Thirteen years ago, Norman and Maggie Magowan gave up their nine-to-five jobs to become biking nomads.
Norman quit his job as quality manager in the space industry to travel. Maggie, a Pilates and yoga instructor, put her classes on hold. They knew it’d change their lives and boldly set forth to blaze new trails.
But they’d actually started pursuing their wanderlust when they were in their late teens. Norman and Maggie grew up in Northern Ireland and met at a disco as teenagers. They were both only there because of their friends but the night turned for the better when they discovered a mutual dream to see the world.
They began riding motorcycles together to explore new worlds and experience new adventures.
When they were 18, they bought a motorcycle to see how far they could go in one day in Ireland.
Their first trip was from Belfast to Dublin, a journey of 160km. Then in 1981, they decided to travel further and headed off to the south of France.
“The French Riviera, Monte Carlo, Nice and Marseille are beautiful places,” related Norman. Over time, they began to appreciate different people and cultures.
Both found jobs where they could work and study simultaneously.
They would travel during the summer holidays as well as “at every opportunity” to places around Europe.
Today, Norman, 55, and Maggie, 56, are still mad about travelling. Their trips usually take two to four weeks and to date, they have travelled to 64 countries on their motorcycles.
The Magowans were recently in Malaysia, passing by on their journey from Britain to Australia. They have been riding for 20 months now.
They are slowly making their way towards East Timor and Australia.
“We will only return home when financial constraints dictate it,” said Norman via email.
The couple chronicles their journeys on their blog, Adventures in Yellow, (https://adventuresinyellow.wordpress.com/), where they call themselves “two restless spirits” riding the same yellow motorcycles. The title was taken from a mural display at a Van Gogh art exhibition in London.
“The bikes are 2002 models. So, like us, they’re old,” Norman said with a laugh.
But the Mogowans are not ditching their machines because they can’t imagine seeing the world any other way.
“With a motorbike, you are totally immersed in your environment. If it’s cold, you feel the cold; and if it’s wet, you feel the rain.
“If you ride into a busy market, you get all the smells – good and bad, everything from a fresh roasting chicken to the stench of an open sewer.
“Travelling in a car, you exist in an artificial environment. You close the windows, you have air-conditioning and music.
You’re effectively oblivious to the outside world,” said Norman.
Maggie opined: “It’s challenging and technical to ride a motorbike. You have to be very focused. It’s also a different skill set, particularly when you are riding in very bad conditions.”
Motorcycles can take you places you cannot go by car, added Norman.
“It’s also cheaper,” piped in Maggie.
Norman explained that it was costly to ship their bikes, for example on this latest trip, when they shipped them from Dubai to Mumbai.
Imagine the costs if they were driving 4WD vehicles! “Also, travel costs would escalate due to higher fuel consumption if we were driving cars,” he emphasised.
Living the adventure
As much as they love their tours, the Magowans also had had their share of troubles.
But they take it all in their stride because there is usually a silver lining. Whether it’s mechanical failure, illness or losing their way, someone invariably steps forward to help.
Such acts of kindness reaffirm their belief that “people are basically decent and there is still a lot of love and kindness in the world”.
Once, they stopped by the roadside in Darab, a small town in Southern Iran, to ask for directions. An elderly man rode past on his small motorcycle. He promptly made a U-turn and stopped to see if they were alright.
“Resting on the fuel tank was a huge round of freshly baked flatbread. Without hesitation, he tore it in half and insisted we eat. The bread was delicious but even more nutritious was the milk of human kindness delivered in this manner,” he reminisced.
Then, there were hard and dangerous rides. One such ride was across the Dalton Highway that runs north to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska: 1500km of mostly mud.
“Day One was fine; the sun shone and the road was baked hard and dry and we zipped along for the first half of it. Day Two brought torrential rain. The road turned to a sticky brown porridge that made for a nightmare ride,” he recounted.
They had to cross the Brooks Mountain range and did so at a crawl for 400km. It took 12 hours.
