To the casual observer, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman might seem like grade-A gluttons for punishment.
After all, over the last four years, the two actors have ridden across the majority of the globe, through countries not exactly known for their plush accommodations. In 2004 the two rode and camped literally around the world–eastward from London through Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the U.S.–for a documentary film and book titled Long Way Round. More recently they rode BMW R1200GSs south from the upper tip of Scotland to the lower tip of Africa, pretty much by themselves and without the massive support crew you might imagine. The 10-part documentary of this latest trek is called Long Way Down.
Despite the logistical challenges, safety concerns and tough terrain of these grueling, multi-month journeys, Boorman and McGregor absolutely love the adventure and challenge of it all. And, like many of the rest of us, they would happily take off again tomorrow if they could somehow shake loose the three to six months necessary for trips of this nature.
“Traveling aboard motorbikes is just intoxicating,” Boorman says. “Ewan and I just love it.”
You’ve likely heard of 37-year-old Ewan McGregor, motion picture veteran, acclaimed theater actor and the man who played the young Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, the broke-yet-romantic writer in Moulin Rouge! and heroin addict Mark Renton in Trainspotting. McGregor has also appeared in such films as Black Hawk Down and Big Fish.
Boorman, 41, is less-known cinematically, but has plenty of film credits to his name, including his first role as “Ed’s Boy,” Jon Voight’s character’s son in Deliverance, a film directed by Boorman’s father, John. He has appeared in more recent films, including Excalibur, The Emerald Forest, Hope and Glory and others.
Born in London in 1966, Boorman grew up in Ireland, spending much of his childhood riding dirtbikes. He started early on a 50cc Honda mini, quickly graduating to larger motocrossers on a nearby track in a friend’s yard. Of the two, Boorman is the more accomplished rider, something McGregor acknowledges without hesitation. “Yeah, Charley’s better,” he told us with a grin.
McGregor didn’t get aboard motorcycles until later in life, but lusted after them from a young age, understanding deep in his gut even then the freedom and independence they represented. His first bike was a 100cc Honda learner bike, which he bought early in his acting career. He’s been at it ever since, riding as often as possible and even starting a collection of older motorcycles he finds fascinating.
The two met on the set of 1997’s The Serpent’s Kiss and quickly realized they shared a serious two-wheeled addiction. They rode together constantly, on road trips and at track days, quickly becoming fast friends. Within a year, they’d joined forces to support a British road-racing team whose rider, David Jeffries, won the 1998 Superstock series. Over the next several years the seeds of wanderlust began to germinate, and soon the idea to ride around the world took shape.
Long Way Round, the trek itself and the highly acclaimed book and documentary that followed, was the result. “The question was never what form of transport to take,” Boorman told us. “It was just which motorbike we’d take!”
Boorman’s experience in Africa during the 2006 Dakar Rally opened his and McGregor’s eyes to the idea of a north/south trip, and the idea for Long Way Down was born. “Ewan met me at the finish of the race,” Boorman told us, “and I could see he was taken by the scene–the team trucks, the culture, everything.”
“And after 30 seconds or so,” McGregor adds, “I told Charley, ‘We’re doing this!’ And that was it.”
Long Way Down is an intense, wondrous documentary, one that chronicles a fantastic motorcycle journey every bit as well as it covers the amazing cultural and geographical landscape that is Africa.
American Motorcyclist spoke to the two rider-actors recently about their motorcycle documentaries—Long Way Round and Long Way Down—and what makes them tick in a two-wheeled sense.
On how they first got into motorcycling
Ewan McGregor: I first saw a bike in a shop window in Perth, a few miles from where I was brought up. I took music lessons there. One night we stopped nearby for something, and in the window was a small bike, a 50cc Honda, I think. It wasn’t new, but it was a proper bike, not a scooter. In Britain at the time, you could ride a 50cc bike when you were 16. And you couldn’t drive a car ’til you were 17. So for a year it gave you independence. But more than that was Susan Williams, a girl I wanted more than anything. She and I had gone out previously, but her current boyfriend rode a bike. So I wanted a bike bad! It would give me freedom, and I thought it would get me Susan Williams back!
