Let’s get it straight from the start. I have a few personal issues, which are triggered by Charley Boorman’s latest book By Any Means, so please allow me to put my cards on the table.
Around 15 years ago, as the UK struggled to come to terms with a previous economic crisis, I decided to cut loose and invest a large part of my sizeable redundancy package travelling the world with my then wife and our two small children.
The jobs we had at that time were engaging, interesting and challenging. We were bored, unfulfilled and resentful. We had all the material gains a career promises, we were not happy — after 20 years working for newspapers, magazines, radio and television we had come to a full midlife crisis. Soon, this crisis became a calling to go ‘out there’ and find a different path.
For the next year-and-a-half we travelled the globe seeking out alternative communities in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, US and Europe. We tended organic gardens in New Zealand wearing only wellingtons, interviewed ecological entrepreneurs in Australia, worked as cleaners in a trailer park in Santa Fe and were attuned by the Emmissaries of the Divine Light in California. In between we enjoyed the beaches of Bali and Fiji, and explored the mountains of New Mexico and the French Alps.
So far so good, but the cash had run out. Begin Phase Two: write a book, promote it on radio and TV. Invest the profits in Trip no 2, travelling around again in the opposite direction. In retrospect, perhaps we’d gone the wrong way round, as adventurers Michael Palin, Steven Fry, and Louis Theroux have all proved — first you get famous, then you make the trip. Or in Charley Boorman’s case, first you get an A-list celebrity as a mate and then you make the trip.
Boorman led an expedition from Wicklow to Wollongong entitled By Any Means. While he documents the making of the TV series covering his over-land-and-sea trip from Ireland to Australia, inside I grow jealous with the turn of every page. By the time I actually meet the successful traveller, I’m calling on the great Celtic gods to maintain my equilibrium.
Mr Boorman is fifteen minutes late. This is a good thing. I’d beat him only by five. We find a suitable location for our chat, which blends optimum lighting for the photographer with acceptable privacy. As we take our places, I start to soften the editorial line. I mentally strike a blue pencil through my original opening gambit “So your father’s an internationally acclaimed film director and your best mate is an award winning Hollywood star – how difficult was it to get backing for your project?” Bitterness won’t comfortably cloak the landscape in the country of celebrity interviewing.
We start with the standard interview format: highlights of the experience. Incidents which leap to mind involving fear, drama or insight. Anything nautical holds hidden dangers for Boorman, not surprisingly for a man who has created his recent profile by keeping two wheels firmly on the tarmac. This theme begins with a channel crossing in a tiny 12-foot sailing dinghy before things get worse.
“In Vietnam, “ he recalls, “we’d been visiting these beautiful islands, tall columns of limestone that jut out of the sea. We spent the night in one of these bigger islands and we were getting a speedboat to take us back. When we arrived I thought this is too small and there’s too many of us. My gut feeling was we should not go on this boat, then I thought well maybe I’m just being too health-and-safety about all this. “So we shoot out between these rocks on this big lumpy sea and hit a big wave and the engine conks out and we start drifting towards these rocks. I was fairly relaxed about the whole thing until I turned round and saw the face of the captain. He was ashen white and terrified and at that point I thought ‘Oh, sh*t!
“Then this old fishing boat came by and they tried to get a rope attached and tow us away but they couldn’t get the rope the right length and if it’s too short, you can end up just capsizing the rescuers. There were two people on board who couldn’t swim. I realised we couldn’t hope to save our baggage so I just made sure I had my wallet and passport so I could get on a plane and straight home if it went tits up. Luckily they managed to sort it out.”
He goes on to describe a passenger ship, booked to take the By Any Means expedition from Timor to Darwin. The ship was licensed to carry 900 passengers, and there were 2,000 on board. “The weather was terrible. All I could think of was that movie Perfect Storm.”
Troubles aside, Boorman reveals something he’s learned: that despite all the warnings and the doom-mongering that you can get before you set off, foreign countries are not very scary and most people you’ll meet in the world are good people.
