TV review: ‘Tropic of Cancer with Simon Reeve’ (2010)

An epic 23,000 mile adventure, this six-part series begins in South America and ends in Hawaii by way of Africa and South Asia. It’s an incredibly diverse journey which ultimately demonstrates the devastating impact that human actions are having on the planet. Here are some highlights of the show:

  • Mexico is definitely a mixed bag. On one hand, there is drug smuggling and associated violence (Simon goes on armed patrol on a fruitless raid of a drug gang’s safe house), plus corruption – including a nasty incident with a group of taxi drivers who seem to be allied with the police. Then there’s John Wayne’s old film set, the epitome of the Wild West look. An elderly man lives there, having bought the site. The walls are polystyrene. And not forgetting La Princesa, a top wrestler who wears a butterfly mask and tries out her moves on Simon in a rather painful demonstration.
  • There’s a lot going on in the desert. Western Sahara is ruled by Morocco, where Saharawi people are not allowed to openly campaign for independence and are subject to abuse from the police. A hair-raising three miles of bumpy no-man’s land between Morocco and Mauritania include a graveyard of rusting cars, evidence of landmines. Hitching a ride on a 200-wagon iron ore train which snakes across the desert, the atmosphere on board is hilarious. Algeria is suffering the after-effects of civil war, having once been a popular tourist destination. In Gaddafi-era Libya, Simon swims in a Ubari Lakes oasis with a government minder who is apparently a dead ringer for the dictator [note: Gaddafi was assassinated the year after this programme aired].
  • Egypt is seen to be a restrictive country where Nubian people are treated poorly. Simon is accompanied by government minders, one of whom, when in a boat on the Red Sea (where Simon is going to dive to the coral reef) admits he can’t swim.¬† Dubai is an impressive sight when seen from a helicopter, but what is lesser known are the many migrant workers trapped in a nightmare in which they were lured there for work, but are now unemployed. They can’t even go home because the loan sharks will get them. On the coast of Oman, we witness the rare occurrence of green turtles laying and burying their eggs in the sand.

  • India is a country of conflicts and contrasts. The monsoon is about to begin. Simon travels by efficient train and weaves through chaotic traffic from the Rann of Kutch (a desert where the endangered wild ass can be seen) to the city of Kolkata. He witnesses a bizarre accident where a car crashes and many people fall off their bikes… but it’s apparently usual and everyone gets going again. He explores the conflict between Hindus and Muslims and then visits Bhopal, notorious for the industrial disaster 25 years ago [now 34 years]. The site was never cleaned up and anyone is able to wander around the toxic contaminated site, which is still affecting the environment today. At Satpura National Park, he travels by elephant in the hope of seeing Bengal tigers but only sees the pawprints.
  • Bangladesh sees the effect of climate change, with the riverbanks crumbling as we watch, eroding faster and destroying livelihoods. In chaotic bustling Dhaka, child labour is common and we see 10-year-old Jehangir working in the furnace heat of a glass recycling factory. The problem of banning child labour is that families will go hungry, as the earnings are needed. Simon takes part in a lively sport called kabaddi which involves one person holding their breath and escaping being wrestled to the ground by the other players. He gets rather dusty and slightly injured but doesn’t play too badly. The team sneak into Burma (where the BBC are officially banned) with a defected activist, Cheery, sliding across the river on a wire to a remote village, where the ‘forgotten people’ are oppressed by the military. Simon and co have to leave quickly at night because troops are nearby. Everyone’s lives are at risk, especially Cheery, who’s on the wanted list.
  • The crew are not allowed into China, so they go through Laos instead. It wouldn’t be a Simon Reeve show without him trying some strange food, so he has some maggots. Laos was very heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam War and it’s still dangerous. People even use bombs as scrap metal and building materials. In Hanoi he is taken to play golf, which is apparently the new passion of the business elite of communist Vietnam. He investigates the cruelty of bear farms and then travels by catamaran, where he’s not allowed on deck to view the karst limestone formations and is pushed down the hatch by an angry sailor. In Taiwan, which stands out as an unusually wealthy country in the tropics, he pays a visit to the Tropic of Cancer Elementary School. Finally, in Hawaii the rapidly disappearing bird species are being preserved in a sanctuary and on the remote Kamilo beach we see that there is more plastic than sand.

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

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