Back To The Outback

Brisbane, 5th May 2017

Pretty much everyone leaves Birdsville, that’s just a fact of life. But how on earth did I now find myself 1600kms east of the town, at Phil’s house, near Brisbane? My plan had been to ride slowly east, stopping to look at the various towns on the way, and also to visit a station. Cattle, that is, not railway. In July 2015 I’d met Scott in the town of 1770, up on the north Queensland coast. He was on a bike tour too and told me he owned a station in far west Queensland and invited me to visit. So, given that I was now in far west Queensland I emailed him to take up that offer. So far, so simple. But I’d also rung up my friend Phil, now returned from Bali, to see when he might be around for me to visit. I wanted to see him before I left Aus. He was about to go away for two weeks so all of a sudden I needed to be there, or I’d miss him. No word back from Scott yet, so I decided on a fast ride east.

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Seen on the road. A sculpture representing an Aboriginal Dreamtime serpent, made from local gibber and gravel.

Windorah, Quilpie, Charlieville and Roma all passed beneath my wheels in a blur of overnight stops, fuel stops and coffee stops. No time now to be a tourist, it would have to wait. But even so, the incidental pleasures of a journey, even a hurried one, are never far away. At a coffee stop in Roma I was ‘held for questioning’ by Donna, the owner of Bakeroma. She saw my riding gear and immediately asked me what bike I was on and where I was going, even interrupting the girl serving me to do so! I took my coffee and scones outside and she came to chat. She passed her test in 2006 and rides a BMW 650GS, which she loves. She goes on trips together with her husband and they have ridden around most of Aus. Retirement will bring more touring but mostly in an Iveco 6.5 tonne expedition van. Hmmm. I’ve often fancied one of those. Eventually I had to move on but that was a nice interlude on a sunny afternoon, talking bikes and travelling, and all the better for being unexpected.

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No, this isn’t Donna. Just someone else I met on the road.

A long third day in the saddle got me to Phil’s place, where I spent a couple of nights, delighted to have caught up with him before he left. He loaned me his garage so I could do some maintenance (I’m REALLY sorry about the carpet Phil!), and I went into the city to get a very much needed new rear tyre fitted. It’s sad to be at the stage of my journey where I’m saying goodbye to my Aussie friends. I saw Colleen at the yoga class and was able to give her a goodbye hug. I left Phil’s exactly two years to the day after he picked me up from the airport on my arrival in Australia. Thanks for everything Phil, you’ve been a great mate.
Northwards now, westwards later. I was heading for Gympie, to stay with David, who I met on the road a while back and who’d done the usual Aussie thing of inviting me to stay. The ride up the motorway was boring, of course, so I was glad to follow Phil’s advice and go to look at the Glasshouse Mountains. Yes, a strange name but the mountains do look odd. They rise out of the surrounding land as if they’ve been dropped from above, a bit like a child’s lumps of discarded playdough. But Cook had named them thus because they reminded him of the waste heaps that surround the glass works near his Yorkshire home. These mountains are the remains of volcanic activity and being on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range, are nicely green too.

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Glasshouse Mountains. They reminded James Cook of home.

As soon as I got off the bike at the viewing area I was approached by Barry and his son Steve, immigrants from Finchley, North London, forty years ago. More enjoyable bike talk. Barry has a Matchless 500, in racing trim, sitting in his garage. Steve plays around on a cheap Chinese trail bike which he reckons is easily as good as the more expensive bikes his mates use. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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Steve and Barry. Immigrants from Finchley.

A quick trip out to the coast to see Noosa Heads, another of Phil’s suggestions. This area has a very tortous coastline, basically salty nooks and crannies surrounded by expensive apartments, shops full of high fashion and coffee shops serving varieties I’ve never heard of. I rode slowly through the touristy streets until I could park by the beach. What the expensive fripperies couldn’t disguise was the smell of the sea. And it was like perfume after so much dusty outback air. A short walk got me to the beach where, once I’d finished gazing at the waves, I saw four scantily clad young women attacking a shiny red BMW convertible with polishing cloths. Another overpriced service for the idle rich? Well, no. I’d come across a film crew on location, working on an advert for O’Neil surfing gear. It was a case of jump out of the car girls, polish it furiously while two surfer dudes looked on, “Cut”. Then repeat, until the director was happy with the shot. It was fun to watch for a short while. I found the chat with one of the production team, just to find out what it was all about, more interesting in the end.

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‘Nice scenery’, some might say. I really liked the car.

I had a nice weekend with David and planned out the journey west. First part of that was to travel slowly and look at the towns I’d rushed through. Second part, which actually came first, was to visit Handlebar Haven, as recommended by Grace. Two questions need answering here: who and what. Grace is a young Sydneysider who set off in February to ride to Paris. Given where she’s got to, you might think it’s all going rather slowly but she keeps finding good reasons to pause and explore. And why not? I found out about her from her blog. It’s here: https://bikehedonia.wordpress.com/ and is well worth reading.
Handlebar Haven is one of the places she’s discovered and is a free camping and occasional music venue, run by bikers just for bikers. Only vehicles with two or three wheels are allowed. It has terraced areas for tents, a camp kitchen, with a BBQ and plenty of pans, plates etc., and a long drop toilet. People are encouraged to just turn up and make themselves at home. No booking or fee is required although a donation is appreciated.

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Miss Behavin’ will welcome you to the site.

It was only a short ride there so I enjoyed a lazy Sunday morning before setting off. “Look for the big pink tyre by the entrance” their Facebook page advises, then says to camp where you feel like and enjoy the facilities. So I found a place for my tent then wandered up to the house. I’d been in touch with the owners, Jock and Annie via Facebook, so I went to say Hi. I was met by a big guy, with a bushy white beard, who immediately gave me a beer, and an attractive, slim woman who immediately gave me a hug. There’s nothing wrong with a welcome like that.

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Home of the last Fuckwit and space for the next one alongside. You have been warned!

Everyone has interesting stories to tell and theirs is a good one. Having got together relatively recently they decided to buy this block of land and break away from the daily grind to build their own place and live off grid. There was already a fairly dilapidated building there, which they’ve slowly improved and turned into a decent place to live. It’s all been done with recycled materials, donated after they put the word out that they were willing to receive any unwanted building products that people wished to donate, or sell very cheaply. In the end they received ‘shed loads’, including a large shed to put it all in! Although there was little financial outlay, they paid for it in the discomforts suffered while the project progressed. Cold showers out in the open; very basic cooking facilities; draughts through the walls. That kind of thing. They rely on rainwater and solar power, plus a generator for big ticket items, such as Jock’s garage equipment. He’s assembled an impressive solar array, with batteries to store the power. It’s the kind of thing I’d love to do one day and I was very impressed. We chatted over dinner and I found out more about Grace, who is currently working on a station further west. She’s had some bike problems too so is working on solutions. Annie put me in touch with her and I hoped to catch up with her later.

Postie bike with quad bike rear wheel.             Solving the problem of lining up the chain.

After breakfast Jock showed me around his shed and his collection of Honda Postie bikes. Aus Post uses thousands of these 110cc bikes for delivering mail but then sell them on after a time. They’re very popular and people love to modify and customise them in various ways. They provide a different kind of challenge for long distance travellers to enjoy too. There’s quite a cult thing going on with them. Jock has modified his by fitting quad bike wheels to it. Plenty of engineering was needed to make that work. Fat wheels replacing narrow ones introduces a few problems to overcome, especially with regard to the chain. He was about to set off on the Great Australian Ride, which runs east to west, From Byron Bay to Steep Point. Another biker charity event. Jock was hoping the fat tyres would help him through the sand of the Simpson Desert. Fascinating stuff. Jock was kind enough to weld up a broken section of one of my pannier frames before I left too. Yet more Aussie kindness and hospitality from two lovely people.

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Jock, Annie and ‘The dog whose name I forget’.

I’d had word from Scott and when I told him I was heading towards Roma he said he had a house in the town and I could stay with him there. The ride over was very relaxed, riding through rolling and sweet smelling countryside. This side of Queensland is pleasantly green and was worth enjoying before returning to the dusty outback. Scott has a traditional Queenslander house, i.e.it sits up on stumps so there’s space beneath the floor for air circulation, essential in the summer heat. It’s a lovely old place and is Scott’s residence. Although he owns Canaway Downs Station, out near Quilpie, it’s run as a business and he has a manager living there. Next morning we went to the same coffee shop at which I’d met Donna (she wasn’t there), for early breakfast and to meet some friends. Scott then flew his plane out to Canaway Downs and I arranged to meet him there a couple of days later. Time to be a tourist once more.

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Big ears.

Having already ridden through Roma from west to east I’d concluded that it was the border between ‘busy’ and ‘bugger all’. Westwards the roads were quieter, narrower and ran through scrub, bush and small towns. To the east there were far more trucks, more industry and much more pastoral activity, with much bigger towns.
The busiest place in Roma lies on the edge of town, in the shape of Australia’s biggest cattle sale yards. I rode out there for a look around. They run free tours on sale days but I was too late for that so I just took myself off on my own tour which, surprisingly, I was free to do. Visitors can move along the walkways, which overlook the cattle pens below. The auctioneer and his assistants move along a lower walkway and customers walk along between the pens at ground level. The photos show what I mean. Bidding takes a very short time and seems to happen in that sort of a secret code that we’ve probably all seen on TV. Once sold, a couple of horse mounted musterers will move the cattle to weigh bridges where the final price is determined. Each pen holds about 30-40 head and there are weaners, store and prime cattle. The first two will be transported to a station to graze and grow big, prime cattle go for food. Steak on the hoof, and plenty of it. I have to admit though, that by the time I’d seen it all I was feeling a bit turned off from meat. But next time I sat down in front of a steak I realised it hadn’t lasted, I’m pleased to say.

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Big humps.

Roma was the first town to be gazetted after Queensland separated from New South Wales, in 1859, so has a long history. It retains some fine buildings from the late 19th century. As with many towns in this area, the need for water was always a problem. Bores were successfully sunk, eventually, but one attempt inadvertently kicked off Australia’s oil and gas industry when natural gas was found at about 3,500 metres. That was in 1899 and the industry has continued there ever since. But that was long preceded by the area’s first cattle station, started in 1860. Cattle have remained at the centre of Roma’s prosperity ever since.

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Big hats.

I took a walk around the town, following the Heritage Trail, which took me past various significant buildings. As mentioned, many of them pubs. There are signboards placed on the pavement to describe the venues’ history and origin. I’ve always been impressed by towns that do this and it is, thankfully, very common. A walk down past Bungil Creek took me to Roma’s largest Bottle Tree, with a circumference of 9.51 metres. These trees are common in this area and the town also has an Avenue of Heroes, where one hundred and forty of these trees, each with a plaque, represent the town’s fallen from WW1.

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The Big Bottle Tree. 9.51 metres girth. You could get a lot of your favourite tipple inside there!

There are a variety of other sites to visit, particularly the story of the oil and gas industry at the Big Rig, but one man can’t visit everything in one day and I needed to move on.
Charleville was next on the list for a proper visit. Roma was all about cattle, the early history of Charleville was all about sheep, and mostly still is. But for a long period it was all about aviation. Famous fliers landed and lodged there; QANTAS launched its first government sponsored mail route from there; it was a marshalling and maintenance base for two hundred and fifty American B17 bombers. When I went on the Top Secret WW2 Tour I discovered these things, along with many others. But perhaps the most interesting item on this tour, and the reason for the ‘secrecy’, was the Norden Bomb Sight. Here’s the story.

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This is what all the fuss was about.

