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The world's waiting on a motorcycle

Ewan McGregor raises profile for bikes

Canadian riders make similar journeys

by Mark Richardson
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There were times of great wonder. And, every so often, flashes of magic. Like when we were riding at the end of the day and the sun, setting in the west, warmed our backs and threw our shadows ahead of us on the road. Just chasing our shadows as we headed east. All the way round the world to get home.
—Ewan McGregor, Long Way Round

Ewan McGregor, star of Star Wars, and his best friend, actor Charley Boorman, are at home in London this week and reminiscing over the phone about being thousands of miles away on their motorcycles.

Their adventurous ride last year from London to New York, through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, Alaska and eventually Canada, premieres on the Outdoor Life Network this Tuesday and they're always happy for an excuse to talk about those faraway days. And especially for a chance to talk about their motorcycles.

"I love riding bikes and the landscape kind of evolves about you," says McGregor. "You're part of it and you're not protected from it. There's something unique about carrying all that you have on a motorcycle and being in terrain where there's no roads."

"Yeah," says Boorman. "The great thing that a motorbike offers is that during the whole day, you're in your own world. Although you're on the same trip, you've almost got your own trip. In a car, it must be a bit more difficult, together for hours on end. And if we drove a car, we'd argue over who got to do the driving..."

Their seven-part television show, Long Way Round, has already been broadcast in a number of countries, including the U.S., according them immediate status as extraordinary motorcyclists. It's raised close to a million dollars for UNICEF.

The trip was quite a physical achievement, too: 26,000 kilometres, much of it through swamp and mud, over bridgeless Asian rivers and along remote unsigned tracks. Their high-profile trip has inspired many, though some criticize the venture as an exploitation of their ability to garner sponsorship, riding donated BMW Adventurer bikes and pursued by donated Mitsubishi rally trucks, loaded with tools and support. A cameraman rode alongside on another BMW to film when he could.

But all this just makes for a more engaging show, putting the viewer right there in the saddle, and there's no doubt that Long Way Round has raised the profile of adventure motorcycling no end.

"There were really no setups," says McGregor. "The only one I remember was when we had to attend a goat polo match in Kazakhstan, and that was only because we had six hours (of finished TV) to deliver and people were nervous that we wouldn't be able to fill it. But Charley and I were always very confident.

"We just wanted to experience the journey and we felt confident the TV side of things would take care of itself and it did."

There's drama and impending danger throughout, fuelled in the beginning by mistrust and a fear of robbery and bureaucrats, but much of the real risk was of their own making; the only serious incident occurred just outside Calgary when a teenager drove his Honda Civic into the back of McGregor's bike.

I have been on the road for almost five months and about to head into Africa. Now after approximately 200 Ewan McGregor comparisons, none is worse than the one I had the other day.

As I pulled up to a stoplight, an Australian couple pulled up next to me on their rented scooter. The girl quickly said in her thick Aussie accent: "Hey mate, are you Ewan McGregor?" I looked at her in disbelief and just shook my head. She then said "Oh, so you saw the movie and you are now riding around the world?"

Again I just shook my head wishing the light would turn green, I swear this is the longest light on the planet. She then said again, "Are you sure you are not Ewan?"

Now Ewan, I haven't seen your movie so I couldn't, even if I wanted to, judge your trip. And to be fair, anyone would probably jump at the opportunity to get sponsored and such as you have, even if they don't admit it.

So I have only one favour to ask. Next time, could you maybe put a subtitle at the bottom saying something like this: "I, Ewan McGregor, did not invent motorcycle travelling and people have been doing this since they could carry enough fuel to make it over the horizon, and if you happen to come across one of the overlanders, please do not ask them if are doing this because they saw my movie."

P.S. If you do a second movie and need someone to, oh, say carry your bags or drive your support vehicle, give me a shout.
—Josh Hogan, posted on http://www.horizonsunlimited.com

"When we went around the world between '87 and '98, we figure that we were probably about the 200th people to do it on motorcycles," says Grant Johnson, talking a little later over another phone line from his Vancouver home.

"Since then I figure there's something like 2,000 or 3,000 people who have done it, now including Ewan and Charley, of course."

Johnson should know. With his wife Susan, he runs the Horizons Unlimited website that links long-distance motorcyclists around the world. It's filled with advice on bulletin boards from riders in Internet cafés around the world.

"The biggest thing that keeps people from doing this stuff is fear," explains Johnson, "but now they're reading travellers' stories and if they have a question, they can ask and get an answer from someone who is there today and just went through that border yesterday. All of a sudden you're empowered and you have the information you need to get rid of your fear."

The journey doesn't even have to mean selling everything and abandoning your responsibilities for years on end. Johnson says he knows of at least 20 bikes currently parked in places between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, just waiting for their owners to reclaim them and resume their rides. Some of those trips may take a decade, taken a few weeks at a time whenever life at home allows it.

For Johnson, there's no question that such a journey should be undertaken on a motorcycle, forsaking the comfort and security of four wheels.

"When you pull up somewhere on a motorcycle in the developing world, the locals can connect with a motorcycle, they can aspire to having one. They will never aspire to having a car or a Land Rover. Never. As far as they're concerned, these guys showing up in a Land Rover and stepping out of an air-conditioned vehicle into 110 degree heat and looking like they just stepped out of GQ — they don't even comprehend these people; they're like aliens from another planet.

"Whereas here you are on a motorcycle, you're dirty and you're kind of grungy and sweaty just like them, so they can connect to you and they'll come up and talk to you."

The refrain is similar among adventure motorcyclists: people are curious and friendly about their machines, so they serve as an instant introduction. And the physical sensation of riding through strange new countries makes all the difference.

