by Danni Levy
Charley Boorman and best mate Ewan McGregor first took to the road in 2004, fuelling our appetites for adventure as they rode 19,000 miles from London to NYC on BMW R1150GS motorcycles. In spite of the obstacles they faced and the injuries incurred along the way, ‘Long Way Round’ was a huge hit and so, a long- term penchant for unforgettable motorcycle journeys was born.
“It’s taken me quite a long time to get here, but I do love it and I have to kick myself sometimes,” says Charley. I attempt to do a quick headcount of the motorcycle helmets lined up behind him as we sit down for a morning Zoom chat.
“I think I got my adventure from my father. He made films like Deliverance and Point Blank and all sorts of really big movies. They were always very difficult and adventurous productions. He was always traveling all over the world and so as children, we just followed him because we had no choice and then we were sort of thrown into his movies because he’d say ‘don’t pay for child actors, I’ve got four children and they can do it for free’. So we were always thrown into his movies. I think my first role was at five or six years old. I played Jon Voight’s son in Deliverance right at the end of the movie. My father said, ‘look, if you sit on that sofa with that bloke I’ll give you a tricycle’. It sounds quite dodgy but I really wanted the tricycle. It was always in really difficult locations and places too.
“Ewan and I met on a movie set and then we started traveling together. It was slightly accidental the traveling actually, I don’t think we ever really intended to go around the world on the first trip. The whole idea just kind of grew and by that time we’d convinced too many people we were doing it and then we had to do it. Especially when you get the money as well. I couldn’t afford to do it at the time. I was painting and decorating and doing people’s houses up and I was really strapped. And so we managed to get a book deal and you just sell any old bullshit to sell the idea and get the money. Any business does that, doesn’t it? I mean, you go to the bank or you go to an investor, a radio or TV station or a magazine to get the funding. Then you have to make it happen.”
Regardless of the obvious extremities they’ve battled, Charley and Ewan have been subject to critique from viewers who claim they should not have a support team traveling with them.
“We have Claudio our cameraman following us around on another bike and a couple of cars that follow loosely behind us,” says Charley. “If you want to make a decent TV show then you need that. But filming aside, it’s all about having fun and meeting amazing people and visiting amazing places. Whether you do a trip alone or with a friend, or with your sons or daughters, you can create lifetime memories.
“A guy contacted me after watching one of my shows. He was very sick at the time and waiting for a transplant. He told me he’d promised his son that if it all worked out they’d go on an adventure together. He contacted me sometime later to tell me he’d pulled through and gone on that trip with his son and that his wife and daughters didn’t want to miss out so they followed in a Jeep. The four of them had this incredible adventure together and it shows it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you do it.”
As part of their mission to spread cheer along the way, Charley and Ewan partnered with UNICEF to give back something to the communities across the globe who welcomed them with such open arms.
“The reason Ewan and I chose UNICEF is because we were leaving our own kids behind and missing them terribly and so the idea was to help kids along the way,” says Charley.
“We met Ewan’s adopted daughter Jamyan when we were in Mongolia. We all fell in love with her, Ewan in particular and so he ended up adopting her. Jamyan even came along on the trip a little bit this time which was just amazing. She’s such a wonderful girl and my godchild. I’ve known her since Mongolia. Not all the kids we meet are as lucky as Jamyan though and it’s always hard to say goodbye. In Guatemala so many kids had been sucked into gangs. They slowly reel them in and then the kids suddenly realize they’re drug trafficking or sex trafficking at a terribly young age. They shot one girl’s mother in front of her and threatened to shoot the rest of her family if she didn’t carry on. The problem is so real, and sometimes you wonder how on earth you can help people like that.
“The reason Ewan and I chose UNICEF is because we were leaving our own kids behind and missing them terribly and so the idea was to help kids along the way”
“UNICEF creates these safe places for kids to play and just be children without being groomed into becoming gang members. They clean up the entire community so the kids can play on the streets and have a better life and the gangs eventually go somewhere else. By highlighting what UNICEF do you can walk away assured there are people helping and you’ve helped them by spotlighting it.
“Both Ewan and I always say the bike ride is important of course, but really it’s about everything you do in-between and the people you meet. The charity work helps us to meet some extraordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. To see people doing these things is fascinating; it’s wonderful.”
“The charity work helps us to meet some extraordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. To see people doing these things is fascinating; it’s wonderful”
Whilst never short of humor, the lad’s extreme excursions have given rise to a multitude of unfortunate events.
“I will never forget Mongolia,” says Charley. “Suddenly, before we knew it, Ewan and I were sitting in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Mongolia. One of the support vehicles that was a day or so behind us had just crashed and we were looking around thinking, ‘what the fuck are we doing? Whose idea was this?’ And then we realized it was our idea, so we couldn’t exactly blame anyone for being there except ourselves.
