Rare is the rider who doesn’t dream about the sun silhouetting exotic spires on a distant horizon, or carving a turn into the kind of setting one finds on the cover of National Geographic, or pitching a tent among an ancient people whose heritage includes selfless hospitality. “The Long Way Down” is rich in each of these elements as it documents the 19-country ride of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, from John O’Groats in Scotland to Cape Town in South Africa.
Similar to the loosely structured plot of their first epic ride “The Long Way Around,” this film is the next in the genre of reality ride documentaries that combine breathtaking scenery with personal challenge and glimpses of life (or threats to it) in some of the remotest parts of the world. In the opening scenes of “The Long Way Down,” McGregor and Boorman explain how they wanted to do another ride that did not require the same commitment in time as did their last run. Both stated how they didn’t want t be away from their families for an extended absence.
What passed for a compromise was a 15,000-mile ride spanning 85 days. The starting point is a hauntingly desolate castle in a peculiarly-named town in Scotland, perched on the only peak confronting the sea for miles around. While the near adolescent exuberance of McGregor and Boorman -- set to bubbling over their pending departure -- is akin to the sort of dialogue one encountered in movies starring the Monkees in 1965, the viewer cannot help but wish more time was spent on the castle.
Our heroes retraced their steps to London, reshuffled their gear, and hit the high road taking the tunnel to Continental Europe. I found it oddly satisfying that McGregor and Boorman rode in the rain from Scotland to Italy. Camera angles were evenly divided between helmet cams, fork cams, and crew cams mounted to two Land Rover-type vehicles during the film. Two of the scenes shot in Italy included seeing the boys ride classic BMW R1200GS Adventures on the Appian Way, and a heart-stopping stretch on hairpin curves high above the coast. It was here that some clown flew out of an intersection and nearly scrubbed McGregor into history.
The ride truly gets fascinating when they cross into Lybia, where their American cameraman and security officer was unable to get a visa. The terrain in Africa changes dramatically from one country to another, with the road surface generally indicative of the local economy. The scene where Boorman and McGregor ride their bikes within feet of the pyramids was unbelievable. It is amazing to see a ribbon of hard-paved road thread its way through the dessert. The ferry ride from Aswan (and the temple of Abu Simbel) was like something out of the 1930’s.
There were the obligatory “riding the BMW’s through hip-deep sand” shots, which are still amazing. These were followed by the obligatory “riding the BMW’s through the hip-deep mud” shots. In this segment, they were escorted by a Kenyan paramilitary patrol, the leader of which had this look in his eyes that plainly said to me he desperately wanted to kick these two Bozos in the ass. The fact that we have all seen motorcycles snarling their way through endless sand does not take away from the accomplishments of these riders. There were plenty of days when McGregor and Boorman slogged through 350 miles of this stuff.
What would Africa be without wild animals? In Kenya, McGregor sneaks up on an elephant. Now I am not the world’s smartest individual, but I know better than to try that. There was a moment in which the gentle viewer was almost certain that McGregor would have to be peeled from between the elephant’s toes.
The incident with the elephant is the kind of larger than life episode that one associates with the big game nature of Africa. There are scenes where our heroes pull over to watch zebras, monkeys, wildebeests, gnus, sheep, and exotic cattle cross the road. In Uganda, they take a 90-minute hike to study gorillas in the rain forest. I always associate a more insidious side of life with places like Africa, however, and was gratified to see my suspicions surface. Camped someplace on the veldt, McGregor and Boorman find themselves surrounded by columns of “army” ants.
These are the kind of insects that vote, collect taxes, and subjugate small communities that have no phones (so the residents cannot call an exterminator). Thanks to the Discovery Channel, it is widely known that these creatures can strip the hide off a cape buffalo in less than an hour. McGregor and Boorman simply charted the course of the ants and stepped around them with a flashlight. In the morning, they discovered they were surrounded and that millions of these little suckers stood poised on their back legs, waving their mandibles in the air.
I would have drained two quarts of gasoline out of the GS’s tank and treated the ants to an amazing pyrotechnic display.
The viewer is treated to some stunning photography in this film. And a good deal of it is very unexpected. I had no idea how beautiful Ethiopia was. Sudan runs the spectrum with metropolitan Khartoum on one end, and vast lunar-like expanses on the other. Uganda is an explosion of color.
Yet the most poignant scenery is also the most tragic. This is in Rwanda, where the road surface is largely a rumor. It is here that McGregor and Boorman are given a tour of a wrecked church, where some 2000 people were executed in an act of genocide. Their skulls are still in the church.
First and foremost, however, this film is about motorcycling. Both McGregor and Boorman have found a formula for doing what most of us dream about. McGregor very candidly admitted that he has a penchant for dropping the R1200Gs Adventure. To prove his point, he drops it about 267 times on this ride. Boorman is more modest when it comes to drops, but shameless about staging wheelies on the world’s heaviest dirt bike. Had I been on this ride, the most commonly heard phrase would have been, “Mr. Riepe’s stunt double to the set please.”
A new twist for “Down” was having McGregor’s wife, Eve, show up for 5 days of riding. Eve had just gotten her license and dropped her bike at least four times on camera. Now this low of me, but after all I am a man. Eve McGregor is easy on the eyes, but Charley Boorman’s wife (who is only on camera for about 30 seconds) is drop-dead gorgeous. I don’t care if Charley’s wife doesn’t know how to ride a bike. She has other virtuous qualities.
The biggest difference between “The Long Way Around” and “TLW- Down” is in the interaction of the riders. McGregor does not spend hours whining about not meeting the common people as he did in “TLW - Around.” This may be because there was no other option. Also there is no friction evident between McGregor and Boorman on this ride. It is either deleted or saved for the mini-series.
I thoroughly enjoyed “The Long Way Down” and rated it three and a half stars (out of four). It has all the elements of a great motorcycle adventure, and made me wish I was going someplace too.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
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AKA The Chamberlain -- Perditions Socks (With A Shrug)