A fascinating combination of "Survivor" and a History Channel documentary (or, alternately, a really hot - literally - version of "The Alaska Experiment"), "Expedition: Africa" is a fascinating series from producer Mark Burnett (of "Survivor") fame. The series is a grand experiment, and it's too bad that it was only seen on the History Channel, as the intense and fascinating series could probably have found a home on network TV, possibly as a double-billing with Burnett's "Survivor".
The idea behind the series is fairly straightforward: a group of four well-regarded modern explorers are given the task of following the journey of Henry Morton Stanley and his search for Dr. David Livingstone in the deepest reaches of Africa. Given the tools and modern gadgets of today, the trip would be a bit less intense, right? Well, that's true, but there's a problem: they won't be getting any of those things. Instead, all they have to go on are a compass, maps and Stanley's journals from the original trip.
The result is a long, painful trip through unbelievably harsh (but often quite beautiful) journey across the African landscape. The team consisted of Pasquale Scatturo (a geologist and adventurer), Mireya Mayor (anthropologist and wildlife correspondent), Benedict Allen (explorer and author of 10 books) and Kevin Sites (an award-winning war correspondent and author.)
The series is remarkably engaging from the standpoint of the progress towards the end, but this is certainly an instance where the journey is more remarkable than the destination. The group does not always get along with one another, but thankfully, the human drama is only one element of the larger series. Still, the scary issue of this series is that the human drama is often not petty issues or other minor squabbles - the drama comes from people who are genuinely worried for their survival and are pushing to let their thoughts be heard because they are concerned what might happen if they are not. There is, of course, also the matter of stress that comes from exhaustion, which certainly occurs during throughout the season.
The conditions are tough and dangerous - cold and rain hits and hypothermia becomes a worry, the trails are slippery, illness is a fear (one of the porters gets malaria and then a couple of episodes later, one of the explorers comes down with it and things quickly turn grim), water is not always easily accessible and all sorts of other obstacles are constantly on the radar of the travelers. Africa is presented as a land of breathtaking beauty and unnerving danger. The group has porters to carry the biggest items, but otherwise must take their own materials on their backs into the jungle.
What's also engaging about the series is the reliance on old-fashioned methods to live and journey, from using maps and compasses to cross the land to working with local tribesmen and trying to find food at markets. I don't think that Livingstone had a Subaru Outback (in a regrettable instance of product placement that takes viewers out of the show for a moment, the camera zooms in first on "Subaru", then "Outback"), but otherwise, the group has to get along on their wits and survival instincts. The group is pushing forward quickly because they know that rainy season will start before long.
As for the educational aspect, the show succeeds marvelously, as it integrates aspects of the history behind the trek in a way that doesn't seem forced - the group talks about what occurred during Livingston's trek and sometimes how it relates to their own situation. Having the explorers talk about the history also is really enjoyable, as it doesn't stop the pace like if the series would have stopped for archive clips every so often. Technically, no expense seems to have been spared, as the series is filmed in absolutely gorgeous HD widescreen.
This is certainly excellent material for teachers - if I was a kid and had to learn about history, this would be a welcome way to spend a week of class sessions. "Expedition: Africa" is richly educational, but also a fascinating look at the powerful emotional (the ending is quite moving) and physical struggles that this group and their porters went through to replicate the path of one of the most famed explorers of all time. This is a fabulous series, and one that I truly hope will return in some fashion for a second season.
Episode 1: Lost in Africa
Episode 2: First Victim
Episode 3: Hunters Become The Hunted
Episode 4: African Monsoon
Episode 5: Danger In the Desert
Episode 6: Malaria Claims an Explorer
Episode 7: Heart of Darkness
Episode 8: The Final Chapter
VIDEO: "Expedition Africa" is presented by the History Channel in 1.78:1. The results are absolutely fantastic - while there are a few minor instances where the setting causes issues for the camera (such as during some of the night scenes), the majority of the program looks crisp and quite detailed. The daylight sequences all do a fantastic job of showing off the beauty of the countryside, with smaller details often clearly visible.
A touch of shimmering is seen on a couple of occasions, but the series otherwise looked smooth, clean and crisp throughout the majority of the running time. Colors looked bold and pure, with excellent saturation and no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: The show is presented in Dolby Stereo. This is an excellent presentation, with well-recorded dialogue and full, detailed ambience (lotsa thunder, plenty of insect sounds, etc.)
EXTRAS: "Expedition Africa: The Making of History" is a 20-minute "making of" documentary that goes over the approach that the series took (no GPS, only old-school tools) for the first portion, then finally does get going into a more in-depth discussion of the huge undertaking that the series is - a tent city of 100 people had to keep moving every few days just to follow and film a small group. The crews had to also go along on most of the same journey, only carrying very, very heavy filming equipment (sometimes walking backwards.)
"Stanley and Livingstone" is a 4-minute overview, while "The Masai" is a 2-minute look at the remarkable tribe, members of whom helped the explorers on their trip through Africa. While certainly not in-depth at about 2 minutes, the piece gets a surprising amount of information out in that little time frame.
"Wild Beasts, Disease and the Elements" runs about 2 minutes and gives a quick look at some of the troubles the explorers had to encounter during the trip. "Survival Strategies" lasts 10 minutes and profiles some of the tips at getting through the dangers of the wild that are seen in the series. Speaking of "Dangers of the Wild", that's the final featurette, running a little under 20 minutes. This piece looks at severe problems that are encountered in this climate, such as lack of drinkable water, animals (and some nasty little insects), the proper way to set up camp and other troubles.
Final Thoughts: "Expedition Africa" is a marvelous success, blending excitement, education and entertainment into a magnificently watchable package. I can only hope the series will somehow return, whether it be another group over the same route or another route (somehow going over Shackleton's route?) The DVD set offers excellent video quality, fine audio quality and a few very nice extras.