Heading West: Sumbawa to Bali.

Sape, Sumbawa. Wednesday 27th September 2017.

It’s been good fun travelling with Dan, which is been a bit of a surprise really. Apart from a few days down in Tasmania, when I hooked up with a young English visitor, my 106,000 plus kilometres have been solo. And that’s the way I generally prefer it. I’d always worry about having to compromise on routes, or sites to visit or riding pace. But none of that has come about. Partly it’s because the route and the riding pace were pretty much dictated for us. But it’s also because we want to see, and don’t want to see, the same things. Travelling across Flores got us into the swing of things. Dan’s an easy going guy and we’ve enjoyed some great chats about bikes, travelling and other things. So everything is good so far. Dan’s on a bit of a time limit with his visa but, looking ahead, we don’t see that being a problem.
Catching our second ferry wasn’t a problem either. No Daisy to help us this time, but she wouldn’t have been needed anyway. We arrived at the ticket office at 7.30, paid our fare and were directed straight onto the boat. With the bikes safely tied down we found ourselves some seats in one of the lounges which had its sides open to the sea breezes, and settled down for the four hour crossing. The only slightly puzzling thing is that this ferry cost us more than the one from Kupang to Flores. Maybe that was because of Daisy’s help, but who knows. We chatted to a Californian couple who were SCUBA diving instructors. They’d been working in Bali but were moving on because tourists were staying away. The threatened eruption of Mount Agung was to blame. It’s been fizzing away for a few weeks, with steam coming out of the sides and plenty of underground rumblings. The authorities had evacuated people living nearby and put an exclusion zone in place too. All of this was scaring away many tourists and it’s been a big news story on Aussie TV. Were it to erupt the problem for them would be with flying home. Dan was worried enough to decide on a leaving date and book a flight, while his insurance company were still prepared to cover the possibility of cancellations.

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Houses on stilts, ready for the high tide. Definitely a bit run down.

We’d reached the conclusion there wasn’t a huge amount to see in Sumbawa unless you were a fan of surfing or trekking. It’s a small and mountainous island, but with good surfing beaches. Once we’d disembarked at the port town of Sape we found a good hotel where they insisted we bring our bikes into the lobby for safe keeping. That was a first, and another traveller box ticked.

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Safely tucked away for the night at our hotel in Sape.

Sape looked a bit run down, as did the little pony carts we saw, carrying passengers, goods or both. They looked cute but were a real pain because of the way they held the traffic up in the narrow streets. The poor little ponies didn’t look too happy about it either. I see that as a sign of economic struggle. Down by the harbour most of the buildings were on stilts, raised above the high tide level. There were mud flats either side of the road, the ferry terminal being at the end of a peninsular. We spotted a boatyard, where three wooden boats were under construction. They were identical to those we’d seen in the water, which part of my mind had assumed were very old and would have been superseded by something more modern. Clearly not and I suppose the maxim ‘why change it if it works’ applies here. We ate at a nearby warung, cheap if not wonderful.

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Boat building, old school style.

As we rode across Sumbawa it became clear this island has a heavy agricultural presence, with most land being cultivated with some crop or another. Down by the coast we came across some large ponds, separated from the sea, with several electrically driven paddles in each one, agitating the water. We presumed they were fish farms, not being able to think what else they could be. The roads were really good and we even came across a dual carriageway outside one of the larger towns. Oh the thrill of being in top gear at 100kph! We know how live, do Dan and I. We stopped to admire the view at one point and Dan decided we should ride down a little track, out to a headland, just to get some photos. That was a little bit of fun, for no reason other than that we could. I think the sunny weather and the holiday mood was getting to us.

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Cute, but very slow. A real pain on these narrow streets.

Sumbawa is a mostly Muslim island, so mosques were plentiful, one of the factors in choosing our hotel last night, i.e. there wasn’t one within shouting distance. The Hijab was a common sight and I was amused to see a shop selling ‘Fashionable Hijabs’. I was told later that it’s something of a new habit among women, mostly the younger ones. Older women don’t wear them so often, which answered the puzzlement I’d felt when I saw young women wearing them but their older female relatives not doing so. Indonesia is generally a Muslim country but clearly not as strict as those in the Middle East. In fact there is an equal pay law in Indonesia, not at all what we’ve been led to expect from Muslim countries. It was certainly the case that none of the women were shy about talking to us. Perhaps there are lessons for other countries to learn here. At time of writing this I think I’ve only seen one burka.
In the larger towns now we were seeing big convenience stores. Part of a chain rather than the small family run ones we’d seen everywhere else, although those were still plentiful. Another sign that we were reaching the more modern parts of the country. There was one next to our hotel and Dan spotted some cans of beer in the chiller cabinet. But sadly they were the Islamic version, with a big 0% ABV written on the side of the can. We decided to have an ice cream instead.

