Charley Boorman has led an incredible life. His Long Way series alone has taken him and his good mate Ewan McGregor from London to New York, Scotland to Cape Town and most recently, Ushuaia to Los Angeles... all on one of their greatest loves, motorbikes.
The difference with Long Way Up, other than the route, to the Long Way Round or Long Way Down is that Charley and Ewan rode 13,000 miles on the Harley Davidson Livewires, Harley Davidson's first electric vehicle.
For those that have watched the show, you'll notice that both Charley and Ewan utilise the Quad Lock Motorcycle Mount for their navigation. I was lucky enough to catch up with Charley for a chat about the trip and some of the incredible experiences they had a long the way.
Charley also takes us through his early days in acting, some of his most horrific crashes (where he really put Quad Lock to the test), the future of motorbikes and... he even hints at plans for his and Ewan's next big adventure.
Enjoy the interview and apologies in advance for coming across as an absolute fan boy but the guy is a legend!
- Tim, Quad Lock
Love the show, Charley. I thought it would be a bit depressing to watch a travel show during lockdown, but it was actually really refreshing to be reminded of the big wide world out there. Take us through what was Long Way Up and how it all come about.
I think, I don't know how many people know me for that, but I suppose people probably know me a little bit more for Long Way Round and Long Way Down that I did with Ewan McGregor over the years. And I think the first one was back in 2004. We went from London to New York by going east. So Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia. Then we went down to Africa and then now this one is Long Way Up, which is from the bottom of Argentina to Los Angeles.
I was an actor before I did all of this. And my father is a film director, and he directed films like Deliverance, and Excalibur, and Hope and Glory, Emerald Forest and lots of lots of movies in the sort of 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. He was a huge film director of that period. So I was always chucked into his movies because we had four kids. My father would always say, "Oh, don't bother hiring children. I've got four free children we can use for my movies.”
So we were sort of thrown into his movies because he was too cheap to employ a child actor. And so the first movie I was ever in, was a film called Deliverance. I don't know if you ever saw it. But I wasn't the banjo player, just so people. But my father offered me a tricycle and he said, "Look, if you sit on that sofa with that bloke, I'll give you a tricycle." I know it sounds quite dodgy, but I really wanted that tricycle.
Anyway, so I sat on the sofa and it happened to be Jon Voight, who comes in at the end of the movie and I suppose, and then I went on to make movies and that's how I met Ewan, was on a movie set. A film called The Serpent's Kiss, which was my big comeback movie. My acting career was going down the toilet when I met Ewan. And this film was with Pete Postlethwaite, Richard Grant, you know, big, big names.
And I was thinking, "Right I'm back. I'm back in the movie industry." Anyway that film was just absolute crap, and it went straight to DVD. So that was sort of, that was the last legs of my acting career growing up. But from that, I met Ewan on that movie set. And I remember meeting Ewan. I remember the first conversation we ever had together was, he owned a Moto Guzzi Le Mans. And I went up to him, we met in some pub in the west coast of Ireland where we were making the movie, and that's, we just started talking about motorbikes.
And then that's pretty much all we've ever talked about for the last 25 years. Eventually, we came up with this idea of doing Long Way Round and here we are now today talking about Long Way Up. I mean, I don't know, 14, 13 years later and not quite sure where the bloody time has gone.
Yeah, well, yeah. I've got the facts here, Long Way Round 2004, actually. So 16 years since then.
Alright. You know, don't have to be so specific about the time ok.
You've progressed a long way from that tricycle riding the bikes. And it was funny to see on Long Way Up that sort of lazy side straddle, like you are having a bit of a cup of tea on the bike there as well, when you're celebrating at the end there.
You know, I mean, motorbikes have been involved in my life a bit like Ewan, you know, and people ask me, "Why did you get involved in motorbikes?" And you can ask the same question about people who ride horses or rock climbing or have some kind of passion about something. And I think it's something I think my father was very adventurous when I was young. And he went around the world and made these movies in extremely difficult places.
You know, the South Pacific in the late 60s, early 70s, and in the Brazilian jungle, in South Carolina on a river. And so he was very adventurous. Loved travel. And I think that Ewan and I are both adventurous and both love to travel because of our work. You know, as working in the film industry, you travel all over the world to make movies and it's a very kind of gypsy life. So we kind of got into that.
And I suppose that the both of us knocked around on motorbikes from six or seven years old, I was riding motorbikes. And so we both sort of did that. And it's a bit like if you have a, you have to take your driving license, you have to drive a car, but you choose to ride a motorcycle. And I think that's slightly the difference of where you come from. So Ewan and I, you know, I mean, the Long Way Round, that whole series came about because we just wanted to have a bit of a longer ride and hang out a bit more as mates, you know.
