Electric explorers: Exclusive interview with the stars of Long Way Up
“The idea for Long Way Up has probably been kicking around since we finished Long Way Down in 2007, because when you do a big and exciting trip you have a comedown afterwards and the way to get over it is to talk about the next adventure. However, with Ewan living in America and me working on other projects we kind of drifted apart, so the real catalyst was my bike accident in 2016.”
Chatting to MCN before the third instalment of the ‘Ewan and Charley travel chronicles’ debuted on Apple TV+ on September 18, Charley Boorman is looking relaxed and happy – a far cry from where he was just four years ago.
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“I destroyed my legs in the accident and when my wife called Ewan to tell him I was hurt, he was about to get on his bike to go to work and he said he actually paused and reached for his car keys instead as he was in such shock. Then he thought ‘Charley wouldn’t like that’ so he took the bike instead.”
“When I heard Charley had been in a horrendous motorcycle accident I was shocked,” Ewan remembers, “but because of that and a subsequent accident he had we sort of found each other again and his rehab brought us closer than ever before.”
Stuck at home with a shattered left tibia and fibula (at one point it was feared he might lose the leg) and a broken right ankle and wrist, Charley’s immobility brought the pair back together and Long Way Up became the target for his recovery.
“Ewan was filming in the UK and stayed at my house for a week, which turned into a month or so and was just like the old days and we reconnected,” Charley remembers. “We caught up with the old crew, directors Russ Malkin and David Alexanian, and the idea grew. But we needed to move the story on, do something different, which is where the idea for electric bikes came from.”
“I always felt that there would be three Long Ways but life got in the way,” says Ewan. “Our lives have changed so much since our last trip, Long Way Down, which was filmed in 2007. We, along with Dave and Russ, all have kids, many of who are going vegan and they talk about sustainability and are quite attuned to what’s going on with our planet. As a result my house in LA has solar panels and I’ve had my 1954 ‘oval window’ VW Beetle converted to electric.”
Unlike their previous trips, where the pair rode petrol-powered BMW GS Adventure bikes, for Long Way Up they chose to ride modified electric Harley-Davidson LiveWires – a brave choice considering the challenging South American terrain.
“Going electric was certainly a challenge,” admits Charley, “but that’s the direction the motoring, and bicycle, world is moving. However, the motorcycle world is behind and while there are lots of electric start-up motorcycle companies, we needed a big manufacturer behind us and a bike that was fit for the job. I’d ridden the LiveWire when it did its prototype tour in 2015 so we approached Harley and asked for a bike with a bit more ground clearance, they said ‘leave it with us’ and they came back with the two bikes we used. When we saw them we just said ‘that’s amazing’ as Harley had really pushed the boat out, but sorting the bikes was the easy part…”
The challenges and advantages of going electric
With the route up through South America from Ushuaia to Los Angeles set, the team now faced the tricky task of getting the logistics in place, as even relatively simple things like importing bikes into the country is made even harder by the fact it is such new technology.
Add the fact that the back-up vehicles driven by the crew were prototype electric Rivian R1T trucks, and it becomes clear that when the pair left on September 19 last year, they had already overcome a huge series of obstacles. But the hardest challenge was yet to come – riding 13,000 miles over 100 days through 13 countries relying only on electric power…
“Most people start in LA and head south, which starts easy and then gets harder, but we went full-on in at the deep end by starting in Argentina. It was so cold that the batteries’ range was instantly reduced so we could only do about 120-130 miles a day and the cold affected the charging,” remembers Charley.
“We hadn’t expected this and it put us behind schedule. We ran out of battery power in the cars and nearly the bikes within the first few days, it was a learning experience. In South America there were no fast chargers, so we had to rely on domestic electricity, which meant plugging in at cafés, people’s houses, everywhere. But that actually made the journey far more enjoyable. When you are riding a petrol bike you only ever stop briefly at petrol stations to throw fuel in, but with electric you have to stop and talk to people as you plug in and wait for it to charge up – so there is much more social interaction, which made it a totally different riding experience. Basically, anytime you stop you get out your charging cable and plug in – even at borders!” says Charley.
“We would knock on people’s doors and say, ‘Look, I know this is an odd request, but do you mind if we plug in?” remembers Ewan. “People were so nice and would agree, and they would show you where the outlets are, and then you plug in and blow their fuses! It happened a couple times and all of a sudden we would plunge these lovely people into darkness. It was so embarrassing to us because people were so generous.”
