People

Man on a Mission

Neil Ridley meets the biker, presenter, adventurer and whisky lover...
By Neil Ridley
Charley Boorman is clearly a man who never likes to stand still and the past decade has seen him travel around the globe on numerous occasions, more often than not, on two wheels.

Neil Ridley catches up with him on the eve of yet another challenging motorcycling adventure to discuss a life in the saddle and a rather unusual incident involving whisky and a severed toe.

Now best known for being one of the UK’s leading modern TV adventurers, Charley Boorman initially followed a path into acting in the footsteps of his father, the acclaimed film director John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank). A chance on-set meeting with Ewan McGregor confirmed a shared love of motorcycles and the two men became close friends, with a desire to traverse some of the most challenging and often dangerous trails across the globe. In 2004 they filmed the award-winning series Long Way Round, which took them from London to New York via Europe and Asia. Since then, Charley has competed in the infamous Dakar Rally, as well as travelling from Ireland to Australia using as many bizarre modes of transport as possible in the documentary, By Any Means. I catch up with him for a quick dram before he heads off on his next two-wheeled adventure.

So tell me: actor, TV presenter or adventurer. Which best describes you?

“Well I guess you could say I’m lucky that I’ve managed to make a career out of riding motorcycles really,” points out Charley, as he makes his final preparations for a month long ride across Africa, from Cape Town to Victoria Falls and back.

“I’ve always been involved in film and TV and as children we were always thrown into my father’s films as ‘cheap fodder’ and because of that, we travelled around the world and had a great up-bringing.”

Do you think your father gave you the inspiration for such wanderlust?

“Absolutely. My father really gave me the sense of wanting to travel,” he explains. “When I was younger I used to use acting as a way of seeing the world, which was probably my downfall, in that I’d choose the location, rather than the script. For instance I’d be heading off to Africa and would read the script on the plane and think ‘oh s**t, I really shouldn’t have done this film!’”

So what drives your passion for riding bikes?

“Well it really came out of the blue,” he explains. “There was a guy in Ireland called Tommy Rochford whom I have to thank for my love of bikes. When I was about seven years old I kept hearing the engine of his little two-stroke bike, which kept calling to me and eventually I plucked up the courage to ask him for a go on it. My feet couldn’t touch the ground, so he stuck it in first gear for me and off I went. I fell off after a lap of the field, but by then I was hooked for life.”

I suppose meeting Ewan (McGregor) helped to crystallise your combined love of bikes and travelling?

“I met Ewan through a love of bikes and eventually one thing led to another and we were off around the world together, thinking ‘s**t, how did this happen!” he explains.

What was it like planning such a monumental trip like Long Way Round? I imagine spending that amount of time with someone, in such harsh conditions, no matter how friendly you are was quite daunting??

“To a degree it’s a real leap of faith,” explains Charley. “Nine times out of ten it will work. But if you didn’t know someone before the trip, you certainly will afterwards!Of course there’s always a risk that you might fall out or not get on, but with Ewan and I, in many ways we’re quite different, so we complemented each other. It’s a bit like a marriage when you travel together,” he adds, “so you have to learn to read the other person’s moods and give them some space when they need it.”

Our chat turns to the Dakar Rally, an event, which Charley entered as a biker, notorious for its extremely worrying fatality rate and harsh conditions. I ask what his key preparations were and how his family felt, knowing it was such a dangerous event.

He laughs: “My family were all really supportive, although I don’t think any of us actually realised just how dangerous it is. Certainly you hear stories from people saying ‘oh, that place in so-and-so is really dodgy’ and, of course, when you ask them if they’ve actually been, they say no. So a lot of the time, the stories are really unfair and largely untrue.
“But when you hear stories about the Dakar Rally” he continues, “the total opposite happens and people try to dumb the stories down, because they’re all true!”

You were quite badly injured a few days into the rally, weren’t you?

“It was something I’ve always wanted to do but it wasn’t until I’d crashed and broken my hands that I realised how much I put my family through – when I rang my wife to say it was all over, she said ‘well thank f*** for that, I can sleep now.’”

