Adventurer, motorcyclist and TV personality Charley Boorman talks to Jacada about his most outstanding travel experiences and his prevailing passion for Africa.
Through your TV shows and motorcycle tours you’ve covered a great many countries. Where have you been most swept away by?
On the first trip I did with Ewan McGregor, which was ten years ago this year, we went east from London to New York, through Eastern Europe, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and Siberia. I realised we were on this big adventure when we got into Ukraine. It was one of the first times we’d camped properly. We’d gone off road and it was very remote, as we were just starting to get into the big barren landscape of the Russian steppe. We set up our tent while it was getting dark but hadn’t realised where we were. We looked up to discover we’d stopped by a lake, where the sun was setting and had turned everything this terrific pink. Then, just on the other side, what must have been about 30 wild horses were trotting past. I just thought, this is beautiful and exactly what we had come here for.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Africa. What was your first experience of the continent?
I was seven or eight years old when I first went with my father, who’d been invited there to show some of his films [John Boorman directed movie greats such as Hope and Glory, Deliverance and Excalibur]. I remember the Apartheid and walking over a bridge where I couldn’t understand why there were white people on one side and black people on the other. Another time, I remember standing on Table Mountain with my dad, looking down at Cape Town.
What drew you to return to Africa?
Well, Ewan and I had done the Long Way Round, and we’d talked about riding down through Africa. I did the Dakar Rally in 2006 and Ewan came to see me at the end of the race. He said: “Let’s do it. Let’s ride through Africa.” So, that’s how it started. I think if you travel overland, Africa has got to be the number one place on your list.
What makes it stand out from other parts of the world?
Africa has an allure that’s different to other places. It’s such a huge continent, which changes completely from North Africa to Central Africa and the south. What it has, that makes it so different to other places, is its wildlife. Last year I was riding through Namibia with two other guys and we had to stop because around 40 elephants were crossing the road. You see animals everywhere, not just in the jungle, but you bump into them everyday.
Which part of Africa appeals to you the most?
I love South Africa and Namibia. On my motorcycle tours, I go from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, up to Namibia, the Skeleton Coast and the Caprivi Strip. I love that part of the world. Kenya is one of my favourite places. For me, it’s the best place to go on safari, as it’s so wild. Most other countries have conservation areas, whereas in Kenya, the wildlife is just there. You go to the Maasai Mara, and there they are, wild.
Africa is a fabulous place; it’s beautiful, with great food and incredible wine. And, you can stay in the most amazing places. I think most people who go to Africa, end up trying to find any excuse to go back. Cape Town and South Africa have some of the most incredible food you could possibly imagine. It’s worth going to Cape Town just for the food and wine. People could just travel the world, by going where they like the food the most. Now there’s a way to travel: Decide on your six favourite foods, then visit those countries.
Where have you felt the greatest connection with the community?
All over the world people are naturally inquisitive, and the more remote you are when you bump into people, the more interested they are in what you’re up to. We’ve always said that the adventure is riding motorcycles across the world, but it’s all about the people you meet along the way, and I think that’s very true. I remember, when we got to Uganda, what a fun bunch of people were there. It has a real liveliness.
And which culture have you been most intrigued by?
Papua New Guinea was one of the most interesting for me, especially up in the highlands. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the people were discovered there, when the Leahy brothers went up in search of gold and instead found a million people that nobody knew anything about. There’s a real sense of energy and adventure when you go up there.
Which country have you been most surprised by?
When I did the Long Way Round, Mongolia was one of the real highlights. It’s difficult to get across because it’s about the size of Europe but only has 400 miles of tarmac road. Instead there are dirt roads and very few signposts. There were moments when we thought, ‘let’s get out of here, back into Russia’, but I’m glad we decided to carry on because it turned out to be one of the best experiences.
It’s also the place I learnt that if you’re driving a vehicle, not to ask directions from someone on a camel or horse, because they’ll always send you up some goat path. Ewan and I had struggled to the top of this hill, only to see a road at the bottom of it, in front of the mountain. We just sat there laughing.
Which terrain are you most drawn to? Desert, rainforest, mountains or coast?
One of the great things about Africa is that you cross all different types of terrain, from Cape Town and the Garden Route to Namibia. In the middle of nowhere in Namibia, you’ve got this dry, barren landscape where there’s no pollution, so you can see all of the stars, and I went to see the gorillas in Rwanda with Ewan. Walking up into the jungle, sitting with the gorillas and just hanging out with them, makes you think ‘this is beautiful’, then you sit in the Namibian desert and think, ‘well, this is beautiful’ [laughs].
When Ewan and I went up to see the gorillas, we were told to keep a good 10 metres away from them. We were sitting with some baby gorillas and a couple of mothers, when a guide tapped one of us on the shoulder and told us to stay very still. I heard breathing behind me and slowly turned around to see a huge silverback male gorilla. He just pushed us out of the way and walked between us. Ewan turned to me and said: “I don’t think anyone told him about the 10 metre rule.” It was absolutely brilliant. The problem with Africa is that everywhere you look makes an incredible photo. Around the next corner is more beautiful than the last. It’s an exhilarating place.
Where are you most compelled to return to?
Africa. I really love it there, so I’m always looking for reasons to go. I like the freedom you have there that other places can’t give.
What upcoming travel plans do you have?
I’m off to Morocco to do a motorcycle tour in February, then I’m off to Australia for another motorcycle tour. After that, I’m going to Mexico to do another series of the TV show Extreme Frontiers. Then I’ll be heading back to Africa to do a couple more motorcycle tours there.
What have you learnt from your travels and what’s the greatest gain been for you?
I’ve learnt that the world is smaller than you think, and that it’s much more friendly than people make out. If you really want to go somewhere, just go. On a motorcycle trip, after doing your research and planning your route, you’ll always find the trip turns out to be very different when you’re there. It’s important to do as much research as possible, but then when you’re there you need to be prepared to deviate from your plan. I think the experience of other cultures has been a big eye-opener. Meeting different people and seeing how differently people live has been one of the biggest gains for me.
Keep up to date with Charley’s upcoming motorcycle tours and TV shows at www.charleyboorman.com.