But what's interesting is we did the first two quite quickly and then there was a long break in between. And quite a lot happened in between the second and the third one. Ewan moved over to the States. We didn't really see so much of each other anymore because he was living in Los Angeles. I was living here. He would come back here to make a movie in the summer. But I’m off making TV shows like Extreme Frontiers and By Any Means and the Race to Dakar Rally.
And so we were all, we kept missing each other and we just kind of were just floating along as friends. And then I had this huge crash in 2016. This massive crash where I destroyed my legs and took about two years or so to learn to walk again. And funnily enough, because we're talking about a Quad Lock, but I had a Quad Lock on that crash, and it was the new Tiger 1200 is what it was. And we were doing this launch with all the press, the world's press were there. I think there was an Aussie press guy there on the day that I crashed, and I totally destroyed the bike. I broke it into three pieces, and it took them two hours to find the rear wheel. The rear wheel had bounced down the road into someone's garden. But the Quad Lock was absolutely fine. My phone was intact. So, you know, there's an endorsement of how good the product is.
You really put it to the test!
That bike was absolutely destroyed.
But one of the Triumph guys came up to me and said, "Charley, listen, I'm really sorry about your legs, but take solace that you are the first person in the world ever to destroy this model of a motorcycle.”
So I've got that going for me. Then you get the phone call [ from Ewan ], and he rang me back and some guy answered and said, "Look, I'm really sorry, but Charley's in having a, he's in the operating theatre." I was in there for like seven hours while they sort of put my legs back together. And there was a real moment where I was going to lose it.
And then we sort of started talking to each other. And then two years later and having just about started to walk again, I go completely fuck myself up again in Australia. I mean in South Africa. I do these motorcycle tours every year. I take people through Africa. I don't know what happened. I woke up 18 hours later and they said I'd snapped my forearm and bent it backwards. All the bones came out. Collarbone, pelvis, massive head injury.
That footage at the start is really confronting!
Yeah. It was awful. That was probably worse. It wasn't so debilitating because when you break both your legs, it's very difficult to walk. But I was flown back here. My wife had to fly out again to another country to pick me up and take me home. She was not happy. I can tell you. She was absolutely . . .
Lots and lots and lots of really bad words. "What have you done yourself again, Charley? You know, I'm not impressed." An elephant had walked out in front of me or something like that, I don't know.
But then Ewan came to visit me here and we sat and, we hadn't hung out for such a long time and I was stuck at home, so I wasn't going anywhere. He was over here making a movie. He came over to spend a couple of nights and then ended up spending a month here. And that's when we started talking about doing the Long Way Up.
And then we got Russ and Dave, who have done the trips with us on all the others. And we talking about how we'd really like to do something different with it this time. And Russ, who loves firsts and he's always obsessed about record-breaking and all this stuff, he said, "Well, why don't we do it electric?" And that was the sort of, all those sort of things came together at that point.
And then we said, "Oh okay, well, that sounds like a great idea." I mean, had we known we'd never have fucking gone electric. I tell you. It was that first few weeks of sitting on that electric bike was, it was tough. It was really, really hard and a huge sort of learning experience, and quite an incredible journey.
An incredible amount of planning to go into that as well. Like any kind of trip like this, you need a high level of planning. But when you're doing it electric like that as well, you know, the facilities aren't always there.
Well, there were none. I mean, there were absolutely nothing in the whole of south and central and Mexico. There was absolutely no infrastructure for charging vehicles whatsoever.
Who gets the final decision on where you go and all these things? Like how does that even start?
Well, that's all with Ewan and I as to where we go and how we do it and stuff like that. And then Russ and Dave are brilliant, they help us try and create what we want to do. But, you know, I mean, the first thing was to try and find the motorcycle. And right now, as we speak right now, there's an influx of electric cars. And just about every single company is chucking electric cars out at us right now.
And that is 100 percent going to be the future. And I'm driving an electric car at the moment. They're brilliant if you're living in urban and around town or you're not doing massive miles, brilliant. But just a year ago when we were talking to the manufacturers, nobody was ready with anything. And there's only a couple of companies that really had something that was solid. And the people who really stood out were bizarrely, to us, was Harley Davidson.
So when you say to people, "Oh, we're going to go ride up through South America and I'm going to use electric motorcycles." People go, "Electric motorcycles, how's that going to happen?" And you go, "Well, we're going to give it a go." And they, "Well who's making them?" And you go, “Well, Harley Davidson." They all look at you going, "What? Harley Davidson?" But you imagine them as V-Twin, big noisy thumpers and then we're sitting on this Harley Davidson Livewire, which is the most incredible thing to ride.
