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Top 10 travel documentaries to watch during coronavirus self-isolation

As coronavirus restrictions continue to tighten, the days seem to get longer, don’t they? This makes filling the time beyond work with the right kinds of things more important than ever. I’m talking about things that are good for the spirit, things that remind us of the good times, and take our minds beyond these overwhelming times. For many, you can’t beat the power of a true story. When these stories are framed in travel documentaries, this comes with a healthy dose of inspiration, often channelling an equally healthy dose of desire around new and exciting places to see in different parts of the world. We are stimulated by the unfamiliar and great travel documentaries give us a curiosity, ignite empathy, and give us something to dream about. It can also have a very healthy unifying effect. As humans, we are one as we share in tales of grand adventure, personal trials and triumphs. We are given an idea of the power of ambition to change the course of a life. We can’t help but feel unchanged by the mosaic of the places we have been. From adventurers with very specific aims to the checklist traveller on the hunt for their next destination, these travel documentaries should give you food for thought. As with our blogs on the top travel books and films to while away this time in isolation, this list may well provide inspiration even if you’re not looking for it. And, if it does not inspire you to travel, at the very least it will give you an outlet to the world for a precious nugget of time when you can’t go exploring. With this list of fantastic titles, you will surf the seas, climb mountains, walk deserts, cross continents. You will know the world in extremes. You will know the world in ordinariness made great. You will see cities, places walked by a handful of people, places where humans are mere observers. Covering a range of countries and a range of ways to travel them, add these documentaries to your playlist. Share them with your friends. Share them with your family. Take the time to imagine your own great travel stories. More than anything, stay hungry for the next big adventure. The Endless Summer Surfing. Is there anything cooler? Probably not and, for some, this might have something to do with The Endless Summer – the story of two surfers who travel the world in search of the ever-enigmatic perfect wave’. With footage from filmmaker Bruce Brown, this 1960s story about Mike Hynson and Robert August made its way into the blood of many and has continued to captivate in cult-like fashion long into the 21st century.
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Escaping the cold waters of winter in their hometown of California, the two surfers follow summer to different destinations around the world in the name of surfing. It is the continuity of their passion, but they also teach local people about the beauty of the sport as they go. On finding tickets to South Africa almost astonishingly cheap, they add a few more stops to follow summer in the name of surfing. This is the stuff any surfer’s dream is made of. The three visit Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, South Africa, and lesser-known surfing destinations like Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria. Anyone who loves the beach can escape into the land of sand and salt water, perfect cresting waves and gliding through barrels alongside these surfing legends. As one of the most iconic surfing films of all time, this film will captivate anyone who finds themselves sneaking in a surf before work on most days. Even if you aren’t one of those people, there’s nothing not to like about this glimpse into surf culture. Enjoy the antics and incredible travel diversity in pursuit of the perfect wave – both on the shore and out on the water. Antarctica: A Year on Ice While most people may not rank Antarctica at the top of their desired travel destinations, this documentary will leave you with a fascination for this icy land you won’t be able to ignore. Frozen landscapes, inhospitable weather conditions, and total isolation may not make it an attractive destination at first glimpse, but more and more people venture to Antarctica to experience this white wilderness. Sadly, Antarctica as you imagine it is at risk, with climate change altering temperatures and so this remote part of the planet. That’s just one of the reasons why this documentary is exceptional.
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This film is set between two research stations in Antarctica. Filmmaker Anthony Powell joins these teams for one year. It shows the daily lives of the people who choose to live and work in this end of the world. From whole days of full sunshine to winter months of cold darkness, one can’t help but put oneself in the shoes of these engaging individuals as they allow us into their lives. The story is one of people, but it is overwhelmingly a story of a place. The Antarctic landscapes are exceptionally beautiful – and captured with an expertise and inventiveness that will amaze anyone with a penchant for film. Antarctica: A Year on Ice has won a list of awards – and for good reason. It is remarkable. It will take you on a journey of emotions and leave you with a yearning for more. A Map for Saturday Looking for reasons to travel the world? You will find a few amongst these interviews with long-term travellers around the world in this collection of stories. If you have any hesitation around solo travel or the idea of – I don’t know – quitting your job and going backpacking for a year, there are a few characters who might convince you amongst these tales too.