This bomb aiming sight was invented by Dutch engineer Carl Norden and developed by his engineering company, set up after he emigrated to the USA. The device was mounted in the nose cone of B17 Flying Fortress bombers and, through a combination of compasses and gyroscopes, enabled very precise targeting. An auto pilot device held the plane steady for the necessary twenty seconds while the bomb was released. Its accuracy was reckoned to be good enough to land a bomb within a thirty metre wide circle from as high as 6.4 kilometres. Or, as the air crews put it, to “land a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet.” In reality it wasn’t anywhere near that good. The base was used for training bombardiers in the use of this equipment but it was so top secret that it was taken to the plane under armed guard. The air force was so concerned about it falling into enemy hands that its cradle was fitted with an explosive device and the bombardier was under strict orders that, in the event of being shot down he had to set it off before baling out. Our guide reckoned that none of them reached the enemy during flying operations.

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For the technical among you, here’s how it worked.

Both before and after WW2 the airfield was a significant place. It was a compulsory fuel stop during the 1934 London to Melbourne air race for example. Many famous fliers of that era stopped over, including Amy Johnson. The airfield lies on one of the great circles of navigation and, because of its three kilometre long runway, is an official emergency landing strip for commercial jetliners. It’s come a long way since that first QANTAS flight took off.
On the way east I’d stayed at the Corones Hotel, a superb building from the early 20th C, whose design had touches of Art Deco in it. It was built by a Greek immigrant Harry Corones, who had the foresight to be an early investor in QANTAS. Most of the passengers would stay there, including many famous people. It’s a lovely building, inside as well as out, with very high, richly decorated ceilings. It wasn’t hard to imagine what an oasis of comfort it must have provided for plane passengers, suffering basic seating in small, noisy planes.

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The Corones Hotel is a very fine example of outback architecture.

Inner Queensland suffered a very long and debilitating drought at the end of the 19th century but Charleville thought they had the answer. In 1902 they hired meteorologist Clement Wragge to shoot at the clouds and persuade them to rain. No, this wasn’t the action of people driven mad by thirst. It was actually a scheme which carried a fair bit of logic. The Vortex Gun was already used in over 6,000 locations across Europe to disperse hail-bearing clouds, with some success. So there was a good chance that they may have the opposite effect. They hoped the rapidly rising charge from the guns would persuade the clouds to release rain. Charleville was one of three locations where the experiment was run, all with no success whatsoever. In fact a few of the guns exploded, injuring some spectators. Fortunately the rains arrived later that year anyway.

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Vortex Guns, looking like something out of a Terry Gilliam film.

Clement Wragge was very accomplished in his field and was the first person to produce long range weather forecasting, making use of data gathered from the scores of observation sites he set up around Australia. He was the first person in the world to give names to cyclones and given that he named several of them after Australian politicians, reckoning them to be natural disasters as well, it was no surprise that he failed to be appointed as Commonwealth Meteorologist, following federation in 1901. He set up his own successful forecasting business instead.

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All about Clement Wragge.

Before I left town next morning I called in at the Historic House Museum. A former bank, it was full of all sorts of stories, photos and household and farm implements. I was more fascinated by what was outside though. I was particularly taken with two items. Firstly a steam engine, looking big for only 10 H.P. Obviously shire horses, not racing ones. The sign said it had been used to power a shearing shed up until 1972. That seems ridiculous until you realise that many outlying stations weren’t connected to the electricity grid until the 1990s.

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Built by the Coventry Motor Company, with a 10HP engine, this was one of ten rail ambulances used throughout Queensland. It ran from the mid 20s to the mid 50s.

The second item was a rail ambulance car. These were introduced in the 1930s and enabled patients from outlying areas to be taken to hospital. Usually’’’’’’’’ impossible when the wet season rendered the unsealed roads of the area impassable. Both of these items emphasised how difficult life was in these outlying places and how recently it was that modernisation arrived.
But now it was time to head out to Scott’s cattle station to see it all for real. A long and boring road took me to Quilpie, and got me envying Scott his plane, before taking to the dirt road that led me out to Canaway Downs.

Birdsville

Birdsville, Queensland. Saturday 29th April.

It’s a strange little town, is Birdsville. The welcome sign paints the picture quite well. There aren’t many permanent residents but two events during the year swell the population by up to sixtyfold. The busiest of these is the long standing Birdsville Races. First held in 1882, for local stockmen to show their skills, it now attracts entries from all over Australia and crowds of over 6,000, with many flying their own planes in. It’s held over the first weekend in September and is a huge event. http://www.birdsvilleraces.com

The second is the more recently introduced Rock Festival, aptly named The Big Red Bash. Attracting over 3,000 people last year it’s held 35kms outside Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert, over the first weekend of July. This usefully coincides with school holidays so it is a family event for many. Big Red is a huge sand dune and it becomes the backdrop for three days of rock, country music and desert madness. While the big stars play in front of the dune the bigger stars look down from the firmament, probably wondering what it’s all about. Many people turn their journey into an outback challenge by driving long distances from the major cities. Read about it here.

http://tinyurl.com/y7d75jby

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The sign says it all.

But as the headline date tells you, I wasn’t there for either of those and yet there was an air of excitement about the place. Not exactly a breathless rushing about among the townfolk, but there was certainly an air of anticipation among a couple of motorcyclists I met. It seemed that Stuart Ball was in town! Or rather, he wasn’t but would be back soon. Let me explain.
Aussie bikers are just as madcap as any bikers anywhere and with such a vast country to play in they do love to set records wherever they can. In this case Stuart had his sights on the one for crossing the infamous Simpson Desert, from Birdsville to Mount Dare, and back again. It stands at 23 hours 38 minutes and Stuart had left at 9pm the previous evening. Therefore his return was eagerly anticipated. But chatting to his KTM riding friend later on I learned that he hadn’t made it. In fact he hadn’t even got close. He’d decided to sleep out on the dunes, about 200kms away. He was exhausted. It wasn’t so much the distance which did for him, it’s only around 880 kms, as the sand, which comes in all the forms that a desert can manage. Deep; loose; dunes big and small; but mostly just too much of it. And then there’s the thick clay on the salt flats. He’d fallen off over twenty five times. I hate sand. He has all my sympathy. But the thing that grabbed my attention was that he was riding a CCM, the same model as mine. This ties in with something that happened back in Tibooburra. I’d been out, and when I came in Tracey told me someone had seen my bike and had stopped to ask after the rider. It was Stuart on his journey north to Birdsville, with his bike on the back of a Ute. So now I felt a kinship and also felt his disappointment at not breaking the record. Stuart was doing this ride for a SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) charity, which is well supported by the Aussie biking community.

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Stuart, Sarah and CCM GP450.

At the camp site I bumped into various other bikers too. A couple of old codgers (my age) who were heading south to Innamincka. A male/female couple on His’n’Hers Suzuki DR650s. Four guys on various bikes who were about to tackle the Simpson but had the good sense to be accompanied by a 4WD, which would carry their luggage. All of them out to have fun on the tracks of SW Queensland and South Australia. I felt in good company. But I couldn’t help thinking that it must be an interesting life for the residents of Birdsville. Two very busy events to cope with each year, then fill the rest of the time waiting for various nutcases to turn up and amuse you. And for them to help keep your camp site, servo, shop or hotel ticking over, of course.

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Fascinated to see a BMW K75 converted into a trail bike.

So what else is there to see in Birdsville? Not a great deal, is the answer, although I suppose it depends on your expectation levels. Even so, I enjoyed my walk around. The iconic Birdsville Bakery was worth a visit. It sells pies filled with beef, sheep, camel, pig or kangaroo. Supplied with all kinds of flavouring cooked in. All of those are local fauna. Sorry vegetarians, nothing grows out in these parts to put in a pie, so it’s all meat. I promised the owner I’d be back later, deadline 4pm.

The Birdsville Hotel is a nice old building, in the typical outback style, filled with typical outback people. I did like the way that when a customer ‘hangs up his hat’ for the last time, the pub will then hang up his/her hat, literally.

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The deceased customers no longer need these hats.

The bore outlet, which supplies the town with water, delivers a near boiling point supply which has to be cooled before being piped to the populace. It comes up from the Great Artesian Basin. More about that in a later blog post.

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Steaming hot water, fresh from Mother Earth.

Afghan Cameleers helped open up central Australia by providing transport to places where horses simply couldn’t go. Too much heat and not enough water. There is a nice series of sculptures to honour them. Another set of sculptures reflects the annual races. In both cases the medium used is corrugated iron. It’s surprisingly effective and is very apt, given that this was, and still is, the most common building material used in these parts. Cheap, efficient, but, most importantly, easy to transport out to this treeless region.
I walked out to Two Boys Dreaming, which isn’t a couple of youngsters taking a siesta but is a trail which snakes its way through an area that used to be used for Aboriginal ceremonies. The serpent is probably the creature that features most often in the Dreamtime stories, which Aboriginals use to explain the world. The trail finished up at a billabong. Plenty of water but no swagmen or jumbucks.

Tribute to the Afghan Cameleers.                          And to the Birdsville racers.

OK, time for a ride out to have a look at the famous Big Red, located about 35kms out to the west. But as I rode past the hotel I saw a CCM, propped against the wall. Stuart was obviously back in town. “Very casual parking”, I thought, until I noticed that the side stand was missing; clearly a casualty of the trip. I parked my bike nearby and was just taking some photos when Stuart, and his girlfriend Sarah, came out of the pub. He’d heard my engine and told me he’d seen my bike in Tibooburra. So he told me all about his ride and I expressed both sympathy and admiration. He’d borrowed the importer’s demonstration bike and said he loves it, perfect for his record attempt. We chatted for a while but I had a date with a dune and told him I’d see him later.

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Two of a kind. Used in completely different ways.

The road west goes over Little Red as it heads out into the Simpson Desert. I turned off just before it and made my way to Big Red. Does it live up to the hype? Well yes, as far as Aussie dunes go. This is the highest in Australia, is definitely red, and once I’d struggled up it I could see why people liked it. A great place for playing in your 4WD or on your dirt bike, as the tracks all round the top clearly showed. I stood there looking around and imagining how it would be on a cold desert night in July, with bands playing and people boogieing under the stars. I could easily see the attraction. As I stood there I thought about the rainy, muddy hell of Glastonbury and knew which venue I’d rather be at.

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Why was I photographing sand? I hate sand!

As I said I would, I called in to the bakery on the way back but it had just closed. I was too late. But the owner was still inside and when he saw me, he opened the door. I apologised for being late, he was in the process of emptying out the pie warmer and told me what was left. I chose lamb and curried camel. He said “Take them, compliments of the house” I suspect they’d have been thrown away anyway but I thanked him and rode slowly back to the camp site, where I gratefully polished them off.

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The famous Birdsville Bakery.

Over to the pub next, where Stuart and Sarah eventually came down. We were joined by several others and had a great night chatting about bikes and broken bones. Sarah is a paramedic and has dealt with a few. I’d broken quite a few, so we had a lot in common. Stuart is British and came out here twenty one years ago with five mates. Two of the group didn’t go home again. He spends his working life involved with bikes and is constantly looking for new challenges. He loves his Aussie life and I don’t blame him. He’s even got the Aussie beard!
By the time I left Birdsville I was definitely glad that I’d come. It was worth all the effort, even though there isn’t a huge amount to see. I think the town’s involvement in peoples’ ‘grand journey’ is what gives it its aura. It’s the gateway to some tough travelling. With the exception of the two annual events, most people come just to get supplies, gather their strength and then move on. And that is what I did too.

Circles In The Sand

Tibooburra, New South Wales. Sunday 23rd April 2017.

