Tune in, switch off - Getting the hump

11th September 2009 at 01:00

How do you get 300 camels to travel in convoy when they are freaked by the camera crew? The answer came thanks to Kate Humble on The Frankincense Trail (BBC2).

Our eager explorer, costumed in yellow so bright that she resembled an ice lolly, was covering 2,000 miles over seven nations and delving into 3,000 years of history. Albert, the herdsman, had the answer to the camel problem, deploying mobile phones and a vehicle or two.

Meanwhile, Kate had her own challenges, having to model a full-length abaya, the traditional overgarment worn by women in the Islamic world. She was going to meet a prince, so naturally she had to wear her best frock. But in fact, the suffocating discomfort of the veil reduced her to tears - partly because of the physical strain, but mainly because women are compelled to wear it.

She also collected some resin, which has the power to cure depression, nose bleeds and wrinkles. And we discovered that frankincense used to be worth more than gold. Her 90 kilos at #163;300 would have been a year's salary for your average Roman. My theory is that they burnt it because they were desperate to conceal the camel pong.

In Yemen, Kate saw camel-jumping, which is used to keep young men at peak fitness. The winner managed a five-camel, two-metre-high leap. I can see us scrapping the long jump and spicing up our sports days with a similar event. Dartmoor pony-jumping, anyone?

Dr Adam Rutherford was also in hunting mode in The Cell (BBC4), trying to discover the secrets of life. His fossilised microbes were 1 billion years old. That makes me feel young, at least. We went into the toxic soup kitchen to watch scientists trying to create living cells from scratch. It looked to me like milkshake in a blender. If they succeed, it's going to be (drum roll) a "second Genesis". Professor George Church, from Harvard, explained the crucial process at the heart of all life - reading DNA code and carrying out its instructions. And I thought the most important job was bringing my wife her morning mug of tea.

To show how close we were to this miracle breakthrough, Rutherford took us to San Francisco, where we met scientists who had altered bacteria so that they ate sugar and excreted pure diesel. Looking like the mad inventor in his white coat, he used the liquid to power up his generator, proving the fuel was "ultra-pure". So just wait till this energy drink hits the supermarket shelves. No need to keep that jerrycan of reserve fuel in the boot. If only we could teach camels to do that with their food, even the price of frankincense would drop.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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