Nick Rufford reports as the trio go on an eye‑opening journey of self‑discovery.
If you want to see evidence of suspected climate change, turn not to the Arctic but the waterways of Indochina. The region's main river system, once teeming with fish and the lifeblood of its rice fields, has been reduced in parts to weed-choked marshland. The waters have always receded here at certain times of the year, but this is more than seasonal drought. Boats lie marooned in dried-up lakes and aquatic wildlife has vanished. Worse, these are home to millions of peasant farmers and fishermen.
Their plight is revealed in a new television programme fronted not by Sir David Attenborough but by Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond. On that bombshell, as Clarkson might have said, the world's most famous motoring trio turn eco-warriors. There's no hand-wringing; the presenters chug unashamedly through gallons of boat fuel on an 800km journey from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Vung Tau at the mouth of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. But their journey is as revelatory as any nature documentary and all the more compelling with Clarkson at the helm. "The irony is not lost on me," he remarks as his boat struggles to gain speed in a once-mighty lake reduced to the depth of a puddle. "A man who hosted a car programme for 30 years, limited to seven miles an hour [11km/h] by global warming."
It's a voyage of self-discovery for Clarkson, who concludes that signs of apparent climate change are "alarming". As the trio struggle to navigate their way to the sea, it also becomes obvious that the damage isn't going to end while Asia hurtles along a path of turbocharged growth.
Some of the havoc is brought about by drought and some by water shortages from a string of hydroelectric dams built to bring electricity where there is none —a reminder, if any were needed, that on the other side of the world there are millions whose priority is not the end of the world but getting to the end of the week.
"Greta [Thunberg] hasn't got any answers," says Clarkson. "'Ooh, we're all going to die.' Right, tremendous. Now go back to school. But I genuinely hope people are working on what on earth to do about it."
This is the first episode in a new-style series of The Grand Tour, the shinier, more expensively produced car show that grew out of the BBC's Top Gear. For once, though, cars seem to be more a menace than the main attraction. At one point, when the three go exploring inland on pushbikes, Clarkson is almost flattened by a driver. "Bloody car," he shouts. "You maniac." "Madman," yells Hammond, though with obvious glee at Clarkson's close shave.
The three-men-in-their-boats voyage begins in June when the rains ought to have started but haven't. You used to be able to set your watch by them. Water should be lapping at the front doors of fishing shacks. Instead, the homes stand on stilts high above a dry lake bed. A jetty from which the trio had planned to launch their boats leads across sun-baked earth.
All of this is observed with wry humour and sympathy by the presenters, who set about the practical task of finding somewhere to put their craft in the water. For fans of the old-style show, this is where the fun starts.
Clarkson has brought along a jet-powered, military-style PBR (patrol boat, river), as used by US troops in Vietnam. Hammond is behind the wheel of a Florida powerboat. May is at the helm of a dainty wooden 1930s motor cruiser called the Lady Christina ("The kind of boat Prince Charles was given as a boy to play with in the bath," observes Clarkson). The three helpfully provide four-wheeled analogies: Hammond's boat is a Chevrolet Corvette, Clarkson's a Mercedes G-Wagen and May's a Rover 90. Clarkson might have added that in his mind he's in Apocalypse Now, Hammond is Crockett from Miami Vice and May is starring in The African Queen.
At one level it's a romp. Hammond — noted for his mishaps during past adventures, including crawling from a crashed electric supercar just before it burst into flames — struggles to steer his boat in a straight line. "At least on water it'll be harder for him to set himself on fire," mutters Clarkson.
On another level it's unsettling. Everywhere they go, the frenetic pace of life speaks of a headlong rush towards environmental blight. Paddy fields where children once rode buffalo are disappearing under urban sprawl. Modern road bridges span a river the colour of oxtail soup, while water "lorries" head upstream with supplies for the construction boom. Phnom Penh, once a low-rise city of cyclos and shacks, is now bristling with skyscrapers.
Does it seem incongruous that they are messing about on what's left of the water? Yes, but it's better that they don't wear their hearts on their sweaty T-shirt sleeves. Unlike the invisible narrators of serious-minded documentaries, they at least share in the discomfort of the locals.
"There was no water in the Tonle Sap Lake," recalls Clarkson, talking about the challenges they faced during filming on Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. "You could paddle in it. So the boats just didn't work. Well, Hammond's and May's didn't. Mine did because it had jets. But theirs just didn't. So we had two days of frustration — being towed, and grounding and snagging nets."
One night, the three try to sleep in a floating town whose residents have been forced to move from the shrunken lake's dried-up shores to the mosquito-infested shallows nearer the middle.
"We had the worst night of our professional lives," says Clarkson. "The heat, the mosquitoes, the noise of the generator. The dogs. The cockerel that started at 4.26am. And I know that people are going to say: 'But where did you really stay?' And I'm going to have to hit them with a crowbar because we really did stay there."