I rode out of Broken Hill on the third anniversary of my departure from home. I couldn’t begin to count how many towns I’d ridden out of since that day. I could only remember countries, and there were eighteen of those behind me. Ahead of me was the small town of Tibooburra, more than 300kms along the Silver City Highway, part dirt, mostly bitumen. I’d left late so I got my head down and got on with it.
As I neared Tibooburra I could see clouds way over on the horizon and these weren’t pretty, fluffy ones. They were big and dark, were delivering rain onto the land and I was riding straight towards them. Those of you who ride will know that feeling of inevitability, that knowledge that you’re going to get wet. But wait! The road suddenly took a turn away from the clouds and towards the sun. I cheered up. Then both gloom and gloominess came over me as the road turned back towards them and soon after, the heavens opened. So I stopped to zip everything up and pressed on, thankful that I didn’t have far to go. Even so, I was very pleased when I saw the sign for the town hove into view.

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Rather a nice way to announce your town, with well crafted sculpture.

Soon enough I pulled up outside the Tibooburra Hotel, also known as the Two Storey. Why? Because it’s the only building there that is. It wasn’t too much money for a room, or the Sunday special meal, or a couple of beers. I felt right at home. The bar was busy with locals and a few other travellers. Most of the people there seemed to be from surrounding stations, enjoying a Sunday night pizza and beer. I fell into conversation with one young lad, named Jake, who was working as a roustabout at one of the sheep stations. He told me he’d just got back from mustering cattle out near Alice Springs. I asked him what bikes he’d been using but he said they used utes, as bikes weren’t safe. Why? Partly because of the termite mounds hidden in the bush, which would be like riding into a concrete bollard, but also because the young bulls don’t take too kindly to being moved and will sometimes charge the vehicle. Not good fun if you’re on a bike.
The conversation led to him suggesting I come out to the station to watch the shearing. Tracey, who owns the hotel, also owns the station, with her husband. Like a traditional separation of roles, she ran the hotel while her husband ran the station. So she was quite happy about me going out there and said she’d let her husband know.
Jake’s working life is a perfect example of the itinerant style that many Aussies have adopted over the decades. He moves to where the work is and does what there is to do. He’ll concentrate on what he’s good at and what he enjoys, and at the moment he has ambitions to become a sheep shearer. These cattle and sheep stations provide quite well paid work for the Jakes of the locality, and will always provide bed and board as part of the deal. I chatted to a couple of other characters too, both of whom had similar stories to tell. Tales From the Outback.

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A Merino sheep ready for her annual trim.

My visit to the shearing sheds at Gumvale Station was fascinating. Having visited a shearing shed before, albeit not in use at the time, I knew what the layout would be. But seeing it in use was a different experience altogether. Five shearers, two roustabouts, one sorter and one wool presser. Loud music playing and wool all over the place. The calmest of those present were the sheep. They’re held in small pens inside the shed, behind each shearer’s position. He’ll go in and grab one, shear it then shove it down a small chute from where it goes back outside to a pen with all the other bald ones. They’ll get painted with a bright yellow chemical to protect them from sheep mite and will eventually be taken back to one of the paddocks to continue eating grass and growing wool, before doing it all again the next year. Meanwhile they’ll have a lamb or two, just to keep things turning over. Here’s a short video of how it’s done. (http://bit.ly/2qxVttj)

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Jake tidies up the fleece before passing it to the sorter.

The roustabouts take the fleeces from the shearers, pull off the loose and dirty bits from their edges then pass them to the sorter. He will lay each one out on a table, grade it then put it in one of three cages, depending its on colour and quality. The ‘offcuts’ will get used for things like gloves and socks, the main fleeces for better quality material. All the wool goes through a machine which presses it into bags holding 200kg of wool. The bales are stencilled with the grade of wool, the name of the station and a bale number. They’ll be transported off to a merchant’s when shearing is complete. None of the wool is wasted. Here’s a short of video, showing how it’s done. http://tinyurl.com/lpv6yhq
The whole operation is run by a contractor who, with his crew, moves around from station to station. So here’s a few facts and figures, as told to me by Damian, the contractor. They’ll shear about 16,000 sheep at Gumvale; at about 1,000 per day it will take them around three weeks; the shearer gets paid by the fleece, $3 each one; the others get paid by the ‘the run’, which is a two hour period; there’s four per day with a smoko between each run; they’ll get $180-200 per day, more for the sorter. Damian reckons to work forty eight weeks of the year and a good shearer will earn $110,000 per annum. Two hundred sheep per day, five days a week for forty eight weeks. I tried to work out how many sheep that is but I was nodding off before I’d managed it.

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After the shearing. It looks painful but they didn’t seem to be bleating about it too much.

I chatted with Craig, another guy I’d met at the hotel the previous night. He didn’t seem to be doing very much so I asked him what his role was. He said “I just fix things up around here.” I later learned he is the owner of the station (Tracey’s husband), leaving me feeling a bit sheepish. But his comment was accurate really. The contractor runs the shearing show, and all Craig was there to do was to make sure things went smoothly for the shearing crew. So we were able to enjoy a nice chat too, mostly finding out about the way stations are owned and run. After a while one of the shearers invited me to have a try so I took his place with the sheep between my legs and did a bit of shearing. I wasn’t very good, if I’m honest, but at least it gave an idea. The sheep was OK with it too.

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A quick spray of sheep mite preventative before being allowed out to eat more grass.

After that truly educational afternoon the following morning was a much more sober affair. It was ANZAC Day, and the 25th of April is the day for remembering all those who’ve died in the various conflicts. The date is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gallipoli, the ANZAC’s first engagement of WW1. Although Remembrance Sunday is also commemorated, this is the bigger day for Aussies. There was a dawn service, which I didn’t get to, but I attended the 11.00am wreath laying ceremony at the memorial site. A wreath was laid on behalf of pretty much all the businesses and organisations in this very small town. As usual at any of these events I attend, I felt both sad and angry. I don’t think I really need to explain why.

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Time to remember.

Afterwards I had a look at the stories on display inside the memorial hall then went across to the other pub in town, where someone had declared their intention to pay for all the drinks that were bought in the first hour. Midday is normally far too early for me to be drinking but when a kind hearted soul wants your help to spend their money, well it’s a duty really, isn’t it?
The TV was showing the dawn service from Gallpoli and then from France. Simon, the sorter from the shearing crew, kept going over to get a closer look at the ceremony in France and I asked him why. He said his grandmother’s cousin died there and he’ll be going over to visit his grave next year. That took me straight back three years, to when I’d met an Aussie couple in Belgium on the first day of my trip. They were there for the same reason. The anger I’d been feeling was still bubbling under. Enough that later on, when I went onto Facebook, I let rip at a couple of people who had posted an anti immigrant and a pro war meme. I normally try not to react to these idiots but sometimes …….!

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Vietnam war veteran Johnny Ainsworth.

It had rained heavily during the night leading into ANZAC Day so my plans to leave were held up. The track I needed to take was closed. There’s heavy fines for using closed tracks. A bit of bike maintenance filled the time and I got a broken mudguard stay welded up and also changed the oil. The guy who did the welding is also responsible for the rather nice sculptures that welcomed me to Tibooburra. Some other bikers came through town, heading out to Cameron Corner, the same destination as mine. We had some chats about road conditions and so on. It made me smile when we also found ourselves comparing injuries and how we got them. We mutually agreed that the young riders of the group were welcome to their fast bikes and faster riding style. We were happy to take things easy and get there in one piece.

Isak and Mike.  Not young guns any more, but cautious. Just how I’ve learned to be.

A visit to the national park rangers’ centre had helped me form a plan for the next stage, which was to take a slightly longer route than I would have done and go through the  Cameron Corner it was on to Innamincka, where I met my Waterloo last August.
With the road now open and reckoned to be dry I headed up into the national park to have a look at the Jump Ups and Dune Country. The Rangers’ office had provided me with a couple of leaflets. Their availability reflected the fact that adventure touring into this region was getting ever more popular and the need for information was growing accordingly. This is good news for small settlements like Tibooburra because it brings in money and creates employment. Without it many such places would be struggling.
I really enjoyed the ride. The tracks were challenging enough, but not outrageously so, and I adopted all the right principles for staying upright on the dirt, thereby having great fun. So what are the Jump Ups, I can hear you all asking? It’s simply the name given to mesa type hills that ‘jump up’ from the surrounding plain. This area used to be part of a vast inland sea and later, when it dried up, rivers and valleys formed. The silt of the riverbeds hardened into silcrete but the softer land around them eroded away once the water had disappeared. So here we have former river beds now lying above the surrounding land.

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‘Jump Ups’ seems to fit, somehow.

The dunes developed during a long period of very dry weather, about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when the area would have been uninhabitable. As rainfall increased plants gradually stabilised the dunes and gave us the terrain we have today. The dunes are very noticable in an otherwise flat land. Many creatures live in this still harsh environment although one type of former inhabitant no longer does.
The Aboriginal tribes that occupied these lands were driven out when settlers moved in. It was a true clash of cultures and there simply wasn’t any way for them to retain their original lifestyle alongside Europeans and their desire to fence off land. There was no real contest between the two and when the severly misnamed Aboriginal Protection Board was set up in the late 19th century, that was the end. Many of their children were taken from them to be trained as domestic servants and stockmen in an attempt to Europeanise indigenous people. They died of European diseases and eventually, in the 1930s, they were moved from their land and placed into reserves hundreds of kilometres away. It’s only in recent times that their descendants have begun to reconnect with their original land, mostly thanks to the formation of the national parks. But of course, this is a common story throughout Australia and I’ve written about it before.

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Big, red and sandy.

I eventually reached Cameron Corner, the place where three states meet and where, because of time zone differences, new year can be celebrated three times. The woman there remembered me from last August and when I told her about the accident I’d had soon after leaving, she made me feel a whole lot better by telling of many other such incidents that had taken place nearby, most of them far worse than mine.
So on to Innamincka after a night camping in the bush, enjoying a most wonderful starry sky. It really is something quite special to be out in the wilds, hearing the dingos howl and gazing at the milky way. Yes indeed, with a night like that following a terrific day’s ride, I most definitely was back in the travelling groove. I rode past the place where I’d come off the bike last year with nary a twitch of the wheel, and reached Innamincka.
Unfortunately Geoff and Nichelle, the managers who’d been so kind to me after my accident, were away. So I left them a message of greeting, bought a coffee for me and fuel for the bike, and carried on up the Cordillo Downs Road. I was heading for Birdsville on attempt number three.

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Remembering an essential group of people without whose work Australia would not have been opened up.

By about 4pm I realised I’d taken a wrong turn. It’s true to say that the Strzelecki Desert isn’t exactly Hyde Park Corner when it comes to choices of route but the area has plenty of industrial sites, which are visited by trucks. In this case I’d followed the obviously ‘main’ track, as marked by the truck wheels, and ended up at a satellite and oil storage facility. I completely missed the ‘No Through Road’s sign. As I’d been riding along the track a truck coming the other way had stopped, the driver and I chatted, he even gave me a couple of boiled eggs. But the one thing he didn’t do was to ask me why I was riding along to a dead end. If only he’d been more curious! By now it was too late in the day to back track and I knew I was too tired to ride the rather sandy track again, so I found a place to camp for another fabulously starlit night in the bush.
Back at the junction next morning I turned left, straight into deep sand. The condition of the track made it clear that no trucks ever came this way and being in a national park, the track therefore received very little maintenance. As far as I was concerned the park authorities were leaving things just a little too ‘natural’. It was tough going until I did what others had done before me. I took to the ground next to the track where a new route had been formed. Apart from having to keep a sharp eye out for gullies, it was far better. When the track improved I rejoined it, when it worsened I left it. In this way I finally made it to the northern extremity of the park whereupon the track reverted to well maintained and solid ground, albeit extremely stony.

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Gibber Plain. Nothing but stones and sand. Not a blade of grass to be seen.

