Charley Boorman talks about his latest adventures in South Africa - and why you should ignore the naysayers and go there now
Motorcycle adventurer and Ewan McGregor's best mate Charley Boorman has a new show starting on Channel 5 on 9 January. The four episode series sees Charley visiting every corner of South Africa, taking part in adventures like shark diving, abseiling down Table Mountain, and parajetting. He talks to Peter Moore about what he loves about South Africa and why you should get there as soon as you can.
What made you choose South Africa?
My ride down through Africa with Ewan was my first proper experience in Africa and I really loved it. But it felt like we’d gone through the continent really quickly. Some of the countries we went through I thought “Wouldn’t it be lovely to spend more time here?” One of those countries was South Africa.
And you focus solely on South Africa?
It’s something I started with the Extreme Frontiers series about Canada. Ewan and I had passed through Canada quickly doing The Long Way Round, but I went back and spent more time there. It made sense to do the same with South Africa.
Both The Long Way Round and The Long Way Down were all about travelling through countries, meeting people along the way, bumping into people and the joy of that. In this series, I get a chance to get under the skin of a country.
I go to South Africa quite a lot. I lead a motorcycle tour there every year, taking 20 guys from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. We go through South Africa and Namibia and all that. So the idea of just hanging out in South Africa, digging below the surface, was irresistible.
Any other motivations?
I wanted to change peoples’ idea of South Africa as well. When you tell people you’re going to South Africa there’s a sharp intake of breath and a comment that it’s a dodgy place. They say it’s a dangerous, but if you ask them if they’ve been there they’ll say “No”.
So part of the show is to say "Look, you can go there and have a really good, safe time." It's probably safer than most places in Europe.
You’ve said that anyone can do the journeys you do. Do you think that part of the appeal of your shows is that you’re seen as a bit of an Everyman?
I don’t know about being an Everyman. Isn’t that a kind of vitamin supplement? It’s just really good fun.
What was the biggest attraction to travelling around South Africa?
I think the loveliest thing was the choice of transport. That was fun. Riding a motorcycle through Africa is incredible. South Africa hasn’t gone Health and Safety crazy. You see it in Australia. You see it in Britain and Europe. We’ve become kind of ‘nannied’. So when you go to Africa, you feel a lot more freedom.
With that comes the feeling that you’ve got to make your own proper decisions about what you’re doing. If a road comes to a T-junction but there’s no sign post, you stop and look both ways. then you decide if you go on. You can’t just go ahead and get hit by a car and say "Well, no-one told me to stop!" That part of it I really love. That’s what attracted me to it.
Anything to do in the sea. In South Africa, you can surf. You can swim with dolphins. I swum with 600 dolphins one day. We were looking for the sardine run, where birds, sharks, everything, gather to feed on the sardines. We didn’t get lucky enough to see a feeding frenzy, but I did get to go on this boat and see 600 dolphins – at least 600, it could have been more. They were all swimming in this line and the guy on the boat says: "Right, Charlie, let’s go in." We slipped into the water and these dolphins came flying towards me. It was incredible.
What was your favourite land-based experience?
Going up the Sani Pass to Lesotho. It's pretty hair-raising at the best of times, but when we went the whole place had turned to ice. I didn't get very far before I fell off my bike.
In the end, we convinced some poor bloke in a jeep to take us up the rest of the way. It was mad! We got to a point where we thought "Great! We’ve made it!" Then we hit some ice and started sliding back. I’m sitting there thinking of opening the door and bailing out because we were going to go over the edge. I kept telling myself to remain calm, but my hand was twitching to open the door, even though I knew it would hurt to jump out.
Did you stop at the lodge at the top?
Yep, stopped at the lodge and had a pint. And toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. I think we earned it. They do a very nice hot chocolate there too. So if anyone is struggling to get up the pass and thinking "I’m not sure I can do this", it’s worth it for the hot chocolate. It comes with marshmallows, everything. Pucker, as Jamie Oliver would say.
In this series you tried a lot of new things. You were abseiling and para-jetting and surfing and driving those huge mining trucks. Which was the most difficult to master?
For an average person, all of them. But for Charley Boorman – nothing is too difficult!(laughs)
Seriously though, it was probably the huge mining dump trucks. The mine we went to was a mega-mine. Apparently, you have to have nine or more mega-trucks to be classed as a mega-mine. I’ve got this picture of this huge truck next with a Toyota Hilux following it and the Toyota looks like a pebble.
