Charley Boorman held Angelina Jolie as a baby and had starred in several Hollywood films before he left school. Yet today he’s best known as Ewan McGregor’s globe-trotting wing man. How will he fare travelling the world on his own? Nigel Farndale joins him in Nepal to find out
Kathmandu has its own gravitational pull, for Western backpackers at least. They come to get stoned and sit on the steps of the temples, as their hippy forebears did, though nowadays they do it wearing Fat Face fleeces and listening to iPods. I am here to meet Charley Boorman and accompany him on the next leg of his round-the-world journey – into the foothills of the Himalayas – and I have been tracking his progress, mobile signals permitting, as he was himself pulled into Kathmandu’s orbit, crossing the border into Nepal from India on a tractor, covering ground on an elephant, paddling in a dugout canoe down a river. Adventurous stuff. Travel by any means.
This is the name of his latest conceit: By Any Means. It follows the runaway success of Long Way Round, in which he and Ewan McGregor circumnavigated the globe on their motorbikes, and Long Way Down in which they rode from John O’Groats to Cape Town. The idea, this time, is that Boorman will travel from Ireland, where he grew up, to Australia, using any means of transport other than commercial aircraft. This trip will take about four months, and is the subject of a BBC documentary series and a book.
Pretty much what he was doing on his previous trips with McGregor, then. Except there is no McGregor this time. The actor is filming in LA. Boorman is on foot and on his own, apart from his producer, Russ Malkin, and his cameraman, both of whom worked on the earlier trips. And the big question is, will viewers want to watch Boorman without McGregor? The success of the previous trips was to do with there being a double act. Banter between two bikers in sweaty leathers. And it didn’t hurt that one of the bikers was a Hollywood star.
Boorman’s journey so far has taken him across the English Channel in a dinghy (he found the shipping lanes ‘scary’), from Paris to Venice by Orient Express (‘nice’), through Croatia, Serbia and Turkey on trucks and buses (‘amazing’), across Georgia in a sidecar (before the Russian invasion), and from Iran by container ship across to Bombay (‘surprisingly safe’). I am meeting him two months into the journey, the halfway point. Almost 10,000 miles have been covered.
It is dusk. The cicadas are singing. And my first sight of Boorman is of him barrelling across the springy lawn of a house where we are meeting for dinner, guests of the head of Unicef in Nepal. He has a tan, which he never had on the bike trips because of his helmet and visor. ‘I look healthy now rather than pasty faced,’ he says, all big-lipped, gap-toothed smiles and pale, bulging eyes framed by equally pale lashes – a big friendly labrador. He has a Van Dyke moustache and beard, as well as ambitious sideburns and long flowing hair which, at 41, is showing no signs of going grey. I tell him I’m surprised that he hasn’t grown a full beard. Isn’t that what travellers do? ‘That’s Ewan. Any excuse and he will grow one,’ he says, pronouncing his ‘r’ as a ‘w’. ‘I think it’s a Scottish thing.’
As with the previous films, nothing is scripted, but narratives do seem to unfold of their own accord. His original cameraman damaged his knee a few weeks into the trip and had to be flown back to England. And there is trouble brewing here in the capital of Nepal. A political coup is in the offing, of which more later.
The dinner is lavish, more like a banquet. ‘The food has been delicious all the way,’ Boorman says. ‘Russ and I put on so much weight in Turkey. Good thing about travelling this way is you don’t get jet lag and you don’t get squits so much because your stomach has time to adjust to food as you’re travelling. That said, I did have the s—s two nights ago.’
Such is his laddish bluntness. Seeing him lying on his back in a field in France so that he could light his own flatus was one of the more memorable scenes on Long Way Down. Not everyone finds such laddishness endearing, though. One critic, writing for The Times, was unambiguous in her review of the first episode of that series. ‘Boorman comes across as a copper-bottomed, ocean-going, 24-carat prick,’ she wrote. ‘You can only hope he gets raped by a lion. In a bad way.’
Now, now. Boorman may be high-spirited but he is also polite and earnest. McGregor refers to his ‘in-your-face affability’ and that is about right. And his heart does seem to be in the right place. On this trip he will be looking at Unicef projects in Borneo, in his capacity as a Unicef ‘high-profile fundraiser and campaigner’, and in Nepal he will be helping deliver vaccines for children in remote villages.
‘Yes. I got it,’ he says when the head of Unicef asks him whether he has read the material on Unicef’s work in Nepal. ‘But I haven’t read it. I like to be surprised.’
