Ewan McGregor settles back into his chair and cheerfully announces that "for three and a half months, we were Geographical", It's a lofty claim, but having just completed a 30,395-kilometre motorcycle trek, together with fellow actor and friend Charley Boorman, it's one that he seems entitled to make.
Wandering among the maps and boxes that clutter the garage that served as headquarters throughout their expedition, both McGregor and Boorman seem very much at home. And from talking to them it quickly becomes apparent that, despite the subsequent TV programme, book and attendant razzamatazz that company a movie star doing pretty much anything, their journey wasn't a vanity project.
Both McGregor and Boorman are enormous motorbike enthusiasts, and their trip sprang out of that passion, as did their friendship, which began on did their friendship, which began on the set of Serpent's Kiss in 1997. "I think the first conversation we ever had was about motorbikes," Boorman explains. "Just like every conversation since," adds McGregor. Boorman smiles. "I don't know what we'd talk about without them," he says.
This shared love soon sparked the notion of a trip together, and although their initial plans were modest, the idea quickly began to pick up a pace of its own. We started out thinking we might ride across Spain," Boorman explains. "Then we thought we might go across China. One day Ewan rang me up and asked me to come over because he'd had an idea. I arrived and he had a world map out. He suggested we just carry right on to the Bering Strait." And so Long Way Round was born.
Of course, a great deal more planning was required before the pair were-able to hop on their bikes and hit the road. It may have looked straightforward on paper, but the trip would mean travelling over some extremely inhospitable terrain. Boorman remembers their gung-ho attitude only too well. "Back then, with no real planning, we thought it would take us about three-and-a-half months in total, although most people doing a trip this size would probably take a year to do it, and perhaps another year to plan." Having done a little more research, they quickly realised that they couldn't do it alone, and decided that enlisting a production team and creating a series around the journey would be the ideal way to gain the help and support they would need.
Once the production team was in place, thoughts turned to the reality of life on the road. Despite his Hollywood credentials, McGregor is no stranger to roughing it, having completed two previous documentaries that placed him firmly in the wilderness; he travelled to northern Canada to observe polar bears in their natural habitat and into the jungles of Honduras with survival expert Ray Mears. Boorman, on the other hand, was a little more reticent about the idea of sleeping outdoors. "I'd had a bad experience camping before," he muses. "Really, I'd look for any excuse to get out of it, but the further we went, the worse the hotels became and the harder it was to find one. One night we were 300 kilometres from the nearest town and it was five o'clock. What else can you do?"
According to the doctor travelling with the support crew, his fears weren't entirely unfounded. The pair travelled through Kazakhstan during a period of high spider activity and later camped in areas where scorpions and bears were a very real concern.
Now safely back in London, Boorman admits the experience was worth it. "You'd have some food, settle down, stop and look around ..." He pauses for a moment as he remembers. "It was stunning."
For McGregor, camping was just an added bonus. "It wasn't really about the camping," he says. "That was a means to an end, but it was good to be able to stop anywhere--it saved us the hassle of having to find somewhere, check in and everything. And no-one's going to come along and tell you that you can't camp here. In Mongolia, the land doesn't belong to anyone."
This experience was in stark contrast to the trip to the south of France that McGregor took with his family shortly after his return. "You just look at all these hundreds of tents, fenced in, and you think, 'What?'"
Camping also offered a welcome respite from some of the unwanted media attention that the pair received along the way. Their first night in Kazakhstan was a prime example, ending with the actors being escorted by police to an impromptu press conference. Exhausted after a long day's riding, nothing could have been further from what either man wanted.
And the press weren't the only ones interested in the pair. Even in areas where both were entirely unknown, people remained intrigued by them and their mission. Boorman was surprised by the response. "Particularly in Mongolia, everyone was really interested in us," he says. "They'd never heard of us, but they wanted to know all about our bikes and what we were doing."
It was Ray Mears who introduced McGregor to the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) during the planning stages of their jungle adventure. The Society was to prove equally useful while preparing for Long Way Round. "We spoke to Shane Winser in the Expeditions Advisory Centre and spent some time down there, looking at maps," says McGregor. "It was really sweet of them and very useful, although she gave Russ [Malkin, their producer] a real grilling." Boorman laughs at the memory. "I think she wanted to make sure we had the right man for the job--that he knew what he was doing, had thought everything through, considered communications and everything else necessary," he says.