“There was this guy in Iran with his truck — a 1974 Mercedes. He’d had it a few years, not since it was new obviously, but he’s clocked up a million kilometres all over Iran and Pakistan. He talked about how the truck had paid for his children’s education, his food and everything he had, and this was his life, this was everything. I just got the impression he was at peace with himself and in control of his life and his life was this truck.
“Then there were what I call the face-slapping moments, when something really strikes you as a big deal. You think this will never happen again and I am here and witnessing it. For instance we were standing at something like 2,800 feet up with Everest beside us. And we’re talking to Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, and it’s the day of the 55th anniversary of his father’s ascent of Everest. Joining us is Sir Edmund’s granddaughter Amelia. The day before the Nepalese had tried to get rid of the monarchy and set up a republic.”
I find nothing rehearsed about Boorman’s recollections. He forgets the names of places he’s been and struggles to recall the exact location of who was where and when. But he’s alive and living again what he achieved with a refreshing and infectious enthusiasm.
We move on to where it all began and what it means and here Boorman reveals a candouz at odds with most of the show-biz culture he must find himself surrounded by much of the time. There’s no attempt to paint a picture other than the stark truth and, regardless of the recent success of his TV shows and books, no embellishment of his part in such success. He willingly acknowledges the role Ewan McGregor has had in his changing fortunes.
“When Ewan and I started talking about doing Long Way Round doing a big bike trip together, I couldn’t afford time-off. Someone mentioned combining it with a book because I couldn’t afford to finance it myself. Having Ewan there was a big deal. He’s such a kind and generous person and such a good mate. My career was heading south in a toboggan at that time and because of what we did with Long Way Round I was able to do the Dakar Rally, Long Way Down and now By Any Means. So for me my whole life has changed.”
The former struggling actor now looks life square in the face. Boorman’s suitably amused that he sees himself described as “an actor and adventurer”. He runs his own successful production company, has completed three television documentary series and has published accompanying books — none of this he takes for granted. He talks with pride about his family, wife and daughters. He jokes about creating further adventures for his girls to enjoy.
There’s the obligatory charity name -check, but it’s evident from his comments about the tie-up with UNICEF that his is more than just a token participation. “I value what I have more and more,” he says. “The work I did with UNICEF … one tiny bit from one individual does make a difference. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen it really, really work.”
As for the book itself, the writing must have been an adventure on its own. “I’m very heavily dyslexic and I’ve struggled all my life with writing. But just because you’re dyslexic doesn’t mean you can give up. There’s much more in the books than in the TV show. There’s much more about what goes on in my mind.”
As we swap goodbyes and I collect my autographed copy of By Any Means, I can see a truer picture beginning to emerge of a man worthy of respect for his achievements. I consider that perhaps my own journeys weren’t the wrong way after all.
Charley Boorman does have a famous father but he’s achieved despite his father’s success — not because of it. He’s refused to accept that his disabilities should hold him back. Faced with a career in a nosedive he’s let go of self-pity and recrimination and got on with supporting his family — by any means.
Trains and Boats and Bikes
Charley Boorman was brought up in Ireland where from an early age he developed a passion for bikes and all things mechanical. He made his acting debut at the age of six in Deliverance, a film directed by his father John Boorman.
More recently Charley has become better known as the motorcycle sidekick of actor Ewan McGregor. In 2004 they rode around the world from London to New York and in 2007 travelled from John o’Groats in Scotland to Cape Town in South Africa.
Their adventures were documented in two successful TV series, Long Way Round and Long Way Down. Two best-selling books were published based on the programmes. In between Charley took part in the Paris to Dakar Rally, the subject of his book Race to Dakar.
His latest book By Any Means describes a journey of 20,000 from Wicklow in Ireland to Australia using any mode of local transport that could be begged or borrowed. The journey takes the party through 25 different countries and en-route Charley and his travel companions commandeer 112 different methods of ploughing on in the right direction.
They sail the English Channel in a 12-foot dinghy, ride a helicopter above the slopes of Everest, take a container ship from Dubai to Mumbai, wakeboard into Singapore, and steer tuk-tuks, dug-out canoes, elephants, trucks, trains and tractors.
By Any Means was broadcast on UK television in September 2008, watch out for re-runs!
The book By Any Means by Charley Boorman, published by Sphere Books priced £18.99