Exploring the Deserts of the Earth isn't your typical nature documentary. Michael Martin, a photographer, and Elke Wallner, a filmmaker, take on the challenge of visiting all the deserts of the world, in one long trip over 900 days. It's a decidedly low-key adventure: the duo ride a motorcycle with no escort vehicle or special supplies, as they document their journey through five continents and fifty countries.
If the word "desert" makes you think of sand dunes and camels, you've only got a tiny glimpse of what awaits in the Deserts of the Earth. The Sahara, which the filmmakers call the Queen of Deserts, is only one of many different kinds of deserts that they visit over the course of almost three years. Hot deserts and below-freezing deserts; deserts below sea level and high above it; yellow dunes and white salt flats. There's something different in each desert and country that they visit, whether it's lakes in the middle of dunes, high-tech Saudi cities, a Buddhist monastery tucked away in the middle of the desert, or wave formations frozen in wind-sculpted rock. After following the filmmakers through the wilds of Australia, Asia, and South America, it's fascinating to see the North American deserts through the same perspective. It's inspiring to see what stunning and beautiful landscapes there are in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona...
What makes the documentary interesting not just the amazing landscapes, but also the filmmakers' keen eye for observing culture. While the stark beauty of the deserts themselves is the touchpoint of each episode of their journey, the heart of the program seems to be the filmmakers' interactions with the people they meet along the way. Martin and Wallner are welcomed by countless people along their route. In fact, their journey would have been impossible without the kindness of the people they meet, who provide hospitality, directions, advice, food, and an open invitation to capture their lives on film. It's an honest and respectful look at all the different cultures that they meet, more so because much of their journey involves participating in the daily lives of the people whose land they're passing through, if only for a few days.
Michel Martin, the photographer of the duo, also wrote the script for the narration, which is given an excellent voiceover by David Ingram. The narration does a nice job of balancing an explanation of what they see with moments of just letting the viewers see and hear for themselves.
The episodes run half an hour apiece, which feels just right. The titles give a glimpse of the variety of experiences shown in the documentary:
Part One: Bedouins, Seas of Sand, and a Treasure from 1001 Nights
Part Two: Deserts of Salt - Crater of Fire - Wild Camels
Part Three: The Ancient Buried Cities and Holy Lakes of Alashan
Part Four: 100,000 Camels and 3,000 Rats
Part Five: The Cold, The Dust, and The Mines
Part Six: The Red Heart of Australia
Part Seven: Salt Lakes - Volcanoes - Geysers
Part Eight: Llamas, Seals and Buried Cultures
Part Nine: Highway to Heaven
Part Ten: An African Adventure - Nomads...
Part Eleven: The Sahara, Queen of Deserts
Part Twelve: Of Rebels, Crocodiles and Smugglers
This is a two-disc set, with six episodes on each DVD.
Exploring the Deserts of the Earth is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which looks like it's probably the original aspect ratio. Considering the rough conditions in which much of this footage was captured, the image is quite good. The image tends to be a bit soft and grainy, but the colors are lovely and the overall experience is captured well.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is attractive, giving a clean and natural sound to the voiceover as well as to the dialogue that's captured on the spot.
There are no special features.
Exploring the Deserts of the Earth is a refreshingly different documentary, one that does a great job of balancing "travelogue" with information. I felt that the episodes were enjoyable and entertaining, while also helping me to learn more about the staggering beauty and variety of the world's landscapes and cultures. By the end of it, I was feeling motivated to spend a few days visiting the desert, as I'm lucky enough to live in Southern California only a few hours' drive away from spectacular landscapes. That's a pretty good testament to the effectiveness of the documentary! Recommended.