Opinion: The failure of Long Way Up

Have you seen Long Way Up yet? If not, take my advice and don’t bother. Save yourself 11 hours of your life.

Actually, scratch that. Watch the first two-thirds because it’s good entertainment with stunning scenery, as actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman reunite for the third time to ride motorcycles across the globe. For this trip, they’re riding from Ushuaia at the tip of South America to Los Angeles, some 20,000 kilometres. And to make it interesting, they’re riding electric Harley-Davidson Livewires.

They completed the journey in late 2019 and the series was released last fall on Apple TV. I just bought myself a new iPhone that came complete with a year’s free subscription to the streaming service, which is why I caught up with them now.

I was looking forward to the show. Like most of us, I loved the first journey they made together back in 2004 for Long Way Round, when they rode BMW 1150 GS adventure tourers from London to New York via Siberia. They were criticized for not facing the same challenges as regular bike travellers, thanks to their support crew and generous budget, but they single-handedly made the big GS into BMW’s best-selling motorcycle. Good for them.

A few years later, they did it again on 1200 GSs when they rode from London to Cape Town for Long Way Down. This time, to make it interesting, Ewan’s wife came along for the ride and completely threw out the dynamic of the best pals. It didn’t matter because it was a cool adventure and again, stunning scenery.

If you missed them, Apple TV is carrying those two series in their binge-worthy entirety, as part of the deal to host the new show.

Now we have Long Way Up, on modified Livewires that have a range of about 150 km before they need to be recharged. They’re supported by a pair of all-electric Rivian pickup trucks that also need to be recharged, though they’ll travel a considerably greater distance. We don’t share all their challenges, but it’s an honest account of the capabilities of electric motorcycles, which are still very much in their infancy for having an effective range.

So far so good, and it’s great that the intrepid duo (which is actually a trio, with hard-working cameraman Claudio on a conventional Sportster) set off from Tierra del Fuego in snow, and then find themselves riding through a desolate beauty that most of us can only imagine. The pair are as funny and human and empathetic as ever, and I watched in captivated contentment as they pushed their way north, through Argentina and Chile to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. That was okay. It was in Colombia, on Episode 8, that everything went pear-shaped.

The problem was that the crew became afraid of being robbed or kidnapped by cartel-backed gangs, so everyone agreed to just get on a boat and sail from the sea-port near Cali to an airport in the north of the country, to then fly over the Darien Gap and regroup in Panama. This was probably a smart thing to do based on local advice at the time, and I won’t criticise the decision (though our own Jeremy Kroeker had a great time in Colombia as he told us about here, but he and Elle would not have been such a lucrative target).

In Panama, however, we start to feel rushed because the crew has to be in Los Angeles by a specific date. The reason is never explained, but probably the much-in-demand Ewan had to fulfill a movie contract. The series whips through Central America but all the way along, the producers are worrying about the safety of Mexico. It’s very dangerous to ride in Mexico at night, they’re told by their local fixers, and so they decide on an alternative: take the bus.

Seriously, one of the producers flies ahead and buys an old school bus that is then converted with some kind of got-to-have-it-done-in-three-days fake deadline to carry the motorcycles and the crew. So after riding a token 500 km from Guatemala to Oaxaca, well south of Mexico City, everyone just piles on the bus and sleeps their way north to El Paso for 2,400 kilometres of not riding.

I felt truly conned by this. Real motorcycle travellers don’t just revert to the bus – they do the ride. They don’t travel at night either, but the practical issue here was that somebody needed to be in Los Angeles by a specific date and so the series and its audience got short-changed in order to make that happen.

Twice on big motorcycle rides, I’ve had to give up and take the bus, and twice, I’ve considered that to be an abject failure. I rode my Suzuki DR600 off the side of a gravel road and into a deep mud puddle in the Yukon and had to ship the bike to Vancouver for repairs, following behind on the Greyhound. Then four years later, the suspension and then the electrics on the same weary bike collapsed in Montana and I had to truck her home to Toronto, with my girlfriend and I buying a bus ticket for the circuitous trip home. That one wasn’t so bad – Wendy ended up marrying me anyway.

The fact is, they were still 3,300 km from Los Angeles and that’s a lot of Mexican charging stops that would have taken Ewan and Charley at least a week to complete. They preferred to waste three days hanging about waiting for an expensive bus conversion, in order to reach Los Angeles on deadline.

I’m sorry, but I lost all sympathy for Long Way Up at this point. The series, which had begun so strongly, became just a funny travelogue about a pair of entitled motorcyclists on impractical machines. To my mind, they wimped out and gave all true motorcycle adventurers a bad name because of it.

By all means, subscribe to Apple TV to watch the original series and its African sequel, and stick around to watch the adventures in South America. But do yourself a favour and don’t spend any of your time watching the journey in Mexico. Ewan and Charley couldn’t be bothered to, so why should you?

6 COMMENTS

  1. I’m glad someone explained that. The 1st half was interesting but with less bike riding then I expected. Likely due to the constraints of charging. The last few episodes I had to watch several times because I felt I’d missed an episode somewhere (android box access) OR that an episode was out of sequence. Nope, the whole team of riders, crew and editors just seem to have thrown in the towel. Long Way “Scandy” ? I’m not interested if electricity is involved.

  2. I’ve never seen Long Way Round or Down (despite hearing about them for ages) so Long Way Up was my intro to this group.

    And I did enjoy it — all of it, even the nonsense with the bus in Mexico.

    Mexico did set a record that year for murders, so I understand wanting to skip most of the country – and yeah, kidnappings in the states they had to travel through were pretty high.

    The trip ended in LA on Dec. 14, 2019, so I’m thinking everyone wanted to be home for Christmas, and they realized too late that they started getting on the road too late.

    Whatever. I’m now watching Long Way Round and halfway through the second episode I’m wondering when they are actually going to leave England and start riding motorcycles.

  3. Can’t agree more. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched long way up and down… I waited with baited breath for this one, and it was a serious let down. So sad.

  4. A commercial gone wrong, and maybe their image as well ,unlike their original which seemed partly genuinely inspired. and honest. First time I’ve heard of bikers having trouble with the cartel,
    Amazon has a good Adventure
    documentary Whatever may Come

  5. This one felt lime a cash grab once I heard HD was involving their new pet project. Thanks for saving my tv from having a remote thrown through it. I’ll stick with reading Jeremy’s adventures done proper.

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