Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round and Long Way Down films are required viewing for motorcyclists. They’ve inspired countless overland journeys and provided the grist for daydreams of getting away, testing the limit, and finding yourself in the strangeness of foreign lands. More than anything, they’re about two mates riding motorcycles together.
I’ve watched Long Way Round close to a dozen times, so when I first met Charley Boorman in Spain, I felt like I already knew him. If that bred any unwarranted familiarity on my part, Charley never seemed to mind. The great thing about Charley is that he’s the same guy you got to know on the TV screen. He’s funny, kind, and generous. He’s a natural storyteller; the kind of guy who holds court at a dinner table—not in a showy way, merely as the fruit of his lighthearted humor and his quick embrace of strangers. A good guy to ride motorcycles with, in other words.
His gregarious personality and sense of adventure make him the perfect brand ambassador for Triumph. As many of us can relate, Charley’s vocational path has been circuitous, characterized by struggle as much as it has been by success.
“Lots of doors closed—and opened,” Charley says. “I loved acting. I’m very heavily dyslexic so I really struggled in school. My father [the director John Boorman] recognized that I enjoyed the performing part of school, so he helped me. Being in his films kind of gave me an avenue, but one of the big things that stressed me out massively was learning lines. If I see a block of text, I can’t learn it. I really struggle. I found that really hard.
“And the other side of that was that I was choosing movies for their location rather than for their scripts. If there’s a script shot in Africa—‘I’m there.’ I’d read the script on the plane and think, ‘Oh s–t, that’s crap.’”
“My acting career kind of faded away and my building career started. I had two young children, a wife, and a mortgage. I was struggling. I wasn’t making money anymore from acting. It was difficult because when I was young I started with a lot of success. I did a film called The Emerald Forest which was a global success. I made a couple other movies that were very successful and then it kind of petered off. It was quite a tough 10 years just kind of struggling along.
“And then I met Ewan and we started talking about this idea [for Long Way Round]. And then kept talking about it. We thought, let’s just do it. So, that door opened up. We didn’t think anyone would watch it. We thought we’d just get it paid for, have a memory of it, a book, some TV. The success of Long Way Round just opened everything up. Then I did the Dakar Rally, which is a lifetime thing. Suddenly all these doors open up. I get to make a bit of a living riding a motorcycle.”
Then, two years ago, Charley broke both his legs in a motorcycle accident. He was in bed for five months, then in a wheelchair. He had to relearn to walk. Charley pulled out his phone to show me pictures of the X-rays from after the accident. His bones looked like sidewalk chalk abandoned in the driveway and run over by the family minivan.
“My agent said, ‘Look Charley, I think you should write a book because I think you’ll go nuts doing nothing.’ I started thinking, ‘I don’t have anything to say,’ so I started writing all about where I came from—school and home and all that kind of stuff.”
The book, Long Way Back, recounts his road to recovery and his childhood growing up riding motorcycles.
“Did I mention it’s out now?” Charley jokes.
“I grew up in the countryside in Ireland. My dad was big into horses. We used to ride a lot. A friend of mine up in the village—I kept hearing this two-stroke engine—and eventually I plucked up the courage to speak to him and he gave me a go on his bike. I must have only been about eight years old or something. It was a Maico 400. At the time, the Maicos were just the bomb. It was an awesome, awesome bike.”
“And then I realized you didn’t have to clean it, you didn’t have to feed it, you didn’t have to muck out the stable, you didn’t have to clear up s–t all the time. It was all those things. You can ride it like you stole it all day, and then just lean it up against a wall and walk away.”
If it was fate that brought Ewan and Charley together for a ride around the world, it would appear that it was at work from Charley’s earliest days behind bars.
“And then I just kept riding bikes—did a bit of motocross,” he adds. “We lived in this valley with a river going through it, and on the other side of the river was this friend of mine. They had a big farm. His mother was stinking rich, and so I’d ride my bike over the river and his mum built him a motocross track. He always had the best new bikes. When it went to monoshock he was one of the first kids in Ireland to have one. That helped—having someone your own age [to ride with].”
Talk about foreshadowing.
Happenstance aside, Charley’s home in the countryside acted as kindling for adventure and provided the riding curriculum for the would-be world traveler.
“In Ireland where I grew up, in the Wicklow Mountains—these massive mountains—we used to strap a petrol canister on the back of the bike and go up into the mountains and just ride. And then when the tank ran out, we’d put fuel back in and ride home. It was so much fun. It went from there, really.”
Charley’s current stable of bikes includes four Triumphs—a Tiger 1200, a Thruxton R, a ’59 Thunderbird café racer, and a chopped T120 from Down & Out Motorcycles—a BMW HP2 Sport, a Yamaha YZF-R1, a couple of dirt bikes, and an SRAD-era Suzuki GSX-R750.
“I can’t tell you [about] any more because my wife might read this article, and then she’ll actually know,” Charley quips.
In addition to a current project about adventure travel and cooking (he was runner-up in the UK’s Celebrity MasterChef), Charley is looking forward to the possibility of another Long Way adventure with McGregor.
“Ewan was over in London and was staying with me while he was making a movie, and we started talking about doing another one. I think end of ’19 beginning of ’20, we’ll probably do Long Way Up. If all goes well. If the stars align.”
Fate brought him round and down and may bring him up. Wherever it carries him next, we’ll be watching. While his motorcycling exploits are better documented and his best riding buddy is a Jedi, at the end of the day, Charley Boorman is just one of us—a guy excited to ride his motorcycle with his friend.
That said, most of us don’t get to ride like Charley does, and he’s very aware of that.
“Oh, and I did the Dakar Rally as well. I keep all six episodes on my phone in case you want to watch,” he says with laughing. “I have photos too, so you can’t get away.”