Billy Ward has ridden through war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, toured the world as Charley Boorman’s theatre producer and racked up thousands of off-road miles on motorbikes. It’s a far cry from the comfortable, corporate life he had built for himself, but he hasn’t looked back.
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"I was in a corporate job forever, for a big company. Your typical, well-heeled, corporate job and about 12 years ago I basically packed it all in and set up a little business called Biketruck. I’d take bikes from the UK, from Ireland, from Scotland, put them in a truck and take them down to north Africa.
"Customers would fly into Malaga and take the ferry across, pick up their bike and have their adventure. That’s how I got into the industry. I swam away from that island of proper salaries and pensions and all of that good stuff to the island of motorcycles which is a little bit rough round the edges sometimes making money and having security, but that goes with the territory."
Billy’s career change was also prompted by a nasty divorce, during which he found comfort watching a new TV show called Long Way Round.
"I married a divorce lawyer, a really f***ing good divorce lawyer. About 12 years ago when all the shit hit the fan, she divorced me. You know when the world feels like it has ended, well actually sometimes that ending is a new beginning.
"One of the big cool new things at the time was this show called Long Way Round and I remember watching it and enjoying it so much, and finding it so inspirational that I would only allow myself to watch 20 mins at a time to stretch it out as long as possible."
One of the things Billy really loved about the show was that he felt like he could so easily be there with the show’s stars, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. What he didn’t know at the time was how right he was.
After telling Boorman that a public appearance he made was "pretty sh*t", he managed to arrange a meeting at Long Way Round HQ to discuss the possibility of producing a theatre show.
"I turned up at the garage they use in the show and I was excited and taking selfies. Then Charley literally wheelied into the place with his head an inch from the top of the door and screeched the bike to a halt and I just thought ‘this is amazing’.
"I sat down with Charley and Russ Malkin (Producer of Long Way Round) and I gave out these business cards that said I was a Theatre Producer. What they didn’t know was that I had printed the cards on one of those machines at King’s Cross station on the way in and it was a total blag.
"I may not have been a Theatre Producer but I had been a good corporate player so I just approached the whole thing as a project to be completed."
The first show in Newcastle was a huge success and they ended up touring the show all over the world.
Not all of Billy’s exploits have run so smoothly. Billy agreed to ride through Iraq with Long Way Round cameraman Claudio von Planta (after a few drinks) and the pair ran into trouble twice before the trip even started.
"For people who don’t know Claudio, he’s completely f***ing insane. He’s an award-winning documentary film maker, he’s an award-winning cameraman, but he’s completely insane. He went to Afghanistan and interviewed Bin Laden. He just walked into a café and said, 'hello, I’m a journalist from the west and I’d like to interview Bin Laden.'
"They just thought he wanted to die or he was suicidal, so he said, 'no worries, I’ll try somewhere else.' He knocked on doors, going from café to café to café until someone said, 'ok, come with us.' They put him in a car and put a hood on him hundreds of kilometres into the caves and he interviewed Bin Laden. I mean he’s just completely insane.
"So, we arrived in Turkey to hop over into Iraq and he said on the plane, 'I hope everything goes ok here in Turkey, Erdogan isn’t a big fan and I’ve been in trouble here.' I said what do you mean you’ve been in big trouble? He said that he’d made some documentaries and there was a chance that we’d be arrested there.
'As long as we made it through the night without the door being kicked down, we’d probably be ok'
"Erdogan has been arresting journalists and anyone of importance in the middle classes have been imprisoned with no court hearing and I was thinking, ‘Claudio, you could have mentioned this little problem with Turkey.’ And he said that he thought as long as we made it through the night without the door being kicked down, we’d probably be ok."
A sleepless night later Billy and Claudio boarded a plane for the next leg of the journey to Iraq itself. "We arrived in Iraq, early hours of the morning, about 4am and, being frank, I’m pretty anxious. I’m scared really. We’re not in Afghanistan with the SAS, we’re in Iraq just me and Claudio.
"So, 4am we’re getting off the plane and the only other people around are military. You can see them a mile off, there’s no families with babies it’s all just military personnel either returning to duty or they’re private security people.
"And yet again Claudio said, 'I hope there’s not going to be trouble here.' I asked him why there would be trouble and he said, ‘because of the drone.’
"I just said, ‘you’ve brought a f***ing drone? Why have you brought a drone?’ He said, ‘let’s just see how it goes,’ and of course within seconds there was a call on the radio for Claudio von Planta to go to reception security desk.
"We were going through passport control and these security guys came over and took Claudio by the arm and asked if he has a drone. He said that he did and they said, 'but you know you’re in a war zone?’' So they took him away and the other guy asked me if we’re together and I said, ‘nope, I’m just on holiday,’ and they took Claudio away while I stood in the queue."
Billy and Claudio were eventually allowed into Iraq with the drone thanks to the influence of a fixer. The next problem came when they tried to get hold of some motorbikes.
"We didn’t realise, but you actually can’t generally get big motorbikes in Iraq, they’re sort of outlawed and the only people who have them are sort of under the radar. There’s bike clubs down near Baghdad but they’re still under the radar and they get away with it because they’re connected.
"So, when we got there, we got to the Iranian border on the east side of Iraq and the plan was to ride across, up to the north to Mosul and to try and meet people and see what real life is like. But when we got there, we found we couldn’t get any motorbikes. The only things we could get were little Chinese 125s or 150s, there weren’t any real big bikes.
'I don’t think anyone was that keen on lending us a couple of bikes to take to Iraq'
"And even though I have a good relationship with BMW, I don’t think anyone was that keen on lending us a couple of bikes to take to Iraq."
Billy and Claudio were in a tricky spot and not sure how they would continue with the trip until their fixer came through for them again in a completely unexpected way.
"He had a friend in the Iraqi equivalent of MI5, and we arranged to go and see him. He heard all about what we were trying to do and we told him that we just wanted to try and meet ordinary people to get a flavour of and understand Iraq.
"He said ‘no problem, I have a present for you for visiting my country.’ He took us downstairs and he’s got two f***ing police motorcycles with police written down the side, blue lights and sirens, even a gun holster.
"Bear in mind, this is all done through an interpreter and not many people spoke English so I was thinking, ‘this is really cool and we’re really grateful, thank you,’ but at the same time, ‘are we not just going to be f***ing targets now?’ we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry."
The trip to Iraq also yielded what Billy describes as his scariest experience when he was asked on live Iraqi TV to give a message from the West to ISIS.
When you listen to Billy talk it’s impossible not to catch his enthusiasm for the life he has made in bikes. His decision to move away from a corporate has clearly paid off but is not without its problems.
"It’s a funny old life now, it’s a bit wobbly but it’s pretty awesome. The trouble with living the dream is waking up in the morning and realising you’ve not made a lot of money for a month, but I’m not complaining."
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