Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Long Way From Tipperary

A friend of mine lent me the DVD set of the 2007 BBC serial Long Way Down, a ten-part television program which follows the actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they ride their motorcycles 15,000 miles from the northernmost tip of Scotland down to the southernmost tip of Africa. They pass through 18 different countries on the almost three month ride, from 12 May to 4 August, 2007. This trip is a follow-on to their 2004 trip from London eastward to New York City, which they called Long Way Round. This earlier trip was also televised and is now released on DVD (and there are books of both journeys). In addition to the lure of a long motorcycle trip, Long Way Down had secondary goals of trying to bring some attention to the work of UNICEF in parts of the African continent, and also to show the beauty of Africa and the friendliness of its peoples.

This whole endeavor--nay, the very idea of a 15,000 or 20,000 mile motorcycle trip--seems fantastic to me almost beyond comprehension. I can hardly conceive of a more engrossing adventure than this one (at least if reality is to come into play); I almost wet myself just thinking about it. And for me, this is both a function of the romance of big adventure travel and also of the whole motorcycle angle. Both of these elements play equally in the endeavor's allure.

I hate that "It's a Jeep thing... you wouldn't understand!" bumper sticker, but I'm going to invoke it just the same. I think one has to be a motorcyclist to really grasp how different the experience would be on bikes versus, say, doing the same trek in a 4X4. The car might still be very interesting, but the motorcycle makes the whole business connected and intense and profound. I've said before that music and motorcycles are the two things that come closest to spirituality for me. I don't think there's anything supernatural about either, of course, but I think both tap deeply into the complicated interface in our brains between the logical and the emotional, that inscrutable region of our psyche that marks us as mysteriously human. A motorcycle engages us in a heightened way. The risks on a bike to one's bodily safety tend to make one more alert, and then in that frame of mind one is directly and forcibly exposed to the elements, in contrast to car travel where one is isolated. Smells on a bike are immediate and visceral, you feel temperature and humidity changes on your skin, the ears are assaulted with mechanical and environmental sounds, and your eyes look upon your surroundings without protective steel and glass barriers. It all makes for a much more intense experience than driving a car on the same paths.

McGregor and Boorman augmented even this experience by camping out in the elements on most nights. (In one scene an exhausted Charley simply puts his thin air pad on the sand next to his bike and falls asleep under the canopy of a clear desert sky.) Although the documentary is really about the experience of the two men as they ride North-to-South, they are joined by a pretty sizeable support ensemble. In addition to a large planning and logistical staff in England (headquartered in an old garage in central London that is every machinery-geek's fantasy brought to life: a converted industrial space filled with all manner of cars and motorcycles and a drum set and a pool table and dart board!), the television production adds an additional layer to the traveling entourage.

(The boys in their London garage headquarters.)

So in addition to the two men on their bikes, there was a third rider, a German cameraman Claudio Von Planta, plus two Nissan 4X4s containing Director / Producer David Alexanian, Producer Russ Malkin, cameraman Jim Simak, physician Dai Jones, and cameraman and security expert Jim Foster. While the idea was for the bikes to be reasonably self-contained, the entire crew often camped together, and the vehicles carried some supplies and spare parts that did not fit on the bikes. Much of the documentary footage comes from the two riders themselves, both from their bike and helmet cameras, and also from handheld "diary cam" footage they shot of themselves and of each other.

The enterprise works so well as a spectator event--even my wife, who mightn't normally care much about this kind of thing was quite swept away by it--because McGregor and Boorman are really engaging people, articulate and intelligent and funny and feeling. Despite all the production brouhaha that necessarily accompanied them, one still has a sense of a couple perceptive guys seeing profound things and translating the experience for us. There were a number of rough patches in the adventure, both difficult riding and dangerous situations and also a touch of interpersonal turmoil, and these serve to humanize the endeavor and also to give us a little sense of scale. The two men share a deep and affectionate bond, and their friendship is quite engaging. McGregor's wife, Eve, who had no motorcycle experience whatsoever, decided after Long Way Round that she'd like to accompany them for a bit of their next trip, and so a little bit of time is devoted to Eve learning how to ride a bike in England and then to her joining the expedition a couple months later for a week of riding through Malawi and Zambia. And though she does not play a very substantial role in the documentary, she makes for a slight change of pace and tone which enriches the whole.

(The basic GS Adventure. The bikes in the show were modified a bit from the German Touratech catalog.)

Naturally, if one cares about motorcycles, the equipment here matters. Both men (all three, actually) ride BMW R1200GS Adventure models, the quintessential all-purpose motorcycle. (The neighbor who loaned me the DVDs has just traded his standard GS for the upgraded Adventure model, so I've had a chance to drool at the machine up close & personal.) The bikes are a bit big and heavy for the off-road riding they are called upon to do, but the extreme distances involved rather dictate a spacious, comfortable mount. Plus, the isolation of so much of Africa, both in terms of scarcity of service stops and the unpredictability of petrol stations, demands extreme reliability and capability. BMWs are known for their bullet-proof reliability, and the Adventure has an absurdly large fuel tank. The bikes were outfitted with a number of options, from a full complement of Touratech racks and bags to upgraded suspension components. Cameras were fitted to all motorcycles and the trucks, and cameras and microphones were mounted on the men's helmets so that a running commentary could be recorded.

I recommend a visit to their website, where one can get a sense of the documentary. Both men have stated that they have at least another ride in them, and there is a rumor that the next one will be a Canada-to-Cape Horn kind of thing. I have not found any confirmation of this, however. (But I'm ready if they call!) But there's no sense in pining for what may not be coming when what we actually have is so engrossing. I was not three episodes into the set before I had jumped on Amazon and bought the eight-disc set covering both adventure treks (plus Charley Boorman's stab at the Dakar rally). I'm now champing at the bit to watch the earlier documentary.

And I find my mind now working overtime to figure out how I might fit an epic bike ride into my own schedule. The first couple episodes of Long Way Down deal with the extensive preparation for the ride and their first blast through Europe, and this stuff is unadulterated joy for me--indeed, I've had a specific yen to ride a motorcycle through Europe now for a couple decades. Once they set foot on African soil, though, the turmoil of the many cultures there takes a bit of the stuffing out of it for me. They have eighteen border crossings, and there's always a bit of doubt about how any of these crossings will go. The two American members of the crew were denied entry to Libya, and had to fly on to Egypt and pick up the group again there, and no one was quite sure if any particular border crossing would be a two-hour or four-day affair, or whether bribes would be required and, if so, whether they would have anything suitable. Several times they were required to employ armed escorts--sometimes for quite long stretches--and in one case a mechanical breakdown required them all to camp out in the desert where they were specifically told they must not risk camping. But once they were South of the equator there seemed little risks to their safety and property, and each country seemed more spectacularly wild and beautiful than the last. By the time they reached Cape Town, Africa did indeed seem like a place one ought to visit, and the end came too soon.

Here's hoping there's more in the pipeline.

Grade: A

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

I'd heard about this and had meant to check it out. I've always been a big fan of McGregor.