A different experience
Despite having already ridden around the world and down from John O’Groats to Cape Town, the physical terrain in South America presented its own set of challenges for the pair.
“We always said that 5-10% of the journey is really hard and the rest is just tough on messed up tarmac and dirt roads,” explains Charley, “and the same was true in South America. A few of the roads were really bad, especially in Bolivia. We have been on corrugated dirt roads before but Bolivia took it to another level with a spaghetti-like network of dirt roads, however the pay-off was the fact the scenery was stunning and being on electric bikes we got to experience everything.
“With no engine you can hear the animals, the noise of the trees, people talking in villages, the waves, everything and you feel so connected to nature and immersed in the riding experience. When a petrol-powered bike pulled up alongside it was almost like an invasion of your quiet space.”
“You can really feel the road more as there’s no vibration from the engine,” agrees Ewan. “There’s also the fact that when Charley and I were riding though towns, we could actually speak to each other without shouting. You roll into town quietly and you’ve created a different experience for yourself and the people you encounter. And electrics are faster than a petrol engine, from a standing start the acceleration is immediate and quite staggering.”
“Often it was extraordinary to be in the middle of nowhere and suddenly realise we were on electric bikes,” remembers Charley,” and at first we had a bit of range anxiety. Although I never ran out of battery – Ewan did twice – which is obviously down to talent and throttle control; Ewan is better with a lightsaber than a twist grip…
“That said, with electric every house is a fuel station so it was never an issue, although as Ewan said, occasionally we did overload a household’s switchboard and cause its fuses to blow and the place to be plunged into darkness! And some of the plugs are just so dodgy with sparks firing out as you plug in. But we also had experiences such as in Peru where we descended from 14,000 feet to sea level over a period of three hours and only used 6% battery the whole time.”
Misconceptions about South America
“Before we left I was really excited about Central and South America but also a bit nervous as it conjures up images of drug gangs, Pablo Escobar and kidnappings, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Charley. “Colombia has transformed in the last 10 years and Medellin was one of the coolest places I have ever been, incredibly bohemian and amazing to see, but TV series such as the recent one about Escobar has done them no favours at all.
“Panama, Costa Rica, Central America, Guatemala, they are all stunning and full of interesting characters. And thankfully no testicle soup, in fact the food was so good it was a case of keeping your weight down rather than the food down!”
Watch out for…
Every Long Way series has had an unlikely star, such as crazy Ukraine gangster Igor from LWR, so who should we look out for making an appearance this time?
“There are definitely a few interesting characters we meet along the way,” laughs Charley. “Watch out for the Harley-Davidson fanatic in Panama… But we also did a lot on sustainability and there is one point we actually go to a solar farm and plug in directly, which also highlighted the misconceptions about electric power.
“The farm had huge fencing around it as the owner initially had to put security up as the locals were scared it would reflect the rays and burn the area down but now they understand it their sheep and goats are grazing in the fields alongside the panels.”
The impact of new tech
Fifteen years ago, when the pair did Long Way Round, smartphones didn’t exist and the world was far less connected. How has this evolution in technology affected their adventuring experience?
“We were on iPhones all the time, using them for GPS and also keeping in touch with our families,” says Charley. “This actually enhanced the experience as usually when you go on a long adventure you get home and are so overloaded you can’t remember events or moments and you just say ‘it was good’ to your family. This time we were chatting daily, sending videos, keeping them in the loop and it really helped – although not when two mates called me drunk from London while I was up a mountain in Bolivia at 2am, which broke the tranquillity somewhat!” he laughs.
The same – but different
A huge part of the success of previous Long Way series is the fact that this travel documentary feels like two mates getting out there and enjoying an adventure on their bikes with all the associated problems, trials and general chaos. Does Long Way Up have the same non-serious charm?
“Our wives agree that while we have got older, we certainly haven’t grown up,” laughs Charley. “As with all our adventures we started off with blissful naivety – we had done this before, what’s the worst that could happen, we are experienced travellers and much more mature – and then just muddled through. We don’t make plans, there is no agenda and we just stumble into things – we are just two mates on a road trip making it up as we go along…” So what’s next?
“I’d love to do more and I’m sure Ewan would, too. We spoke about other adventures while we were finishing this one, as we did after Long Way Down. I’d love to do the Darién Gap, which links Panama and Colombia and goes through the jungle. I really hope there are a few more adventures but we will have to see what Apple TV+ say and how Long Way Up is received.”
