Encounter: Norman and Maggie Magowan

Beginnings and endings are almost always difficult. That certainly holds true for motorcycle journeys. It takes a kind of courage to ride away from the comfortable security of home, and adjusting back to so-called normality afterwards can be no less challenging.

Norman and Maggie Magowan seem to take such transitions in their stride. In part, that’s undoubtedly because they’ve had plenty of practice and they’re both blessed with an indomitable sense of humour. But I suspect it’s mainly thanks to their perspective on life. After all, when you look at it as one great big shared adventure, beginnings and endings are just steps along the way.

The self-styled leprechauns were teenage sweethearts back in the day when Saturday nights in Northern Ireland involved strutting their diminutive funky stuff at the local disco. Their first taste of motorcycle travel was an eye-opening 3,000-mile ride from Belfast to the south of France and back, two-up on a single-cylinder Kawasaki Z200. Nearly four decades later, they’re evidently still very much in love – with each other, and with the nomadic overlanding lifestyle.

During the ‘80s and ‘90s the couple rode a variety of bikes around Europe, North Africa, and coast-to-coast across the USA. Those trips punctuated a move to Hertfordshire, England, and time spent developing rewarding careers – within the British space industry in Norman’s case, and as a nurse in Maggie’s. They also fuelled round-the-world ambitions first inspired by reading Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels.

The Americas were the stage for Norman and Maggie’s first really long-distance motorcycling drama, which started in Santiago, Chile, in the summer of 2004. Riding a distinctive pair of yellow BMW F650GSs, they headed south to Ushuaia before turning north again towards their goal of reaching the Arctic Ocean. Fifteen months and 35,500 miles later, their Pan-American “Adventures in Yellow” were complete.

After returning to work and domesticity in England, Maggie qualified as a yoga and pilates instructor, and Norman set about telling the tale of their journey in two books: Leprechauns in Latin America and Leprechauns in Alaska. At the talks they gave at book signings and motorcycle events around the country, entertained audiences would ask where the leprechauns would be going next. For a long time, the answer to that question remained as elusive as the end of a rainbow, but sooner or later another journey was inevitable.

The yellow BMWs were brought out of retirement in July 2015 and this time Norman and Maggie had the firm intention of making an unhurried loop around the planet. “Travelling on our bikes we are masters of our own compass, ready to change direction on a whim or a fancy, able to linger or move on just as we like.”

Familiar roads across France and Germany led to the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia. Then came the end of Europe as they entered Iran, which Norman described as, “an amazing place from end to end.”

Bypassing Afghanistan and Pakistan via Dubai, the next five months were spent exploring the wonders of India. Despite its hardships, extremes, and witnessing a tragedy as traumatic as it was commonplace, Norman and Maggie would eventually look back on India as their favourite country (or at least joint favourite with Indonesia). Beyond it were South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and a traverse of Canada.

“On the road… life is soon pared down to the basics, leaving a lot of time to focus on the things that make you happy and the garnering of beautiful encounters, experiences and meeting simply wonderful people.”

38 months after leaving, the fun-loving duo made a triumphant return to the UK last October having ridden 51,000 miles through 26 countries towards another journey’s end.

So what’s next for the intrepid Magowans? Another new beginning, naturally. The European space industry tempted Norman back into gainful employment, and the couple has relocated to Bremen, Germany. Then there’s the Overland Event Winter Warmer in February, where’ll they be giving a presentation about their life-changing journey. If you’re going, make sure you ask them if there’ll be another book and where else they’d still like to ride.

In the meantime, you can immerse yourself in Norman and Maggie’s story through the pages of their thoughtful and humorous blog. It’s full of fabulous photography and explains why their trips raised funds in aid of Cancer Research UK.

Words: Iain Harper