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The Hairy Biker

The Hairy Biker

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Charley Boorman is best known for his trips with actor Ewan McGregor

I’VE HAD a few close scrapes with death. I was in the highlands of Papua New Guinea filming By Any Means [Charley’s solo trip from Wicklow to Sydney] when a load of guys armed with machetes approached us, demanding money to use the road. I found myself having a slightly out-of-body experience, looking down on myself as I shouted at these people with machetes. So I tried to be cheeky with them. The minute they started laughing, I knew we were going to be okay. Humour is international but if they don’t get it, it can go horribly wrong.

Being chased by a bull elephant was bloody scary. We were staying in a lodge in Zambia and some bull elephants had found themselves in the enclosure. I banged this big pot and pan and the owner started up a chainsaw to scare them off. It was getting quite dark and I spotted this one elephant moving towards us through the trees. I thought I’d be all right, but as he moved forward he was really staring hard at me, giving me the look, before he jolted and came straight for me, with trees falling by the wayside. He must have chased me for about 50 metres, before I hid behind a building. At that point, I realised it’s not even my lodge, what the hell am I doing, and decided to go to the bar and down a stiff drink.

It’s always been about the people I meet on the way. I’ve spent the night with Igor, a Ukrainian — a mad, mafia type. We were in a place full of guns — a very expensive, opulent house in an extremely poor place. Meeting the president of Rwanda was pretty surreal, too. Some say he started the genocide in order to get into power and others say he’s this great saviour. You question whether you should be talking to him, but I just took him at face value. That’s what’s so brilliant about travelling — the random people you meet.

I love Africa — it’s so diverse. My favourite regions are around the Great Lakes, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. One thing Africa does so beautifully well is lodging. I love the food there, too.

Arriving on a motorbike is completely different to reaching a destination in a car. I noticed this during Long Way Round. Ewan and I would arrive in villages and towns a day or so ahead of our support vehicle and our reception seemed so much warmer, hospitable and more accommodating. It was immediate — you’re travelling in their environment on a bike. Whereas in a car, you have to get out of your environment, which is usually air-conditioned and comfortable, and into their environment. There’s definitely a big difference. My job is an excuse to mess about on a motorbike.

Nothing puts me off. But I’ve learned never to get into an overloaded boat after almost sinking off the coast of Vietnam. If you ever feel like there’s too many people, don’t risk it. It’s just not worth it. Even if others think you’re a bit of an arse.


Read the rest of this article in the July/August issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)