I hope this travel story of mine will make your day sunnier
Across Australia on a Tart's Handbag.
Mr Male Menopause, Mr Borne Again Biker; what a ridiculous sight! The leather's too tight old fella, but the old fella can't laugh, partly because the leather is too tight and partly because that's me I'm looking at in the mirror. If it wasn't for the slight paunch, the greying hair and the disappearance of all that hard muscle, if it wasn't for that...I could almost convince myself...NO! Get real Ben, you're a 41 year old divorce and there's no way you should be crossing Australia on a Harley in full flaming summer- not with three kids and a second marriage in May- and certainly not with your 'wife to be'.
But that other little voice said " Corr you look great, a regular little Indiana Jones" and rather than listen, my inner voice of wisdom turned to help Mimi into her leathers, which was altogether easier and far more fun.
Mimi knew I'd biked across Africa but had overlooked the ten year lay up, during my marriage. As far as she was concerned, her fiancee really was a 'regular little Indiana Jones'. For a girl who'd never ridden pillion, this was trust of the highest order. I only wished I shared her confidence because I had put eight months into planning the previous Cape Town trip and only a few weeks into planning this one. But this was the age of E-mail, things were easier these days and I fervently hoped that nothing would go wrong.
Sydney is a stunning city and a place well suited to staying and soaking up the lifestyle. It is certainly not a place to have to leave, almost before one has arrived, and certainly not in the style fate had chosen for us. But fate hadn't yet intervened, or so it seemed as we behaved like tourists while the jet lag seeped out of us, and the warmth flooded in. The cliches flashed by; Sydney Harbour Bridge (impressive), Bondi Beach (tiny and overcrowded), Thongs (tiny and overcrowded) and lots of men dressed as women (confusing).
We ate well, drank too much and provided the Sydney-siders something far more ridiculous than their muscle-bound selves to look at; our pale Pommie bodies in last years swimsuits.
I remember looking up into a seamless sky and admiring the antics of a sky writer. Gradually the letters 'AM' materialised, then a love heart. Another 'A' appeared. The few onlookers had remained silent until some wag, bored by the slow progress of the plane, and doubtless watching the letters being blown westwards, said: "Christ Bill, I hope the bloody Sheila's not called Anastasia, or something like that!"
Bondi's redeeming feature was that it was a Mecca for bikes and lots of Harleys. Our fantasy had been to hire a Harley, but the reality when we arrived at the Hire shop was "Well mate, you should have said you wanted it to be a real Harley.
"A Harley is a Harley" I replied and "I can't believe you've had us fly half way round the world to hire a heap of crap like this". I was totally beside myself. I simply could not believe that we might have to risk our lives on a mouldering Harley clone, a Yamaha Virago- no less- that had seen much better days. It had leather tassels hanging from the handle bars and a number plate reading 'OUT 96'. Well, so much for prebooking on the Internet.
I would be accused of sexual bigotry if I repeat what I then said about the bike. I can tell you that the reply was " Funny you should say that, mate, the bike's never been bent but the owner was. You should get plenty of attention in the outback".
I walked outside the shop to regain my cool. I could hear Mimi shouting at the man that there was no way we were going to accept the damn thing. But it appeared that it was either the Yamaha, or one of a number of ratty bikes without any luggage capacity. He then played his master stroke and produced two moth-eaten leather panniers, and a couple of worn bungees. "No worries Darlin', we've got it all sussed out".
Mimi, never one to suffer fools, told him where he could shove it and went to outside to fume on the pavement, where the sun was already so hot that she immediately came back in with a suprised look on her face. The outcome was the same regardless. We were going to have to make friends with this bike. It wasn't going to be easy. The tyre was 2/3rds worn. The pannier frames were broken and needed rewelding. The brake disc was warped. To cap it all, we had an open incitement to all horny Jackaroos and Aborigines along the way, by way of our registration number.
Our uncertain and somewhat wobbly start took us through Oxford Street, the camp part of town. Apart from several wolf whistles from admiring men in leather, we managed this without incident. The outside temperature was 38 degrees. We were heavily laden and the 1100cc V twin ticked from the heat, clonked in the gearbox and rattled worthy of a Harley, as we snaked our way out of Sydney. The traffic was intense and any minute now I expected the engine to seize in the breathless heat. But gradually the road opened up, the cars thinned out and we were throbbing along in a hot blast of somwhere near to a Willie Nelson state of bliss; 'On the road again'....at last .
