Interview – Ten Years of Charley Boorman Part Two.

Welcome to part two of our Charley Boorman interview. Following the first part, we pick up following the end of the Long Way Round saga. At this point LWR had gone live and had immense success. For Charley things changed quickly and new opportunities presented themselves, including the incredible Dakar Rally.

BRAKE

So, lets talk about Dakar. Where did the idea of ‘Race to Dakar’ come from?

CHARLEY

Dakar was something I’d always watched in Ireland. In Britain, the Dakar’s not big, no-one really watches it. In Ireland it’s quite big, more like it is in France or Spain. It’d always sort of sat in the back of my mind. I met Simon Pavey when we were training for Long Way Round and he’d just come back from the Dakar Rally. I think it was a combination of things. Ewan and I’d be riding along on these dirt gravel roads and saying “Oh, we’re having a Dakar moment here”. We came back (from the trip) and I met a guy called Chris Evans, not the DJ, and he does all the entries for the Dakar. I met him at a Moto GP race in Valencia, we all got drunk together. I told him that I fancied doing the Dakar and he said “oh, I do all the entries”. It went from there, Simon had done the Dakar a load of times. He trained us before so I approached him then and asked him what he thought. I think he thought something like “Charley can’t ride a fucking bike, but if I get a free Dakar then I’ll probably do it.” So that’s how it started, it was the start of a massive adventure.

You look around and there are thousands of people, they’re all shit-faced because it’s New Year’s morning and I was looking around. I thought to myself “Ya know, I could win this race!”

BRAKE

From the outside, Dakar is a race that people who aren’t involved in dirt bikes can connect to, even the prep side is one of the toughest points. There a lots of ups and downs. How did you find all the preparation process because it must’ve been a steep learning curve for you?

CHARLEY

It was a massive, steep learning curve for me. We hadn’t really left ourselves much time either, by the time we got the green light for everything it was well into the year. I thought I could ride a bike but when I started training and started doing enduro’s I realised I had so much to learn. Plus the fact that nobody understands, even a good enduro rider, nobody understands what it’s like to do the Dakar rally. It’s impossible to explain to people how difficult it is. Most of the time it’s a ticking time bomb, like a tap just dripping constantly in your head. Some days you feel great, other days you’re terrified, you’re trying to understand the road books. Eventually you end up at the start and that’s even more terrifying. There are so many people. You have to go through the whole scrutineering process at the start and every person you meet has some terrible disaster story to tell you.

Finally you do it (start the race), you’re totally panicked on that first day and lot of people crash out in the early days because of that. They’re riding too fast and worried about taking to long. Then you’ve got the road book and that doesn’t make any sense because some other guy has written it and you have to get into the head of the guy that’s written it, because they’d pick different landmarks as markers and so on. There is so much going on. In a car you have a navigator but on a bike you have to do it all. Most of the time you’re behind on everything and when you finally get going there’ll be a triple danger right in front of you and you’ll be all “OH SHIT”. I’d like to go back again because I feel I’d be much more relaxed, relaxed because I know I could ride. It’s always going to be hard, that’s the biggest challenge is staying on the bike but I wouldn’t have to worry about that so much. Then I could concentrate on the psychological side of it. If you’re ‘bike fit’ then you don’t have to worry about that part of it and can spend more time on other parts, more time reading the road book and looking where you’re going. That would help tremendously compared to when I did it. I was just in a blind panic.

BRAKE

Do you feel the TV did that preparation process justice? Do you think even with the good coverage it got was it still put across was how difficult the event is?

CHARLEY

It’s always impossible to show people. It’s just so difficult. You show people on the mountains we were training on they were steep as you can imagine and some of the riding we did is hardcore riding, but on film it looks flat. It’s really difficult to show what you actually do up in the mountains in the stupid places that we ended up. I go riding now and my ability is some much higher, things I found really hard then aren’t now.

BRAKE

Did you ever feel like you were ready to be there?

CHARLEY

I never felt I was ready. You just don’t, I don’t think many people do. It’s impossible to understand what you’re about to go through. I think the first time, even with all the help in the world , you haven’t got a fucking clue.

The first thing she said was “Thank fuck for that, I can sleep tonight.”

BRAKE

The start in the Dakar, with all the fans is insane, how did that feel?