There are some moments of genuine pathos. Clarkson has obviously boned up on the region and its history and relates how Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge followers brutally rid the country of intellectuals. The purge left a lasting scar. "Twenty-five per cent of the Cambodian population was wiped out. Anyone who could speak a foreign language or had soft hands or wore glasses — anyone remotely intelligent — had to be killed. If you haven't seen the movie The Killing Fields, please watch it. Please. You'll get an idea from that of the horror."
It's a warning that climate change can't be solved by reversing economic progress, and that radical environmentalism could slip into something more sinister. Pol Pot's avowed aim was to defeat elitism and restore an agrarian economy.
When the trio is forced to eat cooked grubs harvested from the dregs of a lake depleted of fish, Clarkson declares — only half-joking — that this is the daily diet that could await Britain. "When we've got socialist Britain, when we've got [Jeremy] Corbyn, this is what we're going to be eating."
Naturally, the accident-prone Hammond comes a cropper, although audiences are spared the unpleasant details of a serious illness that, but for super-strength antibiotics, would have ended the trip. Open sores on his legs became infected while he was wading in fetid lake water to unsnag his boat's propeller.
There's plenty of schoolboy humour. Clarkson and May paint a rude name on Hammond's boat that he fails to notice, even as he takes it through Vietnamese immigration checks. Clarkson's craft is nicknamed BoMa — a contraction of "boat machine" — which turns out to mean something even ruder in Vietnamese.
The funniest bits, though, are spontaneous. The trio goes shopping in a Cambodian market. Clarkson buys deodorant and applies it to one of his armpits. When the container is empty, he orders a second can from the giggling stallholder for the other armpit. Towards the end of the journey, his patience snaps with a moaning Hammond and he yells, Basil Fawlty-style: "If I still had 50 cals [50-calibre machine guns] on the front of this boat, I'd open up on you right now."
The scenery, some shot by drone, is spectacular, and there are upbeat sequences, including Clarkson's joy at finally reaching a broad stretch of river in Cambodia. Opening the throttle of his PBR, he whizzes along to the strains of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son, evoking the waterskiing scene in Apocalypse Now. "If anyone had told me when I failed my A levels that one day I'd be driving down the Tonle Sap River in a PBR, I wouldn't have believed them," he declares jubilantly.
Warning: Trailer contains language which may offend some
Eventually, after numerous crashes into piers, bridges, other craft and — of course — one another, the trio makes it to the mouth of the Mekong Delta. Ahead of them lies a normally calm stretch of the South China Sea — albeit a busy shipping lane. But, mid-crossing, drought turns to deluge and they are hit by an unseasonal storm — a further indication that something's up with the climate.
Gale-force winds stoke towering waves and they are tossed around among giant freighters. It was "beyond brutal", Clarkson comments when he arrives in port, windswept and shaking. "The hardest thing I've ever done."
Later he reflects: "The sea was so rough it bloody nearly sank a camera boat. Four fishermen drowned right next to where we were. We were lucky to escape with our lives." Seventeen years of working together hasn't dimmed the bromance between the presenters, even in times of evident discomfort. "We've spent so much time on the road together that we know broadly what the other one's going to say," Hammond observes afterwards. "I'm not saying we're finishing each other's sentences, but Jeremy knows how to set up a gag for me, and vice versa."
What the audience will want to know is: were the three convinced that mankind is bringing about its own destruction?
"Clearly something is going on in terms of global warming," says May, reflecting. "But we don't take sides. We don't do the full Greta. I don't think we're going to be invited on any marches." Likewise, a thoughtful Clarkson confesses: "It's the first time I've had a graphic demonstration of global warming, and you go, 'Jesus Christ, that is really alarming.'"
Clarkson, Hammond and May's The Grand Tour Presents… is on Amazon Prime Video on December 13.
Drinks are on me at my old watering hole
Where's Jeremy Clarkson's favourite watering hole? A country pub near his Oxfordshire farm? A swanky bar in Notting Hill? No, it's the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) in Phnom Penh, writes Nick Rufford. In the film, he waxes lyrical about the times it was both a refuge and a playground for weary hacks: "Back in the day, when Cambodia was a troubled nation, this is where all the foreign correspondents used to meet for a drink — the FCC. They'd come in here with guns they'd found, get absolutely slaughtered and just shoot guns from balconies. They'd have clay beer-bottle shoots, but with AK-47s. Then they'd file unbelievably good copy."
As Southeast Asia correspondent for The Sunday Times in the 1990s, when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were still on the loose, I can testify that the FCC was surely the world's most comforting hangout, though I never shot an AK-47 from the balcony. During filming for The Grand Tour, Clarkson and co hit upon the fact that old Cambodia hands, as we were known, had cocktails named after us at the FCC bar. So Clarkson spent an evening drinking Ruffords — a mixture of gin and absinthe strong enough to ease the tedium of hot nights waiting for a phone connection to file copy to London. It all seems long ago, a time when drinks, and rivers, flowed freely.
Written by: Nick Rufford
© The Times of London