How GPS aided the world beaters

25 Oct 2007

Actor and adventurer Charley Boorman relates how GPS was integral to his epic trip from Scotland to the foot of Africa

“Trust in the machine, Charley!” the rider, a Hollywood star, screams at his companion through the radio in his helmet. Two bikers speed at 70mph through a 24-hour-long sandstorm in the Libyan desert. The state-of-the-art global positioning system (GPS) devices attached to the consoles of their motorbikes are in off-road mode and it’s all they can use to drive in a straight line for the next 200 miles.

The scene may as well be from a movie that Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, a star in his own right and son of veteran director John Boorman, could have starred in. But this was real. The two friends were taking part an epic 15,000-mile bike trip from John O’Groats, the northernmost tip of Scotland, to Cape Town at the bottom of South Africa.

The two riders in the Long Way Down project were not only sticking to their own schedules and fulfilling dreams of a lifetime, but also had important commitments to meet along the way, including three emotional stops with UNICEF to meet the victims of natural and man-made disasters; especially children whose lives have been blighted by war and the spectre of Aids.

In the space of three months Boorman and McGregor travelled through 20 countries from the Scottish Highlands, through the Sahara, along the Nile, through jungles and savannahs.

There is something beguiling about two men coping in their own way with mid-life crises travelling on motorbikes and festooned with modern technology across landscapes trekked for centuries on foot or by camel by Bedouins, Berbers, Roman legionnaires and 19th Century explorers.

This is the second major journey for Boorman and McGregor who three years ago travelled 20,000 miles around the world from London to New York. Like the last time, they were equipped with the latest in GPS technology. As Cecil Rhodes probably did 150 years ago, they began their journey in the map rooms of the Royal Geographic Society in London.

Between the two trips, Boorman sated his appetite for biking by taking part in the Dakar Rally, breaking both hands in the process. “You have to drive a car. But you choose to be a biker,” he says.

Boorman actually began his love affair with motorcycling while growing up in Ireland — whenever his famous dad wasn’t dragging him to the four corners of the Earth, or when he wasn’t cutting his teeth in acting, first as a three year old in Deliverance and later in Excalibur.

You would think riding motorbikes would be a low-tech affair, just two guys on bikes with the wind in their hair. But Long Way Down required enough gear for a 21st Century invasion: a support crew, cameramen, two BMW bikes and spares, two Nissan 4×4 trucks and spares, film and photography equipment, hard disk recorders, HD laptops, satellite phones, water purifiers and even freeze-dried red wine. And to relieve monotony on a long trip — iPods.

Nokia kitted out Boorman and McGregor with a 6110 Navigator GPS phone, which features full turn-by-turn 3D navigation, maps and content such as weather services and travel guides that can be acquired from the internet and downloaded on to the phone. The device could operate on various GSM networks as well as CDMA 2100, which meant they could stay connected to the internet and family and friends in most of the countries they passed through.

“GPS devices are a must-have tool of any trip these days,” Boorman says, pointing out a new cultural phenomenon he noticed. “There’s a whole culture now where you meet travellers who don’t give you a scrap of paper with their address on it, they give their GPS coordinates. ‘I’ve seen this amazing place in Malawi you’ve got to go to! I’ll give you the coordinates!’

“It’s an incredible culture,” says Boorman, a self-confessed gadget freak who finds the notion of people sharing the beauty of the world through GPS romantic and compelling. “On the internet you can swap GPS details and use tools like Google Maps. It’s amazing.”

When Boorman is asked if technology let him down at any point during the trip he says no, except for problems with their walkie-talkies which were mounted too far back on their bikes and were affected by vibration. “GPS devices are fantastic, but when travelling, especially in the middle of Africa, you must always bring a map as well.

“We used satellite-navigation on our first trip from London to New York. The technology is roughly the same but today it is graphically very different and you have a lot more options. On the whole, GPS is fine but you still need maps because the information available can be different to what’s on the ground. You need to be vigilant for obstacles.”

Despite GPS and modern technology, Boorman and McGregor still needed to ask directions and got lost from time to time.

“When we were travelling across rough terrain or deserts you have to turn your GPS to off-road mode and what it does is give you a straight line to the place you want to get to. But you need to figure your way around obstacles and that’s when you need to have your map with you. Often GPS will give you the main towns and lakes but you can figure out obstacles on the map.”

Another item of technology Boorman felt he couldn’t do without was his iPod. “We charged up our GPS units and iPods through the cigarette lighters on our bikes.

“I had about 3,500 songs on my iPod and very quickly realised that half it was crap. I mostly listened to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Beethoven and The Clash.”

What mattered most to Boorman during the Long Way Down was the experiences, the food and most of all the people. “I completely fell in love with Africa. The more you go through several countries, you realise that people everywhere are just the same.

“It made me think of the people in Basra, for example. All they want is for the war to stop, so they can open their shop again and send their kids to school. It’s always just a small number of people who screw it up for everyone else.”

Prior to travelling through Africa, Boorman and McGregor went through survival training in Devon where they were schooled in what to do if there was a kidnapping attempt. At this stage they also acquainted themselves with the political situation in the countries they would pass through as well as mid-trip keeping themselves up to speed on unfolding political situations in places like Darfur via TV and the internet.

“The reason we chose Africa was because we had a humbling experience with UNICEF the last time and wanted to work with it again and highlight the problems going on in Africa. I learned that Africa has so much more to offer than most of the western world knows. It’s not all about war and famine.

“Ethiopia is like stepping back in time 300 years and not much has changed. They are an amazing, remarkable and beautiful people.”

Boorman says biking was the best way to see the country. “On a bike you’ve got to ride through the elements, hanging on through rain and sandstorms. With a car you’re stepping out of your own environment into someone else’s. It’s not the same contact.

“A lot of the time you’re actually alone. The two of us could go down the same stretch of road but both of us could have a completely different outlook. We’d both sit down and write about it and relate a completely different experience. ‘Did you see that waterfall?’ ‘No. Did you see that guy on the donkey?'”
There were some hair-raising times too.

“There were moments I would always be questioning whether we’re going the right way and Ewan would come on the radio and say ‘Trust the machine Charley.'”

There were also moments of life-affirming beauty. “In Sudan we followed the Nile road. The day was hot and so was the night. You’d be sleeping in a sheet looking up at the stars and you’d fall asleep to the wind.”

Boorman and McGregor already have their sights on future trips, while Boorman himself may realise a childhood ambition to finally kick-start a MotoGP career.

“When we were finishing this we started thinking about the next one and we talked about A Long Way Up, going from South America to North America. But we’ve also been thinking about going from London through Asia and India and down to Sydney.

“We only got back a few months ago and it’s usually two years between the two so we’ll see.”

Long Way Down airs on BBC2 at 9pm on Sunday 28 October. The book Long Way Down is in shops now

By John Kennedy