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Ewan McGregor on ‘Long Way Up’: ‘Just two guys on our bikes having a good time’

The Hollywood star and his best friend, adventurist Charley Boorman, talk about their new docu-series that chronicles their 13,000-mile biking adventure from the tip of South America to to Los Angeles

With the world currently in such a precarious state battling the pandemic, even the idea of a bike ride to the neighbouring town seems unlikely. But rewind to last September, and these two best friends acknowledge how lucky they were to get the chance to go on a 13,000 mile adventure (well, their third), just before life as they knew it changed forever.

Actor Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Trainspotting) and television star/ adventurist Charley Boorman first met on the movie sets of Serpent’s Kiss in 1997, and quickly hit it off with their shared love for motorcycles; the beginning of a friendship that’s grown over two decades and counting.

Two television docu-series followed: Long Way Round in 2004 (London to New York via Eurasia and North America), and Long Way Down in 2007 (18 countries in Europe and Africa to Cape Town in South Africa), that chronicled their adventures and bromance together.

It took them 12 years to plan their next trip — with work, family and accidents getting in the way — and finally in September 2019, the duo started out from the city of Ushuaia in Argentina, at the tip of South America, through Central America, to Los Angeles in the US.

Moreover, this time around, they were using cutting-edge technology: two prototype electric Harley-Davidsons to contribute to the sustainability of the planet. Also joining them on the trip were their longtime collaborators, directors David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, following them in their electric Rivians.

On a Zoom call from the US, Ewan and Charley are excited as can be, waiting for their third adventure, Long Way Up, to premiere on Apple TV+, as they recount their latest journey.

How it all began

Ewan explains that they initially got the idea to travel throughout the world on motorcycles from London-based journalist Ted Simon.

“Ted wrote this beautiful book, Jupiter’s Travels, about riding all over the world for four years. And, because Ted was not a devoted biker, his story is not about the bikes and technical stuff. Instead, it’s about the experience of what the world was like at that time. And even though Charley and I are clearly devout riders, we wanted all our ‘Long Way’ trips to have the flavor of that book,” he says.

Going electric — with a little help from friends everywhere

Their biggest challenge this time around — as they went through the likes of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and up through Colombia, Central America and Mexico —was, “Where do we charge these bikes when we’re in the middle of nowhere in South America?” says Charley, adding, “In the early 1900s, there were no petrol stations to speak of and people had to be exacting when planning their trip. And until an infrastructure comes about, it’s about the same scenario for these electric motorcycles.”

The friends used two prototype electric Harley-Davidsons on the trip to contribute to the sustainability of the planet

Eventually, Harley-Davidson rigged the motorcycles so they could be charged from a normal electrical outlet. But on occasions when they weren’t near a charging station but somewhere on the local electrical grid, it was a highlight for the duo to meet locals, be invited into their homes, and request them for help. “These bikes were the conduit to us meeting a completely different sort of person because we were plugged in to their homes,” says Charley.

Being recognisable faces all over the world, did they face any problems while interacting with the locals? “Not at all! We just travelled as two guys on bikes, having a good time. Our last two shows had become somewhat popular, and lasted the test of time. But we had no idea what would happen this time around, that’s the beauty of it,” replies Ewan.

Obi-Wan Kenobi in town

He recounts one memorable incident when things got a little out of hand: In Guayaquil, Ecuador, when the bikers decided to take a detour to see a monument atop a hill. “Out of nowhere, people turn up with Star Wars things to be signed! We only realised later there happened to be a Star Wars fan event. Finally, we were in a restaurant mobbed by people waiting to click pictures,” laughs Ewan, who played the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Other highlights included crossing to Puntas Arenas where to visit the Parque Pinqüino Rey Natural Reserve (home to the king penguin) riding up the Andes Mountains, the Atacama Desert and up through Bolivia, Peru (with a visit to Machu Picchu), and getting close to the Massya volcano in Nicaragua and experiencing an unforgettable sunrise balloon ride in Mexico.

Being UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors, the duo also visited the organisation’s projects in Bolivia, Peru and Honduras where the children are refugees or victims of gang violence.

“Charley and I are both dads and we both have always been impressed with UNICEF and the work that they do since we first visited their projects. It was just sort of life-altering meeting the kids who are either suffering from warfare, or poverty; or in Africa, having lost massive amounts of adults to HIV and AIDS. What UNICEF does for these children is amazing,” recalls Ewan.

A slice of luck

Finally, Charley acknowledges how lucky they were to have planned Long Way Up before the pandemic: “We finished our trip on December 18, and rolled into LA. We all went home, celebrated Christmas, and then the world changed as we knew it! We were able to carry on with the editing and post production, and get the show out now. It’s really hard now for people who miss travelling; maybe this show can give them some joy and inspire them to travel once things calm down and invent their own adventures.”

Ewan signs off saying, “We seem to be going across the world; we haven’t got to India yet, but looks like we gotta do it next!”

The first three episodes of Long Way Up will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, September 18, and new episodes will roll out weekly.


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