So I asked my mum and dad. I started daydreaming about starting it and riding to school. I was 14 or 15. God, it was like someone had turned a light on. It was amazing to think of being able to ride somewhere by yourself. My parents ended up saying no. But it was too late. Riding was already alive in my mind. But I still didn’t get a bike. I moved to London to attend drama school, and while there I talked to a buddy back home who had an old scrambler for sale for fifty quid, in pieces. I thought I’d bring it back to London, then rebuild it and ride it. It was knackered, and I couldn’t make it work. I was 20, and working, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I just get a bike?’ So I went to a bike shop on my own and bought a 100cc Honda learner bike. I’d never ridden a motorbike at that point! But I knew where everything was, and it took me five minutes to figure it out. Everyone from the shop came out to watch. I’ve been riding ever since.
Charley Boorman: I was 7 the first time I rode a motorcycle. It was one of those 50cc Honda monkey bikes (Mini Trail or Z50 in America—Ed.). When you’re young, you have a fascination with those things. But it wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 that my friend Tommy Watchford, who lived up the road, let me ride his Maico 400. I couldn’t hold it up myself, but he put me on it, got it started and pushed me off. I rode around this field and fell off. And I was hooked for life! I rode lots of dirt bikes growing up. We lived in the country, and a friend next door, his mum built him a motocross track, so we rode there a lot. So much fun.
On how motorcycles fit into their daily lives
CB: When I moved to London I rode everything–-dirt bikes, streetbikes, anything with two wheels. Even today, I ride every day. It’s the only way to get around London, really.
EM: I ride as much as I can, but not as much as I’d like. The trouble is, being an actor, you’re often not allowed to ride a motorbike when you’re under contract for a movie. In London, I ride to get around. When I was working in the theater recently, I rode a bike every day. Theater contracts aren’t as strict; they don’t mind so much. It’s the easiest way to get around by far. When I’m here in Los Angeles, I ride probably 50 percent of the time. It’s easier to use a car in L.A. My biking here is more for fun than transport.
On where the sense of wanderlust comes from
CB: My father, probably. He was a film director, always traveling the world, so I was always moving along with him. So I always had that need or want [to travel]. When I started doing films, it was always based on going somewhere else. I’ve traveled ever since I can remember.
EM: When I was in Australia for a film, I bought a Harley Softail. The director somehow got them to allow me to ride during the filming. During Easter break I was going nuts, so I bought a tent, stuck it on the Harley and took off for five days—just a complete detox of the mind. I slept on farms and under the stars. Got back and felt much better on the set. After that I started taking more trips. Just stopping and putting up your tent is incredibly freeing. For me, I think that’s where it all comes from.
On the genesis of their trips
CB: Ewan and I met on a film and started talking about motorbikes right off. We ran a race team, took trips, did track days. Then we started talking about doing a longer journey. The question was never what form of transport, just which motorbike we’d ride! The decision to ride bikes was made before we even thought of the idea (for the book and documentary), and those came about because we couldn’t afford to take the time off.
EM: When we started prepping for the trip, we talked about which bike. Charley was mad for KTM’s new 950 Adventure. I felt the BMW R1150GS was perfect—stable, wide, powerful, strong, the right bike for the job. Charley wheelied his out of the car park when we first tried them out. He’s a better rider than me. KTM ended up making the decision for us by saying no to our request.
On the challenge of being together for so long
EM: Charley and I are close, and we hadn’t seen each other much since the first trip ended, so it was good to catch up. I think it’d be hard to spend that much time with anyone. You’re bound to get on each other’s nerves a bit.
CB: You have to be mates. And you have to decide from the beginning that you’re going to be good together. It’s all about communication. It’s the same as a marriage or a relationship. It’s all about communicating. You’ve got to be patient, and as long as you communicate, you don’t have a problem. Obviously, you pick a friend. Pick a stranger and you might end up thinking, “Uh-oh!”
