Trekking through the Amazon, embarking from Canada as the first to drive to the magnetic North Pole, road tripping through Botswana and even riding through Chernobyl; it may sound like the best travel show you’ve never heard of, and that’s because it’s not a travel show at all — it’s Top Gear, a British program about cars.
The hosts — Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond — are car MacGyvers and automobile enthusiasts who drive and review virtually anything with wheels, along with the show’s anonymous racecar driver known only as the Stig. Airing in its current format for more than 10 years, the BBC show primarily features cars you could never dream of owning placed along the winding roads of drool-worthy backdrops such as the Amalfi Coast or the dunes of Abu Dhabi.
Clarkson could be considered the Anthony Bourdain of car shows (with May and Hammond just as cheeky) for those unfamiliar with the Top Gear concept. Their clever devil-may-care personalities, impressive knowledge and adventurous spirit lend themselves well to British banter and thrilling test drives, but even better to their globe-trotting (er, driving) episodes.
Though there may be other challenges peppered throughout, most seasons culminate with a special that inevitably flings the trio across the globe on a daunting journey in seemingly preposterous conditions. They make eating bugs or snakes with some remote tribe look like a cake walk. Typically armed with a tight budget and a ridiculous set of conditions, they forge ahead to find the source of the Nile or retrace the pilgrimage of the three wise men. In Bolivia, the motoring threesome bought second-hand off-road vehicles and navigated them to their mechanical limits across jungles and hair-raising hairpin turns on what’s known affectionately as Death Road. They then attempted a risky ascent into Chile across Guallatiri, an active volcano. This was thwarted by altitude sickness, but the footage they took was spectacular.
This season’s two-part finale takes place in Myanmar (Burma), and the Top Gear camera crew was granted access to remote areas of the country — a first for any television crew. The challenge: to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand and then drive across it. Along the way they gave viewers a first-time glimpse into the world of the Shan — an area of Myanmar larger than England and Wales combined with just one road built 150 years ago, no electricity, no hospitals and no planes overhead. Still in the midst of a 60-year-long civil war (the longest-running in the world), the Shan is unveiled as a lush, untouched stretch of otherworldly earth, with a reclusivity that gives it a mystique rarely found in today’s hyper-connected universe.
I was initially worried about making it through an hour-long British TV show about cars, but I’ve walked away each time laughing and actually learning something — not just about the coupes, convertibles and caravans, but about the countries the hosts drive them through. I’ve discovered that you don’t have to tune in to the Travel Channel to find travel; you can find it in the most unexpected places. For me, that sweet spot is Top Gear. Think of it as armchair travel with an engine.
— written by Brittany Chrusciel