Let’s move onto whisky. Which whisky would you pack as a necessity, given a long trip?

“I love whisky, although, I’m not a massive drinker but tend to enjoy to the peatier side of whisky,” points out Charley. “I grew up in Ireland and I’m very partial to Paddy Irish whiskey, one reason is because I love the simplicity of the label, with all the counties on it.

“The Scottish lay claim to be the inventors of the modern world,” he laughs “but they can’t have the whisky! I’m also a huge fan of Talisker.”

Can you give me an example of when you’d reach for the comfort of a whisky?

“Well, on one trip we did a huge climb with Barry Blanchard (a famous Canadian mountaineer) and we passed the hipflask around to mark the achievement when we reached the summit, especially when a huge storm blew in and we were huddled in the tent, trying to keep warm.

“You’re always very grateful when someone has a hip flask of whisky on a big expedition and I’ve always made a note to bring one along myself to take out at exactly the right time. You always see people’s faces light up when you say ‘hey guys, have a sniff of this!’”

So with all your experience of drinking in different places, have you come across anything dodgy you didn’t fancy trying?

“Oh yes,” he laughs. “Have you ever heard about the story of kissing the toe in the American gold rush town of Dawson City?” he asks.

“Basically it started when a guy (Captain Dick Stephenson) found an old toe pickled in a jar at an abandoned shack and took it away as a souvenir. He got drunk one night and someone dared him to drink the shot of the pickling alcohol – kissing the toe in the process! There’s a bar in town called the Sourdough Saloon who have recreated the story and the drink, (now called the Sourtoe cocktail) where someone has donated a severed, shrivelled brown toe and you have to knock a shot of whisky back with the toe in it!

(Some research reveals that the bar is onto their eighth toe, after several were lost, stolen or accidentally swallowed by hapless drunken travellers…)

I guess it shows the restorative powers of whisky- or at least, its preservative power…

“Indeed it does! Apparently people get their toes cut off and say they want them donated to the bar – it’s pretty gruesome!”

With our stomachs slightly churned from the thought of severed toes as a cocktail ingredient, I ask Charley about his two latest projects, the first of which sees him taking to the stage across the UK and Ireland for a Q+A-styled talk on his experiences and adventures around the world.

“I’d often meet people at bike shows asking me about the documentaries,” he explains “so eventually my friend Billy Ward persuaded me to get on stage and tell a few stories about some of the trips I’ve done. We did a one-off event in Newcastle last year and it went really well, so we decided to do a tour across the UK and Ireland. So basically, I talk bulls**t for an hour and a half and take people’s money,” he jokes.

Sounds like the ultimate job really. A raconteur-on-tour perhaps?

“In all serious, a lot of the stories involve things we couldn’t really show in the TV programmes; behind the scenes stuff, like the time we met the Ukrainian Mafia guy with a house full of guns! There are lots of little video clips and photos, mostly reflections of the trips that I’ve done all around the world.”

Your new TV show (Extreme Frontiers) treads a similar path to the A Long Way… shows and By Any Means.

“All the TV shows we’ve done see us race through loads of different countries and I always thought it would be great to spend a bit more time in one place and get to know it a lot more. Ewan (McGregor) and I spent time travelling through Canada in A Long Way Round and I really wanted to explore the country and its incredible frontier. It’s such an amazing playground,” he explains. “We travel from north to south and right across, meeting the Inuit people and doing some extreme frontier stuff, like canoeing and climbing mountains.”

You must have to keep in shape considering how active these programmes are?

“Well yes, but at one point when I was on the bike, I caught sight of a reflection of someone with a ‘spare tyre’ around their waist, then realised it was me, so I guess that rules out a tour along the Scottish Whisky Trail!”


Charley is currently planning his next trip and has already filmed a new BBC programme called The World’s Most Dangerous Roads. So it would seem that the love of the unknown we discussed earlier certainly shows no sign of abating. And as we finish our drams, Charley sums up what keeps on driving him to new extremes. “I think you’ve got to go out and just do things,” he points out. “We’re only here once and, one thing that resonated with me is when someone said ‘Charley, there’s plenty of time to sleep when you die.’”