I mean, it's a naked sports bike is what it is. It accelerates from naught to sixty in three seconds. That acceleration between 40 and 80 miles an hour is blistering. I mean, I rode a Moto2 GP bike with the new Triumph engine, and I couldn't believe, that initial acceleration was just unbelievable. And then jumping on the Harley Livewire, it had that same feeling. When you accelerate really hard, you have to grit all your stomach muscles in order so that your stomach doesn't sort of slosh around because of the acceleration's so fast.
So we're sitting on these Harley Davidsons, giving ‘em a go. And we say to them, "Look, we'd love to have some changes to make it like an adventure bike." And they are sort of, "Okay whatever." And they come back a number of weeks later. And they came out with this bike that we used on Long Way Up. And it was incredible. I mean absolutely incredible. But we got down to Ushuaia and we realised we'd only ridden them for about an hour and never charged them. We sort of charged them once.
But there were lots of people around us when we charged them for the first time. And that was with the fast chargers. So we had no idea… Unbelievable.
Ironically, they sound like they should be in Star Wars as well. That sound they make.
Yeah. They had a heartbeat as well. So, when you're sitting still. Because they developed this bike, over a period of about six years and people at some stage were sitting at traffic lights and because there's no noise and because people weren't used to it, you know, people thought, "Oh, I think it's turned itself off and then they would turn it off, and the lights would go green and there'd be nothing there. So what they developed was, I think, what they call a heartbeat.
So there's a heartbeat in the engine. It's really cool. And it's with the motor, the motor kind of does this little twitch like this. And it creates this "Doo dum, doo dum." So when you're sitting at the traffic lights and stuff like that, you could feel this heartbeat of the bike and it's really nice. So our learning curve that first couple of weeks when you see on the TV show, it was just whoa. We didn't know how to charge it.
We had no chargers. There was no fast chargers at all. We had these two Rivian trucks that were electric that were coming with us. We got this energy company involved to create a whole charging grid the whole way.
So they went ahead. They started to put up charging points in South America. That's one of the big land grabs at the moment, is who's going to own the charging grid. Charging systems for cars and bikes. Because that's the next petrol station. And so this company said, "Look, we're putting them in anyway. So they put all this phase two charging in, which turns out the Harley Davidsons don't use. So we had this amazing charging system that we couldn't use, you know?
Oh, my gosh. And then it was the worst winter in 30 years, and it was freezing cold blizzards. We had to wait five days just for the snow to stop snowing so we could get going. It was freezing cold and the batteries don't like cold. So you don't go as far. And, oh.
Well you covered every sort of terrain, like you're on ice at the start. You know, there's mud in there, you're on the edge of cliffs, obviously Tarmac. But then there was gravel, I think it's episode six where you're on that really loose gravel in Bolivia and there's that moment where you're talking to yourself, willing yourself to keep going and hold the bike. It's petrifying to watch.
Oh Bolivia was, I suppose Bolivia was our road of bones. I think we did the trip the opposite way round. So, the trip was really difficult and then very slowly it got easier and easier as we went along. And I think it's lucky because if we'd gone the other way and had fast chargers in the States and then ended up in Central and South America with absolutely no charging, we had to charge every night overnight.
We would've just gone mad. But one of the things about this trip was super interesting because, we didn't know how this was going to play out, but basically what we had to do… we had to go to youth hostels or B&B's or a hotel or during the day at a restaurant or someone's business and say to them, "look, do you mind if we plug in?" And we thought it would be difficult.
People would say, "Oh we don't want you to use our electricity." And of course, we would always pay for the energy that that that we took. But what was incredibly surprising was that there was not a single person in the whole trip that said, "No." You know, and don't forget we sat in hotels and restaurants and people's houses, plunged them into darkness while we were charging our bikes. But what was really interesting is not only were we plugging into people's homes or businesses or lives, we were plugging into them as well.
And so we were experiencing this trip in a completely different way. So when you plug in, you had time to be able to get to know people, to be able to see where they live, how they live, you know, and that was super interesting. And that was the real bonus.
Yeah. You would've met some incredible people along the way...
Oh, we did. I mean, I remember one person talking about plugging in and meeting people. Because these big trips and any trip really, sure you can get from A to B, no problem at all. But often it's what happens in between.
And you don't remember the days when, the good days where nothing happened or something. It's always the ones where you meet some extraordinary person, or you have a breakdown or something goes wrong. Those are things that, those memories you'll carry on forever.
