A love letter to road trips
Explorer, actor, producer and motorbike aficionado Charley Boorman writes the first in our ‘love letter’ series about why road trips are the best way to connect with a country
There’s a reason I’ve been travelling the world my whole life: I’m 100 per cent addicted. Before I even got on a bike with my best friend Ewan McGregor [aka Obi-Wan Kenobi] for Long Way Round back in 2004, and faced the 19,000 miles between London and New York, I’d been all over the globe. I grew up with a filmmaker father who travelled constantly and took us kids along for the ride. I remember being very young – maybe six months old – and living in South Carolina while my father made Deliverance. He always made very ambitious movies in difficult and adventurous locations and the family got swept along with that. It seems it’s not uncommon. I’ve since found that many people in the film industry have a bit of the nomad in them and are always on the move.
Now, after completing my third ‘Long’ trip with Ewan – from the southern tip of Argentina up through South America, Central America and Mexico – I’m caught up thinking about why I love it so much, and not just because travel was so normalised for me as a kid. Each trip is so special and so different, and that’s part of the experience. But, ultimately, driving across the land isn’t just about getting from A to B. It’s everything in between – the sights you see and the people you meet along the way.
On Long Way Up, I was bowled over by the people I encountered, their stories and their generosity. This time around, Ewan and I were determined to cross continents on electric bikes, a difficult feat considering the lack of charging infrastructure in South America. But people opened their doors to us. We had to go to strangers’ houses and say, “Can we plug into your house? Can we use your electricity?” No one ever said no. Everyone was always fascinated by us, probably thinking, “What are these two idiots doing?” And the truth is that we weren’t just plugging our bikes into their homes or businesses, we were plugging into them as people. We had to explain what was going on and they were really very interested.
Though I’ve travelled to many places in many ways, there’s something special about crossing continents on a motorbike. When you drive into a small village and get out of a car, it’s as if you’re stepping from your environment into theirs. Whereas on a bike you arrive dusty and dirty – maybe even cold and shivering – and it feels as if you’re a part of the environment you’ve just come from. You’re more directly connected with what’s around you. I remember smelling all the scents of the areas we rode through – bonfires, dung, wildflowers – things you don’t appreciate the same way with the delayed delivery of a car.
“The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful: there were these massive red lakes with flamingos swarming around them, and llamas everywhere. It was almost biblically stunning.”
One of my favourite encounters during Long Way Up was at 9,000 feet high in Puyuhuapi, Chile. We were on a really steep hill and Ewan and I were worried the bikes wouldn’t make it. We were cold and constantly complaining. Then around the corner came this guy on a racing bicycle, powering up the hill – I mean really motoring! As we got closer, I realised his left leg had been amputated at the hip. We flagged him down to find out what he was doing, and it turns out he was high altitude training for the 2020 Paralympics. Ewan and I found the whole thing pretty funny, because there we were moaning about the incline and the chill, and there was this guy with one leg shooting up it like nobody’s business! It was hilarious. It’s a good lesson to remember that, no matter your situation, there’s always someone going through something more difficult than you. This guy had had a car crash and lost his leg, which had totally changed his life. Having had two serious accidents, I had some feeling for what it must be like for him to have gone through rehabilitation and learn to live with a disability.
Another thing I find fascinating about travelling across different countries is navigating borders. Some of the most extraordinary and interesting stuff happens in these middle-of-nowhere places. Not only are there all sorts of people to be found but, from one side to the other – literally across a line in the sand – things can change so drastically: the colour of the tarmac, language, architecture, clothing and often the landscape. It’s incredible.
Crossing from Chile to Bolivia was a pretty wild one. We found ourselves at high altitude again – 10,000 or 11,000 feet in the mountains. We arrived at this tiny border crossing on the Chilean side on a beautiful tarmacked road, filed our paperwork and then, when we finally rode into Bolivia, everything changed. The tarmac suddenly became deep gravel with terrible corrugation. These great, wide roads opened up that were 20 lanes across because people had continually moved over trying to find the smoother ground. It was horrendous and a totally different experience from five minutes earlier. Yet, the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful: there were these massive red lakes with flamingos swarming around them, and llamas everywhere. It was almost biblically stunning.
My relationship with my surroundings felt different on this trip than on others, in part because of the quieter nature of the electric bikes. I remember riding through the Argentinean pampas and pulling up beside this huge herd of llamas. They just stood there, blinking at us with their big, beautiful eyes surrounded by thick, long lashes. They didn’t run away, they just stared, undisturbed by the quiet hum of the electric motor. It was a surprising moment of connectedness with the wild.
The unobtrusive nature of the bikes affected me, too. There’s something therapeutic about sitting on any motorbike for miles and miles but, without the usual loud noise or the vibration from the engine, I could feel the road beneath me untarnished. If I wanted to talk to Ewan, I could turn to him and speak almost normally – and be heard! I could hear birds singing.
When you ride for long periods of time on the open road, no matter what sort of vehicle you’re in or on, your mind calms and inevitably ends up thinking about all sorts of things. I started reminiscing about my sister, who I lost to cancer nearly 25 years ago. I remember coming around a corner and on the other side there was a double rainbow reaching across the sky. My sister used to love rainbows. Ewan piped up saying, “Oh look Charley! Telsche has put two rainbows out for us.” I suddenly thought, “Oh my gosh, he’s been thinking about my sister, too.” It was a lovely moment.
And so… on to the next one. As soon as I can, I’m off and out of here. Ewan and I were always talking about one trip when we were on another. Part of you doesn’t want to stop. We’ve spoken about doing Long Way Scandinavia (somewhere I’ve never been) or Long Way Down Under. There’s so much that needs to be done. Has to be done. And, with so many more mountains to climb, miles to cross and connections with people to be made, how can I not?
Long Way Up is available to watch now on Apple TV+ in the UK