The track now crossed what’s known as Gibber Plain. Gibber is an Aboriginal word for stone and had they tried to count them they would have been gibbering for evermore. There were millions of them! They made the track tough on the bike but all that mattered to me was that it wasn’t sand.
I stopped to look at The Old Woolshed, a building that used to be a shearing shed for Cordillo Downs Station. Unusually for buildings in the outback, it was built of stone. Most of them seem to be of tin and wood. But it made sense out here because there was no shortage of sandstone boulders to use but not a single stick of wood to be seen. The roof is made from tin (corrugated iron) and was chosen because its light weight meant that fewer supports were needed, leaving far more room inside. In its heyday the building used to have 120 shearing positions, and with about 30,000 sheep, it took about three weeks to complete. It looked very nice as it glowed in the afternoon sun. Further up the track I saw another ruin, this time a disused homestead, also of sandstone, where I stopped for lunch and to put some spare fuel in the bike. And it wasn’t long after that I reached the main road into Birdsville.

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The Old Woolshed. An unusual building for this part of the country.

This was still a gravel road but was wider, mostly smoother and therefore faster. But tempting as it was to up the speed I took it steady. I didn’t want to fall at the last hurdle. Eventually I reached Queensland’s most westerly town, Birdsville. At the third attempt and ten months after first trying; after turning where I’d been into where I was going; after almost literally squaring the circle; I’d finally got there. I just hoped it would be worth it.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Greendale Farm, near Forbes, NSW. Friday 14th April 2017.

If you’ve been following my travels you may remember that I met a Danish biker named Michael, and his Honda Africa Twin, down in Kyrgyzstan. We said we’d try to meet again and, after two and a half years, we managed to make it happen. It took a bit of doing and was mostly thanks to a guy named Ben, who has a farm near Forbes, in north western NSW. He and Michael had ‘met’ on Facebook, Ben had invited him to visit, Michael had told him about me and he’d invited me too. Michael had arrived in Aus a month or so before, had holidayed with his mother and was now staying with a friend in the Blue Mountains. My plan was to head north to Broken Hill, NSW, but Ben was near enough to both our routes to make a diversion to his farm worthwhile.
I was happy to leave Melbourne the easy way, via the motorway. I finished that first day on a campsite at Bruthan, with just over 300kms under our wheels. Trixie was running well and seemed to like southern air. But how would she like mountain roads? A run up through the Victorian Alps was our next challenge and she liked it very much. I felt very confident on the twisties and the bike handles very well indeed. A bit too well in some ways. On the really sharp bends I was scraping the bottoms of my soft panniers on the road and wore holes in them. They were clearly mounted too low. ‘Lift and patch’ seemed to be the order of the day.

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So peaceful that the warden didn’t bother to disturb me for the camping fee.

Another night in a campsite, then a pleasant ride through gentle hills and farmland saw me reach Grenfell, where I met Michael. It was great to see him again after all this time. He’d travelled through Central Asia, China and most of South East Asia since I last saw him. He’d also met Hera in Laos, the Dutch cyclist who I’d met in Kazahkstan and who I’d gone to Kyrgyzstan to meet again. It’s because of her I know Michael in the first place. Michael has plenty of information, hints and tips to share with me about SE Asia. His experiences will be a very useful guide to me when I go there.

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Nice to see you again Michael.

We rode out to Ben’s farm and found ourselves in the company of a very lovely man. Warm and hospitable, Ben is widely traveled and had many tales to tell us. He looks about the same age as me, although I discovered later that he’s in his early seventies. Now that gives me confidence for the longer term because Ben still jets off to other continents and goes exploring by bike. He was in South America recently and regularly travels to Canada and Ireland, where he has bikes waiting for him. He no longer farms his land, but leases it out to a neighbour, although he still gets involved in the work, as we found out. So the three of us chatted and swapped stories, enjoying the camaraderie that bikers always seem to have.

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Nicest part of the day, especially for chatting with a beer in hand.

His family have farmed this land for a very long time and that’s the reason why Ben has several very fascinating sheds. A shed is just a shed, no? Well yes, but it very much depends on what’s in it. Ben never seems to throw anything away with regard to vehicles. Not only most of his old motorbikes but also several 1930s and 40s tractors, including a very odd looking twin cylinder diesel two stroke. It seems that every Ute the farm ever used is also in one of the sheds, along with an old Commer truck. “You’ve got a small fortune sitting here,” I said to Ben. “If you’re ever short of cash this lot could fund years more traveling.” He agreed but reminded me that his nephew was keen to restore several of them, especially the 1950s De Soto.

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A very ancient old tractor.

We’d already met Rob and his family the previous evening, when we went round for dinner. He’s a senior constable in the local police, which obviously keeps him busy. But he also owns a block of land, which he farms and will eventually build a house on. He’s a typical Aussie, with lot’s of ambition and energy.
Have you ever been traveling through the countryside, seen smoke on the horizon then as you got closer realised a farmer was burning stubble? Well that’s what the three of us went out to do one morning. And what a flaming good time we had! Ben and Michael were in a small tractor-like quad, setting things alight, while I stood by in Ben’s Ute towing the water bowser. The aim was to burn the stubble but keep the flames within the field. We failed, and spent most of the time chasing around putting out the fires we’d started. Ben had to go back a couple of times to refill the bowser while Michael and I beat at the flames with branches. All had seemed well when we started but the wind kept changing direction blowing the flames across the boundaries. To a casual observer we must have looked like arsonists on a bonus scheme, but Ben knew what he was about and it was all done properly in the end. Ben’s neighbour Paul could now plough and plant the huge fields, an operation that involves some big machinery that is all achieved by a GPS guided, computer operated tractor. Things have certainly moved on from when I used to hoe fields of mangold wurzels as a teenager.

Setting the field alight.                                  Maybe a bit too much!

What with the stubble burning, chats with Ben and also with his neighbour, I’d gained a better understanding of rural life in these parts. It was strange to hear that the fields we’d been burning had been completely submerged two months ago after some extremely wet weather. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the level of investment that must be involved in running these huge farms. Paul has several huge grain silos, which are the largest privately owned silos in NSW. The tractor and associated machinery is also a huge investment. And yet extremes of weather could render that money wasted, or at least make the loans much more of a burden than they might have been. Fortunately his sheep manage to largely look after themselves.

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Those silos contain very many loaves of bread. Or maybe pints of beer.

Michael tore himself away from our fun filled farming lifestyle and headed back to the Blue Mountains. And after another day of stubble burning, I left too. Ben helped me plan a cross country route to Broken Hill, 800kms away. There were some gravel roads to ride and I was wondering how Trixie would be on her first foray onto the dirt. Come to that, how would I be? The last dirt road I’d been on, six months earlier, had cost me my luggage and a very scorched Doris. It had been a terrific visit to Greendale Farm. Meeting Ben had been a privilege but the time to go always comes. Thanks for the terrific hospitality Ben. I hope to see you out on the road somewhere.

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The Three Amigos. Ben with Honda CX500; Michael with Honda Africa Twin; me with              CCM GP450

Ben’s pets. The possum that lives in a stove.                   And the dog that lives in a boot.

The two day ride to Broken Hill once again told me some tales about rural NSW. Mostly a sad tale of towns that seem to be dying. Empty shop windows with ‘For Lease’ signs prominently displayed. Buildings wanting for a lick of paint. I didn’t actually see any tumble weeds but half expected to. It seems to reflect a trend of people moving away from the land caused by, as much as anything else, mechanisation and ownership of more stations by fewer people. Inevitable, probably, but still sad to see. I’d passed through several ghost towns on my travels but it was strange to see it happening almost before my eyes.

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Another business closes.

But on the plus side, Trixie was handling the dirt with aplomb, and so was I. I shouldn’t really be surprised as that’s what she was designed for, and riding a bike you feel confident on improves your own riding skills too. So we had fun. Warm weather; a night camping in the bush; billions of stars to gaze at; easy riding and a pleasant feeling. All previous doubts about whether or not I’d enjoy the traveling again disappeared, roughly half way along a dirt road which had a surface worn out enough to get me and Trixie working at it a bit. I suddenly thought “I’m really enjoying this! The bike’s good and so am I.” I had to smile at a conversation I had with the old fella who owned a servo where I refueled. I commented on the road and he said “Yes, it needs regrading but they can’t do it without water and we haven’t had any rain since November.” I said nothing but smiled at the thought that only 400kms south they’d had fields that were drowning.

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When they say not to use a road, they mean it!

When I’d been in Broken Hill Base hospital last August, where they’d fixed up my broken hand, I’d realised that the town had a fair bit to offer the tourist, which was why I’d decided to come back. It was on my route north anyway. The cheapest bed I’d found was in a small hotel with self catering facilities. I got booked in, settled my self into the room and made some plans for next morning. When I got up it had started raining. And didn’t stop until lunchtime. A visit to the tourist office showed there was quite a lot to see in and around the town so, clutching my Heritage Trail leaflet, I got walking. The first thing I noticed is that all the street names relate to mining, such as Sulphide Street, Chloride Street and Bromide Street. Oddly appropriate, I thought.

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You can tell it’s a mining town.

First and foremost Broken Hill is a mining town. It’s known as Silver City and it grew out of the discovery of silver, lead and, later on, zinc. These days it’s a cultural centre as well, with many art galleries and similar, but mining still goes on and keeps the town busy and prosperous. Have you ever heard of BHP Billiton, one of the world’s biggest mining and resource companies? The BHP part of the name stands for Broken Hill Proprietary Co Ltd. In 1885 seven friends, who worked on a local cattle station, formed the company to mine the newly discovered ore in the Broken Hills, so named because of their irregular shape and part of the Barrier Ranges. Three years later the town itself was proclaimed a municipality and BHP continued mining there until the late 1930s, later growing its interests into coal, steel and shipbuilding. Billiton was a mining company which originated in the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century, and the two combined in 2001. The most recent news about the company is that it’s dropping the Billiton part of its name, having felt the need to “reconnect with its community” and re-identify as an Aussie company. But there’s no sign of it returning to its roots just yet.

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Pretty minerals.

A visit to the Geology Centre helped me to understand how it all came to be there and the nature of what was dug up. Lead and zinc only exist inside other minerals and obtaining them led to the discovery of many new minerals, often in crystallite form. The display of crystals is marvellous and the beauty of their form and colour is striking. Many of them were named in recognition of their finder. Oddly though, the valuable ore is invariably the dullest of all. So in this case you could say that all that glisters isn’t gold.

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One of the nicest buildings in Broken Hill, the Trades Hall.

There’s several stages of history on show in the town’s heritage buildings, a kind of tin roof display of prospects and prosperity. It’s invariably the big buildings which attract the attention, the grand statements of success, if you like. There’s a fair number of those, including the old post office, the huge Palace Hotel and the Trades Hall, which has a very important story to tell. A bit more on that later. Smaller buildings included the premises of the local newspaper, the Barrier Daily Truth. Started in 1908 it was the world’s first English language newspaper to be owned by a labour organisation, the mining trades unions in this case. It is still going and still has the same type of ownership. Its rival, the Barrier Miner, was funded by the mining companies but closed in 1954. That’s one battle the unions won!

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Another important building.

The Trades Hall is a very grand looking building and was the centre of activity of the mining unions, providing them with office space, education facilities, technical libraries, meeting rooms etc. It was also the hub which supported the two miners’ strikes of 1892 and 1909. Working conditions in these huge mines were dreadful and the unions, as is their role, were always trying to improve them. Illness – such as lead poisoning – and death were all too common. Although the strikers were forced back to work on both occasions, the strikes helped to push forward many improvements. An all too common sight for the townsfolk was to see a black flag flying above the Trades Hall. This meant that a miner had died and people would gather outside to get news of the tragedy. The frequency of this was brought home to me when I walked up to the Miners’ Memorial, an iconic building which sits on top of the Line of Lode.

Line of Lode Miners Memorial. Outside and inside.

