HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — It's been 14 years since Michael Palin set out on the first of his televised trips around the planet, following in the footsteps of such fictional and factual explorers as Phileas Fogg, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Hemingway. Since then, he's covered more than 100,000 miles, sold millions of books, and no doubt contributed significantly to the success of PBS pledge drives across America.
Now, fans of the ultimate vicarious traveling companion can look forward to new a pair of Palin exploits. "Sahara," a new BBC series, has just begun airing in Britain, and while we're waiting for the series to make it to the new world, Palin's "Travels" is available now on the Web.
Launched on Sept. 25 (the anniversary of his "Around the World in 80 Days"), Palin's "Travels" features the text of his first three books in their entirety a common enough practice for material in the public domain, but rare for bestsellers still covered by copyright. There are three publications posted to date: "Around the World in 80 Days," "Pole to Pole," and "Full Circle." ("Hemingway Adventure" and "Sahara" will be added later.) If you've seen the series or read the books, you'll know that the Web designers at OIL Internet were given enviably entertaining content to work with. And they've added clean design and multiple navigation options that make it as easy to hopscotch around Palin's planet as it is to follow him step for step.
Choose a book from the index, and you'll be taken to the title's home page, with a new introduction from the intrepid traveler, and the book itself, which is accessible via pull-down menu. In addition to text, each book page also includes the number of days since departure, date and location of the entry, the corresponding page in the paper version, a chance to bookmark your web reading, and links to related incidents from other trips.
Back at each book's home page, there are a number of extra features that you just can't get onto paper, such as a Flash-based globe that spins and tracks each trip step by step, and an interactive route map that allows visitors to navigate the text geographically.
If you're not into linear exploration, you can also jump to specific points in the text through keyword searches or such categorized criteria as different modes of transportation (camel, dog sled), or specific activities (being walked upon, Kodo drumming, performing as an extra in an Egyptian thriller).
In addition to title-specific galleries and searches, these options are also available for the entire site on the left-hand side of each page. In fact, with links to each book and all your search options always visible, and specifics of each text page always displayed in the upper right corner, it's a simple matter to follow tangent after tangent as curiosity dictates, yet always know where you are and how to get back to where you began.
A final cluster of links takes visitors to the Bookshop, some recommended sites, and The Chatter Box a forum with general topics, series-specific chats, and an invitation for visitors to contribute their own travel stories. Palin promises to add the occasional excursion not captured by the BBC, while webmasters will be enhancing the site with audio clips and a selection of travel images converted to desktop wallpapers.
Palin's books and TV series have been a source of touring since before I had even heard of the Web. Now his site offers virtual travels online as well, and the material survives the translation admirably.
Palin's Travels can be found at http://www.palinstravels.co.uk/.