Fans of actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman will be delighted to learn that they have embarked on a new epic motorcycle trip. In conjunction with Apple TV+, we sat down with Boorman to discuss their latest series, Long Way Up, which follows the pair crossing 13 countries and two continents from the bottom of South America through Central America and up to Los Angeles on electric motorcycles.
The pair became best friends after meeting on the set of The Serpent's Kiss in 1997 and discovering a shared love of motorcycles. They turned that passion into epic adventures that inspired their popular television series, Long Way Round in 2004, and Long Way Down in 2007, also directed by David Alexanian and Russ Malkin.
When Charley suffered the first of two serious motorcycle accidents in 2016, he needed over a dozen surgeries and lots of permanent titanium to help him to physically recover. He also needed some spiritual healing, so Ewan suggested that embarking on another “Long Way” adventure might do the trick. The epic trip covered 13,000 miles and took 108 days, and Charley loved it.
"Ewan is a wonderful person to travel with, and we’ve been friends for ever such a long time,” he tells Lonely Planet. “The opportunity to jump on bikes again and do what we love was such a great thing. Getting on the back of a motorcycle is something really special, and when you get out and ride, you can often forget about everything that's going on and just think about the moment you're in. It was a wonderful experience to share with Ewan."
As they journeyed through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to end in Los Angeles, Boorman and McGregor rode on prototype electric Harley Davidson motorcycles that had not yet hit the market.
They decided to travel by electric bike as they were keen to explore technologies that reduce our carbon footprint and help wean the world off its dependency on fossil fuels. One challenge was that the Harley-Davidson LiveWire bikes needed to be charged every 150 miles (241km) at charging portals that often weren’t physically in place along their chosen route.
On previous adventures, Ewan and McGregor worried about finding petrol stations in time along the way, and on this latest trip, running out of charge was the principal concern. “We had an added element of adventure because the infrastructure isn't quite there yet, so it gave it a nice edge,” says English TV presenter and actor Boorman.
One helpful aspect was that Harley-Davidson rigged the motorcycles so they could be charged from a normal electrical outlet. Then Rivian, a company that develops electric adventure vehicles, supplied two all-electric test vehicles to carry the crew, supplies and camera equipment. They also aided in coordinating the installation of charging infrastructures at points along Ewan and Charley’s route, typically at small hotels or stores. They left the charging stations behind after the adventure to benefit future travelers.
The 108-day adventure ended on 18 December, and Boorman acknowledges that they were fortunate to have finished filming prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We came back and the world changed,” he says. “We had to send the editors home with editing suites and it was a real challenge, so I’m absolutely delighted that we’re sitting here today having managed to get the series out."
Luckily for us, they succeeded, because while many of us are grounded and the world is only opening up for others, we can live vicariously through Ewan and Charley’s adventures. The latter says that while they traveled through many incredible places, one country in particular captured his heart. “We had the most amazing experiences in each country we’ve been to, but I was really blown away by Costa Rica,” he says. “When we rode in, there was such a nice vibe from the people and I loved the place."
He was particularly impressed by the country’s commitment to renewable energy, and enjoyed visiting a solar farm there. “We plugged our bikes in, so while we were being taken around on the tour, we were getting energy straight from the sun, which is supercool,” he says.
What made arriving into a destination on bikes special for the pair, as opposed to arriving by car, was getting to experience its sights and scents without a barrier or the distraction of a radio or traveling companion. “Coming out into the open land and prairies in Argentina was extraordinary,” Charley recalls. “When we pulled into the side of the road, there were llamas dotted around, and because the bikes didn't make any noise, they kind of just hung out with us. Seeing your first indigenous wild animal is always extraordinary.”
One of the most exciting parts of any vacation is sampling local dishes, and this trip served up some “pretty amazing” food to the hungry bikers. Recalling that they struggled to find good food at times on previous trips, Boorman highly recommends that foodies should check out Mexico, Central America and South America. “Argentinian food is legendary and you have all these open barbecues, and the food in Peru, with its big Japanese influence, was extraordinary,” he says.
Meeting local people was a real high point for Boorman and McGregor, and they found that zooming in on the electric bikes generated a lot of interest. Locals were very happy to come over to say hello and help them out, even though plenty of them hadn’t a clue who the two stars were. Dare we ask if that was a bit of a blow to their pride? “No, because I have a great wife and children who make sure that having an ego is impossible,” Charley laughs.
As the route they took is a favored “backpackers’ route,” the bikers met all sorts of people doing similar trips. “They were doing it on different budgets and in different ways, but all of them were having that wonderful experience,” he says.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Lonely Planet, and have a stack [of the guidebooks] at home from all of the countries I’ve been to. There is always someone looking at the Lonely Planet books and thinking, “Where shall we go now?” It's a great mind-opener to see different languages and cultures, and you don't have to go to far-flung places to experience it.”
The bond between Boorman and McGregor has always been one of the most appealing aspects of their epic adventures, and even though it has been 12 years since their last big trip, they found that they just picked up where they left off. While Charley jokes that Ewan is the worst rider - mainly because he’s not present to defend himself - he says that they make TV shows together because they both adore travel, adventure and riding motorcycles, as well as experiencing new places and people.
As every traveler knows, spending several months on the road with the same people can be challenging, but Charley and Ewan manage to make it work. "When you’re traveling together and spending all your time together, you're going to have your ups and downs, of course,” says Charley. “Some days you wake up on the wrong side of the bed and you're grumpy, or you haven’t been able to get in contact with your family at that particular time. Ewan and I seem to have a situation where when one person is down, the other person is often in a good mood and they can bring that person up again, so it's a really nice sort of balance.”
Encountering challenges and complications on the road can be tricky at the time, but these situations usually make the best stories with which to regale friends when you return home. Charley fondly remembers the things that went wrong and the slightly difficult bits, such as miscalculating how long trips would take and arriving in late at night, freezing cold, as a result.
“When we were in Bolivia, it was some of the toughest riding we’ve done,” he says. “It was all deep sand and corrugation on the dirt tracks, so it was really challenging at the time. I was wishing I wasn't there, but these are the things you laugh about afterwards and remember very fondly.”
“If you’re sitting there and it's all starting to get a bit difficult, you look at Ewan and say, ‘This is hard work,’" he adds. "And he goes, ‘Yeah I know, and whose idea was this anyway?’ And then we remember that it was ours!’”
The first six episodes of Long Way Up are available now on Apple TV+, with new episodes released weekly, every Friday. We've also plotted some of our favorite stops along the show's route in Apple Maps.