James Oxley catches up with Charley Boorman to discuss Long Way Up, a 13,000-mile electric motorcycle adventure through the Americas with his pal Ewan McGregor.
It’s been more than a decade since Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman rode triumphantly into Cape Town at the end of a journey that saw them travel the length of Africa on their BMW R 1200 GS Adventure motorcycles.
The resulting television programme Long Way Down was a hit when it aired in 2007, beaming the joy of adventure biking into the homes of millions of people around the world, and built on the huge success of their original globetrotting journey, Long Way Round.
The boys were riding high. They were the most recognisable faces in adventure biking and managed to bring the niche activity of riding a motorcycle to far-flung corners of the world into the mainstream. The duo could also take at least partial credit for the explosion in the popularity of adventure bikes, with the BMW models they rode regularly topping motorcycle sales charts.
So why has it taken 13 years for Ewan and Charley to reunite for another adventure? The answer is simple. In the years following that arrival in Cape Town, the two friends drifted apart.
Speaking from his home in London, Charley said: “It’s been over 10 years since we did the last one and we always said we wanted to do a third one. Ewan moved to America and we all got busy with our lives, and Ewan and I kind of drifted apart a little bit. Then in 2016, I managed to have a really big motorcycle accident. I really smashed myself quite badly and Ewan and I kind of connected again together.
“I was stuck at home, mostly because I broke both my legs badly, so I couldn’t really get around. Ewan was over here working and he ended up coming and staying (at Charley’s home). He was going to stay a week and ended up staying about a month, so we sort of reconnected again with each other.
“And then we started talking about doing another Long Way and I remember Dave (Alexanian) and Russ (Malkin), our partners who produced Long Way Round and Down and now finally Up, came around for a barbecue. We were chatting and thinking how it would be nice to do another one. Then we came up with the idea of doing it on electric bikes because we’d already done it a couple of times on petrol motorcycles and we thought what are we going to do differently?”
The decision to use electric power rather than petrol came as shock to fans around the world, many of whom assumed they would once again ride BMW’s flagship adventure bike. Perhaps even more of a surprise was the choice bike itself, the Harley-Davidson’s Livewire, a manufacturer and machine not widely known for their adventure travel credentials.
Charley said: “Harley-Davidson really stepped up and made these stunningly beautiful bikes, and the Livewire is beautiful really, it’s a proper motorbike. I think the only way you would explain the standard Livewire is that it would be a naked sports bike. It handles incredibly well and the acceleration is bonkers. It’s like strapping yourself onto the most crazy rollercoaster you’ve ever ridden. It’s just an amazing thing to ride.
“And then they changed the front end, they jacked it up, they jacked up the back, they put panniers on, they made the handlebars higher. They really went to town for us and created what I suppose is the first electric adventure motorcycle, that took us 13,000 miles all the way up through South and Central America.
“I remember sitting there in Costa Rica. We’d come to this huge solar farm, we knocked on their door and asked if we could film and get a charge. We went in and they showed us how the whole thing worked, this big solar farm. Meanwhile, we’d plugged the bikes in and we could see the sun hitting these solar panels and pretty much going straight into our motorbikes. It was so cool.”
Unfortunately, solar farms didn’t line the route, so Ewan and Charley found themselves relying on the kindness of strangers to charge their bikes.
He said: “I don’t think I realised what a journey it was going to end up being. Because it was electric, no-one’s really done a big journey like this, especially in South America where there are no fast chargers. We would literally be relying on going up to people and saying: “Please can we plug in?” So, we would stop somewhere and have some lunch and meet someone, and the first thing we would do is plug into their restaurant or house.
“It was quite interesting but it made the whole show very different. I remember on the last shows, we’d spend quite a lot of time in petrol stations filling up and just hanging out. This time we were hanging out with people more because we were plugging into their lives by plugging into their sockets. It was really cool. A steep learning curve but really cool.”
Charley added: “During the journey, Ewan and I would sit there sometimes and think, whose idea was this? And Ewan would say well actually it was ours! I think this trip felt a little bit like Long Way Round, the first one that we did, where we were heading off to the east and towards Russia, and we didn’t really know what to expect.”
The excitement of striking out into the unknown built to a crescendo at the start of the journey when bad weather repeatedly delayed their departure from the southern tip of the Americas.