This memorial lists the names of all those killed in mining accidents, the year of their death and the cause. I counted over twenty five deaths per year, some for health reasons (heart attacks for example) but mostly from accidents. Electrocution; falls; cave-ins; tunnel collapses; and many others. Even as late as 1989 there were over ten deaths per year. Over eight hundred deaths since the start of mining in 1883. It’s no wonder the unions wanted better conditions for their members.

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An example of how workers used to die.

A much brighter visit was to the town that preceded Broken Hill as a mining centre, Silverton, 25kms away. I’m sure you can guess what they were digging for out there. Often thought of as a ghost town, Silverton still has a population of over sixty people, some of them artists, but most of them involved in the heritage business. The town was founded around the same time as Broken Hill and grew to around 3,000 people, but was slowly overshadowed by its more productive neighbour and eventually fell into decline. Many of the buildings were transported to Broken Hill, solving some of the problems associated with the shortage of building materials.

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Silverton Hotel, plus mob of Harleys.

I had a look at those that were left, including the museums housed in the former gaol and schoolhouse. The hotel still operates and seems to be a popular weekend ride-out destination, judging by the the crowd of Harley Davidson riders I saw there. One of the nicest places was the studio of artist Justin Cowley, or Cowz, as he signs himself. I really liked his style and subject matter, capturing the essence of outback life and the depth of feeling people have for it. I liked it so much I even bought a couple of prints, something I’ve never done on this journey so far. A more famous Aussie artist also has a studio in the town, John Dynon. Unlike Justin, he was at work there but I wasn’t so taken with his painting. It lacked the subtlety of Justin’s, I thought.

Two examples of Justin Cowley’s work. I liked them very much.

But easily the best place in Silverton was a museum set up by British immigrant Adrian Bennett, from Barnsley, solely dedicated to the film Mad Max Two. You could say the man matches the film, but in the nicest way. His obsession began back at home in 1982 when he went with some friends to see Mad Max 1 & 2. He emerged a changed man. He was totally absorbed by the film and researched as much information about it as he could – with no internet to help him. He and his family immigrated to Adelaide in 2006 and once his visa status was secure he bought a property in Silverton, then built the museum on spare land in 2009. He began to collect items as soon as he reached these shores but ramped up the effort when he got to Silverton.

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No prizes for guessing what this building is all about.

So why there? Because most of the film was shot just outside the town, on the road to Mundi Mundi, and many people from Broken Hill were involved in its making, either as extras or on the production side. Adrian was puzzled as to why the area had pretty much ignored the biggest grossing Aussie film made to date, but he set about begging, borrowing or buying as many artifacts as he could to display in his museum. He managed to dig up many of them from the film location where they’d simply been bulldozed into the ground. Once they heard about the project the people of Broken Hill dug around in their attics and sheds and sold, donated or loaned items to Adrian and the museum. He was given an original script too. He has several of the vehicles used in the film, including the original gyrocopter, although he has built some replicas himself. He has hundreds of photos of the action, many of them from Max Alpin, the head stuntman. Mel Gibson’s sister came to visit recently and was very impressed. No sign of Mel himself though. So far. An amazing place, with a slightly barmy feel to it. I loved it! (http://silverton.org.au/mad-max-museum/)  Very well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

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Vehicles from the film.

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Adrian, who turned his dream into reality.

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Tribute to famous Aussie actor Max Phipps, who played The Toadie.

Silverton was one of the stops on the tramway which linked Broken Hill with the railway that went down into South Australia. The town petitioned the NSW government to build a line but they refused. So they built their own private line. It’s referred to as a tramway because it was privately run. It was hugely profitable. It was also involved in the only enemy action of WW1 which took place on Australian soil. Two cameleers, one Turkish the other Pakistani, felt strongly enough about events in Turkey to arm themselves and fire upon a train of open wagons packed with townsfolk heading on a day trip. Several were killed before the attackers were also shot and killed. This story, along with others, is told in the Sulphide Street Railway Museum, where I spent an hour or so wandering happily around their collection of old locos, carriages and wagons. Visitors are allowed to wander through the rolling stock and get up into the cabs of the locos as much as they liked. A refreshing change from most places.

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World War One comes to Broken Hill.

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Streamlined W24 type locomotive, Malcolm Moore. It covered over 200,000 miles in its ten year service life.

My last visit before leaving for pastures new was to the Living Desert Sculpture Park. The idea for this fascinating place came from a chance conversation with the mayor at the opening of an art exhibition. “Not enough sculptures” was one artist’s comment and before too long funding had been found to create this sculpture park. Many local businesses provided support and sandstone boulders were moved to the chosen site, where the leader of the symposium of sculptors felt was the right place spiritually . It’s on the top of a hill, which now lies within the Living Desert Reserve. Many of the sculptors came from Europe and the Middle East and have created some amazing artwork. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
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‘Motherhood’, by Badri Salushia from Tblisi, Georgia.

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‘Horse’ by Jumber Jikiya from Rustiva, Georgia.

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A selection of some of the others.

It was time to leave this fascinating town. I was very glad indeed that I’d returned, but was also regretting my short visit. There is a huge amount to see in and around Broken Hill, gateway to the outback, but I had to move on. I read that today’s value of all the minerals taken from Broken Hill would be around $300 billion. I took was the road north.

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Seen outside the station. Time to go!

Getting Back In The Groove

Sydney, Australia. 22nd March 2017

I can never quite get used to how a twenty four flight time becomes thirty six hours on the clock. But that’s what you get for chasing the sun as you head east. With luggage collected I found the correct courtesy bus and headed into the centre of Sydney. I’d booked a hostel at Pott’s Point and part of the deal was the free bus ride. I had managed to get some sleep on each of the two planes but it’s never enough really. So rather like one of those toys you see in a certain advert for batteries, I kept going for a fair while, walking, drinking coffee and shopping, but eventually I wound down and expired. An early night was needed.
I’d come to Sydney partly as a gentle re-introduction into the travelling way of life and partly to catch up with a couple of friends I’d first met on the road. The fact that they both happen to be very nice young women had no bearing on the matter. You do believe me, don’t you.
I met up with Kym in a pub near the hostel for beer, food and a nice catch up on each other’s news. She works for a graduate recruitment company and has been keeping very busy because their business is expanding. It’s great news that they’ll sponsor her work visa when the time comes. The other good news is that we may get to meet again before I leave Australia, maybe in Darwin.

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Sydney opera house and a rather nice fountain.

I met Jo a few days later, after her day’s work had finished at the opera house. She’s with a company that takes photos of visitors then sells them to them as keepsakes. A permanent job and not commission based either, so she’s happy. We tried the beer in a couple of pubs before eating at a third one. Her visa news is not so good but she hopes that will improve with time. She’s sharing a house with several other people and as they have spare room she invited me to come and stay before I left. Well, like a kid offered helping of jelly and ice cream, I jumped at the chance. I’d go there in a few days but meanwhile I enjoyed a pleasant day on one of Sydney’s northern beaches, getting pink all over, one side at a time. But generally I was just relaxing and enjoying the city.
After a few days I moved out to the suburb of Eastwood and found her house. This area is VERY Asian and it was most obvious in the shopping area where almost all the shops and markets were Chinese, Korean, Japanese etc., although all the standard foods and goods were available too. It gave a great flavour to the place. It was like getting Oriental spices with your normal food. Most of the houses are 1920-30s, so it’s a well established suburb.

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Jo and Jamie.

We went to a quiz night one evening. We met Jo’s housemate Alex and his boyfriend Chris at the pub, and Jo’s boyfriend Jamie arrived too. The quiz was excellent, especially as we came first, by one point. I was welcomed because I knew more of the old songs on the music sections.But there was a twist at the end. There was one final question were we could gamble some of our points on a correct answer. Getting it wrong meant you lost the points you’d gambled. You didn’t have to gamble at all but not doing so meant that others could get past you. The result was that we slipped to second place and won a beer voucher for $20. A successful night’s work.
One afternoon Jo and I met for food in the city after she’d finished work, then went off to where Jamie was playing ice hockey. I’d never watched this game before so was looking forward to it. It certainly lived up to its reputation, including two opposing players fighting on the ice. That was funny to watch. Imagine two Weebils trying to wrestle and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like. There’s simply too many layers of protection for any damage to be done. The game is fast and furious and I loved the way they bounce the puck off the edge of the rink the way a snooker player uses the cushions on the table. At the end of the three fifteen minute periods Jamie’s team had won 4-3. Great fun.

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You meet the strangest people at ice rinks.

But the time came to leave. As with Kym, there was a good chance I’d see Jo again, maybe in Darwin too. Something to look forward to.
I had considered getting a plane to Melbourne but had also looked at a cheaper alternative, an overnight coach. That would save the airport transfer costs and also save on a hostel bed too. But I luckily discovered that I could get a train instead. A little cheaper than the coach, a couple of hours quicker and fewer stops. Plus the advantage of a buffet car too. A no brainer really.
The ten days in Sydney had been fun, playing at being a tourist and meeting old friends. The city had lost none of its ability to charm and delight. But the ship which contained my bike was getting ever closer to Melbourne and I needed to do the same.

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Early morning ballooning over Melbourne.

Once settled in Melbourne I rang Bikes Abroad, the agent who would receive my bike from Motofreight. Ivan confirmed the ship had docked and the container had reached them. He promised to keep me up to date with progress. And on Tuesday he did just that but was the bearer of potentially bad news. Because of a backlog of inspections, Australian Quarantine Inspection Service were running behind and it could be next week before my bike was checked. That was not good news! I’d hoped to be on my way north by then. But Ivan promised to plead on my behalf to see if he could get it done sooner. He would tell AQIS that I was waiting for the bike and hoped that would appeal to their better nature and that they’d squeeze my inspection in. Fingers crossed.
Meanwhile I had a date with two Davids. One of my Charlton Athletic supporting friends was on a cruise holiday and he and his wife would be in Melbourne on the Monday. The other David, a native Melburnian, had worked in London with David and was also a Charlton supporter, but he and his family had moved back to Australia about nine years ago. I’d met up with Dave, Marti and their kids a year ago when I first visited Melbourne. I suggested we all get together.

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Old friends reunited.

Dave’s kids were on Easter holiday and we all had a great day in and around the city, including a visit to Captain Cook’s Cottage.His family had sold it to Melbourne city in the 1930s, being a bit short of cash during the depression. But it was only half of the original building because some of it had been demolished to make way for road widening, sometime in the 1920s. We all had a great day and I was delighted to see the two Davids enjoying each others company once more.

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Captain Cook’s cottage – or what’s left of it.

On Thursday I got the phone call I’d been hoping for. My bike had been inspected that morning and had passed. That saying about a dog with two tails couldn’t have been more apt. I made arrangements to collect it on Friday from their warehouse. The other bike related job was to get a road permit and compulsory third party insurance from Victoria Roads Dept. That was easy enough. Present my registration document, my visa and then pay some money. Job done. I was good to go.
On Friday I caught a train, a bus and then walked to the premises. Once I’d signed a form I was accompanied to the warehouse and there was Trixie, sitting waiting for me. She was in very good company too. A Vincent Rapide, Norton Commando and a brace of old Triumphs had also been in the container with her. But perhaps the rarest and most interesting bike was a Gnome et Rhone, with a horizontally opposed twin cylinder engine (similar to a BMW twin). I had never heard of this make but some research showed it to have been made in France, between the wars. The factory had originally made WWI aero engines and in a double case of ‘swords to ploughshares’, this bike was actually an ABC model being made under licence in France. ABC motorcycles grew out of the Sopwith aero company.

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A very lovely Vincent Rapide.

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A very rare Gnome et Rhone.