"What's the difference between watching Animal Planet on TV and seeing it in a car? It's all on a piece of glass in front of you — you're not in it," says Johnson.

"On a motorcycle, you're riding along the road and you smell the coffee plantations and you feel the cool of the stream as you cross over it. You may never even see it, but you feel that you've just ridden over a stream, underneath the road. No car can give you that."

If you go in a car, you are shooting a movie. If you go on a bike, you are in the movie.Greg Dziewierz

Music teachers Greg and Natasha Dziewierz rode this summer with their friend Jacek Dubiel on their Kawasaki KLR 650s on basically the same route as McGregor and Boorman, though in the opposite direction.

They left their homes near Burlington for Alaska and ferried the bikes to Siberia's port of Magadan, setting off across Russia in early July for Mongolia.

"It wasn't that hard," says Greg, downplaying the mud and the bridgeless rivers.

"I saw Ewan and Charley's series last year and I thought it was really good, but they took bikes that were way too heavy, especially for Mongolia. And they left too early, so the weather didn't co-operate."

Dubiel and the Dziewierzes — who all speak fluent Russian — met up with another rider on a KTM 640 who was in more of a hurry to cross through Asia and who made it to Poland, riding alone, in three weeks. That's seven weeks faster than the two actors with their laden BMWs.

"It could have been a dangerous trip if we'd met up with a bear," says Greg. "There were places where we were hundreds of kilometres from anyone else. But with a little common sense, it's possible to do a trip like this without support."

It is no trick to go round the world these days; you can pay a lot of money and fly round it non-stop in less than 48 hours, but to know it, to smell it and feel it between your toes you have to crawl. There is no other way. Not flying, not floating. You have to stay on the ground and swallow the bugs as you go. Then the world is immense. —Ted Simon, Jupiter's Travels

I rode my old motorcycle to California last summer and stayed a few days with Ted Simon at his home north of San Francisco.

The British author is considered by many as the father of round-the-world motorcycling thanks to his book, Jupiter's Travels, about his four-year journey on a Triumph in the mid-'70s.

Others had made the journey before him, of course, but his account is one of the most popular.

In 2001, at 70 years old, he set off to do it again, covering another 100,000 km in three years through 48 countries on a BMW. It never occurred to him to not ride a motorcycle this time.

"I would always travel silently," he said. "I'd just stop in a square, park the bike and take my helmet off. Then I'd light a cigarette and people would gravitate towards me. By the time I finished the cigarette, I'd have at least one new friend."

Simon had just returned from a short visit to Mongolia when I saw him; Ewan McGregor had asked to meet him there because he's interested in filming Jupiter's Travels one day.

"He was a bit of a hero of mine," says McGregor, "and his book had inspired me."

Simon's California house was a place for other adventurers to stop by, and while I was there, a young rider named David Stafford came to stay the night.

"Travelling solo by motorcycle has put me in unfamiliar and sometimes challenging situations that I would never have otherwise experienced," he told me over dinner.

"Ted says, `The interruptions are the journey,' but I say, `The most desperate circumstances make the best stories.'

"You can't help but learn a great deal about yourself in those situations. I got to know something about the world but I also got to know myself much better. And it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been on a motorcycle."

I've not been around the world on a motorcycle but I know something of which he spoke.

Back in the '80s, when I was 24, I spent more than a year travelling around North America on my motorbike.

I didn't have kids or own a house and all my belongings could be packed into a pair of saddlebags.

On the road, I accepted many invitations to eat or to stay with people solely because we had struck up a conversation about the motorcycle.

Once, in the Yukon, I was rescued from a crash beside the road by a group of native hunters who let me stay and recuperate at their home for days. Another time, broke in Texas, I siphoned gas from an abandoned car near the home of Hanging Judge Roy Bean.

I wanted to continue to South America but kept a promise instead to return to school, where I fell in love and settled down to raise children.

But last year, the pull was too great and I set off across North America on the old bike, retracing the route of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for a book-writing project.

It was a short trip in comparison with the world's true adventurers but memorable nonetheless, all the more so for throwing myself into the elements and absorbing all the road has to offer.

You get onto a bike and it changes everything. There's no distractions except for what's in the world around you. You're not in a car, smoking a cigarette, drinking a coffee, driving along. Everything around you is exactly what it is.Caleb Dykstra

The official Guinness record holder for the longest motorcycle journey is Argentinian Emilio Scotto, who quit his job in 1985, aged 30, and set off with $300 in his pocket to see the world. In 10 years, he covered more than 735,000 km through 214 countries and territories.

And then there are Caleb Dykstra and Liz Wilkinson, a couple in their early 20s who have never attempted anything like this before.

They will leave their Ottawa homes Nov. 4 for Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, on the tip of Chile.

It'll be the first motorcycle trip for Wilkinson, who earned her licence this summer after meeting Dykstra and who bought a Kawasaki 250 Super Sherpa for the journey. Dykstra will be riding alongside on his KLR 650.

"We're not quite in the same league as Ewan and Charley," says Dykstra. "We've got a budget of $6,000 Canadian each, which is $15 a day for fuel, $10 for food and $5 for lodging. That breaks down so that once a week, we can probably stay in a hotel. That's enough — take a shower and do some laundry, get recouped and get going again."

They expect to return next April and have already accepted many Internet offers of accommodation from motorcyclists along the way.

"I'm 24, I don't have kids or a house, and I can pack all my belongings into three tote bags. I manage a landscaping company, so there's no work in Ottawa in the winter and why should I stick around?" he asks.

"Of course, I'll do it on a motorcycle — there's no better way to travel. And after all, I believe that if your life is not worth reading about, what's the point in living it?"

Mark Richardson is the editor of Wheels. wheels@thestar.ca

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