But there is another reason he hasn’t read the brief, and we will come to that later. At the dinner, Boorman introduces himself to some of the local Unicef workers and when they ask what he does he tells them he’s an actor. Actually, he has more or less given up on acting, not least because acting has more or less given up on him. Before Long Way Round, his main source of income was painting and decorating. Since then he has been making decent money from after-dinner speaking, as well as from the television repeats of the two series, and the DVD sales of them.
As for his acting: well, let’s say Boorman peaked early. He had a part in the 1972 classic Deliverance, starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. ‘Not the banjo player, before you ask. I was only three.’ His father, John, was the director and Boorman served as a pageboy at the wedding of Voight and Marcheline Bertrand during the shoot. When Bertrand gave birth to Angelina Jolie, Boorman was eight and was one of the first people to hold the baby. He also appeared in Excalibur, The Emerald Forest and Hope and Glory, all directed by his father.
Boorman and McGregor first met on the set of The Serpent’s Kiss (1997). When they discovered they shared a passion for motorbikes, their friendship was sealed: they got on so well that by the end of the wrap party McGregor had asked Boorman to be godfather to his daughter, Clara.
Next day we set off in a white Land Cruiser which has UN written in blue letters on its bonnet and side. As well as the two-man film crew there are half a dozen Unicef workers and an official sent by the Nepalese government to keep an eye on us (he looks like Captain Mainwaring and snores like a chainsaw). Not everyone can fit in, so a minibus with inadequate suspension is also found.
There is inhospitable terrain to cross, steep ravines, rackety bridges and terraced paddy fields carved into the hillside. We are to follow what is known as the ‘cold chain’ up into the foothills and stay in a remote village, in order to get a sense of the authentic journey, as taken each month by the Unicef workers. They use the public buses as far as they will go and then complete the journey on foot. It’s heroic stuff, actually. Unsung and humbling. The ‘cold’ refers to the cool boxes full of vaccines they carry from medical post to medical post.
The ‘chain’ begins at a depot housing 10 freezers. Boorman does a piece to camera about the vaccines. Though he may not have read his brief, he does prove himself adept at assimilating the information that is fed to him off camera. This cold box, he explains, contains enough vaccine for a 1,000 children and costs just £12. Unicef provides 40 per cent of the world’s vaccines for children and relies on donations. The pitch done, they cover the cool box in By Any Means stickers. There is nothing you can teach these men about branding.
Because the public bus we are using is overloaded to axle-breaking point, each hairpin bend makes us feel as if we are in a tumble-drier. A couple of hours later, back in the UN trucks and winding through a forest, the vehicles belly on the road and we have to get out and push, just as a deluge starts.
Spattered with mud, we eventually reach a village where young mothers are waiting with their babies in a surgery with a tin roof. Their colourful saris are in contrast to the darkness and pokiness of the medical centre (there is no electricity here). ‘We have a team which goes ahead of us raising and widening doors so that we can get Charley’s head through them,’ Malkin says in an aside to me. Boorman is doing his bit for camera again, carrying the cool box in through the low door. A nurse opens it and gets to work vaccinating the babies. They all scream when jabbed and this seems to move Boorman, reminding him of taking his two daughters for their vaccinations.
We walk and climb the next leg of the journey, to the village we will be staying in. The Land Cruiser and the minibus are waiting for us at the top again. Hurray! Several hours and several pushes later, we reach the village, to find the womenfolk waiting to greet us and put bougainvillea garlands around our necks and vermilion powder on our cheeks.
Boorman and I sit down next to a water pump. As the shadows lengthen, his pale eyes seem to become more luminous. He doesn’t get homesick, he says. ‘Done this all my life. Since I was three. Because we were always travelling with my father.’
How is it being away from his wife? ‘I talk to her every day. The thing is, this is what I do for a living now. I’ve known Ollie since I was 17. Before we had children she used to come with me.’
I ask why McGregor’s wife came out for a leg of Long Way Down but his didn’t. ‘Ollie and I are a very tight family and we don’t have help. We do everything ourselves. It is hard for her to come out with me because the dates are always changing. She has a company… so she is busy and we don’t want to take the kids out of school, and the money has to come from somewhere, and this is what I’ve always done, acting or dossing round on bikes.’
They seem to take a professional attitude to it all. In the first episode of Long Way Down, Boorman leaves despite his wife being in hospital with pneumonia and a collapsed lung. He said he would be happy to postpone it, but she said he should go, because otherwise that would put her under more stress. ‘The thing that annoys me is when people say, “How did your wife let you do it?”‘ he says. ‘I always think that a bit sad – that people think their wives would stop them doing what they wanted to do. It wasn’t as if I had sprung it on her. It was months and months of planning.’
