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.
Charley Boorman, what ever you think about him, has done a lot for adventure travel. The TV series Long Way Round was a brilliantly inspiring episodic rollercoaster of emotion, and denying that is lying to yourself. When that TV show aired I was merely 14 years old. Like many other viewers of that show, it struck a chord with me.
The show portrayed places of the world to my naïve viewpoint that were fresh, incredible landscapes, and bloody hell, I wanted to ride my bike where Charley and Ewan were. Over the years many people have maligned that show for various reasons, so we thought we’d find out a little more about what really went down. We road tripped it to London town to hang out with Mr Boorman in his shared bike shed to talk childhood riding, travel, big bikes, small bikes, custom bikes, fear, phobia and the ‘support’ truck issue.
Ten years of experience and drama is one heck of a ride. Welcome to part one, of an epic two part journey.
BRAKE First up, let’s start right at the beginning. For you, was it an interest in travelling or an interest in motorcycling that came first?
CHARLEY For me, I’ve always travelled, right from when I was a baby. My father makes films. His famous ones are Deliverance and Excalibur; it meant we travelled all around the world. We went from California, to the South Pacific, to Brazil and I grew up Ireland, so we were always well travelled. I think I get that from my father, that kinda gypsy, wanderlust thing.
My father had no interest in motorcycles or anything. He was quite into horses, so I used to ride a lot. There was a guy, who lived in our local village in Ireland, called Tommy Rochford. He had a Maico 400, which at the time was the bomb, it was the dog’s cock. Tommy’s dad was my mate’s gardener, anyway, I eventually found out it was Tommy that had the bike, he was older than me and I convinced him, I was about seven at the time, I convinced him to give me a go on his bike. I couldn’t really touch the footpegs so he put it in first gear and pushed me off around this field. I wobbled about for a while ’til I fell off. I’ve been addicted to bikes ever since.
BRAKE What was your first bike, how did it go?
CHARLEY So from there, I had a monkey bike that I used to crash around on. My mate next door had, he had a lot of Yamaha YZ 80’s. They were kinda the birth of kids motocross. Eventually I got myself a DT 100, which I still have and both my daughters were taught to ride on that bike. It still starts, it’s been an unbelievable bike. Then I had a YZ 250, so I missed out the 125, which my father was really not happy about. I remember him saying “it’s the wrong bike for you” but I was convinced it was the one. I was only about 13.
BRAKE Oh wow.
CHARLEY I remember, I eventually got the bike and Dad was playing tennis with his mate. I wheelied past the tennis court, looking at him as if to say “look, I can do this”. As I put the wheel down I realised I couldn’t stop and smacked into a barbed wire fence. My father had to pick up all this barbed wire out and pull me out of the thing, so that 250 didn’t last long. Then I had a break for a while ‘cos I started acting. I made a movie with my Dad called Emerald Forest, which did quite well. I started making movies and there was just a small period of time when I was about 19 where I didn’t have a bike. I had moved to London and so got this Suzuki 125. I can’t remember exactly what is, it was a motocross/enduro looking bike, it was gorgeous.
I’ve had whole bunch of different [bikes]. I had R1’s, then started running a motorbike race team with Ewan [McGregor]. We ran R1’s in the British Superstock with David Jeffries and Matt Llewellyn, that was kinda cool.
Since that, I’ve had all sorts of bikes. Ewan and I did Long Way Round ten years ago. I’d met Ewan a few years before on a movie called The Serpents Kiss and that’s when we started running a motorbike race team, we started doing holidays together, we were doing all sorts of stuff together. We kept talking about, “wouldn’t it be nice to do a bike trip…”
BRAKE So before Long Way Round had you done any travelling like that?
CHARLEY Not on bikes, just odd weekends and usual stuff like that. We just kept talking about it. It took us about two years before we got committed and got to a point where we thought we could do it. We were just gonna go down to Spain and meet our families down there, have a summer holiday and ride back up again. Then Ewan rang me up one day and said, ”I’ve got this idea, erm, why don’t you come round to the house?” We were then thinking and talking about going to China. I went to Ewan’s house for dinner, he had the world map out. “It seems if we go to China, the Bering Straits [sic] are just over there, why don’t we just hop over and then carry on to New York. I thought, that’s a good idea, I mean it was a small map, so yeah, if you’re convincing someone you need to go somewhere or you want someone to come with you, it’s a good idea to get a small map!
That’s when I realised I didn’t really have the money to do it, I had a wife and a mortgage and all that kinda stuff. Someone along the line had said, “It’d make a really good book, why don’t you approach some book publishers?” That’s what we did and they reacted, like “Actually that’s not a bad idea”. They were very keen, so we got the money from a book deal to be able to do the trip.
BRAKE So the book deal came before the idea to film the trip?