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As any backpacker knows, backpacking comes with its own unique set of trials, tribulations, and treasures – and Brook Silva Braga captures this perfectly in this documentary filmed over 11 months. This documentary is all about life on the road, interrogating why we travel to give an honest account of backpacking through the eyes of a backpacker. A Map for Saturday shows the unique nature of friendship when you’re long and far from home. It shows long-term backpacking warts and all – with issues of boredom, logistics, loneliness, and returning home at the end. It shows backpacking in all its beauty too – the privilege of being able to see the world, how lives are unalterably changed by living out the extraordinary. Brook gave up his job to travel, visiting Australia, Asia, Europe, and South America and talking to people along the way. Young and old, no matter the back story, this is a tribute to the power of travel. Moms and dads fearing empty nest, you might want to hide this from your teenagers for the next 60 years. That said, you are just as likely to venture out when the world is travel-friendly again off the back of this film. Also, maybe don’t give it to your grandmother. It really does remove every barrier to backpacking. 180 Degree South: Conquerors of the Useless If you’re an adventure enthusiast, you have probably come across the antics of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins somewhere along the line. These legendary characters are worthy of emulation – and that’s exactly what 180 Degrees South is all about. Recreating the 1968 trip by the two in their Ford van, Jeff Johnson makes the epic trip from California to Chile with one goal in mind: to climb the Corcovado Volcano in Patagonia.
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The documentary is interspersed with the original home footage – but Johnson’s approach is slightly different. He adds a layer of adventure by travelling by sea. This is an adventure traveller’s dream come to life. Surfing, sailing, climbing, this is a personal expedition filled with treacherous conditions and requiring real grit. Avid climbers are not quickly deterred by much and this is one of those stories of sheer and dangerous peaks and the glint in the eye of a climber. With your life on the line if you make an error, this is a serious undertaking – especially under the watchful eye of your heroes. The South American landscape is captivating and raw in its beauty, so beware: as Johnson found himself beset with a goal he couldn’t shake after finding Chouinard and Tompkins’ footage, so you may find yourself inspired to try your hand at some great human feat of bravery. This is the healthy dose of adventure you have been looking for during isolation. The Long Way Down If you prefer to stay on level ground but you’re looking for adventure, this might do the trick. Next in line in terms of fanaticism after climbers is probably adventure motorcyclists. The Long Way Down follows Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they ride their adventure bikes across Africa. One can never tire of Cairo to Cape stories – mostly because every trip reveals something off the beaten path no matter how common these trips may become. The Long Way Down is fantastic for giving us a view of Africa in the trip of a lifetime which shows the continent in all her wild, colourful, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny splendour.
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Think of Africa and you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking of bad roads. Crossing 18 countries from their departure in Scotland, there is enough sand and mud to keep things interesting from a motorcycle perspective. However, from the first, the trip was eventful. Accidents, mechanical problems, border issues, and logistical problems are a few of the things that pepper the story. Things are done differently in Africa. Essentially, though, The Long Way Down gives a wonderful insight into the people, places, and landscapes that make the whole of Africa so amazing. History and culture meet some of the marvels of the natural world to give you every reason under the red African sun to visit some of these places – from the well-worn tourist favourites to the more remote and sometimes overlooked places along the length of the continent. Life in a Day From National Geographic and Ridley Scott, Life in a Day is a collection of clips submitted by YouTube users from around the world on 24 July 2010. Conceived as a tribute to YouTube, as a way to turn user-created video into film, Life in a Day features selected snippets of over 80 000 submitted clips. “The basic temporal building block of life” according to Kevin MacDonald, this film is the world in a day and this film is guaranteed to make life feel amazing. Day and night, life and death, love and loss, grand events and ordinary days – this is life. Across every age group, race, culture, social class, and way of life, everyone is brought together in one day, in this shared life, and through this widely used medium.
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It is a reminder that we are more similar than we may think, turning the routine into the remarkable. It is intimate and far-reaching. It is just what we need when the world is in turmoil. It is a reminder that life, in all of its twisting, turning, unpredictability, is unerringly beautiful. It is a reminder of the things that are important. It is a celebration of the momentous. It is a pat on the back that everything else is fleeting. Lockdown around the world and isolation for many, with a constant stream of news that is a reminder along the way, can be hard to ignore. Finding hope will probably feel impossible at times, which is going to give Life in a Day a special impetus if you watch it now. The Edge of Never Did you manage to squeeze in a ski holiday this past season? If you missed out, it sounds like you might need a ski film to get you by during isolation and as the weather starts to warm. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill resort skiing though. This is big mountain skiing and the people who thrive on the adrenaline and fulfilment of conquering the biggest mountains in the world.