Someone had told us that after 35degrees, the heat wouldn't offer any cooling affect. Well to use an Aussie phrase: "They're not wrong!" When we first stopped for fuel, I was stuck to the seat by sweat. From that moment on, we made sure that we were drinking a litre at every stop and passing the water around in between.
Within the first 100 miles, the nicely padded front seat had become an item of torture. At 6ft 2", I was unable to move around. Mimi had padded her seat with bed rolls and fared better, leaning back against the 'sissy(sic) bar'. She amused herself by using up all the video film in masterful if artless panoramics of parched farmland and bored families in estate cars. When this lost its fascination, she pushed the camera into my face to film the sweat flipping backwards off my nose and the skin delaminating and sloughing from my burnt cheeks. It wasn't exactly a road movie. The soundtrack would be the roar of the baking wind and wheels on tarmac...not the steady beat and thunder of a Harley Davison in full flight, or even the muted burble of a Yamaha Virago 1100.
Merimbula, an otherwise unremarkable seaside town, was significant. It was the end of our first day and the first of many places that seemed eerily familiar thanks to 'Neighbours'. We had our first argument, brought on by dehydration and sore bottoms. I kicked the motorcycle and hurt my foot. Mimi had a confrontation with a tiny spider that she swore was a 'Funnel Web' and we all went to bed none the worse for it but utterly exhausted.
The next couple of days began to see a change in the relationship between us and the bike. Perhaps we'd been a little hard on it, but gradually and as it swept us through the Gum forest of Victoria State, a bond of sorts was formed. The days were filled with burning heat and sudden patches of inexplicable cold, intense sunlight and inky black shade. The Gums, tall and white, sometimes fallen and tangled, thrashed and swayed in the wind above the tree tops. Kangaroo carcasses, often unseen roadkill casualties, rotted and stank. Pink Golahs burst from the canopy and screeched past us and for the most part we were alone but for the occasional truck or car. The road was adequately surfaced, the corners nicely cambered and the fully laden bike took them well with a fist-full of counter steer. Soon I began to like the feel of the motor, it was in its element chugging into corners and accelerating out again, neither fast nor slow, but well matched and powerful enough for two. I began to realise that the heart of the beast was sound, and probably a good deal sounder than a Harley. Suddenly we were all enjoying the experience.
Melbourne was suddenly within reach, a mere half day's ride. We had arrived at Australia's southernmost tip, a coastal nature reserve surrounded by rolling hills and pasture. The evening before had been almost entirely ruined by a cloud burst that had surprised us, hidden behind a hill and leaving the arrow straight road obliterated in a slate grey veil of torrential precipitation. We only had a few miles to go and decided to plough on. What a mistake! Suddenly we knew what it must have been like to hit the sound barrier because the rain was hard and hurt, like a wall of falling lead shot..and cold...and loud. We had to stop. I could not see the road twenty yards ahead. Suddenly our air conditioned half face helmets became a bad joke.
It had taken all night in a miserable motel to dry our gear. We had set off to Wilson's Promontory at 6 am. Low mist lay across the pastures and Friesian cows moved about stiffly, their legs invisible. The road was laced with potholes. The sun appeared, reluctantly at first and raised the temperature just enough to feel. A smile was spreading across my face when the luggage rack collapsed showering the road in underwear and startling the cows.
By luck, we stopped adjacent to the only habitation for miles. There was a cafe (closed) and a house. If anyone lived there, they were obviously asleep. We set about unloading the bike which didn't take long as the job was already mostly done. Mimi walked back and began to harvest her knickers from the road. The cows had gathered and were looking on in a state of idiotic amusement. The luggage rack was shot. I then noticed the tyre was almost bald. The door to the house opened and the owner came out, scratched his head and produced tape, nuts and bolts but not the mig welder that we needed. Instead, by way of being helpful, he showed me his Lee Enfield Rifle and let me use his phone to telephone the hire shop. This was an entirely pointless act as there was nothing they could do as we were now 600 miles away, other than to offer to have a new tyre waiting 2000 miles further on. However I did break the habit of a lifetime and call the bloke a useless C***t, which certainly made me feel better but had the unfortunate effect of causing the cafe waitress mortal offence.
