After a devastating accident in which he nearly lost a leg, TV’s motorbike-mad journeyman Charley Boorman tells Hannah Stephenson he’s back in the saddle and planning more adventures.
He has travelled the world, motorcycled around the globe with his good pal Ewan McGregor for the TV series Long Way Round and Long Way Down and doesn’t know what career he would have followed had it not been for his love of two wheels.
But just over a year ago, TV presenter and adventurer Charley Boorman had a horrendous motorbike accident in Portugal. His left leg was so badly shattered – the bone was protruding from the skin – doctors thought he might lose it. He also broke and dislocated his right ankle, broke his hand and ended up in a protective leg cage for three months.
When McGregor heard he had been hurt, Boorman, 50, recalls: “He couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Charley never crashes’. He was away working when I had the crash but the minute he got back, he came over to see me and we hung out a bit. He was shocked at the severity of it.”
Today, the genial, ever-optimistic Boorman admits he still walks with a limp and sometimes takes painkillers – but he just makes himself get on with life and is already planning his next trip.
“I’m hobbling but I’m back on the bikes. I’ve been sneaking on to a moped since July, but wasn’t really telling anybody. I couldn’t help myself. With a moped I didn’t need to change gear. But I’ve been properly back on the bike since January.”
The London-born journeyman’s convalescence has given him time to write Long Way Back, which charts his road to recovery, interspersed with memories of his childhood growing up in Ireland and Los Angeles, the son of the famous film director John Boorman, whose films include Deliverance (in which Charley makes a fleeting appearance), Zardoz and Hope And Glory.
He’d had accidents and broken bones before, but the crash in Portugal was his worst yet. He was overtaking a car when it turned left, clipping him and sending him careering into a wall. He was conscious throughout but in excruciating pain.
“The thing I remember most was flying through the air and seeing the pavement and wall coming towards me and thinking, ‘This is going to hurt’. After the initial impact, I remember tumbling really hard. It felt like my whole body had been jarred.
“I’ve crashed a lot in the past. I’ve broken my hand and collarbone but what made this one complicated was that I broke both legs, which is why I ended up lying in bed for three months. It was six months before I could walk on one leg.”
His injuries initially required six hours of surgery and he had to wear a frame to protect his left leg for three months to allow the bone to knit properly. Even now, he’s not sure if he’ll need further surgery.
Today, he chuckles when recalling the moment he was told he might lose his leg, but he wasn’t laughing when the Portuguese surgeon broke the news.
“I lay there cold as stone, trying to imagine life without a leg. Even if it was amputated below the knee, I’d never ride a motorbike,” he writes.
He was airlifted to a London hospital, where he spent months following a succession of further operations. As well as the frame around his left leg, he had to wear a large grey boot to stabilise his right ankle.
There were some dark times during his recovery, he admits.
“I’m lying in bed with a giant boot on my right leg and this giant cage on my left leg, I couldn’t lie on my side and my left leg was so painful. There were times when I thought I might never walk again. When they started talking about losing the leg, I was left lying there on my own, which is when the creepy-crawlies come into your head at night and you can’t sleep.
“I’d flick the telly on. I’d often put movies on that I’d watched before, so I didn’t have to concentrate but would distract my mind.
“There were moments when I was very low and there were dark days, but I never lost hope. All I could really think of was how long it was going to take me to get back on a bike.”
His wife Olivia – they have been married for 27 years and have two daughters – has been a rock during his convalescence.
“Olly’s a pragmatist, little fazes her. When something goes wrong, emotions don’t come into it,” he writes. “She just focuses on what needs to be done. That’s probably just as well given the life she’s had being married to me.”
At the start of 2017, he got back on to a geared bike.
“It felt awesome. I’d been thinking about it for a while. I just went up and down the road at first and my wife filmed it.”
Now, he’s riding every day in London and says he finds it easier than walking.
“I’m not walking brilliantly. I’m walking unaided and I’m doing a lot of work with this guy I used to do Pilates with in the Eighties. Now it’s all about building up the muscle strength again.”
He admits he still has pain in both legs.
“There’s a possibility I’m only going to get back to 80% of what I was,” he admits. “Running isn’t going to be an option any more. I’ve got a limp.”
But optimism is never far away.
“At the moment I’m starting to walk again properly and I’m now planning to do motorcycle tours in Africa again.
“In my mind, in the next few months I’ll be back at 100%. Maybe my body isn’t quite so springy as it was, but you’ve got to be positive.”
:: Long Way Back by Charley Boorman is published by AA, priced £20. Available now