Exploring the bikes:
Charley and Ewan used two modified Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycles. While the belt drive, electric motor, chassis and battery was identical to the ones used in the road-going production motorcycle, Harley put a Pan America front-end on the bikes and increased the suspension’s travel while also modifying the subframe to allow panniers to be fitted.
They also added a screen, chunky tyres, spoked wheels, crash protection and brush guards. During the whole trip nothing went wrong and they didn’t even get a single puncture!
“We started in Ushuaia in Argentina, which was bitterly cold, and followed the Andes, bouncing into Chile, Bolivia, Peru and upwards. You can tell a country a lot by its wild dogs and in South America they were really friendly, which reflects the attitude of the people who were very warm and open.
“Chile and Peru are super laid-back with amazing food while Bolivia was definitely the hardest riding and Colombia just wonderful for its bohemian attitude. We had to catch a ship (which looked very different to the pictures of the one we were sent with our booking!) to bypass the Darién Gap as there is no road, which involved the bikes being loaded up on planks by six very strong men and was terrifying to watch.
“Central America was probably my favourite part, along with southern Mexico, which was amazing. When we entered America the biggest shock was the fast charging – it took less than an hour to charge the bikes where before it took overnight. It was so exciting, the first time we plugged in to a fast charger, it was like seeing an escalator for the first time – we were transfixed…” Charley Boorman
Long Way Up YouTube trailer released ahead of Apple TV+ debut
First published on 01 September, 2020 by Dan Sutherland
A new trailer has been released ahead of the Long Way Up TV series starring biking best friends Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman.
Lasting just 2:24, the brief clip shows the duo experience everything from the snowy landscapes of Patagonia, to dry deserts and luscious forests – as they attempt to ride from Ushuaia, Argentina to Los Angeles on Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric bikes.
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The first three episodes of the 11-part show will be available globally on Friday, September 18 on Apple TV+, with the rest of the episodes then released every Friday.
The new series will follow a journey of over 13,000 miles across 100 days – taking in 13 countries and 16 border crossings. Following them are directors David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, travelling in the first two electric Rivian R1T pick-ups ever produced.
To watch the series, head to tv.apple.com, or download the AppleTV app.
Long Way Up to be shown on Apple TV+ starting in September, 2020
First published on August 3, 2020 by Ben Clarke
The first three episodes of Long Way Up will premiere globally on September 18, 2020, on Apple TV+ with further episodes released weekly.
Starting at the tip of South America in Ushuaia, the show will see Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman travel 13,000 miles over 100 days on Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric bikes.
With the TV series yet to air, details about the trip have been scarce as Harley attempt to keep the story quiet ahead of the screening. But Hollywood actor Ewan has been discussing the journey on US chat shows which appear to indicate the electric bikes created their own unique problems.
Speaking to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show last week, McGregor revealed that after the electric bikes ran out of charge the duo had to knock on strangers’ doors to ask for help in recharging them and even get tows!
“We went with electric motorcycles because we wanted to be part of that new wave of transportation,” said the Star Wars star, who has previously travelled the globe on BMW GSs with Boorman in The Long Way Round and The Long Way Down.
“It proved to be amazing and quite tricky at the same time. Charging is the issue because there is no real infrastructure for charging in, for example, Patagonia.”
And he added: “We’d just knock on people’s doors and ask if we could plug them in. They let us and we’d camp in their garden and sometimes it would blow the fuses in the house because we had two bikes plugged in at the same time, which was embarrassing.
“The truth is, I got towed a couple of times. I was the only one that ran out. Charley never ran out of juice and he’ll tell you that he is a better rider than me, maybe that’s the case.”
The Long Way Up is due to air later this year. MCN will bring you more details when they land.
Ewan and Charley’s American epic ends final leg with a mass LA ride-in
First published: January 7, 2020 by MCN News
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman have finished their third riding adventure, having ridden a pair of electric Harley-Davidson LiveWires up through the Americas.
The route took them from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Los Angeles, California in the USA. The trip finished in a similar fashion to previous journeys with an invite-only group ride of 40 local riders, stopping off at a Harley-Davidson dealership for a quick charge before making their way to a party in downtown LA.
The duo left Ushuaia on September 19, with long-time collaborator Claudio von Planta riding with them to film their escapades. Russ Malkin and David Alexanian, two producers and directors from the Long Way Round and Long Way Down TV series, followed the trio in a pair of Rivian R1T electric pick-up trucks.
Although the exact route is unclear, including how much off-road the group tackled, the whole journey took them a little over three months.
