Encounter: Liam McCabe

Perhaps some of the biggest concerns that any of us have before undertaking a global adventure surround funding and whether or not we’re organised enough. Few of us are as fortunate as Liam McCabe and capable of not really caring.

For him, the stars seemed to align so he just set off on his Honda Africa Twin for a four-year ride. It was an under-used bike that he’d coveted in his native Belfast, teasing the owner that if it was ever for sale, he’d ride it to India, as every backpacker he’d met talked reverentially of the country as though it was some travelling benchmark, somewhere he should ride to at least once before he died.

The owner of that bike finally called him in ’99, just as Millennium celebrations were on the horizon. The tenancy on his flat was ending, he realised being a motorcycle courier wasn’t his life’s ambition and he’d just received word that the University course he’d planned to start had been cancelled. So he bought the bike and called his girlfriend Catriona: ‘Hows about I ride a bike to India, pick you up in Delhi and then we ride to Goa for the Millenium?’ That was just the start of what may well be the first motorcycle RTW by an Irishman.

Liam is relaxed, jovial and full of engaging stories, extolling many of the traits common to someone who has ridden the world almost accidentally. Before he went global he was sure of two things: that he’d get sick in India and robbed in Colombia. Both were true and neither experience disappointed, but he hadn’t expected to enjoy Iran so much, be quite as awe-struck in the Andes, play with Kalashnikovs in Pakistan and dynamite in Bolivia or be ‘cuffed and have a gun stuck in the back of his head in the USA.

Not born into a life of travel, his imagination was piqued as a ten-year old when, undergoing a very long and isolated stay in hospital, his big sister came home from inter-railing and regaled him with stories of Egypt. A few years later and with independent wheels (an RD250), he set off down the west of Ireland and realised there must be drier places to explore. And so it was Eastern Europe in ’94 and Morocco in ’95, each trip increasing the challenge and the reward, stretching his comfort zone.

Like so many young people growing up in Ireland in the 1980s, he’d often harboured ideas about working in Australia, so after reaching Goa, he just carried on riding, via Nepal and SE Asia. While working multiple jobs in Oz to replenish funds it just made sense to then ship out to South America where he crossed the Salar in Bolivia alone with nothing but a compass, before then getting lost for three days when he rode off the edge of his map…

Later, as he sat with his bike on a small boat, watching an Amazonian family on the riverbank, he realised how far he’d actually come with his Honda. The enormity of the situation – being in the Amazon jungle – seemed somehow unimaginable as he considered his childhood in Belfast.

Living so frugally on the road for four years, one of the weirdest things back at home was actually learning to spend money again, and with the confidence and independence he’d developed while travelling, the situation helped him start his own business; the ‘Big White Van’ removal company in Belfast.

His bike is currently off the road, but not through any mechanical failure, it never really had any during the 84,000 mile trip. Travel now includes Catriona and their two boys in a home-converted campervan, brewing coffee each morning with the same little pot that rode every mile with him. It provides a little nomadic continuity.

Words: Paddy Tyson. Image: Andy Lyle

This article first appeared in Issue 9 of Overland Magazine.