The return of Ewan McGregor and his Harley is exactly what we need right now

Long Way Up is the third of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s long-distance travel-doc odysseys by motorbike
Long Way Up is the third of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s long-distance travel-doc odysseys by motorbike Credit: Apple TV+

You can imagine the conversations in the production company offices over the past few weeks. To release, or not to release? To promote, or not to promote? After all, there are surely more convenient moments to unleash a new travel documentary than the middle of a pandemic, when many borders are closed and quarantine windows are a risk to any trips that actually can be done.

But equally, there is an argument which says that there is no more fortuitous a month to uncork a series that depicts an odyssey across two continents than September 2020. You have a watching public hungry for escape, even vicariously – and if you want to make a journey look wild and adventurous by visiting places that few can see for themselves in the current circumstances, then there is no time like the present.

Perhaps the latter angle of discussion carried the room. Because today has been chosen as the date to premiere Long Way Up – the third of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s long-distance travel-doc odysseys by motorbike. This time, their direction of travel is north, forging across the jungle-clad, mountain-spined torso of South America, from the remote (in terms of geography, at least) start-point of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina – towards an eventual finishing post of the US and Los Angeles.

Even written down as a single sentence, that sounds quite the expedition – a 13,000-mile, 13-country, 100-day road marathon, ridden between September and December last year, which necessitated, as it must, a passing-through of landscapes as varied as Patagonia, the Atacama Desert and the hard ridges of the Andes. A route which rolled across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia – then on, into Central America and Mexico.

In a very specific sense, this is new territory for McGregor and Boorman. In another, it is a continuation of a theme. These old friends have embarked on two “similar” journeys in the past – a grand foray from London to New York across the full width of Europe and Asia which was broadcast as 2004’s Long Way Round – and the follow-up, 2007’s Long Way Down, which traversed the whole of Africa, finishing on the beach at Cape Agulhas, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans collide, at the corner of the South African coastline.

The pair in 2007's Long Way Down Credit: bbc

Now, if you are so inclined, there are reasons to roll your eyes at the idea of this pals’ act being wheeled out for a third trundle across our televisions. You may be firmly of the opinion that the last thing the planet needs in this unsettling year is a Hollywood star and his mate indulging their explorer fantasies on custom-made Harley-Davidsons. And you might well look at the fact that the series will run on Apple TV+, and regard it as part of a land-grab by a tech giant determined to expand its remit into every area of our lives – via the trusty method of throwing a celebrity at us, and hoping we all sign up enthusiastically.

You might well have a case with the latter line of thought; less so with the former. Prior evidence has shown McGregor to be a sympathetic narrator and a happy traveller – clearly as much (if not more) at home amid the oil changes and engines of a trans-continental road trip as on a Star Wars movie set. Yes, there is a support team behind him (and often in front – their difficulties, from visa issues to 4WDs stuck in sludge tend to be as big a part of the story as the hard miles driven by the two men with their names on the posters), but in both Long Way Round and Long Way Down, there is never a sense of a cosseted actor fake-smiling through staged scenes, then retreating to his trailer. Instead, McGregor is seen relishing the bumps and scrapes of life on the highway, his hair a bit more ruffled by the day, the beard a little more unkempt. Boorman, meanwhile, is always an engaging foil, garrulous and funny; far more than a sidekick to his more famous chum.

Those two previous series were also thrilling viewing, bringing with them an air of danger that, even though you know that the trip reached its destination, leaves you concerned that everyone on screen will survive a specific situation without blood and bruises. While all travel documentaries tend to have some element of hazard, the Long Ways have traditionally dealt in something a touch darker than Bear Grylls wobbling on a ledge, or Michael Palin rushing to make a ferry connection in Around The World In 80 Days (a wonderful piece of televisual artistry that is still rightly considered a high water-mark of the genre). Witness the part of Long Way Round where McGregor and Boorman accept an invitation to visit a Ukrainian stranger’s home – only to realise that he and his “companions” are local gangsters, with a weapons arsenal to match. Or the problems at the border between Tunisia and Libya in Long Way Down, where the American members of the production crew are refused permission to cross, and the two motorbikers have to battle on through what was then still Colonel Gaddafi’s realm without their support team. 

Libya Credit: getty

Long Way Round in particular also covered “unseen” ground. The sixth episode, where the pair struggle (very much the correct word) along the “Road of Bones” remains one of the most gripping and unsettling pieces of travel-documentary-making ever committed to camera. This is the 1,262-mile highway between Nizhny Bestyakh and Magadan in Far Eastern Russia – so-named because it was built in the Thirties and Forties by labour-camp inmates while Stalin was in the Kremlin. Up to a quarter of a million of them are deemed to have died during the construction, their bodies being buried under or next to the camber, where they fell. The show distils it into one remarkable hour – broken bridges; rivers of breached banks and frighteningly strong currents; high-piled snow drifts; wheels wedged in deep mud; a road surface which seems to vanish at will (if it ever existed); an all-round nervousness, visible to the viewer, betraying the crew’s fear that things could go very wrong, very far from home. That the Road of Bones “enjoys” an episode to itself – the same amount of time devoted to the easy freeways of Canada and the USA in the final section of the series – says much about the drama of that particular stretch of the journey.

Whether or not Long Way Up will produce the same levels of tension – after all, 16 years have passed since Long Way Round was made; a long time in an era of health-and-safety – remains to be seen. But it certainly has the scope to be exciting. Many of the roads of the region are pot-holed and perilous, and a glaring obstacle looms large in the middle of the itinerary – the Darien Gap, the land-bridge between South and Central America, where the Pan-American Highway runs out amid sticky swamps, dense rainforest and (historically) guerrilla activity. This, surely, will provide spells of compelling footage – where, unusually in this troublesome year, the worries are entirely someone else’s to deal with, but the places captured in pixels will provide travel dreams for later and safer times.