Down and Out: Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Down and ‘Round
BY DYLAN YOUNG
ILLUSTRATIONS BY MAX YOUNG
If you’re not quite sure what a troglodyte is, watch the first thirteen minutes of STAR WARS, for the scene where uncle Owen tells Luke to check the moisture vaporators instead of hunting womp rats. That submerged desert dwelling, with its cavernous whitewashed rooms, qualifies him, the two of them, as troglodytes — cave dwellers.
Ewan McGregor is standing in the very room where that scene was shot, looking through the low-hanging doorway at a courtyard drenched in the oppressive Tunisian sun. Thirty years ago, there would have been a film crew in the courtyard, maneuvering around droids and futuristic machines cobbled together from hair dryers and vacuum cleaner parts. Now, it’s filled with tourists, milling mindlessly through the heat.
“I can’t believe they’ve kept it like this all these years,” McGregor says. “They’ve turned it into a kind of rundown theme park. It’s bloody marvelous.”
He turns and makes a face at his longtime friend and traveling partner, Charley Boorman. Behind him is a poster for ATTACK OF THE CLONES; on it, a large depiction of McGregor in his Obi-Wan persona. More tourists waddle past, looking at this, that, and the other haphazardly curated STAR WARS marginalia — barely glancing at the quiffed Scot mugging for his friend’s camera.
No one recognizes him.
Outside the attraction, as he suits up to get on his motorcycle, McGregor makes a guilty admission. “I arrogantly thought I’d be mobbed,” he says shrugging. “But nobody cared.”
Not twenty days earlier, McGregor and Boorman — with cameraman Claudio Von Planta in tow — had set out on motorcycles from the most northerly point in the United Kingdom, John o’Groats, Scotland, with an eye to riding rough all the way to Cape Town, South Africa.
Mad as that may seem, it’s not the first time they’ve attempted something like this. In 2004, Boorman and McGregor rode overland from London to New York, traveling east through Western and Central Europe, the Ukraine, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Siberia and Russia, taking a short flight to Alaska, then continuing on motorcycle through British Columbia, Alberta and the Northern United States. For the lion’s share of the journey, they travelled alone, meeting up with a support crew at border crossings. The journey took four months.
The idea for that initial adventure came from McGregor, to whom it occurred one night while looking at a world map for a place to go on vacation.
“He just called me up out of the blue and told me that, if we wanted to, we could practically ride around the top of the planet,” says Boorman. “I thought it was crazy. So, of course, I said yeah. Let’s do it.”
That trip became LONG WAY ROUND, a documentary series about their experiences and also a bestselling book. For Boorman and McGregor — fellow actors who had met on the set of THE SERPENT’S KISS and bonded over their love of riding motorcycles — the trip was a dream come true. It was also the most intense and character-altering experience of their lives.
“Riding, you get to feel the vitality of life,” McGregor says. “It’s passionate and very linked to the moment. There’s no room to shut yourself off for even a minute. You are just there.”
“In LONG WAY ROUND I really had to confront what I was made of. It was very trying and we were told by many people that we would never succeed. But we did and I’m extremely proud of that.”
It’s not the most obvious course for an A-list Hollywood actor. McGregor is a veteran of over fifty films and not one of those roles hints at this rugged outdoorsman side (not even Obi-Wan). But here he is, caked in hardened mud, peppered with road dust and straddling a BMW R1200GS adventure bike, made heavy with panniers and gear for living rough.
Barely three weeks into the journey, nerves are already frayed. The leg after the Eurotunnel crossing had been rushed and plagued by foul weather. The length of France and into Italy, they had hurried through near constant rain, with rarely a moment to take in the places they were traveling through or even to rest. At Mandello del Lario in Italy, they had stolen a few hours for a side trip to Moto Guzzi, the oldest and largest motorcycle manufacturer in Europe. For McGregor, it had been a kind of Mecca, a monument to his great passion for motorcycling.
“Moto Guzzi are legends,” McGregor says. “There’s something so personal about the factory. It’s just twelve guys working on a line, you know. Each engine takes 120 minutes to build and when they’re finished, they run it for a half hour just to make sure it works. It’s just so hands-on. They only make ten thousand bikes a year.”