We soon discovered that flies can walk up you nose three abreast. Warmed by the sun and revelling in the stench of cow dung, they made directly for us. It was time to go. We were directed to Dandenong, an outskirt of Melbourne, where the rack was repaired and much merriment was had at our expense over the number plate. "Well Mate, what did you expect riding a Tart's Handbag like that."
The long road from Melbourne to Adelaide was supposed to be the most scenic of the entire journey. The scenery varied from the familiar arid grasslands of Western Victoria, dotted with sheep, to seaside which could have been West Wales. The analogy is not so strange. It rained steadily for a whole day and the seaside traffic, the result of an Australian Bank Holiday called Labour Day, clogged the beautiful coast road like cholesterol in an artery. Our spirits slumped. All our wet weather gear had been deemed too heavy to bring so we were no paying the price and freezing to death. Everywhere we stopped we were jostled either by Japanese tourists or pale Brits. Our underpants squelched with water, our goggles misted and soon we were wondering what all the fuss about Australia was really all about. That was until the sun shone and broiled us alive in our wet clothes. It was a mild dose of fever and no little frustration that found us cutting inland to seek accommodation toward the town of Hamilton. I never noticed the Police car performing a neat U-turn behind us. I still find it hard to believe that we were 'done' for speeding on a road that probably only saw a few vehicles each day. The Policeman even had the gall to admit that he had a quota to fill. He did let me play with his gun (which was kind), told us not to respond when the summons landed on our doorstep in the UK (kinder still) and we all left the best of friends. Upon reflection, I was stunned that the Virago had got us this far and had been clocked at 90mph, and all this after all the abuse that generations of hirers had meted out to it.
Living it up.
Adelaide was a good long day's ride from Hamilton, a day of strong winds and tumbling spinifex. After so long in the saddle, we reckon we deserved a treat. Oblivious of how we must have looked and smelled, we decided to walk into the Adelaide Hilton, dripping sweat and depositing a knicker trail (in the usual style) across the floor. I was bearded, Mimi was bedraggled and the staff were a mixture of horrified (the Ladies) and delighted (the Men). Why anyone would be horrified by the sight and smell of us was quite beyond me! Someone even had the cheek to say (albeit quietly) "they smell like roadkill".
The Virago was put into the care of the most junior member of staff, who accepted a small bribe to keep an eye on it. It looked forlorn in the basement surrounded by cars and I was surprised that I even noticed.
We had a few days to cool our heels and see the sites of Adelaide, which it must be said are relatively few. By chance a convention of Australian Police bag pipers had collected on the far side of the road. We listened for a while and couldn't help noticing that with all these cops in kilts nearby, no one was paying any attention to an unfolding situation a few yards away.
An intoxicated aboriginal had been startled by a car as he weaved his way across the road. Somewhat annoyed to find a car in a four lane highway, he had started to berate the driver and was attempting to peel away the roof with the help of a large club. The driver, a Japanese Lady, was screaming at the top of her voice and unfortunately for her, very much in the same key as the bag pipes. Whether the cops were too involved in the "Green Hills of Tryroll" or were just having a day off from saving terrified Orientals, we shall never know. What we do know is that she was nearly scared to within an inch of her life.
Port Augusta was now only a very long day away, through the wine growing area of the Barossa Valley and then rolling wheatlands of golden stubble. Strange harvesting paraphernalia lay deserted in fields bigger enough to loose a major city. Combines stood motionless, their job done. They may have dwarfed anything in the UK, but they looked inconsequential against horizons as vast as these. We past one town, Claire, lost in a wheatscape as vast as anything anywhere. Stopping for a beer, I asked if the wheat farmers were descended from those of Claire in Suffolk. So many of the convict boats had taken East Anglia's best; but this was met with blank denials. It was, they said, named after the Claire in Ireland. Whether it was true or not, we had noticed that the Aussies were quick to deny links with England but were never slow to claim Irish roots. It had been the same in America.