Charley said: “We had to postpone leaving because we had these snowstorms going on while we were down in Ushuaia. We really hit the wrong time of year down there. It was so cold it was unbelievable. And finally, we left on this blue-sky day, riding out of Ushuaia on these electric motorcycles thinking right, we’ve only got 13,000 miles to go and three months to do it in. And then you think. what are we doing? This is crazy. It was a real balance of everything and a mixed bag of emotions when we finally left.”
Charley added: “It was great to get out on the road, and for the two of us to ride again together was just fantastic. It was really nice. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed riding with Ewan. It’s tough for all of us. You work all week, you go for a Sunday ride, you’ve got family commitments as well, and life gets in the way. I think that’s what happened to Ewan and I over that 12 or 13 years. Life just got in the way and we just didn’t find the time. And once I had that accident, that’s where we connected again together.
“A lot happens to people in 10 years. Lots of stuff goes on and all sorts of things happen. It’s very rare and very fortunate to be able to get three months to jump on a motorcycle and ride and have that experience with a great mate. They’re very precious moments.”
Despite relishing being on the road together again, there was the small task of riding electric motorcycles through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and up through Colombia, Central America and Mexico, before reaching Los Angeles. I asked Charley if he ever thought he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
He said: “Gosh yes, loads of times, and not just because of the batteries. In Bolivia, it was really tough. We were at very high altitude in the desert, I mean stunningly beautiful deserts, but the roads were all gravel and very sandy and were incredible washboard, corrugated dirt roads. Ewan and I have travelled quite a lot around the world and that was the worst corrugation I’ve ever ridden on. It was bone-shaking and we were right in the middle of absolutely nowhere, so that was a huge challenge.
“That was the only time I really suffered with my legs that were quite painful. I’ve been left with this bad ankle and bad knee from my accidents and that was real boneshaking stuff. Then you become more fearful because you’re much more likely to fall off because of the bad conditions, and then Ewan was nervous thinking, God if he falls off, he’s going to destroy his legs again. So, all this was going on in our minds, and the minute you start thinking like that when riding a motorbike, you start to ride defensively and that’s totally wrong, so I had to keep throwing those thoughts out of my head.”
Ewan and Charley were joined on their adventure by a returning cast of familiar faces, including cameramen Claudio von Planta and Jimmy Simak, along with producers Russ and Dave. However, despite enjoying some support on the road, the pair still faced the challenge of riding 13,000 miles across some of the most remote and inhospitable landscapes in the world in just three months.
Charley said: “I think you can always have more time. I remember Ewan and I met this one guy. He was riding down through South America, we’re coming up, and he had a year and a half to do this. He said he’d already done four months and he wasn’t even out of Central America yet.
“I don’t think it matters how much time you have, you never have enough. It was a challenge some days, especially in the beginning when it was very cold and the bikes weren’t doing as many miles as we thought. There was the adjustment of learning the technology and getting used to it and getting used to being back on the road again, packing up and moving every day. It takes a little bit of time to settle into that rhythm.”
Settle into that rhythm they certainly did, and in December 2019 they found themselves arriving in Los Angeles and the end of their journey. I asked Charley why they didn’t continue north through America and Canada, all the way up to Alaska?
He said: “On Long Way Round, we’d done Canada and Alaska already, and then I suppose you’ve got to finish somewhere. When we finished in Los Angeles, we had this big gathering with friends and family and my daughters came out to LA and met me at the end of the trip with my wife. Ewan just loved the idea of having that big party at the end, when we had loads of friends riding in on bikes, and then at the end of the party, he just jumped on his adventure bike and rode home.
“He said it was so bizarre. He got home and he just parked up the bike and went inside, slept, and then the next morning woke up and there was his motorbike that he’d ridden to his doorstep, which was very cool.”
With the third instalment of the Long Way series hitting our screens last year, it could be seen as the natural end to a trilogy, or have Ewan and Charley got another journey up their sleeves?
Charley said: “Long Way Down Under, that would be nice! When you finish a big trip, in order for it to be ok to finish that trip, you always talk about another one so that somehow in your mind it’s easier to finish this one because you know you’ve got one in the bank for later. So, I would love to, I’d love to do something. We often thought about doing a couple of shorter ones as well, rather than spending three-and-half months on the road, we’d spend a month and just do a small area. So, we might do that, you never know.”