CHARLEY What happened was the book [deal] came and I’m severely Dyslexic. Ewan and I were both wondering how we were going to write it. Someone suggested it would be a really good idea to keep a detailed video diary so that we could download all our thoughts every day, then we could transcribe it. We got a guy to come and help us structure and write the book because it was going to have two voices, we needed his help to figure out how to write it. We did that and then we thought if we were going to do that, we could film a bit as well. If we went that far, we thought we’d get someone to film and we ended up with a TV show. The rest is history, so thats kinda how we ended up doing it.
BRAKE The KTM/BMW situation is one that’s talked about, when people talk Long Way Round. Do you feel like the 1150 GSA was the right bike to take and if so, why?
CHARLEY I think, if you look back at the situation, Ewan always wanted the BMW. It was me really who was pushing for the KTM but I think the 950 Adventure, there was a couple of problems with it. Firstly, it was relatively uncomfortable. KTM wanted us to go for the 640 but we didn’t wanna spend four and a half months sitting on a single because there is a big difference between a twin and a single [to ride], a huge difference. KTM’s Adventure, their fuel tanks were tiny in comparison to the BMW and their riding position was uncomfortable after a period of time. But anyway, I convinced everyone that the KTM was the one that we should go for, and then KTM turned around and said “Actually, we don’t think you’re going to make it, so we’re not interested”. Whereas BMW said “Actually, we know our bikes can do it, it’s up to you whether you make it or not.” I was really pissed with KTM because they’d said “yes” and then they pulled it, that could of put us into to terrible trouble, with suddenly not having any bikes. So that’s why I was so pissed about that. We got to Magadan in the end and into Russia. Before flying over to America we sent them [KTM] an email saying “Arrived two day’s early, bikes doing well, Love Ewan and Charley”. We never got a reply.
BRAKE A lot of figureheads in the adventure riding community are very anti ‘big bike’, they don’t see GS’s and such as really capable adventure bikes. It’s quite a split community of those who love them and those who hate them, so would you have preferred it, if that bike was smaller and lighter, or were you happy with it?
CHARLEY Regardless of what people think, if you going to put it into reality, there is a great guy, Nathan Millward, who left Sydney on a Postie Bike, a little Honda thing and happily rode to London and had a fantastic trip. It’s amazing, he’s written a couple of books and he’s a f**kin’ nice guy. I think it’s irrelevant, the bike, it’s the person and the adventure, you know. I mean sure, if you look at LWD and LWR, probably five percent of the journey you’d be sitting there thinking you wish you had something smaller. The rest of the time on that adventure, the rest of the time you’re riding in places like Ethiopia or Kenya or wherever it is and you’re on big gravel roads or f**ked up tarmac and those types of road, you’re not on proper off-road. Those GS’s, I dare anybody to suggest that the bike isn’t good for that stuff. I do believe that guys like Austin Vince does what he does and I think his videos are brilliant, Nick Sanders does what he does, he rides around the world on an R1 and never stops, it’s really irrelevant [what type of bike you ride]. I think it’s a bit naive to point a finger and say “Well, that bikes no good to do that job”. It’s bullshit.
BRAKE So, what was the relationship and atmosphere like on LWR? It was an odd dynamic because you had yourself and Ewan who are best mates, who have been doing things together for years, and then you’re going on a really intense trip. Then you bought Claudio in, who has joined your duo silently, but he’s there. What was that dynamic like and how did relationships change over the trip?
CHARLEY The key was the kind of person to take with you. We’d met lots and lots of [camera] people that had said they wanted to take a sound man as well. We just wanted three of us on bikes, we didn’t want a fourth bike. The idea was set up so we’d be three or four days on our own, and then we’d meet with the crew to swap out the footage every four or five days. If a big story came up we could get the support crew to come in with a second camera to start filming a good story. We always had the crew with us for the Unicef projects so we could film the kids as quickly as possible, so as not to disturb their lives too much. When Claudio came along – we’d been struggling to find someone, then this guy Claudio came along, he had this tiny camera where everyone else had these big cameras, all this kinda stuff.
He could do it all, he’d been to Afghanistan when the Russians were there, he’d spent time with the rebels, he interviewed Bin Laden and came back and told everyone the guy was a nutter years before he [Bin Laden] became famous, he really knew what he was doing. He’d been up in the mountains of Afghanistan with the Taliban and there was Ewan and I going “Oh well, we’ll be camping a lot of the days and sitting on a motorbike, it’s gonna be tough”. It was nothing for him. But because of him, the dynamic worked beautifully. He was very bullish with his camera. He’d walk into any situation with his camera, filming right in peoples faces. He was brilliant and without him I don’t think the TV show would’ve been anywhere near as good. I think he captured and completely understood what we were trying to do. He was an hilarious fellow, just bonkers.
BRAKE That relationship stayed good throughout the whole trip?
CHARLEY Yeah it did. He did Long Way Round, he did Dakar with me, By Any Means, we did Extreme Frontiers together; I think we’ve done five shows together now.
