Charley Boorman was an actor before becoming a modern-day adventurer and motorbike fanatic, joining Ewan McGregor in hit TV travel shows Long Way Round and Long Way Down.
When my father, the film director John Boorman, was shooting Deliverance, he needed me to act as Jon Voight’s son when Jon’s character returns home at the end of the film.
Dad told me he’d get me a tricycle if I did everything as he said. In order to get me to look in the right place, the crew moved the tricycle around behind the camera. I only had eyes for that cherry-red bike with its yellow flames.
I had an amazing childhood. We moved to Wicklow in Ireland and it seemed like heaven to me; we had a big house and a garden and I’d run wild around the countryside. We had chickens and a couple of horses. I’d go to horse shows with my twin sister Daisy but we were always the worst turned out, with bits of wire holding our bridles together.
I was incredibly fortunate to have been diagnosed young when we were living in LA. The US was years ahead of the UK in spotting and understanding dyslexia so, when I went to school in Ireland, I had to explain to my teachers that my forgetfulness and reading difficulties had nothing to do with being thick.
Nowadays I listen to a lot of spoken word and that has opened up a whole new world for me later in my life.
There was a guy with a motorbike in our village and, when I was about ten, he let me ride it—it was incredible! I soon worked out that the best thing was that you could ride a motorbike and then park it up with absolutely none of the palaver associated with horses, such as mucking out and rubbing down.
My transition from beast to bike began as laziness but motorbikes were to become my life’s passion. Some of my best childhood memories involve exploring the Wicklow mountains on my Yamaha DT100 off-road bike with my friends.
There were a lot of famous people around when I was a kid but Sean Connery’s son Jason became one of my greatest friends. He was older than me and one day we found this little monkey bike and he bullied me to push him around on it for hours.
Eventually we got it started and he gave me a go. I rode it past my dad and Sean on the lawn, as proud as can be. With lightning reaction, my dad grabbed my hair and pulled me off the bike—seconds before it went careering into a barbed wire fence I hadn’t noticed.
Being cast as the lead in The Emerald Forest and finding myself, at 17 years old and newly out of boarding school, being paid to cavort around with lovely—mostly naked—girls is, funnily enough, a very happy memory of mine.
Actually, it was a tough shoot because my dad was the director and so I had to be on the ball at all times.
Olivia and I got married in 1990 in a small church in London, lit by hundreds of candles and with all our guests squeezed in the pews. Waiting at the altar I turned around as Olivia began her walk down the aisle; I’ll never forget how wonderful she looked that day.
Jason (Connery) was my best man but he’d forgotten to arrange the car to take us from church to reception. We had to ring a local minicab firm and this marvellous guy with massive dreadlocks showed up and was so happy for us.
Not for fun but as a way to earn much-needed money during the first ten years of our marriage. Being dyslexic made auditions very hard—I’d get stressed if I were handed something to read I hadn’t seen before. I’d do the odd film here and there and it was on the set of The Serpent’s Kiss that I first met Ewan McGregor.
We discovered a mutual love of motorbikes and quickly became firm friends. We planned a trip and TV series which would take us from London to New York on bikes—but going eastward via Europe, Asia, Russia and Canada, passing through 12 countries and covering 19,000 miles. It was called Long Way Round.
In Ukraine Ewan and I were invited to dinner at this guy’s house and we went along to find that all the other guests had turned up fully armed and that the house was full of machine guns. As the vodka started flowing I thought, Are we going to get bumped off if we don’t entertain them properly? But of course they all turned out to be lovely people.
Watching the sun go down one evening over a pink, light-infused lake with wild horses galloping across the fabulous landscape was a high point in our travels. But when it rained for days on end and I felt I was never going to get dry or warm again, I did wonder whose insane idea the trip had been. And then I’d remember it was mine.
We went to visit a number of UNICEF projects during the filming of both Long Way Round and Long Way Down. We were deeply moved by UNICEF’s humanitarian work. In Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we met street children who live in the underground caverns where sewer and heating pipes kept them warm against temperatures that can drop to –30C outside.
We filmed their “homes” on little ledges between the pipes—it was incredibly heartbreaking to see young children living like this. I’ve been an ambassador for UNICEF for many years now.
Ewan and I rode our motorbikes from Scotland to South Africa in 2007 for Long Way Down. It’s hard to describe just how hot it was at times; we had to pour water over ourselves, it was difficult to breathe and our nostrils were burning. I remember driving through Sudan’s dry and barren landscape and getting to the Ethiopian border.
As we passed through, everything seemed completely different—there were trees and it felt like the temperature dropped as dramatically as buildings suddenly appeared and the tarmac changed colour.
Olivia had taken our dog Ziggy to the vet, who checked his testicles and told her one of them felt a bit odd. Olivia said, “That’s funny, one of my husband’s testicles feels a bit strange too.” The vet told her to make sure I went to the doctor straight away.
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer so I’m forever grateful to my wife for knowing my private bits so well. It’s drummed into women to check their breasts regularly but it’s just as important for men to do the same with their testicles.
In the past I’ve broken collarbones, ribs, fractured my spine and smashed up my hands—but the injuries never stopped me for too long. Until last year in Portugal, when an attempt at overtaking a car went horribly wrong. The driver turned without indicating or seeing me, I got thrown off my motorbike and hit a wall at 25 miles per hour.
With truly British manners I remember telling everyone who came to my rescue, “I’m so sorry, just give me 20 minutes and I’ll be up and fine.” But they looked at my left leg flopping ominously and said, “We don’t think so, Charley...” They were right. I’ve had seven operations to put together both my broken legs—my left one was particularly badly smashed up and we’ve been lucky to save it.
After the hospital, I spent three months in bed at home and four months in a wheelchair. And I never stopped asking the doctors when I could get back on my bike. Well, you’ll do anything to get back to what you love doing in life most, won’t you?
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