What really stands out to you?
Well there was this one time we'd gone to this hotel, I think we're in Argentina, no we were in Chile! And we finally got to some kind of civilisation. We pulled into this quiet kind of touristy town. And we needed a top up charge to get to where we wanted to go. And so we thought we saw this really nice restaurant. I thought, let's just sit and have a just fantastic meal for a couple of hours while the bikes charged.
And every time we tried to charge the bikes at this restaurant, it kept plunging the rest of the kitchen into darkness. All the patrons were sitting, having lunch. And they never said, "No." They just kept trying to make it work. And they were turning the ovens off and they were doing all sorts of stuff to try and make it happen for us. Anyway, it didn't work. So we went up and went to a campsite where they always have power, you know.
So we plugged in. We met this amazing couple. And I think it's in episode three or something like that, I can't remember. And we met this couple from Europe that were traveling, and we had lunch with them and their story turned out to be just amazing. So he came from Eastern Europe and he'd gone down through Turkey, met this girl in this small little village in Turkey. And she was a schoolteacher.
They kind of fell in love. And he had to move on. So he moved on. But then couldn't move on without her. So he went back to go and see her. And then she lives with a very traditional family in Turkey. And so she as a woman is expected to do certain things. So she just packed her bags, and she told her father that she got a job in Istanbul to teach in a school and she's in Chile having this most incredible time. Living this amazing life with this person when she talks about her, when you see it on the TV.
She talks about her boyfriend. You can see the love in her eyes. And it just shows you that no matter what the barriers there are in your life, you know, we should all be allowed to go live your life, how you want to live it, you know. And that was a beautiful example of her coming from a very traditional background. And we were joking saying that if her father doesn't know that she's there, well he does now.
But in Chile, he thinks she's in Istanbul. I'm mean a fantastic story and they're so in love with each other. It's just, it was such a lovely, lovely story.
Other stories like towards the end there you are going through some sort of dangerous territory there, not just on the roads, but in terms of the other type of people you might meet. And so there was a bit of planning around how you would avoid cartels.
Yeah, I think always, I don't think people should worry too much. And we were a little bit worried going through Mexico because we had a lot of film equipment. We had a crew, we had Ewan McGregor with us. So we were worried that might attract a certain amount of people. But you got to remember that, that you know, that you think about the thousands of people that travel through South America every year on buses, bikes, cars, walking, traveling, cycling, you know, and same in Africa.
And you never really hear any stories, really. You hear the odd story about someone was robbed or pick-pocketed or whatever it is, and so that's fine. So I think on the whole, I think it's pretty safe. But you still have to be you still have to take it all seriously. But I mean, we never really in this trip, really never came across anything really that was . . .
When we were in Honduras, we did this UNICEF project where all these kids who worked for the cartels and did drug trafficking and people trafficking and sex trafficking and stuff, and they enticed these children in to offer them smartphones and Nike tennis shoes and designer clothes and stuff like that. And they get them to do things and then they're trapped in there and then they use and abuse them. And then if the child wants to get out for whatever reason and realises that drug muling isn't the right thing for them, these cartel drag this kid into a room and there'll be their parents, will be in the same room.
And if they're, you know, in some cases, they've shot one of the parents in front of the child and say, "Look, if you don't do what we tell you, we're going to shoot your other parent and then we're going to carry on with your grandma and grandparents." And I mean, it's pretty vicious. And, you know, UNICEF are there to try and create an environment for these kids to be able to go to. To be like safe environments so they can be kids rather than have to do the things that they've been told to do.
So it's a huge issue, problem for that type of thing. But it's much more local. It affects local people, not tourists. So you just have to try and help clear up and make those villages and towns. And it has improved unbelievably over the last 10 years. I mean, I was talking to one of these ex-gang members and we were talking about dangerous cities and stuff. And I was saying, "Well, where are the most dangerous cities in the world?"
And he said, "Well, the top five, three of them are in the United States of America. And then there's a couple in Europe." So, you know, Central and South America aren't so bad these days. And there's everyone and that's what we've got to be careful of, the governments around the world.
If people don't live how we do in the West and in Australia and stuff like that, we're very quick to criticise other countries and the way they live. And because they're slightly poorer or live differently or have different ideas, you know, we're told that that's wrong. Well, it's not really. It's just different and it's not how we do it. So people should be left to do what they want and then realise that actually some of the most dangerous places in the world are in the civilised world.
And then you made it through to America. It must have been a real mix of emotions at the end there. Like you can see you guys are so happy to finish the trip, but you've also just, it's the end of this incredible journey.