So how do you feel like you changed during the trip? Did it alter your personality, did your relationship with Ewan change?
CHARLEY I always said beforehand that the trip wasn’t going to change me but it did, in lots of different ways. It changed my life in a financial way, it took me in a completely different direction. I’d never have been able to do the Dakar Rally without having done LWR; I’ve been able to travel all over the world making TV shows and I’ve seen unbelievable things that I’d never dreamed of being able to do before LWR. I think originally Ewan and I were just going to do it together, there wasn’t going to be anybody. The reason we went for the book and eventually the TV show was because I didn’t have the money. I think Ewan is an incredibly generous person and incredibly sensitive to other peoples’ feelings. I think he went down that route because of me. He did that because he wanted to do the trip as much as I did, but I needed more help. So I have a huge amount to thank Ewan for, for his generosity and kindness, for the fun we’ve had together. We’re still great mates, it’s definitely changed my life completely, totally. It was naive of me to sit there and say “oh, it’s never going to change my life”. What a load of bollocks.
BRAKE You could never foresee that though.
CHARLEY No you couldn’t. But I tell you who else needs a massive thank you, is Tony Jakeman. You know, when we were talking to BMW UK about it, to Tony, he put it across to Germany and they said “no”, they didn’t see the point of it. He gave us support anyway and it then it turned out to be this big thing. BMW sales went up by 45% and Global adventure sales have gone up exponentially since then. I don’t know if it’s true, but a lot of people say it’s because of what we did, it changed the market.
BRAKE You must have some incredible memories from that first show. As a viewer there are some real standout points, in Russia on the Road of Bones, in Mongolia on the plains, but what are the moments that really stand out for you?
CHARLEY Anything good or juicy that happened is in the TV show. We’ve got loads of footage of us just f**king around. I think when anyone does anything around the world, even if it’s a weekend trip or a week, it doesn’t really matter, you remember it but don’t remember it as a whole. What you do remember and do so most fondly, are the bits that go wrong. I remember being on the border going into Ukraine. Eighteen hours we sat there just waiting. I think the Road of Bones, that was everything we’d dreamed of, to go on an adventure, it all happened there. If you were going to write that in a script for a documovie, no one would believe it. You wouldn’t dream up half the shit that happened. That was amazing, doing those river crossings. The road itself wasn’t that bad, but those rivers, every corner we turned and went down a valley there was a river with no bridge. It was a nightmare. There was a bunch of days where we only did ten miles in a day.
Then Mongolia really stood out. We had loads of problems there, the support guys crashed their car. We were only 50 miles away when we got a satellite call, but that 50 miles had taken all day and by that stage it was too late to help. We were having our own problems getting through because of the weather. Because it’d been raining it had this thin slime on top, it was like glass. Every time you tried to get off the road onto the grass there’d be a massive rabbit hole or a ditch or something. It made it almost impossible to ride off the main road as well. Those bits were tough.
Meeting Igor in Ukraine, the crazy Russian guy, that was a crazy night. Those bits are the ones you remember, where it goes wrong. If you ask anyone, they’ll all say the same thing.
BRAKE How did you find those moments that it got really tough? Did you get to the point where you didn’t want to be there any more or did you relish them? How do you feel like you reacted to that?
CHARLEY There were loads of times where you’re just sat there like “Who’s f**king idea was this?”.(Laughs) Normally at those times Claudio would throw it back (in a mock swiss accent) “Yes well Charley, it was your f**king idea!”. Everyone moans at the time. When you spend that much time together there are always times where you hit a low. Most of the time it was because of food. In Mongolia we really made a mistake, we didn’t really have any food. We were hungry most of the time, you’d eat something at breakfast and by three o’clock you were hungry. I remember watching Ewan and just the way he was riding was irritating me. We were in this really difficult valley and we couldn’t get out. We realised we hadn’t eaten, so stopped and had a scoff. Then all the problems are still there but we’re laughing about them, rather than them just irritating the f**k out of you.
Another day you just woke up and you’re just in a bad mood. In Mongolia I think we slept in a tent 18 nights in a row. You never sleep brilliantly in a tent so some days you were just ground down. But y’know then you’d remind yourself why you were here. I remember we camped in this one place in Mongolia. We pulled off the side of the road by this huge lake, pitched our tents and on the other side the sun was setting. The whole whole lake turned pink, it was just incredible. On the other side there must’ve been 40 wild horses just running across the landscape. We sat there, it was an awesome moment, to think we rode here from London. You’d have unbelievable lows and unbelievable highs!
With our interview lasting for a truly epic 70 minutes, Mr Boorman’s friendly, talkative nature provided more words than can feasibly fit into full sized novel, let alone a magazine feature. With the core topic of Long Way Round covered, next month we pick up with the depths of Charley’s challenging and mind opening attempt at the Dakar; the intense atmosphere of filming Long Way Down and some of the incredible, dangerous experiences that have followed in his new line of TV work.
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