Port Augusta lay just over the Flinders mountain range and was where the trip got serious. The Nullabor desert started soon afterwards and stretched all the way to Kalgoorlie. It was famously hot, dull and potentially dangerous. We weren't expecting to get eaten by the wildlife but it was mid summer and the 'in shade' temperatures could easily top 50 degrees. In the sun and in the full blast of the wind, heat stroke (the potentially fatal bit) was never far away. Port Augusta itself was like so many of the towns I had seen across the Karoo desert in South Africa, quiet and conservative. The place was dominated by a massive factory that belched vile smoke across the otherwise flawless blue sky. Aborigines moved around in apparently invisible groups, arguing here and shouting there, and all the time ignored by their white country folk. It was surreal and an insight into their anger- these darkest of fish 'out of water'- in their own land. It was the same anger and frustration that I had seen in South Africa, but coming from an even greater sense of impotence.
The Nullabor dawns on you slowly. The town of Iron Knob and its mine give way to tedious straights that defy belief. The scenery varies between wheatland and low lying scrub. At Ceduna we found a motel, the temperature was 47 degrees even at 6 pm. We walked about in slow motion, weighed down by the heat and bodily parched, looking for water and eventually beer. I had seldom seen such a deep shade of blue or searing light. Ceduna had a fancy restaurant, the last we'd see before Perth. Outside sat a ribbon of Aborigines, an entire extended family. The food had been Nouvelle Cuisine; tiny morsels of pretty nothing. How they would have laughed how we had spent our money.
The Nullabor started in earnest after Ceduna. The temperature had indeed reached the magic 50 degrees. At 10am, we stopped at the Yalatta Roadhouse. I heard the unmistakable rumble of a Harley, the only sound apart from a creaky air conditioner and chips frying next door. The door opened and an apparition from a Spaghetti western stepped in. No spurs, but the same handlebar moustache, leather boots and silent nod towards the beer. He had come the other way - out of the cauldron- he nodded at us but no one had the energy to talk. Suddenly 'Virago man' felt like a plonker and wished he'd held out for a Harley; until the man went out and spent ten minutes trying to start it again.
Keeping cool enough was a real test. We wet our T shirts, and then buttoned our denim jackets over the top. This way, the wet shirts evaporated slowly but it still only lasted twenty minutes at most. We were drinking continuously. Wind blew from the North at twenty five knots causing the bike to list like a sand yacht, but still the Yamaha burbled along without fuss.
The pain had really set in, from the searing heat, from stiff backs, sore bums and now a throbbing headache. Every so often a three trailered Roadtrain would roar past leaving a turbulent and lethal tail and a sandblast for our sunburned faces. More occasionally, intrepid camper vans appeared, their occupants with glazed expressions, children lying in sweaty, sleepy heaps. Air-conditioned but a million times worse off than us, all sensation gone.
We didn't envy them at all, until the only cloud for a thousand miles soaked us and turned the day to night, however briefly. You wondered how the early explorers managed in such a harsh environment. They must have been as tough as pemican, but they still died like flies.
Perhaps there is little that one can say about driving across this desolate place. Perhaps there was little of interest. The road simply went East, straight as any engineer could make it. The only kinks were where the poor fellow had gone crazy and thrown in a bend moments before he ran naked into the scrub, babbling, never to be seen again. The few signs told us what we already knew: 'The World's Longest Straight"etc..It was easy to just set the throttle and day dream and then forget to drink, start to hallucinate, crash and die. Staying alert with so little stimulus other than the sensation of being barbecued alive was not easy.
But somehow, from the apparent nothingness came small signs of life; those mounds were actually wombat burrows. Did you know that a collision with a Wombat would rip the sump out of a car? There were herds of camels out there, somewhere on the shimmering miraged horizon and Emus, if you were lucky enough to spot them. The natural place for Emus was in the dappled shade of the Mallee scrub. We had been warned to watch the roadside as this was where they lurked, chancing their luck on the world's most informal and elongated pedestrian crossing.
