THERE he goes, being a right Charley. Or rather doing a Charley, his trademark rolling wheelstand on the BMW R1200GS as we thunder up the hill toward the Rex Lookout north of Cairns on the Captain Cook Highway.
Charley Boorman’s business card says “Adventurer and Author”. The co-star of the Long Way Round television series is well up on the back wheel as I follow on the smaller BMW F800R, trying to do my best Ewan McGregor impersonation.
I have already pulled it off once, a gobsmacked Kawasaki rider we drew alongside in traffic on Sheridan St spotting Charley’s trademark wild-eyed grin and waving enthusiastically at us both as we took off.
Charley is in Cairns to promote his latest book and TV series On the Edge – By Any Means, in which he travels from Sydney to Tokyo by, as the title implies, whatever transport he can scrounge up along the way. But today he is happy to be back in the saddle of the same model BMW he and Ewan circumnavigated the globe on in Long Way Round.
And he can ride that bike. For a non-local he sets a cracking pace along the twists and turns of the Captain Cook Hwy as it snakes between the rainforest mountains and the sandy beaches of the coastline.
It’s a good thing I am on the very light and very nimble F800R. For an 800 it feels very light indeed and the handling is impeccable and instantly user-friendly.
Its high, wide-ish handlebars combined with narrow petrol tank and tucked-up footpegs give an almost motardlike riding position, which gives great control in both city traffic and through the twisties.
But the petrol tank is not really a petrol tank. The filler cap is back next to the passenger seat and the tank lurks below, keeping the fuel weight low and giving that lovely light feel around the corners. The “tank” between my knees is really an airbox – from which a glorious twocylinder growl emerges to match the exhaust note when I rap the throttle on to keep up with Charley. It is all part of that “urban” styling BMW has given the F800R: part hitech rocket ship, part sci-fi Bladerunner robotics and part urban assault weapon.
It is all very modern, yet reminds me of those Transformer toys my son played with.
And indeed the F800R is a bit of a transformer. Out in the pristine countryside, the vertical twin’s roar takes on an almost primal tone to match the surrounds. It is ready to take on anything the road throws at us, a bit of loose gravel here, an unexpected roadworks stop around a blind corner there, even an awe-struck tourist in a rental car not exactly staying on their side of the double white lines where they have crested a hill and seen the Coral Sea stretched out in front of them.
All too soon, we have to stop at secluded Oak Beach for our quick interview before we have to head back to town and hand Charley over to the waiting crowd at his book launch function at the Blue Sky Brewery.
First order of business is I have to take a picture with Charley’s mobile phone of him on the bike, beautiful sand and sea in the background. He sends it to his mate in rainy Old Blighty. “It is something we always do,” he says with that trademark grin and the enthusiasm for all things motorcycle, and for life itself, that obviously is no put-on for the camera. “It’ll be miserable and raining back there right now.”
So how does Charley rate the Captain Cook Hwy as a guy who has ridden some, if not most, of the world’s great motorcycling roads?
“Well, what’s nice is it’s taking you through the mountains but what is really beautiful is it follows the coast with those beautiful white sand beaches. Yet it is not all twisty – there are some nice straights where you can have a bit of fun. It doesn’t get better than this.”
However he admits that perhaps his favourite coast ride was up the Pacific Hwy on the US west coast, riding with Peter Fonda. Fonda, known mostly for his role as the Harley-chopper riding Captain America in the 60s biker movie Easy Rider, was mounted on an Italian MV Agusta sportbike, Charley recounts with a laugh.
“And no insult meant, but the company on that ride just made it the best coast ride you could do.” But he says Far North Queensland is a motorcyclist’s mecca with its varied scenery and spectacular roads both on the coast, up the ranges and across the picturesque Tableland. He has been coming here since he was 18, when he trained as a divemaster at Port Douglas, just a few kilometres to our north.
“It’s all about the outdoors here, about living your dreams,” Charley says. “If you like swimming or water skiing or hiking, you can do all that without causing a fuss because there is such a wealth of open space.”
Now, this is a guy who knows his outdoors better than most. Besides having rounded the globe once by motorcycle in the original series, “doing” Africa in Long Way Down and then Ireland to Sydney “by any means” as the show’s title says, he is already planning the next big ride with Ewan starting at the tip of South America and heading north as far as their BMWs will carry them. Somewhere near the North Pole presumably. The Long Way Up ride is scheduled for 2011, too long for Charley to wait. He is planning a solo trip in the meantime, but can’t say where until it is all organised. “I am sort of superstitious that way,” he says. Even before then he is heading to Afghanistan to visit the troops there.
“They have told me I will have to sleep in one of these metal capsules in between rows of solid rock walls because of the possible bomb attacks – good thing I’m not claustrophobic,” he says with that trademark wildeyed grin. He can’t wait to get there – even if he is having trouble finding travel insurance.
“I got one policy for £100,000 but that would only get you back to the capital city in Afghanistan if you got injured,” he says. “So I found one company that will cover me for a million pounds, but it is going to cost me £2500 pounds for seven days’ coverage.”
The ride back to Cairns is as lively as the ride up. I am still impressed with the “little” F800R’s nimble handling and top-notch Brembo brakes. It uses conventional telescopic forks up front, not the heavier paralever design of the R1200GS but the result is sure-footed road-holding the whole way. The vertical twin engine is smooth. BMW have cunningly added a third dummy throw on the crankshaft, driving a pivoted counterweight that irons out opposing vibrations. Everything on the bike is just where it should be and just as it should be – a BMW hallmark of course.
>> TEST BIKES BMW F800R AND R1200GS SUPPLIED BY WESTCO MOTORS, 351 MULGRAVE RD, CAIRNS.