“You walk around and there are all these finished engines on the floor, just row upon row upon row — so many dreams just lying on the floor. Where will they all end up?”
Startling as it may seem, McGregor is genuinely choked up as he says this. His star has risen largely on the buoyancy of his smart-Alec charm and shit-eating grin but it’s clear he’s a heartfelt guy.
He gets more worked up talking about his wife, French production designer Eve Mavrakis, and his three daughters, one of whom he and Eve adopted from a Mongolian orphanage following LONG WAY ROUND.
“I can’t tell you how important they are to me,” he says. “I’m so proud of them. The really hard part of this trip is being away from them. At the same time, it’s the thought of them that keeps me going.”
“When things are really bad on the road, if you’re riding through torrential rain or blistering heat, and the road conditions are treacherous and your spirits really hit the deck, it helps to think of my children and Eve — to know they’re who I’m traveling towards.”
Back on the road, things quickly turn sour again. The rest of Italy — by way of Rome and its disturbing cacophony of traffic, all the way to Sorrento along nine picturesque hours of swirling coastal highway — passes in a blur. Devoured too quickly and hardly enjoyed, the journey is feeling labored. The travelers are getting increasingly disgruntled and even a bit petulant.
“Alright, it’s beautiful and all that,” McGregor says, referring to the coastal roads. “But finally it’s like, ‘What about a straight bit with no fucking cars on it?’”
Then, in a radio announcer’s voice, he adds:
“LONG WAY DOWN — Ewan McGregor bitches and moans all the way to Cape Town.”
After a hearty meal, fed to them by a hospitable elderly Italian couple, the mood lightens. Boorman, and McGregor — and producers David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, who’ve been following along with the support crew — try to sort out the issues contributing to their malaise.
Before long, they arrive at an unfortunate conclusion — the fault is their own. They hadn’t spent enough time studying the routes and timings. They should have scheduled an extra week for this leg. Now, because of a ferry connection from Egypt to the Sudan — that only happens once a week — they will have to rush through Sicily, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt — covering up to 800 kilometers a day — or risk compromising their visas and arrangements for the rest of the trip.
“We screwed up a bit,” McGregor admits. “This isn’t just about getting to Cape Town. The journey is a bigger, deeper picture of moving through countries, getting to know their people and feeling a sense of where you are — in the present tense. ”
The morning of their visit to the ramshackle STAR WARS museum outside of Tunis, McGregor and Boorman are in good spirits, goofing around and doing silly impressions. They still have a long haul ahead but there’s a sense that they’ll be able to relax soon. They’ve picked a few spots to visit along the way, however briefly. And once they get to Sudan, there will still be a lot more of Africa to see before Cape Town.
They’ll have travelled 24,000 kilometers in 84 days. Along the way, they’ll weather 46-degree heats, sandstorms, and roads made of scree and dust and mud. Their bikes will snap and break. They’ll take falls and be bruised and saddle-weary. But they’ll witness things unprecedented in their lives. They’ll dine with Bushmen and drink milk with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. They’ll visit Katavi National Park and walk the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya. They’ll see silverbacks in the mountains of Uganda and trace the Skeleton Coast. And they’ll ride this off-road emotional obstacle course to finish nourished and better for the peaks and troughs.
“You have these days where the road just hammers you to smithereens,” McGregor will later say. “And you think there’s no way you’re going to get up the next morning and do it all again. And then you get to camp and there’s elephants — elephants! My god! Is there anything else to say? You’re eating dinner and twenty feet away there’s a family of wild elephants!”
But for now, they’re joking about the amount of road they will have to tear through — Tunis to Aswan, Egypt — in five days.
“I just want to burn on today,” McGregor deadpans. “I want to avoid seeing any of Tunisia. I want to avoid getting to know its people, or any of its landmarks. I just want to get on into Libya and then — I want to do the same thing in Libya. I want to burn through Libya. I don’t want to meet anyone or anything. Then I want to burn down to Cape Town, without seeing anything or meeting anyone on the way. “
“And when we get to Cape Town, we’ll have a huge party and everyone will think we’re great …”
As he says this, his face morphs into that familiar cheeky smile and he laughs. “Having said that, we should really get on.”