When asked what he found hardest in terms of preparation, McGregor admits that the off-road motorcycle training was a real shock to the system. "I realised my limitations," he confesses. "And these are really big bikes. That was probably my lowest point."
Despite any concerns, McGregor and Boorman handled their bikes admirably, even learning how to do emergency patch ups by the side of the road. However, not everyone came into the expedition with as much prior proficiency with motorbikes as they had, and both were hugely impressed by cameraman Claudio von Planta's efforts. "If there was one real hero on this trip it was him. He's an amazing guy," says McGregor. "He lied to us, told us he had 25 years of experience with bikes. He had, but on a Vespa. But he did a really good job." Boorman agrees. "The harder it got, the more he smiled," he says. "Yeah and the harder it got, the less he fell off, which was rather annoying, really," concludes McGregor.
Once the planning was complete, the team set off from their base in southwest London in April 2004. Taking the Channel Tunnel to Calais, they travelled across France to Belgium, through Luxembourg and Germany, then on to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Ukraine, where they were to encounter their first real setback. As they weren't carrying the originals of their vehicle registration documents, the Ukrainian border guards were loath to let them pass. McGregor remained philosophical in the face of bureaucratic adversity. "It was our own fault," he says. "We didn't have the proper documentation and were only carrying photocopies, so they were perfectly within their rights to stop us." Faced with an indeterminate wait, he curled up in his sleeping bag, lay down in some scrubland and attempted to sleep. "We had heard of people being stuck for a week," he continues, "and this was our turn. It was exciting more than anything and we were lucky, because we had a lot of help from people out there." So much help that, eventually, the border guards had to relent. Boorman puts their capitulation down to ennui. "I think in the end they just wanted to get rid of us. They held us there for 12 hours and then it only took us three minutes to get out."
Once over the border, they carried on to Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia, Alaska and Canada before arriving in New York, their final destination, in late July. Along the way, the pair saw some awe-inspiring scenery and wrestled with the inevitable hiccups that come with riding in areas so remote there were no roads. They slept where they fell--by the side of the road, in the houses of hospitable strangers (including one rammed to the gills with guns) and in remote hotels. It was the ride of a lifetime and both men had tears in their eyes as they finally rode into New York.
Rough though the trip may have been, it certainly hasn't put either man off motorbikes or the prospect of travelling off the beaten path in future. Both have decided to try to help UNICEF, whose projects they visited along the way, whenever possible, and McGregor is all for showing his family some of the wilder sights he saw along the way. "I'd like to fly to Mongolia with my family--just pack up some of those heavy grey boxes," he gestures to the corner of the room, "with food and equipment, fly them over, load up a 4x4 and you're away." As he talks, he becomes more excited by the idea of heading off-road with his children. "Daddy, what's that?" he mimics, enthusiastically hoiking an imaginary steering wheel around. "So yeah, I've already been thinking about that."
When asked if the expedition has altered their relationship, Boorman doesn't hesitate. "We only see each other for these things now," he states, deadpan, looking down at the long list of interviews to come. But it's clear that this couldn't be further from the truth. They're very much at ease with one another, finishing each other's sentences as we talk. Caught in a rare serious moment, Boorman explains it easily: "Our personalities complement each other." McGregor, on the other hand, puts it down to a healthy respect for each other's personal space. "We were seeing the same things, but everybody experiences things in their own way. And we were very good about that--making sure we got our own space to experience it all." But, he concludes, "you just can't go through something like this and not get closer".
