When Charley Boorman was a kid growing up in rural Ireland, he liked nothing more than riding out to the Wicklow mountains with his mates. ‘We’d strap on a spare fuel can to our bikes and head off until we ran out of petrol. Then we’d fill up from our spare and ride back. You had a real feeling of freedom. Something always went wrong – you slipped a chain, or got a puncture. That added to the sense of adventure.’
Years later, he would undertake a bigger challenge with his friend Ewan McGregor, when the two of them set off on the trip that they christened the Long Way Round. The men had met on a film set when both working as actors and had bonded over their love of motorcycles. Initially, they’d head off to track days and short rides to Cornwall and the Brecon Beacons. Then, over a pint one evening they started to fantasise about a long-distance journey together. Spain was mooted and they pored over a map. Then they had the idea to try something more challenging.
‘I remember that Ewan had a map of the world, and here’s a tip: if you ever want to persuade someone to go on a really long journey, use a large scale map where distances look small,’ says Boorman. ‘We looked at this map and decided to do the Kolyma Highway. It’s called the “Road of Bones” – the final stretch into Magadan, in Russia.’
In 2004, the pair set off on a 19,000-mile odyssey from London to New York. The Long Way Round was televised and became a successful series, DVD and book. The pair reprised the idea in 2007 as the Long Way Down (London to Cape Town) and have recently announced a plan to do the Long Way Up, a route to the northern tip of Alaska from the very bottom of South America.
The first ride, which took in Europe, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Alaska, Canada and America, proved to be full of thrills and spills and fulfilled Boorman’s self-confessed wanderlust. It also inspired him to pursue a project back home that he had been toying with for a while: a relaxed hangout for like-minded bikers. ‘We were in this little town in Russia when Ewan’s subframe broke. So we had it fixed and the garage had a café that was also a nightclub. It was very groovy, with old soviet bikes hanging off the walls, and I thought wouldn’t it be amazing to have a place in London where guys who were into bikes, but with that retro/hipster vibe, could come and meet and get a good bite to eat.’
In 2015, with fellow bike enthusiast Anthony “Dutch” van Someren, Boorman opened The Bike Shed under railway arches in Old Street. With a bar and restaurant, a barber shop and a store selling vintage-style gear, Boorman and his business partners have created a little clubhouse for those who like adventures on two wheels.
He’s also developed a sideline running tours for those who want a slice of the Long Way Round/ Down/Up experience, without the saddle-sore hardship or continent-crossing danger. ‘For the last few years, working with my good friend Billy Ward, I’ve taken groups of bikers once a year on a journey from Cape Town to Victoria Falls – 16 days from South Africa through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, staying in amazingly beautiful places along the way. The roads are challenging but fun, not too tough, and we always reach our evening’s destination with enough time to enjoy it. Then I do the return trip with a different group, south through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho, back into South Africa.’
Typically Boorman will host a group of around 15 to 20 on each leg of the round trip. The accommodation is four to five star and there are activities, including safaris, along the way. He has support vehicles to carry those who want to come along but don’t want to ride. ‘We have a paramedic and a mechanic, carry everyone’s bags in our back-up vehicles, and each bike has GPS, so there’s some independence,’ explains Boorman.
He has now added a similar 10-day trip, that after a full circle of Tasmania, heads from Melbourne to Sydney (‘Fantastic, twisty, mountainous tarmac, some of the best in the world’) and is exploring shorter hops to Morocco. ‘You jump on a plane at Stansted, and three hours later you’re in Morocco, and the next day you’re in the Atlas mountains in the heart of Africa, eating great food.’ He is also looking at more gentle short trips to Spain and Portugal where he will use ‘hipster’ bikes like Triumph Thruxtons, Bonnevilles and Bobbers. Boorman and his team provide the bikes and accommodation, all you have to bring is a licence, protective clothing and a helmet.
‘The reason I started the tours is because people kept on telling me that they loved the TV show and would love to have a similar adventure themselves. But people are so busy that they find it difficult to plan the logistics, and often don’t even know where to start. It made sense to do the work for them. We have great groups, lots of fun and really memorable experiences.’
It is Africa, too that inspired him. ‘I want to share my experience of this amazing continent. Many people have an image of Africa, that it is a difficult or even dangerous place to travel. But I have never found it so. It is probably my favourite place to ride – the continent is so varied and diverse with such incredible changes of culture and landscape. In Namibia I have had to stop to let elephants cross the road, and riding along you routinely see giraffes, buffalo and zebras.’
The clear benefit of this type of active “holiday” says Boorman is that it is, paradoxically, genuinely relaxing. ‘An adventure bike ride really takes you out of your normal routine and allows you to wind down and reset,’ explains Boorman. ‘We often stay in contact with those who have travelled with us and they tell us that the experience affected them so deeply that they have started to organise their own trips now. I love that we might have been a catalyst to a more adventurous life for people.’