Driven. Wisecracking. Dangerous. If you only knew Charley Boorman for his free-spirited biking antics alongside Ewan McGregor in their seminal TV saga Long Way Round, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was just one of the boys.
As WideWorld found out when we spoke to Charley last week, this family man likes to keep one foot firmly on the ground. The other foot? Well, it’s itching to venture out into the wilderness once more.
Taking his adventures on the road with a spoken word show in March, and a published book detailing his latest By Any Means trip from Sydney to Tokyo, the former actor was good enough to take the time to discuss his travels, adventures – and the essentials he can’t do without.
We hear you’ve just returned from Afghanistan with the Help for Heroes charity. How was the experience?
It was pretty amazing. You don’t realise the scale of what’s going on until you actually go out there: there are a lot of people! The camps are like small cities. There’s everything there, from the kitchen to the guys that fight on the front line and everybody in between.
The boys out there are doing a fantastic job. They very much appreciate all the support they’re getting from Help for Heroes and all the goodwill that comes from the British people. It makes a big difference to them out there.
Your career as an adventurer really took off with Ewan McGregor in tow. How has it been over the last year or two setting off on your own?
I think every experience is different. I did Long Way Round with Ewan and after that, I did the Dakar Rally without him, which was painful! I crashed on day five and broke my hand. I was riding in a team of three and we always knew that it would be tough for one of us to finish. Then I rode another 450 kilometres after that and got to a doctor. I know, stupid really. This doctor just laughed at me and said, not only can you not ride a motorbike; I’d be shocked if you can wipe your own arse!
Then Ewan and I did Long Way Down together, and a solo thing in between. The experience of going around the world with your best mate is incredible and experiencing Africa, Russia and Mongolia – places like that – was absolutely wonderful.
Of course – but you must have favourites. Which locations stick in the mind most?
I think probably Mongolia on the first trip with Ewan, which was incredibly difficult to get across and there was very little food around. The people there are wonderful: you can just pop up your tent alongside one of them and they’d always invite you in for some food. Incredibly lovely people.
Then, for complete wildness, Papua New Guinea, on this last trip that I did. I mean, the highlands were only discovered in the 1930s, so as you can imagine, it’s quite a step back in time. It’s a tough place to get around, definitely not a place for the faint hearted, but really rewarding.
Ever since Ewan and I first started doing these trips, it’s always been about the people that you meet along the way. The motorbikes were great, but the bikes were just the transport to get to meet the people. That’s the great thing about all the places I’ve been around the world; the people. It’s never as bad or as dangerous as people want you to think it is. When you think about how many thousands of kids go to Africa for their gap year, you hear the odd bizarre story but never really much else. Travel is the spice of life really.
Your recent book ‘Right to the edge: Sydney to Tokyo by any Means’ sees you use various methods of transportation to travel through some of the world’s most beautiful and volatile environments. Aside from your motorbike, what was your preferred method of transport?
I suppose all the bizarre ones, like ending up in a dug-out canoe, heading up through Papua New Guinea to go and stay with some small village tribe in the middle of the jungle. That was kind of cool. My motorbike’s the best, but that’s just fun. I ride my bike every day in London.
This year, you’re taking a break from your overseas adventures to tour the UK and Ireland in a new show.
Yes, in March I’m doing a 30-date tour. All the dates are on www.charleyboormanlive.com. Basically it’s a bit of a roadshow I suppose, where I’ve got a guest, Simon Pavey who I did the Dakar Rally with. We tell all the stories from all the different projects I’ve done, all the funny stories and the dodgy things that happened. It’s a real evening chat. The audience can get involved and pretty much ask anything they want.
What adventures do you have planned when the tour ends in March?
I’m doing an African tour, where a bunch of people are going to come and ride with me from Cape Town to Victoria Falls for a 14-day trip. That’s for the end of July and beginning of August.So if anyone wants to come along or get involved in that, they’re more than welcome! (Details on charleyboormanlive.co.uk) If they fancy a ‘Long Way Down’, ‘Long Way Round’ tour, they can join in and I can give them a bit of an experience of what it was like with Ewan and I. We’ll supply the bikes and the accommodation and everything. All they have to do is supply themselves.
It’s such a beautiful place, Africa. We’ll visit people’s farmhouses and go on safari. They’ll get a real mix of everything. It’s such a great place to see. There’s so much out there. You’ve got the desert, the animals, Victoria Falls. Once you’ve gone to Africa, most people fall in love.
You often take part in adventures that push you to your limits and take you overseas. Is it difficult to juggle that with family life?
A little bit. It’s obviously about striking that balance. I’ve travelled all my life. My father was always travelling so I always travelled as a kid. It’s what I’ve always done really. But Olivia and the kids are quite used to it.
What’s lovely is that, to a degree, the family can experience a little bit of what I do. I always try to go back the way I came a little bit to show the kids a little bit of what I’ve gone through. I’m an ambassador for UNICEF and we do the occasional project with the kids so they can see the work I do with UNICEF and get an idea of how children live around the world, having a really hard time. It’s important that kids see how other children live so that they know what they have.
Many are inspired by your approach to adventure. Is there anything you would advise to someone who is planning a similar kind of trip?
I suppose the hardest thing is to pick the date and stick to it and then to convince a couple of friends to come with you. If you can survive the planning, then the trip will be really easy!
It is worth doing a bit of planning. It always is. Getting all your visas and getting everything sorted out properly, so that you’re not risking paying on the border, because that’s crazy. Try and get yourself properly organised. I’m always an advocate of bringing baby wipes wherever we go. That’s a fantastic thing to bring with you! You don’t want a rashy bum on a bike!
We did some hostile environmental training with some ex-SAS guys when we first started. His advice was to buy the Gucci of sleeping bags and a roll matt. Really try and buy the best that you can. With a good night’s sleep, you can tackle anything. Having a good sleeping bag that you really enjoy getting into is a good idea. You’ll never be afraid to sleep in a dodgy bed that you’re not sure of.
How do you plan your adventures? How long does it take to prepare?
Well for us, obviously there’s more work to be done because of cameras and all sorts of stuff, so it does take a bit longer. So maybe five or six months prep beforehand. You’ve got to really research the countries if you’re going to find all the interesting things that are going on there. And then we work with UNICEF, so we have to link up with them and they have people to come in at specific times. So yes, there’s a lot of organisation, but all worth it!
But you can’t always plan for every eventuality, can you?
In Papua New Guinea, you can find out bus times and all that kind of stuff, but you can get on a bus and if it’s not full, it won’t go. So you’ll sit there and you’re supposed to go at eight in the morning and it won’t leave until 2pm. Always be prepared for things to change on the ground. You can plan, but it’s only a guideline. Use it as such. If you go off and do something else, you can always go back to the original plan.
Finally, Charley: what is your favourite part of independent travel?
The freedom of going around on your own. The great thing about being on the motorbike is that you have your tent, your sleeping bag, your petrol, some food and can just go off and you’re completely self-sufficient. You can stop anywhere, camp anywhere. There’s quite a sense of freedom. You’re in charge of your own destiny.
That’s why you’ve gone out to have this adventure, to be free, to have that escapism and that freedom to live out your adventure. Everyone needs to do it at least once in their lives.