You know, I think when we look back at the trip and we look at all the different, you know, people say, "Well, what bit was the best said?" And you say, "You can't really say what country and what bit was the best." It's just full of these amazing moments, like going through Bolivia in the desert. I mean, it was so difficult to ride those bikes in that deep, gravelly, sand and unbelievable corrugation. You guys know what corrugation is like in Australia.
You know, that in the outback, that pounding stuff. And Ewan and I've ridden in the stuff in Africa, some terrible corrugation. But I've never in all my life even having done the Dakar rally and all that, I've never ridden corrugation like that. I mean, it was like 30 lanes wide. I mean, you'd ride on one side and then you'd look over and you'd go, "Oh it looks better over there." And you try to get over there.
And it's just as bad over there. You have 30 lanes away. I mean, it was just unbelievable. And then up into Machu Picchu, where the most amazing lost city in the top of the mountains and riding down through. There was one bit where we're riding from fifteen thousand feet all the way down to sea level. It was like four and a half, five hours of the most amazing, twisty, crazy road following these beautiful valleys all the way down to southern Mexico, riding the bikes coming out of central into southern Mexico, just one of the most stunning places I think I've ever been.
And then finally, you know, getting on the bus and having that adventure and then finally getting across the border into America. And then suddenly it's all quiet, it's a bit like looking at your next-door neighbour's pruned garden and your garden is a complete mess, and you think, "Hmm I'm not very good" And then you go to this thing and everything works. You think, "Wow." You know. And then our first charge with a fast charger, it was just. It was a bit like someone sits down, you plug the bike in, and it charges like really fast.
Thirty-five, forty minutes to Full. It's a bit like when someone sees a moving escalator for the first time, they go, "Oh, how does that work?" That's the feeling was that, "Oh my God." And then riding in, and meeting friends. Especially my family. Meeting with them again and every trip that you do has a lifespan.
And as Ewan says, "It's a bit like a mini marriage." You get together and you riding together and you're living together, you're making decisions together, and you are annoyed together, and you're frustrated together and all that kind of stuff. And these journeys have their lifespan. So by the time you get to the end of each one, you know, a part of you really knows that it's time to stop. But a bigger part of you doesn't want it to end.
And so that's when you start talking about maybe doing another one or, you know, you start thinking. So it means that, so when you stop the one you're on, it means it's okay to stop this one because I know we're going to do that one. And that's sort of where we got to when we're coming into L.A.
So big question, is there going to be another one?
I think so. I hope so. And we spoke about doing Long Way Scandinavia or Long Way Down Under. We were thinking about as well. I mean, those two, I think, certainly the down under one seems to be a pretty logical one. Yeah, we both still got, hopefully got, plenty of go in us. So I think I've had enough crashes for all of us put together. So hopefully we put that to bed.
Well once again you put the Quad Lock to the test, as I said, thirteen thousand miles. But all the crashes previously as well. And yeah, it is an incredible series for those who haven't watched it go out and see it. Like I said at the start, if you're worried about watching a travel show during lockdown, don't be because this will make you feel so much better.
I think it's very kind of you, kind words to say. And I think it's funny this show, I think more than all the others I have done By Any Means and Extreme Frontiers and all those ones. And a couple of them I finished in Australia with, I think this one, I've had the most response from. And most people ringing and saying, "Oh, I couldn't believe that." And I think because part of it is the adventure, but part of it is the technology that we're just about to go into. So the electric of it all. And at the beginning, before the show came out, there was a fair bit of negativity about, "Oh, we love that you're going on this trip, but ooh electric. We're not sure about that."
So luckily, people have kind of embraced that a little bit more. But what would be really interesting, I was talking to someone the other day who was saying, "You know what would be really funny?" We got this WhatsApp with the team. WhatsApp of the people, with Russ and Dave and everybody on it. And I was laughing because I was saying, "You know, what's funny is that we could be watching this program in five or six years’ time, or ten years’ time. And we could sit, and we can laugh at how old the electric technology will be because things will move out so fast."
You are groundbreakers in that. It's been great chatting with you Charley, and I'm looking forward to catching up further. But, yeah, amazing series and great to hear a little bit more about it behind the scenes. So thanks for joining us today.
Oh, gosh, a real pleasure. Listen, thank you. And I love what you guys do at Quad Lock. For years I've been a big fan, so it's lovely to be part of a little small part of Quad Lock.
As I said, the feeling is mutual. So great to be working with you. Thanks, Charley. We'll chat soon.
That's a pleasure mate, thank you very much. OK, well, have a good evening. And I'll speak to you soon.