“I think at that point we were really close to leaving Mongolia, because everything went wrong from the moment we entered the country. It was really tough. There are no roads, no signposts, no shops, it
was very difficult to find food. I mean it was really, really not what we were expecting.
“Deep down inside you I think there’s a real panic thinking, ‘shit this is bad’, but I think both Ewan and I hypothetically slapped each other in the face and got our shit together and carried on and it turned out to be one of the most touching places we ever visited and the most extraordinary place to travel. We met some incredibly kind people.
“When you take your driving test in Mongolia, you have to be able to prove that you can fix your vehicle. Every driver has to prove they can fix a car or a motorbike before being given a license. It doesn’t matter who it is. It’s so remote most of the time that you have to be able to show you can fix your vehicle otherwise you could be in terrible trouble. That’s where the locals came in…
“When you take your driving test in Mongolia, you have to be able to prove that you can fix your vehicle. Every driver has to prove they can fix a car or a motorbike before being given a license”
“I’ll never forget, Claudio’s bike had broken down and we were sitting on the side of the road. The second the first vehicle came by it stopped and I’ve never seen so many people get out of a tiny car in all my life! There were like twenty-odd people in this little two-door pickup truck, it was extraordinary. Everybody sat down to help, regardless of who we were and I think that was one of the most amazing places. We’d ridden there from home which was incredible and we were heading towards New York. That was one of the highlights I think. There’s always a certain part of every trip that stands out and you usually remember the hard bit the most- the breakdowns, falling off the bike, or that it was particularly difficult in a specific place.
“When we were in Papua New Guinea, they had these big machetes and started demanding money! I ended up having a huge argument with this guy and telling him I’d have given him money if he’d if he’d have fixed the road, but he hadn’t so I refused. We walked away laughing from that experience and saying, ‘wow, we got away with that but it could’ve gone either way’. Those are the parts you actually remember.”
Charley’s exploitative nature never sleeps, even when he’s not with best pal Ewan. His own show ‘By Any Means’ hit screens in 2008 and documented Charley’s journey from Wicklow, Ireland to Sydney, New South Wales, using a total of 112 modes of transport. These included an elephant and a mere 12-foot boat to cross the English Channel.
“I sat down with the production team before we started ‘By Any Means’ to discuss getting from A to B without using a plane,” he says. “We worked out how we wanted it to go, but sometimes a particular mode of transport didn’t work, so we had to find something else. On occasions, like when they closed the borders in China, we did have to use a plane because of political change. It’s all part of the fun, having to change things at the last minute. It seemed as if we were always getting arrested. We got this helicopter to fly us up to basecamp for Everest and we told the pilot we couldn’t cross over to China to carry on our journey and were now stuck in the Himalayas. We were flying past the border we were going to cross and he said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll hover over there so we can film it’ and without knowing he drifted over into their air space! All these Chinese soldiers were looking up with binoculars thinking, ‘what the hell is this helicopter doing?’ and they had guns and everything. That evening we discovered the Chinese had reported the helicopter pilot!
“Arrests aside, the most unfavorable mode of transport was probably the elephants- they’re actually very uncomfortable and can suddenly decide they want to grab a tree and start eating it! They’re so bouncy. There were some easier and speedier elements to the journey though. We were on these super-fast speedy river boats with car engines on them in Vietnam or Cambodia- they were really fast and incredible fun.”
Most recently, Charley and Ewan took to the road on electric bikes, traveling from Argentina to Los Angeles in ‘Long Way Up’. The trip spanned thirteen countries over 13,000 miles and took a total of 100 days to complete.
“We were flying past the border we were going to cross and he said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll hover over there so we can film it’ and without knowing he drifted over into their air space! All these Chinese soldiers were looking up with binoculars thinking, ‘what the hell is this helicopter doing?’”
“At first for sure it was a very different experience going electric,” says Charley.
“But what Harley did to make incredibly capable adventure bikes for us that handled incredibly well made them super-fun. They could do 0-60 in three seconds which is pretty quick. They had an amazing amount of performance. With petrol and diesel cars they try to make them as quiet as possible so there’s minimal sound from the engine and then when people talk about electric they say, ‘there’s no noise’, when they’ve spent the whole time trying to make cars (apart from sports cars) as quiet as possible. Once you’ve ridden an electric bike for a couple of days you don’t miss the noise. You do get a whirring noise though.