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The Edge of Never follows a group of skiers who make big mountain skiing the focus of their recreational hours. In 1996, Trevor Peterson died in a tragic accident in Chamonix. He left behind a wife and young children and his legacy is about to live on in his ski-obsessed son. Nine years after his death, his son Kye makes it his goal to ski the French mountain that killed his father. In developing his skills for this extremely dangerous dream, he skis under the instruction of seasoned skiers intent on helping him achieve his aim. This family story and coming-of-age tale is at its heart a ski story. If you love the unique majesty of the mountains and the unparalleled sensation of skiing, this documentary is one for your collection. It’s full of adventure spirit, profiling the whims that drive these extreme sportsmen and women – making it accessible to all with the right mindset. It is also a touching tribute to the ski lifestyle of a father and the beginning of the next generation of big mountain skiers. Stephen Fry in America If you like you travels a little safer, stay tuned. How about Stephen Fry driving a London black cab across 50 states in the USA? (You can thank me later for the mental picture of Stephen Fry driving along the interstate in a London black cab). This documentary profiles multi-faceted American life and culture through a unique lens. It is imbued with the kind of intelligence one would associate with Stephen Fry. Through his eyes, viewers are given a multi-faceted viewpoint on America unlike any other. Politics, celebrity, gun culture and hunting. Nothing is off limits along the way as Fry unpicks the American way of life. A breeding ground for start-ups and big business, he explores the world of capitalism and the history that gave America its place in the world today. It touches on the national reaction to vulnerability. It gives a new outlook on the all-American life.
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It also showcases a taste of America’s incredible natural beauty. If you have been to America before, you may well come across some recognisable places in this cross-country story. If you haven’t, you will likely feel a surge of familiarity from the world of U.S. cinema and television – football games and mardi gras and cowboys; big foot believers and cheerleaders and bluegrass. Whoever you are and however you like to travel, you will probably find a destination or two that appeals to the traveller in you as you watch Stephen Fry illuminate the New World in a new way. While we all probably feel fairly well informed about the American way of life, you stand to learn something new along the way. Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib In the desert of Namibia, wildlife roams the sands in a landscape which would seem uninhabitable. Adapted to this extreme environment in myriad amazing ways, it is a miracle that life exists at all – let alone that we get a chance to see it. To see a lion in the savannah is amazing. To see a lion in the desert is amazing.
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As their habitats and food sources are threatened, so too is the very existence of these magnificent animals. Indeed, desert lions face an uncertain future as a result of human-wildlife conflict and other dangers. As amazing as the lions is the man who researches them. Philip Stander has devoted his life to these magnificent cats, giving us insights into their behaviour we otherwise wouldn’t have. It is a solitary life of unfettered dedication and he is one of conservation’s heroes. The documentary follows a coalition of five males as they traverse this desert landscape. The dynamics of pride life and the days of lions is fascinating in any setting. The desert sets that on fire. Using dunes for cover, the lions hunt – and they hunt everything from ground squirrels to desert-adapted giraffe in some of the most incredible feats of nature you will ever see. This is one of the most astounding wildlife documentaries – and one which generates much-needed public knowledge around the plight of this handful of lions and African lions in general. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be moved. Prepare to be intrigued by this remote and wild place. Meru If you are a keen National Geographic follower, snow sport enthusiast, or budding adventure photographer, you have probably heard of the men behind the making of Meru. Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Ronan Ozturk come together in this 2015 documentary in the brave attempt to climb Meru.
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For men who regularly climb the world’s highest and most treacherous mountains, one can’t help but be intrigued by the one that gets them worried. That’s Meru. As they set out, they have no misgivings around how they may not emerge from this with their lives. For these climbers, however, there is no walking away from the belief that, if done right, they can reach the top of even an impossible mountain. This attempt to climb the Shark Fin route of Meru in the Himalayas is not the first. However, the climbers’ relationship with the peak is fraught with enough incident to make this a frightful return to conquer more than the physical realities of the mountainside. This is as much about the psychology of extreme climbing as it is about the skill. The footage is fantastic and will make a mountain-lover of most people – if you can get over the trembling, that is. From the bivvy on the side of the mountain as the make the ascent to the anticipation you will feel in every foothold, this is edge-of-the-chair stuff. Why do we set ourselves tasks that test the elasticity of our abilities? If you are looking for a bit of escape during isolation, take a trip to Meru. It is a story of adversity, overcoming perils and confronting fear to achieve something which will be written in the annals of climbing history. Have you seen any of the above? Do you agree with our selection? We would love to hear your own recommendations in the comments.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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  1. I watched the year in Antarctica documentary for a very strange reasons. Our school chef decided to take a Gap Year with a difference. He did a stint cooking down in Antarctica. Since he’s come back he’s done a couple of amazing lectures for our Sixth Form general studies programme. His verdict is “amazing experience but I won’t be doing it again anytime soon.”