CHARLEY

The funny thing was, you get to the start, it’s early in the morning and I’d had a freak out on my road book the night before. I had reels of it all over the bedroom, highlighting everything.  Each night you go through the road book and highlight the dangerous bits. Anyway, I was rolling this thing back up, I hadn’t done it tight enough and couldn’t get it in the holder, it was a nightmare. Then you queue for the start. One of my dreams had been to have a start number in a proper race. I rode up onto the podium where they announce your name. You look around and there are thousands of people, they’re all shit-faced because it’s New Year’s morning and I was looking around. I thought to myself “Ya know, I could win this race!” As I rode down off the podium I almost fell off the bike and thought maybe not. But there was moment where I thought I could win it.

BRAKE

I remember during the event, being apprehensive of doing something stupid in the event and I was always fully aware of just how dangerous the race really was. Is that something you suffered from when you were riding?

CHARLEY

Most of the time when you are riding you’re just concentrated but there are many times in the day you come up with a legitimate excuse to stop. You think, “Fuck this”. I remember going past one guy and he was all over the place, he’d had a massive crash, someone had pulled his Balise (Safety Beacon that contact the helicopter and removes you from the event) and you tinker past. I remember thinking, I’m not gonna stop because he has a guy with him and the daylight was running out already. Then you ride off and start to speed up again and you get these thoughts, “Hang on a minute, I haven’t a clue where I’m going or what’s coming next and I’m riding as fast as I can.” There were definitely times where, well, yeah. I didn’t realise how much I’d put myself through until I broke my hands. I rode to the end of the day because I wasn’t sure if they were broken. When I took my gloves off it was clear there was something really badly wrong with them. They told me I was out so I rang my wife. I’d held it together until then. I told her I’d had a crash but I was okay. The first thing she said was “Thank fuck for that, I can sleep tonight.” I suddenly realised what I’d put my family and friends through, everybody was really concerned about my safety, that there was a chance I would not come back or come back really messed up. In that sense it’s a really selfish race.

BRAKE

The race itself is like a very extreme version of travelling, how did that compare with what you did with LWR?

CHARLEY

I think they’re two totally different things. You can compare them in that they both have endurance, but a very different type of endurance. The dakar is very intense, it’s all about how mentally strong you are. I suppose LWR and LWD were long days, day after day, so I suppose in those ways it’s similar. Then in other ways it’s so totally different, you not really risking your life on an overland adventure. Something could definitely go wrong, and plenty of people have had problems, but those are kind of overland travelling human things. The Dakar is proper race. They both require different types of endurance.

BRAKE

So seeing your team-mate Matt,  who is a very good bike rider, go out. What was that like for you? Did it confirm that the race is really hard, did that help you mentally?

CHARLEY

The year I did it there was 250 bikes entered and only 67 bikes finished so that’s a high fallout. I always thought it was very difficult for Matt because it’s really difficult to get to a point where you have to stop and I always felt lucky that I was able to finish the day. Matt had to make that decision half way through the day to stop actually and quite rightly because it’s all about being safe. I think if you asked him now he’d have gotten back on the bike and ridden the rest of the stage because of the disaster he had trying to get home. That was probably harder. A lot of people talk about that, especially in Africa, once you were out it was actually harder to get out because they dump you and that’s it. That’s all hindsight though, I think he really did the right thing, I think we all did. What we wanted for the TV show was for everyone at the finish, regardless of how they got there, that was important. The big thing I learnt is getting to the start line, whatever happens after that is just a bonus.

BRAKE

What don’t people get from the TV show?

CHARLEY

People don’t understand the mental side of it, they can’t see how far you have to go, how deep you have to push yourself to get on. Each day you ride the Dakar you have 1000 legit reasons to stop, you have to push yourself to say, “I’ll just get to the next hill or I’ll just make this”. It’s that ability to try and that’s why Simon is so good, he’s so dogged about everything. Once he gets something in his mind that is it and that’s a quality you need to finish the Dakar.

 I had the door slightly open, thinking “fuck, I’m gonna have to jump”. I had the cameraman in the back who was panicking because he couldn’t get out.

BRAKE

Long Way Down, how did that happen?

CHARLEY

We’d always spoken about wanting to do another one, to go down through Africa. We umm’d and aaard about it. He flew out to the end of Dakar. It think coming there and seeing all the bikes and trucks, it got all of our juices going. We all decided then to do another trip. I think every overland person wants to travel Africa. It’s so different to any other place. When we did LWR it was around the top of the world, it was sparse of people and animals. Africa is rammed to the gunnels with people and all this incredible, big wildlife. Sometimes you’ll be riding and have to stop because 40 elephants are crossing the road. Where else in the world can you see that? You certainly don’t get in Argentina or any other places. That’s the beauty of it, that and cultural diversity of it is unbelievable.