Once I’d reattached all the panniers she started on the button. Not bad after an eight week lay off. But the good feeling didn’t last for long as I ran out of fuel on the way to the petrol station and had to walk the last 500 metres with my spare can. With that hiccup sorted out I rode into the city and parked Trixie on the pavement outside my hostel. On the pavement? Yes. Victoria is the one state in Aus that has the good sense to allow this. Other states and countries please take note!

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Say hello to Trixie, plus luggage!

I was happy to be able to meet more friends while in Melbourne. I took Bernard and Mary to lunch, something I’d promised to do to say “Thank You” for taking care of me last year. My hasty departure had prevented that happening before. I met Doug Mullet for coffee. Doug and I had enjoyed a nice ride along the Great Ocean Road last year. I met Colleen, a friend of Phil and Trish from Brisbane. Colleen’s niece was the lead female role in The Book of Mormon, so she was in Melbourne to see it. It’s fabulous fun. See it if you can. And I met my sister-in-law for coffee. She’s on holiday with her kids. Phew, what a busy social life I have.
Departure day was Tuesday and I was ready to hit the road. I mentioned in my last blog post that I was feeling nervous about starting off again. Doubts about whether I’d still enjoy the travelling; how the new bike would be; would I now miss home having spent five months back there. My sojourn in Sydney and Melbourne had been a gentle glide into the travelling frame of mind. Already I wasn’t missing home (sorry family and Jan!) and with my new bike loaded with my old luggage it was time to test the waters.

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Very nice racing Triumph.

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And this Norton Commando is pretty good too.

Regroup, Refresh and Return

London, UK. 20th October, 2016

It was nice to be home but it didn’t take more than a few frosty mornings to remind me of why I like Australia; nor to remind me of where I felt I should have been. My journey to the warmth of North Queensland was on hold for a while. Instead, time to contemplate; time to plan; time to replace; eventually time to return. How soon? Very hard to say but I hoped not much more than three months or so. Well, the route that took me from arrivals at Heathrow back to the departure lounge at the same airport proved to be a sinuous one.
One of the main things that had been on my mind as I rode across the outback on my return to Brisbane was whether or not to buy a new bike, and what to get. Doris’ troubles had put me in the frame of mind to replace her, but with what? Research had made it clear that no similar bike is now sold in Europe. Emissions regulations and the marketing department’s insistence on Rally Raiders had killed off the lightweight dual purpose bike. A radical option would be to buy a Suzuki DRZ400 in Australia, ship it back home and then register it. That may seem a very odd thing to consider but it would have resolved the problems related to traveling with a personal identity from one country and a bike registration from another. So, having dismissed all other options I decided I had no choice other than to buy the bike I really wanted anyway, the CCM GP450 Adventure. Once I’d eliminated all other possibilities I had no choice, I’m pleased to say. The truth is, I wanted one! Like a young man swooning over his first hot rod, I was hooked. Have a look at their website to see why. ccm-motorcycles.com.
Within ten days of landing the deal was done. I spoke to Cliff, at the Adventure Bike Shop in Suffolk (adventurebikeshop.co.uk). Not only is he an authorised dealer for CCM but I’d dealt with him previously and I knew I could trust him. After all, he and his wife had also ridden overland to Australia. He’d walked the walk. He had a test bike in stock so I arranged a ride.

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Cliff, plus CCM.

It was noisier than I expected, a busy sounding engine. Made by the Taiwanese company KYMCO, this 450cc engine had been used by BMW, KTM and Husqvarna at various times. BMW dropped that model and it seems likely CCM bought a surplus batch as the engine had BMW embossed on the engine cover. It certainly went well and had the often desired extra power that Doris lacked. 40bhp compared to 33bhp. With its 125kg dry weight and modern suspension, it handled well too. It was a little tall for me but there were factory options that would deal with that. I liked it so I bought one. The test ride had confirmed the impression that various internet and magazine articles had already given me. Was it worth coming home for? Only time and distance will reveal that.
The bike was registered from the 1st November and I went up to Suffolk to collect it on the 2nd. After getting off the mainline train at Marks Tey I took a noisy old diesel/electric out to Sudbury. I realised we were traveling through Gainsborough Country, a gentle landscape with old country houses nestling in the folds of the low hills. It all looked typically English. Up to that point coming home had left me feeling quite despondent. All of a sudden I felt glad to be back. It was a sudden feeling and was rather welcome too. As we passed through one station I noticed a museum collection of old rolling stock and an original signal box. This is a part of England I haven’t explored much and the desire to do so was quite strong. So I will – one day.
Cliff had fitted various extras at my request, such as the essential heated hand grips, spotlights and a modern electronic ‘fuse’ box. Business completed, I donned the riding gear I’d brought with me and the new crash helmet I’d also bought from Cliff, and set off for home.

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New bikes always look pretty. I wonder how long for?

It was bloody cold, but I enjoyed the ride and began to learn the new bike and how it handled. My initial impression of noise didn’t change but it certainly went well although I knew it was quite low geared. I definitely needed to change that. I had a few other additions in mind, just to get it ready for long distance travel, but I had plenty of time to organise that as Doris wasn’t due back into the UK for a few weeks yet.
Doris. Now there’s a tale. I had left her with the Aussie shippers who said she’d be on a boat to Tilbury by the 25th October, and would arrive on 16th December. I naively accepted that as fact and felt it would give me enough time to transfer panniers and other gear from her to the CCM, and then maybe get it on a ship to Australia by mid-January. But I reckoned without the inconsistency that shipping companies are renowned for. Because the original boat didn’t have enough cargo to make the trip to Tilbury worthwhile Doris was delayed for over a week and didn’t arrive until 21st December. Of course, Christmas then got in the way and I didn’t collect her until 29th December. Nearly two weeks later than anticipated. Fortunately the agents were very efficient and they dealt with the customs clearance, meaning all I had to do was collect the bike. Gary, my neighbour, loaned me his bike trailer and the rest was easy.

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Doris arrives home. Retirement beckons.

By this time I’d sourced some luggage mounting plates from Zen Overland (zenoverland.com). These are beautifully made flat aluminium plates which bolt on to the rear luggage rack and side pannier rails and will provide a secure platform for my panniers and large holdall. Zen are experts at making bespoke metalwork in small production runs, and they are well worth what I paid for them. I’d already visited them at their base in Wells, Somerset, just to check the plates out and try them for size.

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CNC crafted, anodised aluminium. The new best thing in luggage mounting.

It was on the way back from there that I had my first ‘off’. As I rode from Wells to Calne, planning to visit my niece and her family, it was dark and wet. I came to a mini roundabout, indicating to turn right, and an elderly woman decided not to bother waiting for me to complete my turn. Instead she pulled out, forcing me to brake sharply. She braked too and a very low speed collision took place. No big drama really. I was pretty much stationary, and so was she, at the point when I collided with her front wheel, laying the bike over in the process. No injuries and no damage to speak of. Just the handlebars twisted round and a slight scratch on the end of the twist grip. She was very apologetic, was quite shook up but was relieved when I contacted her a couple of days later to tell her I wouldn’t be making a claim. It could have been far worse and I suppose that as the bike was now ‘christened’ there would be no need to have another one!

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Stupid people get everywhere, but why do I keep meeting them?

I needed to put at least 500 miles on the bike before I could get the first service done. I made arrangements to take it back to the factory in Bolton for this job and also ordered a couple of upgrades. One of these was to fit a hydraulic adjuster to the rear suspension, making pre-load adjustment far easier. The second was to fit a Power Commander. This upgrade to the engine management system has the aim of smoothing out the low running as well as the general power delivery across the whole rev range. Fuel injection on single cylinder bikes can be notoriously difficult to get right, mostly because of the emissions regulations. CCM also offer one which boosts power output and it includes a different, and noisier silencer. Not to my taste at all, thanks. The last thing I need is more noise. Many riders like the idea of noisier bikes. I think they feel it boosts their ego somehow, and makes some kind of statement. There is also some kind of myth about how ‘loud pipes save lives’, a belief that other road users will be alerted to the bike’s presence and therefore act more safely. This is complete nonsense of course, and the effect is likely to be the opposite by increasing confusion and raising aggression. Apart from anything else, a loud exhaust is very, very wearing and would make long journeys a literal pain. For my part I believe it’s best to ‘go quietly on your way’, ride defensively and not see other people as your enemy.
Eventually I’d put enough miles on the bike to make the journey to Bolton for the first service. It usefully coincided with a visit to Manchester for some birthday celebrations – mine and my son’s. A very nice family time before turning back to more practical agenda items.

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Eddie Kidd’s bus-jumping CCM. Now on display in the foyer of the factory.

The CCM factory is relatively small and each bike is hand built. CCM (Clews Competition Motorcycles) have always specialised in off road racers, specifically enduro and motocross. They developed a very strong, and light, bonded aluminium frame, tried and tested on the competition bikes. This frame is at the heart of the GP450 Adventure and, along with KYMCO’s small engine, is why the roadside weight of the bike, with its 20 litre tanks full of fuel, weighs only 140 to 145kgs. No-one else makes a comparable bike. It’s even lighter than Doris, a terrific achievement.

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GP450 Adventures in the making, on the factory floor.

I found the factory and was introduced to Mick, the mechanic who deals with customer’s bikes. It’s very unusual for a manufacturer to do this, it’s normally the dealers’ job. But CCM offer a repair service and I needed to go there to get the upgrades fitted too. Mick was happy to let me watch him and one reason for this is so that he can impart his wisdom to the riders, many of whom will want to service their own bikes. There’s nothing that quite beats receiving knowledge from the fount of wisdom and it proved to be a very useful session. Mick also took steps to lower the bike a bit, thereby improving the riding experience hugely.

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Mick at work on my bike.

Upgrades installed, oil and filter refreshed, I set off back south. Seven hours and 330 cold miles later I reached Newquay, Cornwall. “Where?”, I hear you gasp. “But Geoff, you live in London!” Well, that’s true, but I’d been asked to give a talk to a Forces training course down at RAF St Mawgan and had agreed to do it the next day. Staff Sergeant Nathan James had read about my adventure up in Cape York, had friended me on Facebook and when he realised I was back in the UK had contacted me to ask if I could give a talk on one of his training courses. He teaches survival skills to teams of inter-force personnel and he likes to get people down to describe the mental challenges of being in a life threatening situation. I saw this as an interesting challenge so was happy to ride to Cornwall and give it a go. I got a nice room for two nights, good food in the mess and access to very cheap beer too. What’s not to like? The talk seemed to go down well, so it was a worthwhile couple of days. They even presented me with a small survival kit, the message being to make sure it’s with me when I go off a-wandering. I was also able to call in to visit my friends Sam and Birgit, in Exeter, on the way home.

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Friends Bev and John. Fellow motorcycle adventurers who I visited while passing through the Lake District.

All of these events were taking place around December time, so as well as bike fettling I was visiting friends and enjoying a very good Christmas with my family, the first in three years. When you have children that’s the kind of thing you miss when on the road. It was all the better for being unplanned too. In fact during the time I was at home I was able to visit many of my far flung friends and siblings. There’s six of us all together and we’ve spread ourselves around a fair bit, as far as Aberdeen in fact. But in particular I was very happy to be able to spend plenty of time with Jan, ‘the girl I’d left behind’. As well as general socialising, we went to see The Motown Story, a hugely enjoyable musical all about Berry Gordon’s trials, tribulations and successes. The music, singing and dancing were superb. It never ceases to amaze me how these shows manage to capture the feel and style of the times they reflect. Brilliant!

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Part of the display at the Battle of Britain Memorial, on the cliffs above Dover. I called in during one of my test rides.