  2. “Conquerors of the Useless”, good title. Quite like the sound of that one with that raw, real feel to it. I remember watching a few of the Stephen Fry in America episodes but not all of them, perhaps just the first two? I’ll have to see if I can get back into that as I quite enjoyed it. The first one was where he met Jimmy Wales then we went on to Virginia. I’ve got a soft spot for America so I always like seeing anything related to travel there and Fry makes for a very down to earth guide for his tour, very easy to watch. Good suggestions, plenty to keep the desire alive to get back out there and explore the world hopefully once this current situation is over.

  3. Endless Summer is probably one of the best recommendations I can think of. I don’t think that was filmed with any kind of an idea of what kind of a classic it was going to become. The backpacker documentary sounds like a good one too. It’s not all glamorous and easy, that’s for sure. I’ll have to check that one out.

  4. Aside from watching crime tv shows, I am also fond of travel vlogs and documentaries. It allows me to experience the feeling of being in a certain place even if I am a million miles away. Aside from that, I think I am also able to learn more about the culture, history, and cuisine of a place by watching documentaries. Travel docus are able to feature both famous and hidden tourist spots, which I really like. Moreover, with this pandemic that we are experiencing right now, we are restrcited to travel in so many ways and the variety of travel documentaries, movies, and vlogs somehow help in alleviating our cabin fever and the need to go out. I personally prefer documentaries that feature cuisines and local food places in a certain country or city because it is something that I always look forward to whenever I travel abroad.

  5. Lions are my girlfriend’s favourite animal. I need to sit her down with a glass of wine and the Lions of the Namib documentary. For her that would be the perfect night in.

  6. I’d like to watch A Map for Saturday. You make a good point about stopping and talking to people along the way. Sometimes it’s good to travel alone as local people are more likely to talk to you. It’s by those conversations that you get to know the people and their way of life.

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