“Sticking to the code of the Top Gear brotherhood, I left James and Richard behind.” — Jeremy Clarkson
TOP GEAR – Bolivia Special (2009 BBC, 76 minutes)
I wanted to review an episode of Top Gear that had something to do with music, which isn’t hard since so many rock and pop stars from Ronnie Wood to Ed Sheeran have been on the show. My favourite recurring Top Gear gag involved tormenting Richard Hammond with Genesis music, whom he despises. Specially, the song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” from Selling England by the Pound is frequently played as torture. I chose the Top Gear Bolivia special to review as it is especially funny, breathtaking and interesting through its entire length. I realized though, that the Genesis gag was not used in this special, thus negating any real music connection in this review (aside from James May’s nickname “Ted Nugent”). So, here is the Genesis track, and I’ll review the episode anyway!
Skip to about 1:30 to hear Hammond’s “favourite” part
The challenge: Each man must purchase a car for less than £3,500, sight unseen, from a local Bolivian website. They are advised to buy four-wheel-drive vehicles, to take them from a river in the middle of the Amazon, to Chile and the Pacific coast. It is a 1000 mile journey through jungle, desert, and bad roads. The most dangerous road in the world, in fact — the infamous Death Road.
Jeremy Clarkson chose a Range Rover classic, Richard Hammond a Toyota Land Cruiser, and James May a Suzuki. They are sent to the start point of the journey by boat, but the cars have not yet arrived. The three are like fish completely out of water. James May is not an outdoorsman, Hammond is afraid of insects, and Jeremy is allergic to hard labour. They are, according to Clarkson, “the three worst explorers in history”, and they have been dumped on a riverbank in the middle of nowhere.
May: “Since we didn’t know what to do, we sat down, and did nothing.”
The cars are sent to them by barge, with no apparent way to offload them to land. Immediately it’s obvious that the guys may have bought lemons. May’s car isn’t in the advertised colour, but worse, has no air in the tires. Clarkson’s doesn’t have the engine it was advertised to have, leaving him with a less powerful 3.5L. Hammond’s Toyota has been customized by hand into a convertible!
The Range Rover scores an early victory, when they use it to pull Jeremy out of the mud that he was standing (and sinking) in. Much to everyone’s delight, the car actually started! It is the Toyota that fails to start, an embarrassing beginning for the diminutive Hammond. The following day, they figure out how to get the vehicles off the barge, on the ground, and running more or less properly, but it’s good fun watching them learn by trial and error! It takes three days of hacking and slashing with machetes through the jungle, just to get to a road. Clarkson is pleased to have bought “the only 1980’s Range Rover in the world, that works.” Though he can’t say the same for any of his gauges.
Hammond on the other hand says that he has “bought the only malfunctioning Land Cruiser in the world.” He has no brakes, and no gauges. May’s Suzuki is small but sturdy. Through it all, the three are always entertaining, picking on one another and always looking for an advantage. They are quick to mock the Range Rover when it is first to break down (a piece of bamboo through the fan, destroying it). Clarkson will have none of criticism, calling the Range Rover “the hero of the day”, and rightly pointing out that it was the Rover that got the other two off the barge.
Clarkson: “We passed the time by bickering, until the engine cooled down.”
Breaking down, getting stuck, it’s all in a day’s pay for the Top Gear three. Through it the audience at home gets to see the innards of the Amazon in sparkling hi-def. The jungle is beautiful, vibrant, and dangerous. Roads come to sudden ends, rivers appear in the middle of nowhere, and the insects are always biting. Mishaps are constant. Clarkson accidentally sets fire to Hammond’s soft top while cutting vents in his own hood to keep his engine cool.
The biggest visual spectacle is the infamous Death Road, on the way to La Paz. This road, which claims hundreds of lives every year, is best described as a little notch carved into the side of a cliff face. And it’s the only highway between the Amazon and the major hub of La Paz, which means sometimes cars have to pass each other on this one-lane strip of dirt. Breathtaking, terrifying…and James May is deathly afraid of heights.
As per usual, the men customize their vehicles, when they finally hit La Paz intact. They must prepare for a desert journey through one of the driest places on earth — where it has never rained, and nothing can survive. (“Richard Hammond was the smallest living organism for miles.” — Clarkson.) For desert traction, Clarkson and Hammond raise their vehicles and install larger tires, but this does not turn out to be the advantage they hoped for. May, meanwhile just repaired his car (a faulty alternator) rather than change it. But they can’t handle the lack of oxygen at 16,000 feet above sea level and are forced to turn back, and take a longer route to the Pan-America highway. The Toyota suffers numerous breakdowns, while the Range Rover, “the world’s most unreliable car,” is the most reliable. As for the challenge, it remains gripping right to the end. It could have been anyone’s race.
In the end, I think Jeremy Clarkson said it best:
“It is incredible to think that these cheap cars, bought unseen on the internet, had crossed the Amazon rainforest. They’d scaled the most dangerous road in the world, and they’d still been working when their drivers had broken down in the Andes.”