When movie star Ewan McGregor and his friend, actor Charley Boorman, embarked on Long Way Round, their epic 20,000-mile motorcycle trek around the world in 2004, they could hardly have known what they were letting themselves in for.
Over the course of four months, between April and July, the pair wound their way east from London, through Europe, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, then travelled the Bering Strait for the final leg of the trip through Alaska, Canada and across America to their final destination, New York City. Along the way, they had enough adventures to last them a lifetime.
The trip was a huge success in every respect. Not only did the two adventurers emerge unscathed from numerous run-ins with police, well-meaning locals and the odd gangster; they also sold half a million copies of the DVD of the trip, and a million copies of the book in the UK alone. The TV series of the trip was subsequently shown in 40 countries around the world.
At the end of the trip, a fundraising event was held to celebrate the actors’ safe return, raising money for a raft of charities, including UNICEF, Children’s Hospice Association Scotland (CHAS) and Macmillan Cancer Support.
On their bikes again
Despite the riskier moments of the trip, in May of this year the two actors donned their leathers once again for another epic journey.
This time, it was the Long Way Down as the bike-mad actors rode from John O’Groats, at the northern tip of the UK, to Cape Agulhas, the most southern point of South Africa. “A few weeks after Long Way Round, we had maps out already for the next big world journey, and Africa seemed like the obvious choice,” Charley recalls.
Long Way Down saw the pair ride through Europe, and then down the East coast of Africa, across Libya, through the deserts of Sudan and the tribal wastelands of Ethiopia, through Uganda, then on through Rwanda, Tanzania, Botswana and on to the skeleton coast. As on their previous trip, Charley and Ewan took time out to drink in the local culture, and to visit a number of UNICEF sites.
The trip was supported by a number of sponsors, including Inmarsat partner Applied Satellite Technology (AST), the BBC, National Geographic, Nokia and BMW, which once again supplied the R1200 GS Adventure bikes to the pair. This time round, however, they chose to deploy Inmarsat BGAN technology to help them document their adventures.
Ewan, Charley and their support crew took three EXPLORER 500 BGAN terminals supplied by AST, which they used to document their journey online, and to deliver TV footage back to base camp in London, in readiness for a BBC series which was aired in 2007.
The TV series and accompanying DVD are being produced and directed by Russ Malkin of Big Earth and David Alexanian of Elixir Films, both of whom worked with Ewan and Charley on the Long Way Round project. Even as they embarked on the trip in May, Malkin was realistic in his assessment of what lay ahead.
“When you’re so involved in the production, you don’t always think about what you’re about to embark on,” Malkin commented before the team set off on their journey. “This is more risky than Long Way Round, definitely. If we all turn up in Cape Town healthy and happy, that will be the most amazing moment of my life.”
With the BGAN terminal in tow, at least the team knew as they set off that they had a reliable communications solution to call for assistance if anything did go badly wrong.
For his part, Alexanian believed that the BGAN would provide a valuable safety net. He said: “some of the countries we’re visiting on the Long Way down require us to communicate in hazardous regions where there is little to no reliable terrestrial network. With the unexpected just around the corner, it is reassuring to know that wherever we are, at any time, we can contact the people we need to”.
Hostile environment training
Ewan said that, given some of the terrain they were travelling through, the satellite communications kit was proving to be a vital communications tool. He told Via Inmarsat: “from experience, myself and Charley know how perilous circumnavigating the globe can be. Being in contact with each other and our support team is essential to the success of Long Way Down”.
To help them prepare for the trip, the team underwent ‘hostile environment’ training. The training is run by former Special Air Service Battalion (SAS) officer Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, and is routinely undertaken by the BBC’s foreign correspondents before they are dispatched to war zones and other hostile environments.
Cameraman Jim Foster is another ex-SAS man who, prior to the trip, worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. On this trip, he was working with chief Long Way Down cameraman Claudio von Planta, using the Inmarsat kit to send diary entries, photos and video footage to the Long Way Down and BBC websites.
This is not the first time the duo have used Inmarsat network services. On the Long Way Round trip, they had an Inmarsat D+ terminal to track their movements. However, the BGAN EXPLORER terminal has opened up new possibilities.
“When you’re riding through some of the most remote areas on the planet and trying to make a TV series, it’s so important that we have the right equipment and particularly the right systems to send sound and visuals back to London,” said Malkin.
AST Group Marketing Manager, Tracey Harris said; "The compact size of the terminal is one of the principal reasons why it was chosen. Space is at a premium on these trips. The guys have a lot of equipment to carry, and when you’re on a motorbike, there’s not much room to store it all.”
In addition to the equipment, AST also provided technical support and training to the pair and their crew, including 24/7 technical support for the duration of the trip. Inmarsat supplied the airtime. As a result, Ewan and Charley were able to use BGAN to deliver some fascinating up-to-the-minute footage back to base camp.
“It’s amazing to think that we’re going to be travelling across two continents, filming every day and we’ll be able to send everything back to the production team via satellite,” Charley added before leaving. “It’s just one less thing to have to worry about.”