In among all this fun and frolics I still managed to keep my eye on the ball of getting the CCM ready for shipping. With Doris now safe in my garage I got on with fitting the panniers to their new home and finishing off the various changes and upgrades to the new (as yet unnamed) bike. In an attempt to reduce the overall noise I bought some stick-on sound deadening foam and stuck it to the inside of the front two fuel tanks. (The bike has one under the seat and two either side of the engine.) This seemed to quieten things down a bit, I’m pleased to say. I completed two days of back-to-back riding around Kent and Sussex so as to run some before and after tests on the power commander unit. I’m pleased to say that it delivered on its promises of smoother running and better power delivery. It even improved the fuel consumption – by a whole one mile per gallon! I made some improvements to the quality of the electrics to the the rear lights by fitting waterproof connectors to the wiring. Riding on salted roads had very quickly destroyed the unprotected originals, a disappointing lack of quality control, in my opinion. While I’m on the subject I’ll comment that this brilliant bike is let down in some areas by underdevelopment and a lack of finesse in the finishing. But its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, so I’m not going to launch into a whinge-fest. I’ll be riding some hard miles  once I get it, and me, to Australia so you can read about how it stands up to punishment in future blogs. Other owners have also ridden some tough miles, notably in Africa, and have been delighted with its robustness. I had occasional problems with Doris too, so it can be said that these come with the territory – in every sense.

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The loaded up CCM, about to be ridden across to Motofreight for it’s journey to Aus.

So as I write this I’m 37,000 feet above the sea, on the way back to Australia. I’ve been at home for exactly five months, far longer than intended. I was fearful I’d get comfortable and indolent but once I’d passed my bike into the hands of Roddy at Motofreight (motofreight.com), the die was cast and my journey had effectively resumed. I’m doing it the easy way by flying in to Sydney, where I can catch up with friends and be a tourist for a week or so. Then, likewise, in to Melbourne, where I’ll collect my bike before heading north. Even so, I feel a mixture of fear and excitement. Fear that I may have lost the traveling urge; the need to see what’s over the next horizon and to wonder who I’ll meet in the next town. But I’m exited to find out how my new bike will perform; how quickly I’ll get used to being on the road again. I know that I’ll be happy to be away from the TV, the constant news cycle and all the debilitating nonsense of Brexit and Trump. Back to the real world; the narrow focus of food, fuel and where to lay my head for the night. The journey begins once more and I’m in the mood for adventure.

A few of the bikes I saw at the NEC bike show, November and the ExCel bike show in London.

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Battered, Burnt and Bewildered.

Melbourne, Victoria. 12th August 2016.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.

So runs the first half of the second verse of the poem ‘If’, by Rudyard Kipling. As I sit and write this blog these words seem so very relevant and bring perspective after a very testing time. But I’m getting ahead of myself and need to go back a couple of months, to where I was at the end of the last blog post.
When I arrived in the hospital at Broken Hill I felt a battered wreck. Closer to unravelling than travelling. But four days of care and rest brought me back to a physical and mental state where I could contemplate a pain free future, even though it was still a fair way off. It amazes me how painful just one cracked rib can be, making all normal movement seem like a test of endurance. I’d felt like I’d been used as a battering ram but I knew I wasn’t really all that badly off and by the time I left Broken Hill my mood had brightened considerably. With my left hand in a cast and my right collar bone feeling decidedly sore, I was glad of the taxi driver’s help with my bag en route to the airport. Bernard and Mary had very kindly agreed to look after me while I recovered so I had two flights to cope with, both on Rex Airlines, a small company which hops across the outback linking small towns with the big cities.

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Damaged collarbone joint. Just one of the injuries.

Once I’d settled in I had some new skills to learn, such as eating with one hand and showering with a plastic bag over my arm. We visited his GP who lined up an x-ray for a month later and put me in touch with a physio too. He gave me some exercises to do, with the purpose of strengthening my collarbone. So, medically organised and slowly heading towards a pain free normality, I settled down for the wait.
Bernard and Mary are busy people, usually with plenty of work to do regarding various art projects. They use all of their combined skills; Mary’s as an artist, Bernard’s as a writer, and the lively imagination of them both. Bernard has become very skilled with Mac and printer, producing high quality pamphlets and booklets, for distribution to friends. Some years ago they’d undertaken a journey into New South Wales and had written down the name of every creek they crossed en route – and there would have been hundreds. Mary produced a series of scrolls which listed the names of them all but were also decorated with drawings of local flora and fauna, especially birds. They looked fabulous and she had
The second project on the go was to write a series of limericks which included the names of the towns they passed through. Followers of this blog will have realised, if they weren’t aware already, that Australia has many towns with names that a poet, if a limerick writer could be described as such, would delight in rolling round their tongue in search of a suitable rhyme.A bit of fun for them both. The booklet would then be decorated with drawings from Mary’s artistic hand and copies circulated to friends. I got quite enthusiastic about this and contributed one of my own, which will be included as a guest entry. It goes:
A bike rider left Thargomindah
Heading west on a road, mostly cinder.
Oe’er hillside and dell,
He didn’t fare well,
Fallen pride, broken rib, fractured finger.

Not exactly Shelley, but it was one way of trying to make light of my predicament.

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Some of the Jesus Trolleys.

Because of Mary’s connections in the art world in Melbourne I was able to accompany them to some exhibition openings. The wine supplied always tickled our palates even if the art on view didn’t manage to take our fancy. One evening, at Melbourne Town Hall, was the opening of a display of ‘Jesus Trolleys’. It sounds very bizarre. In many ways it was. Scrub that. In every way, it was. There’s a Melburnian named Desmond Hynes who, having been seriously ill, decided it was the Christian god that saved him. He dedicated his time to being a ‘soldier of Jesus’, one of several who toured the streets of the CBD and the precincts of the MCG and other sporting arenas, preaching in the evangelical ‘fire and brimstone’ style. He used to carry his preaching material around in a shopping trolley, daubed with religious slogans. Over the years he used quite a few. The art world describes this as ‘accidental art’ and decided his trolleys and other material were worth displaying, along with various photos from the past. I had a brief chat with him and he seems a modest man. I felt the art world’s interest in all this was a bit pretentious and to the now elderly Desmond’s credit he looked somewhat nonplussed throughout. While I have no time for his cause, it’s difficult not to admire his dedication. But I tend to think it’s the art world that’s more ‘off its trolley’ out of the two.

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Desmond and his sister.

At another event we saw a fantastic collection from the Australian artist Deborah Halpern. She was having a bit of a clear out, not only of her own work, mostly ceramics, but also some of her collection. I thought many of the pieces there were great. So was the wine!

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A couple of Deborah’s pieces.

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One of the stranger paintings in her collection.

Other cultural events? Having watched and thoroughly enjoyed the BBC series, The Hollow Crown, a few years ago, I was delighted to discover that one of the cinemas was showing a film of the stage play Richard III. This version starred Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave. He was brilliant, she wasn’t. Filmed at the Almeida Theatre in London, they used the recent discovery of the king’s body in Leicester to set the scene then morphed the play back into the 15th century. It’s difficult to maintain an accurate body count in this play, with the characters dropping like flies. So they put skulls on a shelf at the back of the set as each one was done away with by Richard. A thoroughly enjoyable production.
While I was on a Shakespearean roll I also watched Hamlet – three times! At Bernard’s I saw a film of David Tennant’s theatre performance; a film version starring Kenneth Brannagh; finally another visit to the cinema to watch a recording of the play starring Dominic Cumberbatch. All of them were terrific in their own way. I’d never seen Hamlet before and it’s a gripping story. I finished off this cultural journey by watching a film version of Macbeth, which was glorious in its settings and performances. A word of advice though. I discovered that it’s a good idea to read a synopsis of the stories first. Characters can come and go so quickly that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. Knowing the story means you can enjoy the dialogue and performances.

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Waiting for the AFL parade to start, opposite the Old Treasury Building.

Melbourne also offers culture of a very different sort. In the same way that cultured Romans enjoyed watching gladiators fight each other, I suspect that many Shakespeare fans would have joined me in enjoying the AFL (Aussie rules football) final, held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The game started in Victoria and was popular among Irish immigrants in particular. It’s deemed important enough by the state government that the Friday before the final is a public holiday, with the two teams parading through the city. With Melbourne team Western Bulldogs playing Sydney Swans, the final reflected the rivalry between the two cities. I have to be honest and say that the parade, although interesting to see, wasn’t anything special. I suppose it would have been great if you were a ‘Doggie’, it being sixty one years since the team had last been in a final. I wouldn’t go again though. Even so, I was happy enough to watch the players, coaches and others ride past on the back of Toyota pick ups, provided as part of their sponsorship, and then walk down to the MCG to mingle with the crowds and soak up their excitement. All well and good as a taster, but the main course, when it arrived next day, was a sumptuous feast of sporting endeavour.

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Outside the MCG after the parade, with the two teams on display to their fans.

I watched the game with Bernard, Mary and their Godson Barney. It seems that pies and beer is the game watching tradition in their house, one I was happy to support. I’d seen plenty of games while staying at Bernard’s and had learned much from him as he used to play at senior amateur level when he was young. We’d watched the end of season play-offs, seeing the Doggies and The Swans knock out their opponents as they worked their way through. The Doggies last won in 1954 and even on TV it was clear just how electric the atmosphere was. Being in the stadium must have been simply amazing. Justifiably so. It was a great game to watch. The Swans came in at half time two points ahead but The Doggies were two points up by the end of the third quarter and eventually won by twenty two points, at 89-67. It was a very tough but surprisingly fair game.
At the presentation ceremony two things impressed me very much. The first was that young fans are selected to hang the medals around the necks of the players, one fan to each medal. The player carries a special baseball cap up to the podium which they give to the boy or girl in exchange for it. What a thrill that must be for the youngsters. No glad handing politicians or royals at this game of the people. The second was when the Doggies’ coach, Luke Beverridge, gave his medal to the injured club captain, Robert Murphy. The supporters in the crowd raised the roof at that. What a great event to have watched!

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The very kitsch entrance to Luna Park fairground. Very popular with Melburnians.

I had plenty of time for exploring too. Melbourne has a reputation for, shall we say, variable weather. But it was winter so cold and rain didn’t really come as a surprise. But there was a fair bit of sunshine too and I explored St Kilda Beach, King’s Domain and the Botanical Gardens. The famous Luna Park is at St Kilda, modelled on America’s Coney Island. The Shrine of Remembrance lies within Kings Domain and is a sobering place to visit.

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The Shrine of Remembrance.

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One of the sculptures outside.

In among all this excitement much of my time was taken up with more mundane activities. I was well looked after by Bernard and Mary, possibly the kindest people I know. Bernard had taken me to his GP as soon as I arrived there and when I went for he x-ray he’d arranged the results didn’t look good.

The piece of bone is a bit of a pain but will heal eventually.

The piece of bone is a bit of a pain but will heal eventually.

The broken piece of bone you can see in the x-ray was of concern to the doctor at the clinic and he recommended further examination by an expert. I found one at St Vincent Hospital and for a fistful of dollars was examined and given the advice that it would be best to leave things as they were because it was so long since the accident – five weeks at this point. Pinning it would be difficult, painful and take up to six weeks to heal. For a few dollars more I had a session with a physiotherapist who, the cast now having been removed, put my hand in a lightweight splint and gave me some exercises to do. They worked too. The tendons across the knuckles slowly stretched back to normal and over the next few weeks I regained full movement in my fingers. My shoulder was back to normal too and I felt I was ready to organise a return to Innamincka and a reunion with Doris.

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A visitor to Bernard’s garden. A possum, in case you were wondering.