Speaking to a member of the public at the end-of-the-journey event, Boorman said the charging wasn’t too difficult, although they did sometimes have to rely on locals with generators in the wilder parts of their journey.
Once they got into the US charging stations were apparently plentiful, enabling them to up their average daily distance to 300 miles from around 150 while they were in the south.
For much of the journey they were followed by petrol and diesel-powered vehicles, which ferried battery packs around to keep the bikes topped up.
There’s still been no official word from any of the crew involved, TV channels or Harley-Davidson about the trip, so we’re in the dark as to what was done to the bikes, the terrain involved and also when the programme will air.
However, pictures of the bikes reveal lots of adventure accessories including wire spoke wheels, bash plates and engine guards. The bikes and the riding stars also looked filthy by the end, suggesting some trying times.
MCN expects the show to air sometime in the Spring, while it’s also unclear where. We’ll bring you more details as we get them.
Ewan and Charley’s adventure so far:
Ewan and Charley’s next adventure has begun on electric bikes
First published 18 September 2019 by Jordan Gibbons
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman have been spotted filming their next TV show on a pair of electric Harley-Davidson Livewires.
The pair were first spotted in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in South America along with their cameraman from the first two shows, Claudio von Planta.
A few days later the gang was spotted in El Calafate, around 500 miles up the road, so it’s clear they’re not hanging around.
A bit of insider info suggests that the plan is to head north, zigzagging a little through South America, with Los Angeles as their final destination, roughly 8000 miles later. What is arguably most interesting is their choice of bike.
The trio are riding on a set of specially prepared Harley-Davidson Livewires – the motor company’s brand new fully electric bike. The machines they’re riding have been specially prepared with increased travel suspension, wire spoked wheels (with a 19″ on the front instead of a 17″), dual sport tyres, bigger mudguards, engine guards plus a strengthened subframe with luggage racks.
Based on their choices of bike, we’re assuming the terrain will not be as tough as the routes they took across Europe and Russia, or down through Africa. However planning and running the route on electric bikes will offer its own challenges.
The Livewire has a range around 100 miles, which even with fast charging will limit their progress. It’s also incredibly cold where they are right now, which will no doubt reduce the range, plus the potential off-road pickles.
That also doesn’t even consider the charging time – we doubt there are many DC fast chargers in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, or any of the Bolivian Altiplano for that matter.
Travelling with the group is a support crew, including a pair of Rivian R1T electric pick-up trucks, all of which will no doubt help them charge while on the road. Even so, we’d still expect a trip of this length to take a couple of months.
Long Way Up is go! Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman will film in coming months
First published 18 June 2019 by Jordan Gibbons
Details remain scant at this point, but the project is set to begin in the coming months. The plan’s changed since we last spoke to Charley, however.
“I’m doing Long Way Up for sure, with Ewan,” Boorman said in the video. “We’re doing South America to Los Angeles, so South America, Central America, Mexico and then LA. We’re going to start that in a few months’ time, and hopefully do it, yeah.
“We’ve got a few little surprises. We’re not going to do it traditionally, so there’s going to be a little twist.
“We’ll have done the world, then. Then we’ll just have to go into space or something!”
First published 21 August 2018 by Jordan Gibbons
They have been around the world and down it, but now Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman are planning a new adventure; riding up from the southern tip of South America to the northernmost point of Alaska and filming it for a new TV series set to be called The Long Way Up.
“We are very much in the early planning stages at the moment,” Boorman told MCN. “I’m scared to say too much in case I jinx it, but hopefully it is going to happen.
“We are still trying to figure out how we are going to do it, but I’m so excited about the thought of getting the old team together again.”
Although still being discussed, the likelihood is that the route will start at Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the southernmost tip of South America, and the pair will then ride north to Barrow, Alaska, which is North America’s northernmost city.
This route will see the pair cover in the region of 15,000 road miles, so it is far from a small undertaking.
“It will definitely take a few months, South America is a beautiful continent to ride through so we won’t want to rush it,” said Boorman.
We are all dead keen to make it happen so fingers crossed we will be able to do it in 2019
“It will be work, but it will also be great fun and to do it with the old team of Ewan, Russ Malkin (the producer of the first two adventures), and the rest of the Long Way crew will be fantastic.
“We are all dead keen to make it happen so fingers crossed we will be able to do it in 2019. I honestly can’t wait.”
Another interesting aspect still to be decided is which bikes McGregor and Boorman will use this time, having earlier used BMW GS Adventure models.