Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman take on South America: ‘It really pushed us to the limit’

“It’s a long time coming,” notes Ewan McGregor of his reunion with fellow actor and motorbike enthusiast Charley Boorman – 12 years to be precise.

Following on from the success of 2004’s Long Way Round and 2007’s Long Way Down, the pair’s new Apple TV+ series, Long Way Up, documents their adventure across some of the remotest regions of South America.

“We’d always thought about doing this third trip,” says McGregor. “When you look at a world map, we’d gone directly across it and we went down through the African continent, so there was this glaring other route through the Americas that was left to do.

“Charley and I had drifted apart somewhat over the years since we did Long Way Down, due to the fact I’d moved to America and Charley was very busy – he’d shot some other television shows and he was doing a lot of touring with other people on motorbikes. So, when I was working in London or I came over to visit family in London, Charley was often just not there. There was no fallout or anything, we just sort of drifted apart.”

It’s often said a near-death experience can act as a catalyst for change. In the case of McGregor and Boorman, it was a freak accident during a European trip that acted as the trigger for a long-overdue reunion.

Scottish star McGregor, 49, first rose to prominence in Danny Boyle’s cult classic Trainspotting and subsequently starred in blockbusters including Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker and DC Comics’ Birds Of Prey. Similarly, Boorman, 54, who is also a travel writer, has released a string of books documenting his adventures both on and off his motorbike, including Extreme Frontiers and Right To The Edge.

“Charley had a very terrible motorcycle accident in Portugal and it reminded me you can’t let these important friendships in your life drift, and you’ve got to look after them,” says McGregor. “As soon as I was able to, I got to see Charley in London and then we picked right up where we’d left off.

“It was like no time had passed. Poor old Charley was wheeling around; it took a long time —  he had an almost two-year recovery from that accident, which was really brutal.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(L-R) Charley Boorman, Ewan McGregor (Courtesy of Apple TV+/PA)</figcaption>
(L-R) Charley Boorman, Ewan McGregor (Courtesy of Apple TV+/PA)

The accident in question took place while on a press trip celebrating the launch of the new Triumph motorbike. The near-fatal encounter saw Boorman career into a wall in an attempt to avoid an oncoming motorist. “It was touch and go as to whether I’d keep one leg,” recalls Boorman. “Thanks to the doctors, I did and I’m able to ride motorbikes again. But for me, it was always about my therapy — and my physiotherapy was all focused on the fact I needed to get back on that motorbike and have that freedom.

“I think that happens to a lot of people who ride motorbikes. Ewan broke his leg just before starting Long Way Down and I’ll never forget, I was in the warehouse and Ewan turned up with his plastic boot on, hobbling in. He goes, ‘Hey, I’m just taking the Sunbeam (motorcycle) out’. And I said, ‘It’s a bit early, isn’t it?’”

Armed with a rekindled desire to get back in the saddle and set forth on a new adventure, plans for a third instalment of the Long Way series quickly fell into place. “It wasn’t long before we were sitting in Charley’s house with [our producers], and we started dreaming up this Long Way Up trip,” McGregor recalls.

Conversation then turned to the potential for swapping traditional petrol-fuelled motorbike engines for a greener alternative. The idea? To put renewable energy to the test in some of the most remote regions on earth. “When we decided to go electric, I don’t think we wanted the electric motorcycle to get in the way of the adventure; we wanted it to be part of it,” says Boorman. “They were all prototype vehicles that weren’t really in production or weren’t up for sale, y’know? We didn’t get much of a chance to be able to test them.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(L-R) Charley Boorman, Ewan McGregor (Courtesy of Apple TV+/PA)</figcaption>
(L-R) Charley Boorman, Ewan McGregor (Courtesy of Apple TV+/PA)

“When we finally got to South America to start our journey, I think Ewan and I had only ridden the Harley Davidsons for a couple of hours and we’d never really charged them. So, it was a really steep learning curve for all of us.”

There began a series of challenges brought on by the continent’s dramatic terrain and diverse weather conditions. “We started in the winter, which was not such good planning on our behalf,” recalls Boorman. “We realised the batteries don’t like it when it’s very cold, so they don’t perform as well.”

Technical difficulties aside, the freezing temperatures proved no match for the pair’s steely determination and wicked sense of humour. “When it gets tough is when we get our funniest,” notes McGregor. “There was one night when we had real issues charging the bikes… we did our first long ride into the night, and it was super cold — I mean it was sub-zero. We put on every single piece of clothing that we had. We were just surviving on the bikes.

“At that point, we just ended up getting so stupid — because we can speak to each other through our helmets, we’ve got radios in there — that’s some of the funniest stuff, I think, because we were just literally keeping each other going and it becomes almost hysterical.”

The adverse weather conditions, coupled with the newly rekindled friendship, saw the trip transform into an extreme bonding experience. In particular, a wide stretch of Bolivian desert, which proved “some of the hardest riding I think that we did on the trip. It really pushed us to the limit”, recalls Boorman. “I’d fall off and suddenly Ewan would be there helping me up and vice versa. It’s very nice to know that your best friend has got your back and is there to pick you up — it’s a very special relationship.“

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