Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Gear 2022 Issue.
Many of you have seen Charley Boorman in the Long Way series with his friend and fellow traveler, Ewan MacGregor. Since that series started in the early 2000s, Charley has become a motorcycle influencer, professional speaker, and television presenter. To many, he lives the dream of being paid to live the life of fun and adventure. I recently had a chance to sit down and speak with him on travel, motorcycles, and some of the hard things that come with the job.
How has expedition travel changed your life?
I never thought as much about this being about travel as it was about friendship. Back when Ewan and I were sitting around thinking about doing a long ride, we never thought we’d do it. Of course, once it looked like it was going to happen, we just kept looking at each other and saying, ‘[Expletive], we’ve actually got to do this now.’ With that said, it’s basically driven my life and my family’s. I never thought I’d have so many chances to do things until after Long Way Round.
Speaking of your family, are they getting tired of you leaving for long trips at this point?
Hah! Not really. I think it’s gotten easier now. My daughters are both grown, and my wife was used to me being gone back when I was acting. When we did the first Long Way, it was much harder to communicate and stay in touch. Now with the internet and cell phones that work everywhere, it’s great. I never feel that far away.
You’ve had some very serious accidents on motorcycles. Does it slow you down at all?
I’m lucky to be alive. When I look back at the accidents, I know it must have been hard for the girls to understand why I ride. I think at this point, they just know that I am going to do it. I ride downhill mountain bikes a lot, and it’s dangerous as well. But I love it. I have an electric bike, so that I can keep up with everyone, and my friends are on a more even playing field. I am definitely broken, though. Those days on Long Way Up were really long. I think the electric motorcycle aspect helped with that.
How did the electric motorcycle benefit you?
The electric Harley-Davidson is smooth and fast. But it doesn’t vibrate all day, and you get less fatigue from it. Plus, you have to stop every couple of hours and charge it up—that gives you a lot of time to recover. In fact, I’d say the plug-in stops make you more engaged with the culture. You are always having to beg to use someone’s power at their house or business.
I thought you were trying to use the Rivian-installed charge points to charge the bikes?
That was the original plan. We thought Rivian would install their charge points, and we could charge everything up and just do slow charging when we broke off from the Rivians. But what we learned was the Harleys, as prototypes, weren’t designed to use the same charging plugs as Rivian. Harley had to make last-minute changes so we could charge from the wall outlets. Harley [came through and made it] work for us.
Would you ever do one of these long trips without a production team?
No way. I’m not a solo type of person, and I am fine riding in great places without the hassle of shipping bikes and carnets. On trips, I’m the guy who’s WhatsApping everyone after being alone for 30 minutes to meet me at the bar. I’m always impressed with people who can ride alone and travel alone, but it’s not for me.
How has the production changed from the first series?
We had really cutting-edge equipment on Long Way Round—tapes and small helmet cams. We thought we had it all figured out. Claudio, the photographer, had to carry so much stuff and every shot took time to set up. A simple drive-past shot seemed like it took forever, and it would piss Ewan and me off to wait. Now he shoots with GoPros and drones. He carries a ton of memory cards, and we had to hand those off every couple of days. The only thing that is more difficult is the amount of time to download the cards now that everything is shot in 4k.
I’ve noticed you mention you and Ewan getting annoyed and ticked off at things. What do you guys do to make sure you don’t get mad at each other?
Well, first of all, we never shoot the part where we are cursing at each other—it does happen. I sometimes get annoyed at how he’s riding, and I just get tired of following him. Usually, I figure out it’s because we haven’t eaten in hours, and with a quick bite to eat, we are back to normal. The other thing that we learned on the Long Way Round is to make sure we both have some personal space. We try not to share rooms, and we now never share tents. It helps. Also, we’ve learned that sleep is the most important thing. During training for Long Way Round, we were told by an SAS instructor to make sure we buy the ‘Gucci sleeping bag, Gucci tent, and the Gucci sleeping pad.’ [It] turns out he’s right in that you want the most comfortable stuff to sleep on. I am always looking forward to bedtime and know I’ll sleep well on my good equipment.
Do you find yourself still doing any kind of training before these big trips?
Probably not as much as I should. I’ve learned that for me, the physical aspect comes from doing it. I ride my bike and try to stay fit. I eat healthy and try to prepare mentally. Once the trip starts, though, it takes a couple of weeks to get your rhythm. Early starts and late nights become routine; packing and unpacking become a little less annoying every time; your muscles and body get used to riding. As long as you take some days off and do something different, it’s all good. I love the stops we make and the time we spend with Unicef on these trips. They make the trip so much better, and you have time to recover as well.
Where are your top places that you want to go?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. Because it’s so fresh in my mind, it’s where I want to go back to. Colombia would be at the top of my list. I would like to really dive in and explore that country. Costa Rica would be next. I was so impressed with the renewable energy and lack of a military there. I respect their way of life and how they run the country. Southern Mexico would be next. I had such a nice time riding in Mexico before we had to stop for security reasons.
Did you feel security was a problem because of your and Ewan’s celebrity status, or was there a direct threat?
That’s hard to say. I don’t think it was because of the celebrity aspect, but I’m sure it didn’t help. For the most part, people don’t know who we are on the rides. Every once in a while, we run into someone or a group of people in cities, but on the road, almost never. Of course, people see the production team with cameras, and that attracts attention. We hired a security company to give us current updates, and they didn’t feel it was safe. We all agreed that we’d follow the advice of the experts, so we did. Hopefully, that gets better because the people there were so amazing and sweet.
What are your three top items that must go on every trip?
I never leave home without a silk sleeping bag liner. They are perfect in hot countries and feel good to the touch. The real reason is because I have slept in some awful beds that I am sure were not clean. Bedbugs can’t penetrate the silk, and it protects you. Second, my smartphone. On Long Way Up, my phone worked almost everywhere. We’d pull up into some small town with just dirt roads, and I’d look up where to stay. I was amazed that Google Maps had hostels and bed and breakfasts in the middle of nowhere South America. I did nearly all of the navigation on the phone as well. Third, I always carry a handful of the little mini liquor bottles like you find on an airplane. I’ve learned that you can barter and start conversations easily with a little gift. I once was stuck at a border crossing that I thought we would never get through. I handed the guy a little bottle of Jack Daniels, and he smiled and waved us through.
What was your favorite moment on Long Way Up?
We kept going back and forth between Chile and Argentina. I was hoping that it would get easier every time, but it was the same. Our border expert kept telling us to reorganize and show them our paperwork in a different order, but that never worked either. At one crossing, the inspector asked to verify my carnet and to check the bike numbers. He asked for the chassis number, and I showed him. He asked for the engine number, and I told him it didn’t have one. He looked at me confused and said, ‘How can it not have an engine number?’ I explained it was electric and had no engine, no exhaust, and so there was no engine number. He said, ‘So this is a Harley Davidson with no engine, no exhaust, and that means no noise?’ Yes, that’s right. Well, he thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He said he’d have to change the form since it required an engine number. I’m not sure what he put on the form, but we passed through.
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Read more: Long Way Up Review by Sean Gorman