At this point events rather took over. Like a child jumping onto an already spinning playground roundabout, I was suddenly launched into a frenzy of activity. I’d already talked to Bernard and Mary about when I might be ready to leave. The reality was that their kindness had meant them delaying some visits from friends. I was about to ring up Nichelle at Innamincka Hotel, the first stage in getting a leave date organised, when Bernard came in to tell me his daughter was coming home at short notice and would need my room. Nichelle had said to me that if I could get to Thargominda, the nearest town to them with a commercial airport, she would be able to give me a lift back to the hotel provided my arrival coincided with one of their occasional visits there. When I rang her she said their next visit would be the next day, and then none for two months or more. Suddenly I was being both pushed and pulled. Urgent action was required. A manic hour on the internet resulted in a flight to Brisbane, a night in a hostel there, and a seat on the twice weekly plane out to Thargominda. A brief respite from paction (a blend of panic and action) for packing and lunch, then Bernard took me into Melbourne CBD to catch a bus to the airport. By 8pm I was settled in to the hostel in Brisbane, recovering from a day that began with a relaxed breakfast and then morphed into a mad rush. On the plane I sat next to Caitlin, a very pleasant and chatty 22 year old. She’d been away for eleven days and was mad keen to get home to see her cat, who’d suffered an injury. Her friend was picking her up at the airport and they very kindly gave me a lift to my hostel. I was very pleased about that. I needed to relax!
I took time to reflect on how necessary it is to bend with the breezes of life, something I’d learned to do long ago. Despite my injuries my time in Melbourne had been very positive. Sometimes I just relaxed and tackled the word puzzles in the newspaper; others I enjoyed Melbourne’s culture, tourist attractions and people. But now I was ready to get on with my journey and write its next chapter.
An early train and a McDonald’s breakfast got me to the airport, where I caught Rex Airline’s plane-that-behaves-like-a-bus. With only thirty four seats, this twin engine turbo prop plane hops across the outback, dropping off and picking up passengers as it goes. Thargominda is the last stop of five, where it turns around and goes back to Brisbane. Not exactly the number 53 bus to Camden Town, but you get my drift. Nichelle was there to collect me and Haydyn, the hotel’s returning chef, and before very long we were, as my limerick says, heading west on a road, mostly cinder.
Four hours and nearly 400kms later we were there. I put my bag in my room and headed round to be reunited with my best girl, Doris.

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Nichelle and Geoff. Hospitable and helpful to travellers in trouble.

Nichelle and her husband Geoff had tucked her away by the workshops and stowed my gear inside. She looked sad, forlorn and very battered. I had thought that, having been ridden away from the scene of my crash, she might have come out of it fairly unscathed, but given how hard I’d hit the ground I should have known better. The screen was broken but I had expected that. What surprised me was that the headlight was smashed and the front mudguard had snapped in two, clearly demonstrating how much the front end had dug in. At the same time the rear mudguard was knocked sideways and the rear light was broken too. I can’t work out quite how that must have happened. When I looked at my crash helmet one side of it was pretty busted up. I could understand now why my head had been spinning and my vision blurred so much. The battery had completely died too. When I’d been lying in a room immediately after the crash Nichelle had sorted out my big bag for me but I forgot to ask her to remove my GPS. So it had been switched on the whole time and had drained the battery of all power. Once a battery has been left flat for so long it is unlikely ever to recover. And so it proved. I was extremely thankful that I’d had the foresight to retro fit a kick starter before I left home. For someone who cut their teeth on old British bikes, it was a simple case of being ‘back in the old routine’.

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Bent up back end, with’ adjusting stick’ leaning against the bike.

Using tools borrowed from Geoff, I managed to re-attach the broken front mudguard and straighten out the rear one too. There was nothing I could do about the headlight but I had no plans to ride in the dark so wasn’t bothered about that. I stitched together the broken screen with cable ties and applied some ‘fix and stitch’ outback technology to my damaged luggage. Hard falls are tough on soft bags but when it comes to the overlanders’ argument between hard and soft panniers, I’m a confirmed ‘softie’. Much easier to repair.

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Mudguard missing, headlight smashed.

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A passable bodge sees it rideable again.

So, by late morning on Friday I was ready to try out the repairs on Doris and those on my hand too. ‘Battered and bashed but better’ nicely summed up both of us. How would it go?
When I went to pay Nichelle she asked if I wanted to stay another night? “No thanks, I feel the need to get going” said my mouth. “Not at $110 per night” said my brain. At that time I’d no idea where that thought would lead me.
Birdsville was still my intended destination, then back to Brisbane for proper repairs. So I filled and loaded up my water bladder, knowing I’d be camping that night, and strapped it down, with the rest of my luggage, on the back of the bike before setting off on the 450km dirt road journey. After an eight week lay-off, it was great to be moving again, and the open desert looked as tempting as ever.
Because Doris was still using oil under certain circumstances, I planned to stop after about 120kms to let her cool down a bit and to check the oil. But I didn’t. Why? Because I’d seen a sign for Arrabur, no more than a dot on the map but possibly with coffee. As my odometer tripped past 120kms a voice in my head started up.
“Geoff, you were going to stop at 120kms. Don’t you think you should?”
“Yes but Arrabur is only another 30kms and there might be coffee.”
“Stop now Geoff, you know you should. Look, there’s even some trees you could use to shelter from the sun.”
“No, I’m going to push on. There might be coffee.”
”OK, suit yourself.”
So I did. And previous experience should have told me never to ignore that voice.

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Disaster!

About 30kms later I came to a T junction and as I turned right I saw in my mirror clouds of smoke coming from the silencer. I thought the engine had blown up in a big way and the smoke was oil vapour. But I immediately realised it was from my burning luggage! The big bag that sits across the luggage rack was on fire. I leapt off the bike, threw my fuel bladder (full of petrol) away from the bike then wrenched the burning bag out from under its straps and threw it on the ground, burning side downwards. The flames seemed to go out and I turned back to the bike to realise the rear mudguard was burning and melting. I also realised my water bladder wasn’t there. How to put out the flames? Out of sheer desperation I started to undo the flies on my trousers, hoping to be able to produce some water from internal sources, even though I’d have struggled to do so in that heat. Luckily there was no need as I remembered the drinking water I carry in my backpack. That did the trick and at least the bike was no longer on fire. The same couldn’t be said for my bag, which was flaring up again. Like a fakir on hot coals I was dancing about the smouldering bag and with a combination of sand, boots and gloves I managed to put the flames out again. I pulled my scorched belongings out of the still smouldering bag, managing to retrieve half of my clothes, my laptop (but with a new, melted brown look to it) and a small case with electronic leads and storage in it. But I really must have told some terrible lies sometime previously because my pants were, literally, on fire!

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Burnt bag!

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Scorched laptop.I was amazed, and grateful, to discover it still works.

I gathered together the sad remains of my belongings and fitted them into a couple of other bags I had with me. Then I tried to work out why this disaster had happened. The missing water bladder was what told the tale. I remember strapping it on top of my other bags before I set off and that was my undoing. It’s very soft and amorphous and the ride along the dirt road had clearly allowed it to escape from the straps and it fell from the bike. The rest was inevitable. My large bag was now free to work its way across the luggage rack until it came to rest on the end of the silencer. Super hot exhaust gasses and nylon don’t go very well together and combustion was the certain result. The ‘if onlys’ came thick and fast. ‘If only I’d decided to stay another night.’ ‘If only I’d stopped when that voice in my head was telling me to.’ ‘If only I’d checked my mirror more often.’ Self recrimination probably isn’t a good thing but it’s difficult not to do.
I’d used up all my drinking water but a passing family stopped and I was able to get more from them. After some procrastination I decided to go back to Innamincka and around 25kms back along the route, there was the water bladder lying in the middle of the track. I strapped it back on the bike, but properly this time. Back at the hotel I resumed residence in my old room, told my tale of woe and listened to that of a group of guys who had also fallen foul of the tough terrain. The studs on one of their front wheels had sheared off, damaging the hub in the process. They were stuck there until spares arrived. I began to realise what Nichelle had meant when she’d told me, months before, that they were used to dealing with whatever problems came along. But the Aussie outback is like that.

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Incredible to think that if I hadn’t bought these I’d probably still be travelling.

My trip to Birdsville was abandoned, for now at least. The plan was to go directly to Brisbane and replace what I’d lost, repair the bike and try again. But I’d reckoned without my own ability to throw spanners in the works. “What now?” you may well ask. Well, when I fuelled up next morning I remembered I no longer had any footwear, apart from my boots. The shop sold flip flops so I bought a pair. I packed them away and set off. 170kms later I stopped for a break and noticed that the roll top on one of the bags was open. I’d tried to put the flip flops inside it but had put them under one of the straps instead. I’d ridden away, having forgotten to do it up again. I checked inside and was delighted to see my passport and document wallet still in there. Relieved, and feeling I’d got away with that particular bit of stupidity, I carried on. But as time went by the nagging feeling grew that I may not have got away with it after all. In the hotel room in the town of Bollon, 750kms after I left Innamincka, I checked everything only to discover that I’d lost the small, black case where I kept my electronic bits and pieces. Charging leads for phone etc; plug converters; two storage drives containing music, films and all my photos. A real disaster. By the next morning I’d decided I had no choice other than to go back and look for it.

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The recent rain had brought some welcome colour to the outback.

I’d discovered the open bag 170kms from Innamincka and was confident it would be lying at the side of the road somewhere. But despite riding that section as slowly as I could, scanning the roadside very carefully, I didn’t find it, neither on the way to or from Innamincka. Two nights accommodation, two day’s meals and 1500kms worth of fuel brought no result. As you can imagine, like a man who’d forgotten to renew his lottery ticket on a winning weekend, I was very fed up indeed.
I rang my friends in Brisbane who were happy to help me out of my predicament and put me up while I decided my next move. Over the three days of riding I was having a constant debate as to what to do. One half of me wanted to stay, get everything replaced or repaired, and carry on. The other half wanted to go home, replace everything and investigate buying a new bike. In particular I felt that if I went home I’d be giving up in the face of adversity, something I promised myself I’d never do. Although Doris wasn’t as well as she could be, after 92,000kms on the road, I felt she’d go for many more and I could deal with problems when they happened – if they did. Conversely, I thought a new bike would be a good idea. Anyway, I was feeling very low after the disasters of the last few days and my damaged hand wasn’t quite as well healed as I’d have liked. Christmas with my family was an attractive thought, the British winter less so. I’d be leaving behind the Aussie summer. What to do?
Once I’d reached Brisbane I talked it through with various friends and the consensus was that going home was not giving up. As Paul from Australind put it when I rang him, “Geoff, all you’re doing is hitting the pause button on your journey. You’ll press the start button when you get back again.” Wise words from a good friend, and that’s what I decided to do.

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Having fun on a day out near Brisbane.

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Trish is far more classy.

But what to do with Doris? She was battered, burnt and looking very sorry for herself. I’d decided to buy a new bike once I was back in the UK so I didn’t actually need her any more. I could sell her to a breaker. I spoke to Aussie customs who said the only answer was to officially import her, otherwise my carnet wouldn’t get signed off. The reality of that was losing a 3,000 Euro deposit. The process would take up to two weeks, I had one week left on my visa. For once reality and sentiment came together and the decision was to ship her back home. At nearly £1,000 (Thanks for nothing, Brexiters!) it wasn’t a cheap option. But I felt that leaving her behind to be broken up would have been like abandoning an old friend in her time of trouble. As I write this she’s on a ship somewhere, courtesy of Ship My Bike, Australia. Very helpful people.

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I say Au Revoir to Doris outside Oliver’s Motorcycles, where she was crated up ready for shipping.

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After more than 92,000kms she deserves a rest

With the help of Phil and Trish I was able to organise the crating and transport of Doris to Brisbane docks and then to arrange my own flight back home. It’s great to have such good friends.
Since arriving back in Britain I’ve started to feel much better about the whole situation. I’ve taken note of the sentiment expressed in those few lines at the beginning of this post. Nothing stands still, everything moves forward in one way or another. But more news on that in the next post.
Have a merry Christmas everyone, and an adventurous new year.