* The DVD of the Long Way Round TV series is available now (17.99 [pounds sterling])
Chasing shadows around the globe
14 April (0 kilometres): After months of preparation, Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor set out from West London (Pic 1), spending their first night in Brussels before riding to Nurburg, Germany, to pay a visit to its famous Ring racetrack. 16 April (1,355km): By day three (and already into their fifth country), the pair are in Prague, having reached the Czech capital in one day instead of the scheduled two. There they meet up with the documentary team. From this point on, the pair are regularly joined by cameraman Claudio von Planta on an identical motorcycle. On the way to the Slovakian border, they visit the World Heritage-listed Punkva caves in the Moravian Karst. 21 April (2,158km): It takes 14 hours of negotiations to enter the Ukraine (Pic 2). In Kiev, they visit the UNICEF-supported Chernobyl Children's Hospital. Their progress is slowed by police throughout the trip. One unusually helpful policeman, however, leads them to a flamboyant gun- and guitar-toting Ukrainian mafioso whose hospitality is as unnerving as it is genuine. 27 April (3,912km): At the Russian border, the pair pull wheelies at the behest of the excited guards before setting off for Volvograd, followed by Astrakhan (Pic 3). 1 May (5,006km):The pair enter Kazakhstan after crossing a river in the Volga delta by car ferry. There they realise that they are closer to Prague than they are to their next major stop: Almaty. The chances of maintaining their 200-mile-a-day (322km) goal seem slim, given the deteriorating road conditions. 12 May 17,958km): After visiting a UNICEF rock-climbing centre for socially deprived children in Almaty, they head for Charyn Canyon, the Valley of the Castles. 16 May (9,619km): Re-entry into Russia. 29 May (12,021 km): Enter Mongolia via a locals-only checkpoint and set out for Ulaan Baatar. They must detour around Lake Achit because of flooding: "Like wanting to cross Leicester Square and having to go via Wales." (Pic 4) Later, Claudio crashes, breaking a rib and his motorcyle, which must be replaced. Then a support vehicle crashes; no-one is injured. In Ulaan Baatar, they visit projects to help street children. 8 June (8,803km): From Chita, they take a train to Tynda. 14 June (9,566km): They arrive in Yakutsk. 29 June (17,278km): The new highway between Chita and Khabarovsk is partially complete, but the roads then become almost impassable. It takes almost four weeks to cross Siberia and reach Magadan. They follow the Road of Bones from Khandyga and must cross many flooded rivers. (Pic 5). 1 July (21,309km): Fly to Anchorage, Alaska, where forest fires threaten their trip (Pic 6). 8 July (22,608km): Enter Canada. In Kluane National Park they take a plane flight over the ice fields, which are grey from Gobi Desert sandstorms. 14 July (24,890km)" Arrive in Edmonton and then head for Calgary the next day. 17 July (25,194km): Enter the USA at Libby, Montana. Ride through South Dakota and Wisconsin over six days to Chicago (Pic 7). 29 July (30,395km): On day 107, the pair arrive in New York City (Pic 8). The 5,565km flight to London completes their around-the-world mission. In all, they travel 35,960km.
Preparation is open road
Shane Winser from the RGS-IBG Expeditions Advisory Centre talks about her role in the planning of Long Way Round
What does the Expeditions Advisory Centre do?
We provide advice, information and training to anyone planning an expedition. We're particularly interested in people doing research projects overseas, but our remit is extremely broad and we also work with school expeditions, helping teachers get people into the outdoors. We run workshops and seminars, including Explore, which is a gathering of about 250-350 people who come and listen to lectures and go to workshops to help develop their expedition plans.
What kind of advice do you offer people?
If you're a first-time expedition planner and you want ideas on how to raise funding--and that's usually most people's first question--you can look at previous expedition budgets to see how much they cost and who provided the money. Someone might make one call to ask where they can buy a mosquito net, or where they can get vaccinations, and just use us for one specific piece of advice. However, most people make appointments early on and come and chat, which is what happened with Ewan and Charley.
How did the RGS-IBG become involved in Long Way Round?
In some ways, Ewan was the perfect customer, because he rang up and said, "I'm thinking of planning a journey, can I come and talk to someone about it?" He and Charley came in and we chatted about why they wanted to do the trip. I picked up on the fact that this was something that they were passionate about. It soon became very clear that they were motorbike fanatics, so I suggested some names of people who'd done long motorbike journeys and they'd already read the books. They were very well informed.
However, there were particular parts of the journey that they weren't so well informed about, and they wanted to know about particular routes. They were originally going to go across the Bering Strait, and we had a couple of really good reports from people who had made Bering Strait attempts, very detailed route plans. We discussed the situation in Siberia at the time and the poverty there and whether it was appropriate to take a camera crew. Also, although they wanted to do the distance, perhaps they didn't really want to be pushing motorbikes through the mud.
They looked at the expedition report collections, but the mapping room was closed, so they couldn't look at detailed mapping. However, I suggested where they could buy maps and introduced them to people who I thought could help.…