“It’s difficult when you switch to an electric bike and the world is still very confused over electric vehicles. I do a lot of stuff with electric now and a lot of pedal assist e-biking. I was cycling with this guy a while ago and he’d only just got his bike. He spent the whole ride watch- ing the percentage of his battery. He was completely obsessed by it. It’s what they call ‘range anxiety syndrome’. Apparently it’s a thing. Until you’ve ridden or driven an electric vehicle for a couple of months and realized there are charging stations everywhere and you don’t need to worry, you’ll have those fears. When Ewan and I did ‘Long Way Up’ we had those fears too. There was a lot of negativity from people saying they didn’t think we’d make it and we’d only get a 70 mile range, but when we went to Harley Davidson they assured us we’d get 150 mile range per day which was a lot less than a petrol bike but still very durable. By the time we got down there with these prototype bikes and prototype electric cars, we suddenly realized we’d organized this thing to do 13,000 miles across thirteen countries and Ewan and I had only ridden the bikes for about 45 minutes in total! We’d never charged them, we didn’t know how to charge them and for the whole of South and Central America there were no fast chargers, so it was all going to be a case of plugging into people’s houses. To fill up the bike that way takes a minimum of eleven hours. There were a few issues to say the least.
“One time we stopped by this bunch of llamas at the side of the road and because we weren’t making any noise they just stood there staring at us. They’ve got very pretty eyes actually llamas! It made us far more approachable not having the engines.
“When petrol cars first came out people had range anxiety syndrome in those days too. You could only buy petrol in a pharmacy and you’d fill your car up in your house and then worry about getting from A to B and finding more petrol. Now there are petrol stations everywhere and the same thing will happen with electric. I’ve got a charger in my home. If you plug it straight into the mains you can charge your car in two-and-a-half hours. Or you can just plug it in overnight. I have an electric car at home and also an electric bike, the LiveWire Harley created. You can get 150 mile range or more in an urban environment, so I only fill it up once a week and it costs £2.50 to fill it up from home.”
“The electric car I have I only fill up once every ten days or so, because it’ll do a couple of hundred miles. It costs just £6 a week to charge”
Charley believes change is coming for the greater good, whether we want it or not.
“People are afraid of change because they don’t understand it,” he says. “Regardless of whether you want electric or not, it’s coming. During the first lockdown I used to cycle around London. There were no cars or planes and the air quality completely changed. Everything changed. I remember thinking, ‘if it was mostly electric in cities, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing’. I haven’t bought a high-performance car for years because there are so many cameras and it’s impossible to give it a good blast.
Despite having one leg shorter than the other, Charley has no plans to stop riding anytime soon.
“Four years ago I had a huge crash and could’ve lost leg,” he says. “I can’t run anymore and I find it harder to climb mountains. It has changed things. After the accident, I was lying in the hospital thinking, ‘this is shit’ and feeling really sorry for myself. I was sharing a room with another patient and I looked over and he was worse off than me. I remember thinking, ‘actually, I think I got away with it’. The surgeon said to me, ‘you’ve broken some bones. I’m just a carpenter I’ve put them back together but the rest is up to you’. Nothing could’ve changed what happened so I knew I may as well just crack on.
“My left leg is still an inch shorter than my right. I can see my shoulders are wonky when I look in the mirror every morning. Everything is thrown out. My right ankle is always painful but there’s not much I can do about it. It’s always the last thing I think about before I go to bed and the same goes for when I wake up stiff and in pain- it’s always there.
“These things happen and you have to accept them. I’ve always ridden motorbikes. When you ride off -road you’re always going to expect injuries. Ask anyone who rides horses and they’ll tell you the same thing. They must all be as stupid as I am because they keep getting back on them!
“I’m thinking about doing another ‘By Any Means’ quite soon. When you get towards the end of these big trips, a big part of you wants to get home and see friends and family, but another part of you doesn’t really want to give it up. In order to make it easier to stop and go home, you start talking about the next trip. Ewan and I always talked about doing ‘Long Way Down Under’ or ‘Long Way Scandinavia’. Having something to look forward to makes it easier to stop, because you know there’s another adventure in the pipeline.
“For the next ‘By Any Means’, I’d like to keep it slightly closer to home. I think more electric and of course I’ll travel by anything. It’ll be interesting to see how things have changed, because it was a few years ago we did the last show. If my kids expressed an interest I’d love for them to come too.
“Ewan and I may act on the ‘Long Way Down Under’ idea. It’s always about trying to convince someone to give us the money to go and do it! It’s never easy. It’s all good fun. If you’re lucky enough to find something you really like doing
and then make something out of it that’s great.
“Maybe we can convince NASA to build us bikes for a space excursion and send Ewan and I to the moon so we can be the first two adventure riders to ride around the moon. ‘Long Way to The Moon’. Maybe I should approach Elon Musk, he’s always up for a challenge. We’ll have an electric rocket and then an electric motorbike to go around the moon- all paid for by Bitcoin!”