On what they learned about long-distance traveling
CB: The importance of planning. Knowing where you want to go. Preparation is everything, especially when you’re crossing borders; have all your visas arranged. Otherwise you waste time trying to get into a country when you could be in that country. You need to optimize the time you’ve got, because most of us don’t have the luxury of taking five or six months off.
A good sleeping bag and tent are also key. I always go Gucci on these items, whatever they cost, because getting a decent night’s sleep is so important. It makes everything easier. And eating—it’s important to eat right and regularly. If you’re going along, and it’s all a bit difficult, and the guy in front of you is going too slow, and you’re thinking, ‘Come on, get on with it!’ then you should probably stop and realize that you haven’t eaten since breakfast, and it’s 3 o’clock. And take a lot of baby wipes. They really come in handy.
EM: Take less! Always, always, always! Look what you’ve got and half it.
On their most thrilling moments
EM: Great moments for me are when the riding comes together. Like, when I finally learned to deal with sand, in Tanzania. I finally got it, finally figured out what Charley was trying to tell me. That was a good moment!
CB: What impressed me most of everything I saw was the people. The most enjoyable place was Mongolia ( in Long Way Round). It was just beautiful, but really difficult to get around. On Long Way Down, Ethiopia was amazing.
On threats to motorcycling
CB: I think we just need to encourage young people to get on motorbikes. I think motorcycling is in a fairly healthy condition.
On your motorcycling heroes
EM: Racers. Guys like Barry Sheene and Steve McQueen. I didn’t really follow racing until Valentino Rossi came on the scene. I love the old stuff…McQueen, ’60s-era wax jackets, etc. I love the book 40 Summers Ago, which covers the year McQueen did the ISDT. He apparently worked in a local shop changing tires to get ready for the event…people would come in and the shop owner would say ‘yeah, Steve will sort it out,’ and it’d be Steve McQueen working on your bike! Amazing, that.
On overcoming the fear of the unknown
CB: A lot of these countries are nowhere near as bad as you think. Every country you go to, the people are just like everyone else. Whether it’s Russia or Georgia or Chechnya or wherever, people are just people. They want their kids to go to school. They want a job. It seems that the less people have, the more friendly they are, the more willing they are to give. In the “civilized world,” people are less willing to do that.
The funny thing is, I was never really scared. There was the odd moment where you’d look at a guy and think, “Oh, am I going to be mugged here?” but you’d get that feeling at home, too. That’s the thing.When you’re in, say, the Czech Republic, and people ask you where you’re going, and you say “Kazakhstan” and they go, “Ohhh. Dodgy place, isn’t it?” And then when you get there it’s as nice as any other place. And it’s like that all the way until you get to Russia. There, they asked where we were going, and we’d say, “the U.S.” And they were like, “Can we come with you?”
EM: During prep for our Africa trip, people would scare us to death. But our experience was just the opposite. People were really helpful. No danger. Really lovely. Africa’s got an unjustified rep. Darfur, yeah, there’s been trouble there. And in some other places. But it’s a huge country. The media have a responsibility. For me, the unknown is what makes it really exciting. Your senses have to be attuned to surroundings. You’re always making judgment calls, going on your instincts. When picking somewhere to camp, you have to ask, are we far enough from the road, too close, etc.?
On anyone doing a trip like this
EM: Yeah, a big trip is totally doable for anybody. So long as you’ve done the prep and paperwork, you can go anywhere. But you don’t have to go around the world to have a great experience. You can do California, or Mexico.
CB: Absolutely. The hardest thing to do is get the time. Pick a date and stick to it. If you’re good friends, and seven of you want to do it, then do it. If only two people want to do it, then two works. I don’t think it really matters. I would never travel on my own. I’d find that really boring. I guess I’m not quite happy with my own company!