Long over-due read. Why have I never read this before?
I had always intended to read this book. I had seen the series on TV and loved it. So why had I never read it? I can’t answer that, but a colleague recently gave me a well thumbed copy of the book and I wasn’t able to put it down. Not just because it is about motorcycling… well that too, but because it is a great read. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman tell a story of a shared love of motorbikes that leads them to undertake an epic 20,000 miles, east from London, through Europe, Asia and North America. The book is a beautiful insight into a great friendship between the men and their families that started when they met in Ireland, in Casey’s Pub in County Clare, when they both worked there. Both had moved their families there when they were members of the cast of a movie called Serpent’s Kiss. Originally a big bike trip had been McGregor’s idea and gradually it evolved from a trip to Spain into something much larger and infinitely more ambitious. The plan was hatched in a little workshop in London, surrounded by motorcycles and with maps laid out in front of them, to bike all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific and then to cross to Alaska, travel down through Canada and on to New York. While many experts told them it was an impossible dream they refused to give up on it. Eventually the team they put together made it happen by sheer determination and dogged tenacity, knocking on the door of every potential sponsor, TV channel, production company and motorcycle manufacturer. The journey was filmed by a combination of the two friends carrying the necessary equipment to record their exploits, as well as by the support crew, which included a motorcycle rider who was also a cameraman, Claudio Von Planta. The support crew, which travelled in four wheel drive vehicles, included David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, the directors, as well as another cameraman, Jimmy Simak. Also Sergey, a former special forces soldier and a chain smoking Russian Doctor, called Vasiliy, they brought along because some of the trip was so far from any medical assistance.
Boorman had first become smitten by the motorcycle bug when he met Sean Connery’s son, Jason. Connery had stayed in their family farm in Wicklow when his Father, John Boorman, a famous director, cast him in a movie he was making in Ireland, called Zardoz. Jason had a little 50cc monkey bike which he allowed Boorman to try out. Boorman promptly fell off but he loved it so much he eventually managed to persuade his parents to allow him buy a 100cc Yamaha trials bike. A neighbour had built a motorcross track on his farm where Boorman spent hours and hours learning the art of motorcycling. He had a lot of scrapes on his bikes, being stopped on the road by local sergeant with no lights, licence or any documentation to when he defied his parents and bought a bigger bike and promptly crashed into a fence with barbed wire right in front of where his dad was playing tennis.
In contrast, McGregor was denied permission to buy a bike, even when he was desperate to do so, having lost his first love to a boy who had a motorcycle. He passed his test after he had moved away from home and rushed to a bike shop to buy what turned out to be a dog of an old Moto Guzzi. But he determinedly stuck with it, restoring it to it’s former glory. When he became a famous actor he was usually not allowed to ride his bike when on location. Production companies’ insurance agents were determined that no movie shoot would have to come to a halt because some idiot actor had just had a spill off a bike. McGregor dug his heels in when he was being sought for a role in Moulin Rouge, a movie being made in Australia. He and Nicole Kidman had the lead roles. He insisted on being allowed ride his motorcycle and packed up the bike and rode out into the outback wilderness, lit a fire and camped for the night.
The amount of equipment they carried on the bikes nearly scuppered the trip from the outset. A combination of the excessive weight and anxiety caused by the worries of the impending trip, caused Boorman, the more experienced of the two bikers, to drop the big 1150GS twice on the morning they set off. He had been adamant that KTM was the better choice of bike for the trip but KTM were convinced that there was a substantial risk of the trip being a failure. BMW, on the other hand came good for them and were pragmatic. Delighted to be part of it and happy for them to get as far as they could in the adventure. They didn’t worry about failure as long as they gave it a good go. The adventures of the trip included being stuck for hours upon hours at the Slovak and Ukrainian borders, having a gun pointed at them in Kazakhstan and finding themselves on the banks of a huge, fast flowing river in Siberia, where the bridge had been washed away. The motley crew suffered breakdowns, illness, insect bites, thefts and catastrophic frame breaks, all in the course of the adventure. Along the route they met some extraordinary people who helped them out or just gave them encouragement. Bikers rode along with them on some parts of the journey and at the end they were accompanied by a large group of bikers when they entered New York, surprisingly on schedule, after all their experiences.
The book is made up of sections written by both men from their perspectives on the journey. The two were determined to make the journey itself the most important dynamic, not the production of the documentary. The struggles, fears, doubts and points of view of each rider is set out in detail. The reader recognises the characteristics of each and lives through the personal conflicts that they deal with on the trip and also the coming to terms with, and overcoming their individual conflicts, along the way. A lot of things are tested on the journey: motorbikes, equipment, patience, character, friendships and much more. Mafia, corrupt officials, border bureaucracy, automatic weapons, terrible roads and other problems were encountered. In Ukraine they visited a UN orphanage and some other worthwhile children’s projects along the way. A natural suspicion of the motives of people they met on the trip had to be re-evaluated too. The journey was cathartic for the two friends. While adventure motorcycling has always existed, it has certainly become more of a “thing” since this journey of adventure was aired. The term adventure motorcycling was apparently coined in the 1990s, but now adventure motorcycling and the bikes, clothing, equipment and accessories that go with it are the industry standard. Our two friends, I’ll wager, had a part in making that happen. I highly recommend you get a copy of the book and the book of the second journey, Long Way Down. Do so soon, because the series is likely to become a trilogy in the relatively near future.