My mind was whirring away as I rode along… It was gutting. I felt I’d let everyone down. Very dark moment for me
The TV adventurer’s trips have taken him all over the world. Now as he plans his 10th epic TV expedition Charley Boorman talks to us about his most memorable journeys
The One Where It Got Real
We had a few moments when we were filming the Long Way Round. When we got to Mongolia, things become quite difficult. To make the TV show as authentic as possible, the cameraman Claudio, Ewan [McGregor] and I used to ride ahead of the crew and have limited communication with the support group. Mongolia is almost the same size as Europe, but there’s only 500km of tarmac road in the whole country and most of that is the capital. On one particular dirt road, whenever it rained, the mud just became like glass or sheet ice so our progress had dropped. We made a phone call on the Sat Nat to the crew who were 70 miles away just to check that everyone was still alive. Just as we had a phone call, they said, “Oh my god there’s been a car crash” and the phone went dead. Russ [Malkin], one of the support guys, had rolled his car two or three times in the middle of Mongolia. Luckily they were okay. At that point we realised we were three days away from a hospital – and the hospital that we could have got to was terrible. You didn’t really want to go there. No air ambulance, no helicopters, there’s nothing… We were on this expedition, but until now what we were doing hadn’t really sunk in. I remember Ewan and I sat there thinking actually we really are on a proper expedition. Whatever decisions we make this is really going to affect us. I remember thinking about my wife and my children. And I remember stopping popping all my wheelies, starting to concentrate and thinking that we need to make sure that we get through this. Definite moment.
The One That Made Us Chortle
We had be warned that when you ride through Ethiopia, the kids chuck stones at you. Ewan, Claudio and I used to argue as to who would be last between the three bikes. For some reason, the first bike would get through easily as the kids would be “Oh there’s a bike”, then when the second bike passed through they would start lining themselves up and the third one would get it. Between the three of us we used to have competitions on who would leave [the pit stop] first. We would say we are going to push on now and you could see Ewan or Claudio just getting their helmets on a little quicker and sneaking off. The stones hurt! They are small, but they hurt! I think a head shot counts for more. I’m sure they have a sliding scale.
I remember we met a cyclist in Sudan who had been on the road for 12 years cycling around the world, he said the worst was when you were going uphill and you’re going so slowly, the kids are just walking beside of you, holding the [piles] stones in their hands and just lobbing them at you.
The One that Made Me Dig Deep
It was when I was filming the TV show Race To Dakar. It is one of the most brutal races in the world. It involves 16 days of racing from 500km to 800km over sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. Because it’s the most difficult race in the world, they choose the most challenging terrain through Morocco and Mauritanian. The whole thing is on navigation and road books. No GPS, you just use a road book [a sheet of directions on a roll of paper] that has for example, at kilometre 226 there is a treble danger going into river at exit compass bearing 175. Those are your instructions. On day four in Morocco it was good riding, we had good tracks. It was a really good day. Then on the fifth day riding from Quarzazate to Tan Tan I came off my bike and broke both my hands. I was only going 10km or 15km when it happened. I was just going down into a river bed and lost the front end. You could have that fall 1,000 times and nothing would happen to you. This time I broke both my hands.
During the fall, my bike had fallen on top of me. My right hand was crunching like a packet of crisps – that was a definite sign it was broken. My thumb was also pointing in the wrong direction. I banged my thumb on the handle bar to pop it back into place. Then I got back on the bike and carried on. All that was because of adrenalin… all the things you had sacrificed to be able to do this. My mind was whirring away as I rode along… It was gutting. I felt I’d let everyone down. Very dark moment for me, sitting on the bike and riding all that afternoon.
By the time I got to Tan Tan, after six hours of driving, my hands were like balloons. I broke them at 12pm and didn’t get into the medical tent until 10.30pm at night. When the doctor cut off my gloves, my team mate Simon Pavey, who has done the Dakar six or seven times before and seen many people injured, said: “Oh my god, that’s disgusting” and left.
I remember ringing my wife Ollie and saying “I’m okay, but I’m out of the rally”. She said her first thought was, “Thank god for that, at least I can sleep tonight.” It’s then you realise what you’re doing to your family. It is dangerous and people do die on that race.
The One With The Best Scenery
Best scenery would have been Mongolia. The barrenness of Mongolia. It’s incredibly beautiful. Wild horses, beautiful lakes… If you want real wilderness where man hasn’t got hold of it yet. It was amazing going through this tiny border in Russia, then riding out into Mongolia and spying this really lunar landscape… Always takes a day or two to get used to a country as you drive through them. When you go from one country to another, the colour of the tarmac changes, white lines change, the signpost colours changes, the costumes change, the architecture changes… Sometimes the ride through Europe is less interesting. But when you go from Russia to Mongolia and you go from Sudan into Ethiopia – the differences are mind-blowing. It just changes on a line, on a piece of paper.
The One With The Most Challenging Roads
The most challenging place on a motorbike is Egypt. Just because the drivers are quite enthusiastic. You had trucks coming up the fast lane on the motorways in the wrong direction – all sorts of just random things. Every hour you would have a near miss. But then you see the most amazing things in Egypt as well. I was following this bus on the big main road. It was absolutely packed. There were people sitting on the top and there was packaging all over the truck. And there was this guy sat on the top serving mint tea down to the passengers below. He was hanging off the side of the truck passing mint tea into his customers. You see the most amazing things. Although the Egyptian roads were challenging to ride, the country was incredibly colourful and interesting to see.
The One I’ll Do Next
At the moment I’m talking to Triumph and Channel 5 about a TV programme [rumoured to be called the Long Way Up with Ewan McGregor] on the Pan-American Highway that goes from Anchorage in Alaska to Terra del Fuego in South America. John Blashford-Snell completed it in a Range Rover in 1972 and now we’re going to attempt it by bike. The toughest part will be the Darien Gap in Panama. There are no roads, bridges or tracks. And within the Gap are crocodile infested swamps, rebel fighter areas and mosquitoes. It’s going to be tough. It took Blashford-Snell 100 days to cross the Gap, we’re hoping to do it a little faster.