“The mud-laden drizzle obscured our helmet visors and we couldn’t see so we had to ride with them open. The mud then got into our eyes and the calcium carbonate binder used to consolidate the road substrate stung like crazy,” he said.
When the temperature dropped to 5°C, the Magowans were reduced to riding 16km stretches. When they stopped, they jumped up and down to warm up. They also had to scrape the mud off their motorcycle lights so they could see (and be seen) in the gloom.
On arrival at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean, they and their two bikes were a uniform brown; “the same colour as the mud on the road”.
Said Norman: “The only contrast was the bright white of our smiles as we realised we had made it to the end of the long road that began a long time ago in Chile!”
Their smiles were in celebration of overcoming challenges and their sense of achievement at completing their journey from Chile to Alaska.
Another unforgettable adventure was seeing their first volcano. They had never set eyes on an active mountain until Chile.
The day’s ride took them deep into the mountains but the dense pine forest that lined the road obscured any clear view of the terrain around them. Suddenly, the land dropped away as the road crested a magnificent ridge and they could see over the tops of the trees on the horizon.
“The sight on the horizon almost unsaddled us; for there, above the tree line, was a huge white-capped, pointy-coned volcano. It was a monster that filled the sky, yet it looked like a child’s drawing complete with scalloped snowline and a pigtail plume of smoke spiraling out of the top. This was Volcan Villarica and we had made it our mission to reach the summit,” recalled Norman.
After a five-and-a-half-hour hike, they saw “the majesty of nature at its best!”
Norman said: “For the descent, we had been issued with over-trousers that came with a hard plastic tray sewn into the posterior. We now used these as sleds, translating that five-and-a-half-hour ascent into a one-and-a-half-hour descent accompanied by yelling and screaming all the way as we slid down through the snow on our bottoms!”
Their journeys, though extremely challenging at times, had led them to “places of sheer wonderment and amazement” and brought them great happiness and fulfilment.
Both agreed that some time in our lives, we should do a little trip rather than just daydream about it.
And, no empty talk like, “Oh, I would love to see this or go there …”
Their advice, “Just do it.
“After all, the secret to happiness is quite simple: find out what you like and then pursue that every day to the best of your ability,” they said.
Funding cancer research
After losing several close family members to cancer, Norman and Maggie Magowan decided to make their road trips more meaningful.
They decided to dedicate their epic 57,000km Pan-American Adventure from Chile to Alaska to raising funds for Cancer Research UK. The trip took 15 months, between 2004 and 2006, after a period of sadness in their lives.
Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity funded by the public. It conducts research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Its work is funded by the public.
In 2006, after returning from the Americas, Norman wrote two books on their biking tour, Leprechauns in Latin America and Leprechauns in Alaska. The couple had two missions on that journey.
“We wanted to fight cancer which hurt our families so badly and made us realise our own mortality. We wanted to do something with our lives that was meaningful and at the same time do something against cancer,” said Norman in an interview during his stopover in Malaysia.
He reminisced: “I lost my father who was only 66, and a year later, Maggie’s 46-year-old brother died. It was a bolt from the blue. We didn’t see it coming.
“We had a happy, happy life. We had good jobs and were living in Britain where I was working in the space industry. All of a sudden, we had this big sad part of our lives where people whom we loved were suddenly gone,”
The Magowans support Cancer Research UK by riding their bikes to support fund-raising at public events and donating their speakers’ fees. Norman’s talks cover his travels and escapades and are usually accompanied by a slideshow, compiled from the best of over 30,000 photographs taken on the road.
The couple also visit the UK Cancer Research facilities to see how money raised is spent and were impressed by the work and the incredible advances being made in the fight against cancer in all its manifestations.
They continue to use Adventures in Yellow as their platform (justgiving.com\adventuresinyellow) to raise money for Cancer Research UK.
They document their Pan-American Adventure on panamericanadventure.com.