BRAKE

It came across as though the second show was less organic than the first because there was the preconceived notion that you would make a tv show. Did that make the atmosphere different?

CHARLEY

It was different in may ways. We’d been on a trip already so that changed it; the countries were very different, Africa is a much more complicated place to travel through and the way things work with corruption, the way the systems are, it puts on a lot of different stresses. It’s far bigger than you think and getting anywhere takes much longer than you imagine. It was a very different experience, it was still awesome but absolutely, totally different.

BRAKE

Was there any TV pressures in the second series or any expectation to create drama?

CHARLEY

I think there was always expectation because the first one had done so well. We still tried very hard to keep it relaxed. One thing we’d learnt from LWR was that we didn’t need to build drama, it will happen. It was different.

BRAKE

Did you enjoy it?

CHARLEY

Absolutely, I go back two or three times a year, I love the place. It’s the best continent on earth I think.

BRAKE

How did that trip affect your relationship with Ewan?

CHARLEY

Ewan and I have always worked very well together, we’ve always been very tolerant of each other. One of the things that happened with Ewan and I is that we would often dovetail each others emotions. If someone was not feeling so well the other one would bring the other one up, it worked really well. We had a lovely time, really. There was pressure because we didn’t have as much time as we’d like but then if you ask any traveller they feel the same. They might go for six months and they’ll feel like they didn’t have enough time to take it all in.

I swear, I looked on one side where there was an open bit with six lions sleeping. I couldn’t crash down there but on the other side was a fucking rhino eating.

BRAKE

Since those shows our career has changed massively and you’ve built this persona as a travel TV personality that’s helped you do amazing things. Among all of that, what was your scariest moment?

CHARLEY

When I did Extreme Frontiers in South Africa, we were going up the Sani Pass toward Lesotho in winter. There is a lot of snow there in winter, I had no idea, I thought it was just lions and deserts. There was big drifts up in the Drakensberg Mountains. I got to a point where I couldn’t get the bike any further, it was sheet ice everywhere. We got a guy in 4×4, we convinced him to take us up the rest of the way. We could barely get up, there was cars sliding everywhere. We got a fair way up to this one hairpin. We were climbing this steep part and doing really well. Suddenly all forward momentum stopped, the wheels were spinning up. We started sliding backward, wheels still spinning, heading to this hairpin and cliff. I had the door slightly open, thinking “fuck, I’m gonna have to jump”. I had the cameraman in the back who was panicking because he couldn’t get out. Everyone was ready to bail, I was telling them all “wait, wait”. Luckily the car caught some grip on the right side and we able to stop, but we were firing backward. That was heavy. It’s all on film, fair play to the driver and cameraman. There was definitely some hesitance because of the camera, you’d have a looked a real tit if you bailed and left everyone else behind.

BRAKE

On the flipside, what was your most enjoyable moments?

CHARLEY

I think the really good, amazing bits blend together and the disasters you remember most fondly. Camping in Mongolia by the lake, with it turning pink and wild horses was up there. Those slap-in-your-face moments you remember. I remember where we first started the ‘Road of Bones’, we stood on a bridge that we’d seen in a photo. This guy told us we’d have to find a truck because we’d never get over the rivers. We got to that bridge and walked across it, that was a really big moment. This was the photo that made us go there. The feeling of riding into New York too, crossing the bridge and seeing the Statue of Liberty, the end of our trip, that was an amazing feeling.

BRAKE

What’s the most most stupid thing you’ve done?

CHARLEY

My second flight of a paramotor, that’s a paraglider with a motor your back. I decided to do that in a game reserve in SA. It was only my second solo flight. I took off from this runway, it was a bit of a dodgy take-off. I realised the trees around me were these big trees with huge throws. I hadn’t thought about that. Anyway, I got up quite high and the wind was really strong, it was pushing backward, I couldn’t go forward. I went downwind and started to fly low. When you fly low, you have to build height and then drop to move forward. I was pretty worried because there was nowhere to land, there were trees everywhere. I swear, I looked on one side where there was an open bit with six lions sleeping. I couldn’t crash down there but on the other side was a fucking rhino eating so I had to make it back to the runway. That was dumb, that and the Sani pass. They were dumb.

BRAKE

Okay, thanks very much for you time and the stories.

CHARLEY

Any time.

Crafted By

Llewellyn Sullivan-Pavey

Photographer, Videographer, Writer, Motorcycle Racer, Dakar Rally Finisher and BRAKE Magazine's big dog, Llewelyn really likes to do things involving motorcycles. He also likes bicycles, coffee, pop punk and making horrendous puns.

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