02 long way up show ewan mcgregor
CNN  — 

Riding a prototype electric Harley-Davidson LiveWire through the Calchaquí Valley in northwest Argentina, the actor and avid motorcyclist Ewan McGregor waxes poetic into a microphone inside his helmet.

“I just love seeing Mother Nature like this, watching the land change as we go by. It’s really touching me, and what I was looking for in terms of feeling closer to the world, the Earth, appreciating the beauty of it as we ride along.”

His close friend and partner on the road – Charley Boorman, a fellow actor turned journeyman writer and TV presenter – is similarly moved by the scenery. The two have been close friends since meeting on the set of the 1997 film, “The Serpent’s Kiss” – which must be watched, if only for the wig work.

For “Long Way Up,” which debuts globally on Apple TV+ on September 18 with the first three episodes, McGregor and Boorman reunite to ride 13,000 miles from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to Los Angeles, California.

They traverse 13 countries, zigzagging between Argentina and Chile, then northward through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, up through Central America (Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala), then finally into Mexico and ending in Los Angeles, California.

Away they go

Previous iterations of the episodic documentary series were “Long Way Round,” an eastward journey from London to New York City in 2004, and “Long Way Down,” a southward odyssey from John o’ Groats in Scotland to Cape Town in South Africa, in 2007.

“Long Way Up,” takes the two best friends and their returning crew on a slightly truncated trip north following a route along the fabled Pan-American Highway.

Within the first three episodes of this series, the duo visit:

Parque Pingüino Rey in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, at the tip of South America.

– The Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, which rises above turquoise glacial waters.

– Salta in northwest Argentina to take the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) – one of the highest in the world at almost 14,000 feet.

The visuals satisfy an increasingly unbearable wanderlust that has become more acute during this year of coronavirus lockdown.

The test of time

Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman take on a 13,000-mile e-bike journey in the Apple TV+ series, "Long Way Up."

Why now, after a 12-year hiatus, did the duo decide to return for a third run?

In a video interview with CNN Travel, McGregor explained, “We drifted apart somewhat. Charley had a terrible accident and was very badly injured. I realized we share something that I don’t share with anyone else. To let that friendship dwindle or drift, I realized, was a mistake. And so we found each other again and decided to do this trip.”

Portions of Boorman’s recovery from the horrific accident are shown in the first episode of “Long Way Down.” These snippets show how dedicated Boorman was to getting back on the bike and how important it was for him to do this third trip.

“When I was getting a little bit better, and Ewan came to London to stay with me … we started chatting about that third trip that we really wanted to do. It’s very rare that you get that period of time to hang out with your best buddy and ride motorbikes. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.”

Electric groove

Apparently, after completing two epic motorbike adventures, the two felt they needed an additional challenge. They decided the “Long Way Up” would be an electric voyage – a way to see the world without aiding its decay.

That meant electric bikes (Harley-Davidson supplied prototypes) that could withstand myriad environments – snow, ice, altitude, wind, rain – and very few charging stations.

The road through the Calchaquí Valley in northwest Argentina.

The “Long Way Up” production crew hooked up with an electric SUV startup, Rivian, to supply new prototype pickup trucks – designed to take on every terrain. Rivian also installed charging stations along the more desolate parts of the route.

The first episode of “Long Way Up” is all preparation and planning, which was incredibly fun to follow. The simple act of watching Ewan and Charley put a map on a wall and trace the route was enough to give this viewer some serious travel Stendhal syndrome – I needed to order an actual map (and did).

The trip, well-planned as it was, does not get off to an easy start, owing to unseasonably cold weather (it was the worst winter in since 1994 this time last year), as well as the trial of using vehicles that had yet to be tested in such conditions. But once they start to put real mileage between themselves and Ushuaia, a relatively predictable rhythm sets in that propels the journey forward with fewer headaches and anxieties.

And that’s when the real magic begins. The scenery is breathtaking, and while the relationship between McGregor and Boorman is the predominant one, seeing how this group navigates the trip, together and separately, is also powerful stuff.

Scenery and scarcity

Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor stop in Bolivia on their electric Harley- Davidson LiveWires.

Dealing with things such as insane cold meant moving bikes indoors overnight and wearing all the clothes. As an aside, I could watch Charley Boorman layer up (please put this on TikTok) all day.

When one of the crew gets an awful bout of altitude sickness, near Salta in Argentina on their way to ride Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), McGregor’s concern is visceral. You join the family they’ve created under these particular conditions, and you feel how much they all mean to one another.

And then there’s the charging. The godforsaken charging. Probably if there’s a villain to be named in this epic saga, it is the search for power to keep both e-bikes and vehicles properly charged between stops.

“On a daily basis, just plugging the bike in at the end of the day was a highlight in itself. Every time we found somewhere to plug that bike in was like a little mini-triumph,” said McGregor.

Talking about the uncertainty of keeping the bikes charged in these remote places, Boorman recalls a story about getting “this amazing charge out of a very dodgy plug” in a youth hostile. (The places these two bunk overnight, at least in the first three episodes, are hardly five-star.)

“We sort of looked at each other, and walked away, and thought if we’re quiet, they’d keep on charging.” This kind of thing happens a lot in a ‘Long Way Up.’ “

What a trip it has been

Talking about the sights along the way, and what really stood out for them on this particular journey, McGregor sites the landscape of the Atacama Desert in Chile as “spectacular,” and he goes on to talk about getting to see Machu Picchu.

The clouds part in Machu Piccu.

“In one of my classrooms when I was at school, there was a poster of Machu Picchu. I didn’t do very well in school, but I got A’s in daydreaming, so I would spend a lot of time daydreaming about Machu Picchu, like it was this mythical place that I’d never see. And then we got to visit it.”

When they arrived the UNESCO Heritage Site, recounts McGregor, “it was shrouded in cloud.” Disappointment set in, “We’d come on a day where you’re not going to see anything,” McGregor says. But after exploring in different directions for a time, the two reunited, and “then the clouds parted to reveal Machu Picchu,” says McGregor. “It was sort of like a dream come true.”

Boorman recalls riding by a solar farm in Costa Rica and knocking on the fence to ask to check it out. “They let us in and let us plug in our bikes as they showed us around and explained how everything worked. And our bikes were being charged directly by the sun.”

The end of the road

In the end, after three months on the road, both men were ready to end the trip, though Boorman says, “You always talk about the possibility of another one, so you’ve got that in your head, so it’s not so bad that this one’s finished.”

“There’s an arc, these trips that we’ve done,” says McGregor. “You’re sort of ready for it to end. It comes to its conclusion.”

And because the “Long Way Up” route terminates in Los Angeles, where McGregor lives, his 13,000 mile journey ended on his own driveway.

“I rode all the way to my front door from Ushuaia – it was a pleasure, that.”