Three years ago fellow actors and biking buddies Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman set off on a voyage from London to New York the long way round. The resultant 10-part TV series following their 20,000 mile road trip across Europe and Asia proved a huge hit, as did the book that accompanied it. I came to the whole Long Way Round phenomenon quite late, having stumbled upon a repeat screening of the series on Sky TV about 18 months after it had been made. But I was immediately enraptured and thought it was one of the most entertaining travel documentaries I'd ever seen. I promptly went out and bought the DVD and the book.
Fast forward a year and the double-act were back on board their motorbikes, this time traversing the globe from top to bottom -- from John O'Groats at the northernmost tip of Scotland to Cape Agulhas on the southernmost tip of South Africa -- in a new 15,000-mile adventure being billed as the Long Way Down. The popularity of the first series had obviously paid off for them: this time the trip was being documented on a live website and the resultant TV series was being screened on BBC 2 during prime time Sunday night viewing.
I watched the series, although I didn't think it was as good as the first. It didn't seem quite as magical or as fresh as the original. In fact, in places, it just seemed too knowing, too calculated -- and there were far too many participants involved. It wasn't so much as two men and their motorbikes, but two men, their motorbikes, one wife, a dozen various "fixers" and a five-member support crew. Hmmm.
The book doesn't really add to much to the TV series, other than you get a chance to find out a bit more about some of the UNICEF projects they visited and you get a better sense of the African people they met along the way. Like the original book, it fills in some useful gaps that weren't explained or were simply skimmed through on TV.
At times it does read a bit like a stuck record, with both of them complaining over and over about the too-fast schedule and their inability to spend time in all the places they wanted. Coupled with Charley missing his wife and children all the time, and Ewan banging on about how privileged he is to do the trip, it began to wear thin in places.
Nonetheless it's a light, entertaining read, funny in places, moving in others -- a bit like the TV series. But it's lack of intellectual insight or deep thinking about African history means this is really only a book for the fans. If you loved Long Way Down, chances are you'll enjoy this one too, but if you'd rather just watch the TV series you're not going to miss out on anything if you don't bother with the book. And you could perhaps save yourself a lot of time by simply reading the tongue-in-cheek condensed version on The Guardian's Digested Read, which isn't so much a piss take but a crystallised version of the truth.