But is it awkward with Ollie at first when he goes back after these trips? ‘If you jump straight back into the domestic thing…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence. ‘The best thing is to go off for a weekend somewhere so there is some neutral ground where you can get together again, so that you’re not straight back into bills and washing up. After Long Way Down we went with the girls for a three-week holiday to Kenya so that when we got back it was all normal again. Whenever I get home the house becomes messy and chaotic. Kinvara, my daughter, said, “Mummy, do you like it when Daddy is away, because the house is nice and clean?”‘
Does he wish he had sons as well, so that he could pass on his passion for motorbikes? ‘My daughters have to, 100 per cent, take their bike test, even if they don’t want to.’
Bikes gave Boorman a confidence he lacked – a result of his severe dyslexia. ‘As an actor it is really difficult for castings, sometimes you have to sight-read and that can be embarrassing. Before the days of chip-and-pin I would always have to ask how to spell the shop name when writing out a cheque… I always compensated by being the clown in class.’
Is the travelling anything to do with mid-life crisis? A need to prove himself as a man perhaps? ‘I don’t think so. I’m competitive but I’m not butch. I don’t have to win at tennis. I have a friend who is so competitive at tennis I sometimes throw a game because I know it means so much to him… manliness and travelling? Hadn’t really thought of it like that. I do get itchy feet when I am in one place for too long.’
The success of Long Way Round and Long Way Down had much to do with the sense of male bonding it conveyed. Boorman describes McGregor as his ‘best mate’, and having met McGregor on a couple of occasions, I know the feeling is mutual. But what is the nature of that friendship? ‘I think we are both quite different. He’s great at being able to see the bigger picture and he’s very loyal, fiercely loyal, and protective and funny. Funny guy to be with.’ So, by implication he, Boorman, thinks he is none of those things? ‘No, it’s not that; it’s more… we feel comfortable with each other.’
It is an unequal relationship? ‘I’ve always been involved in the film world so I’m not star-struck or anything. I just see Ewan as Ewan. I don’t see him as this A-list guy. I think we benefit a lot from the relationship, a good solid relationship. It’s almost like a marriage when we are travelling together.’
We now come to a more delicate matter. After The Serpent’s Kiss, McGregor made Moulin Rouge! with Nicole Kidman, while Boorman took up decorating. Did that disparity put a strain on their friendship? ‘I think Ewan does consciously play it down. He never really talks about the films he has done or the ones he has coming up, unless I ask. But he is a family person and loves his family unity and in that way lives a simple life.’
If there is a certain gaucheness to Boorman he makes up for it with his tender side, especially on the subject of McGregor. ‘I have a lot to thank him for. When we did Long Way Round, the original plan was for us to just go off and do it on our own anonymously, but I couldn’t afford to so he suggested a book or a television series to fund it. You know, using his name to get the funds. I think he did it for me.’
As it is now inky black and we don’t have torches with us, we decide to head back to where the vehicles are parked and find the others for some lentils and rice. As we grope sightlessly, he tells me that if he had to describe himself in two words they would be ‘lazy’ and ‘shallow’. I like him for that. Later, Malkin tells me Boorman is sulking because he forgot to bring his silk-lined sleeping bag.
That night the villagers put us up in their damp, flagged-floored houses and we sleep in rented sleeping bags on hard board beds without mattresses and with pillows that seemed to be filled with walnuts. Boorman manages to sleep well.
Back in Kathmandu there are police checkpoints. In the evening, as we sit in a bar, three homemade bombs go off not far away – not very effective bombs, it has to be said, though one person is injured. Things are hotting up and Malkin and Boorman plan how they will get some footage. It should make for a good narrative. A genuine coup d’état. The following afternoon is the vote to decide whether the king should be thrown out of his palace. Crowds gather and swell the streets. There are several thousand marching people, all waving red hammer and sickle flags. Tanks appear on the streets and the tension is building. Malkin and Boorman get in among them with their cameraman. A risky move this, given the mood of the crowd.
As it turns out, the coup happens fairly peacefully, only a few arrests and injuries. It is time for Boorman and Malkin to head off to Laos. They have just heard that for the final leg of the journey to Australia they might be able to hitch a ride on a submarine. After that? Well, when the dust has settled and Charlie and Ollie have had their weekend away together, and re-engaged with their domestic life for a year or so, he is, he says, planning a Long Way Up through South America. With McGregor and two motorbikes.