5000 metres above sea level, we cross into Argentina and the land becomes green. Hugo, a vicuna farmer, enlists Simon to help catch the skittish animals for vaccination. The cute, valuable vicuna is “like a woolly Bambi”.
  • With the remote Wichi tribe, Simon goes on a hunt for wild honey without any protective gear except for a cloth bag which he puts over his head when the bees get angry. The stings appear to be worth it as the honey is excellent. Deforestation is causing many problems for these hunter-gatherer people and they don’t have the power to stop it.
  • Arriving at Asuncion, Paraguay, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, there is a party atmosphere. Among hundreds of other goods, you can buy “ceramic frogs” and a statue of “Baby Jesus with gold pants on”. Andrea, the guide, says the festival is even more important than Christmas. But on the whole, our time in Paraguay is sobering as we learn about the brutal dictatorship which thankfully is gone, but the current evil is (again) devastating deforestation.
  • In Brazil, we arrive in the enormous city of Sao Paulo, where the guide Fernando takes Simon to a company which provides personal security guards. In a training exercise, Simon pretends to be a VIP. Suddenly there are shots and his security guards quickly shove him back into the car and drive away. He’s somewhat taken by surprise.
  • Touring a favela, where drug-related crime is rife, we’re shown how young people are being taught skills to help steer them away from criminal life. Simon makes an unsatisfactory pizza base while he hears their stories. Finally we reach the end of this epic journey around the southern hemisphere at the coastal town of Ubatuba. There’s even a monument. But, even better, this is the solstice at midday, where the sun is directly overhead – perfect.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a year.

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