The most dangerous hazard was that of Kangaroos. Rule number one was not to drive after dark as the Roos came out, from heaven knows where. To hit a Big Red Kangaroo in a speeding truck is an inconvenience; when you stop you simply scrape off the goo. In a car, it can be fatal. These Reds are simply enormous and have the nasty habit of landing on the drivers lap in a shower of glass and flailing, pulverised meat.
So we stayed alert by playing 'hunt the wildlife'. I wouldn't say this provided hours of fun, but it was sufficiently tall an order to seem like a challenge in a landscape that appeared to offer very little else.
Human contact was also at a premium. The roadhouse's usual offering of the dazed and dehydrated traveller did not satisfy our desire for conversation. To walk in from an outside air temperature of 50degrees into an air-conditioned cafe chilled to freezing point felt wonderful for the first minute. When the sweat on your back began to chill, it began to feel grim. Either way, the hot/cold effect seemed to stun people into monosyllabic exchanges such as "G'day"in greeting or "Yep" when asked "have you come far?"
We met one biker on a large Custom Kawasaki who was driving round Australia in his gap year, another who was escaping a bad marriage on an XJ600, but that was it. Oh, and lest I forget, there was a Japanese man who was doing the same trip as us on one of those miniature kid's scooters. Even if he had spoken English, I doubt he'd have been capable of anything more than gibberish. The heat and the irrational fear of being eaten by the aborigines would have seen to that. He was briefly upstaged by a group of long distance runners, but reinstated as Champion of the Nutters when I realised that these guys didn't have to sleep in the bush or survive on Witchati grubs.
Balladonia was one of many names that sounded romantic during the planning stages of the trip.It had a resonance that conjured up images of rusty windmills, and reclusive out backers. It was also the place that the largest chunk of Skylab came to earth. What the indigenous Aborigines made of it, I cannot say. It was also the place that the world's longest and straightest road took a 45 degree northern turn. This, in itself was cause for great excitement.
Perched on the top of the Motel was the much heralded chunk of Skylab. Surrounding the building, a veritable junkyard of more earthly detritus, the washed up flotsam of overland travellers- cars and Volkswagen camper vans, lorry chassis and old road making equipment. The new motel had sprung up alongside the old motel, which had just been abandoned- not difficult as it consisted of old freight containers, coffin like bunk space. Behind the hotel was an airstrip with a hangar full of similarly clapped out junk including a microlite with baler twine holding on vital wing strutts. A group of Roos grazed warily a few hundred yards away in the evening sun.
The Skylab chunk paled into insignificance alongside the steak that was offered up for dinner. There was absolutely no pretence that this came anywhere except from a cow. Any romantic notion that steak was the product of a supermarket was rapidly dispelled by hoof prints into the kitchen, the sound of panicked mooing, chopping noises and the appearance of two rough looking outbackers in shorts bearing the thing to your table. The stench of burnt flesh rather than cooked meat was overpowering. The steak still showed sign of a pulse and lay there twitching under a garbage-can-full of other people's left over chips. For a brief moment I entertained the thought of E mailing food critics Michael Winner, AA Gill or even Egon Ronay and then thought better of it. I should have been grateful, these people were pleased to see us, and were showing us in that unique Balladonia way reserved for rare creatures of passage. The steak twitched once more before I began to wretch and made for my bed.
We made Perth several days later, via Esperance and an incident with some Emus. Running a fever and trying to control a fully laden Virago (on a bend at full counter-steer) when a bunch of Emus tries to cross the road, is not much fun. They dithered, crossed and then ran back. Somehow we made it round without connecting. When I stopped, Mimi had a feather clutched in her hand. That's how close a call it was.
We had ridden 3500 miles. Now I had the answers to several nagging questions:
Is Australia that big? Yes.
Is the Nullabor dull? Only if you think a plain is flat.
What do Aussies make of the Outback? Concrete and suburbs. Otherwise they don't go there.
Does Australia have any culture? ...............C'mon I'm waiting.
Our trip started with the tourist clichés of Sydney and ended in Perth, another glittering city of glass and light. In between is a vast land and an Aboriginal race that most Australians never wish to see. We barely touched on it. If anyone should ask if we would do it all again, I'd say 'No'. Next time we're going over the top, via Darwin to Sydney....on a Harley, of course.