When you drive them, there are so many blindspots, so mastering that, without squashing anything, was a challenge. You chat to the guys who have been driving them for a couple of years and they drive them with one hand and the seat laid back, stereo blaring and it’s as if they are driving a little Mini through London. It’s quite extraordinary.
That was one of the trickiest things, because if it goes wrong, it goes mega-wrong. When a mega-truck runs over a car, it doesn’t turn out well for the car.
What were your favourite moments of this series?
One of the fun moments was sitting in the middle of a mountain – I’d gone on this little train into a gold mine, three kilometres in and one kilometre down.They’d set all these charges in the face and it had this long fuse.The guy was telling me all about it, how he just lights the fuse and walks calmly away from it. Then he said "Oh, do you want to light it?"
I lit the fuse and he said "Don’t forget, walk!" and every single instinct told me to run. The problem is, if you run and you trip over, you hurt yourself, you get trapped, then it’s all over. They know exactly how long the fuse takes. But still, all you want to do is run.
You also got to stay out in the Kalahari with the bushmen. What was that like?
It was incredible. The bushmen, over the years, have been slowly pushed out of their lands and it becomes harder and harder for them to maintain their culture.
We stayed in this interesting place, a lodge, owned by the community around it. They work there and the profit goes back to the community.
They took us hunting for lions on foot, which I thought was a really stupid idea. But as my producer says: "What’s bad for Charley is good for the TV show." I think he was secretly hoping a lion would maul me. The best part, though, was listening to the bushmen and their stories. It was fascinating. They were very jolly, fun people. They like a laugh.
Did you go to any townships and see that side of South Africa as well?
We stayed overnight in a township. It’s funny, peoples’ opinions on townships are that they are just dumps. And, it’s true, most are just tin shacks, with no running water and freezing cold in winter and hot in summer. But when you go through these towns you realise that there’s actually a lot of community there. They’ve got shops and hairdressers and people cooking takeaway fast food, pubs and schools – a real community. You don’t get that just driving by.
You also realise just how much South Africa has changed. 20 years ago, if you’d gone into Soweto as a white guy, you’d never come out. Now, there’s a great little backpackers hostel, where you can stay right in the middle of Soweto and then next day go with one of the local guides and do a bicycle tour. You see everything, just cycling through, and no one bats an eyelid, everyone’s relaxed, happy to see you and have a chat.
Then, if you want, you can go to the twin cooling towers of the power station and bungee off there. And, if you really wanted too, just down the road, they’ve got a brand new shopping centre, where you can catch the latest movie at the cinema.
I went to South Africa with my dad when I was seven and I remember very clearly walking over a bridge and there was a big metal sheet dividing it. There were blacks on one side and whites on the other. I went on a bus and there was a sort of a cage and all the black people were in the cage while we were sitting on seats. It was extraordinary, really.
Obviously there are still problems in South Africa, like the recent miner’s strike, for example. But did you come away from South Africa with hope or were you left a little unsure?
The mining strike is pretty dramatic, but those guys are fighting for an extra 50p a week, while the mines themselves are making big money. They’re fighting for their survival. But it doesn’t have any impact on tourists.
In fact, most people in South Africa understand the value of tourism and they respect that. I think for someone who wants to go and explore a beautiful country with amazingly friendly people, South Africa ticks all the boxes. It has everything. Yes, there is poverty and a social divide, but if we look closely enough in our own country there’s just as big a divide. Even in the townships, I felt relaxed and safe.
If you had to describe the essence of South Africa, what would you say it was?
If you like adventure, food, wine and beauty, then there aren’t many places in the world that can offer that like South Africa.
Finally, what’s next for Charley Boorman?
Well, I lead these motorcycle tours every year. In February and March, we're doing two in Australia. One around Tasmania, one behind Sydney, up in the Blue Mountains.
As for TV shows, I’d love to do Central America, I’d love to do Mexico. I love Mexico, especially the food!
There’s a bunch of other stuff on the drawing board too. If it all comes off, it’s going to be a great year.
Charley Boorman's South African Adventure starts on Channel Five on 9 January at 8pm.