All you’ll get in a Muslim owned store.     I’ve never seen this flavour in Britain. Delicious!

We’d ridden across Sumbawa so quickly that we decided to get the ferry to Lombok the next morning. It took us less than two hours to reach the port and, after a cup of tea, we boarded the 11am boat and settled down in some seats up on deck. Apart from what we’d observed from the saddles of our bikes, we hadn’t seen much of the island. But that was OK as everything that could be done involved expending copious amounts of energy. On this occasion we were happy just to enjoy the ride.
A puzzling feature was the number of police we saw in some of the towns. We hadn’t seen many up to now and the odd thing was that there were three distinct types. Some were in light blue uniforms, some in dark blue and some in brown.  We rode respectfully past each time, not wanting to create a stir, and got some smiles of appreciation for it. Dan had no IDP so the last thing we wanted was to be pulled in. I later discovered that those in light blue were marine police; those in dark blue state police; those in brown are regional police. We passed an airport and those guys were toting automatic weapons, reminding us that Muslim countries also have to guard against terrorism.

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A fish farm, we presumed.

The ferry pulled out, slightly late, got a few hundred metres out into the bay, then changed its mind and came back again. Reason unknown. It was 12.30 by the time it left for the one and a half hour crossing, but we got there soon enough. We had a list of several places we wanted to visit on Lombok, and would have gone to see the Pink Beach en route to our planned overnight stop, but the ferry’s lateness legislated against that. So once we’d arrived we headed straight down to the beach resort town of Kuta, down on the south coast. Once we’d left the port we entered traffic hell. The built up areas never seemed to end and they were jam packed with cars, trucks and scooters. The level of aggression seemed to be higher too. There were loads of mosques, many of them very beautiful, but with stupidly loud chanting blaring out from some of them. At various points there’d be people standing in the middle of the road waving charity buckets at the passing traffic. They also had incredibly loud music or chanting blasting across at us. Not something that was likely to make either of us feel very charitable.
Eventually we were able to turn off that awful road into some relative calm and we soon got down to Kuta. Jasmine had recommended a good restaurant to us so we parked up in the centre of town for a look around. It happened that we’d stopped right by a home stay, which had decent rooms at a good price. So we booked ourselves in and went for a walk.
Kuta is tourist hell, or heaven, depending on your point of view. Lots of Europeans once more and plenty of the kind of place’s they like to have around. Restaurants or warungs; pizzerias; barrista cafés; bars down on the beach; scooter hire shops; tour shops; surfboard hire shops. We enjoyed a beer at one of the beachside bars then found the restaurant Jasmine had recommended to us. A nice meal there. Back at our homestay we met a group of Italians, who’d ridden across from Bali on scooters. Simone is a diving instructor and his Dad had come over to visit him, along with some friends from Italy. They’re all keen bike riders so we had plenty to chat about. Dan went out with them later on, but I cried off, feeling that I needed some sleep.

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These Kawasaki KLX150s are handy little things and make ideal transport for surfboards too.

We went out for a walk next morning, on a bit of a mission. Dan had remembered that it was AFL Grand Final day so we were hoping, given the number of Aussies around, that one of the bars would be showing it. We found one quite easily and went back over there to get a good seat and enjoy the game. There was a crowd of Aussies just behind us and more came in before the game started, so it would be a good atmosphere. The final was between the Richmond Tigers and the Adelaide Crows, with the Tigers winning easily in the end at 106-58. At half time I ordered a Spaghetti Bolognaise, which was very nice except that the sauce tasted sweet. I think they must have put honey in it. Familiar dishes in foreign places can often have a surprising taste.
After an afternoon rest we ate at a warung, where I had Gado Gado, a dish made from vegetables with a satay sauce on them, plus rice of course. Food in Indonesia can be quite boring at times, with small warungs only offering basics, such as Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Mie Goreng (fried noodles), usually with vegetable and egg in it. Bigger ones will offer fish, chicken, pork and various curries. I discovered a really nice dish called Pepes Ikan, which is a piece of tuna, wrapped in a banana leaf and served with vegetables, sauce and rice. Food is usually quite cheap although some places in Kuta definitely had tourist prices.

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Two grades of petrol, hand pumped from the barrel below and gravity fed.

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A definite step up from bottles, a funnel and a cloth for a filter.

Back at our homestay the power was out, the town having suffered a power cut, although it did come back later on. Dan was going out again so I just had a relaxing evening.
In the morning it was time to head for the hills. But first we had to fight the traffic once more as we headed north. It was a Sunday, for goodness sake, don’t these people ever take a day off? Repetition is supposed to make something easier but not when it’s this bad. When people talk about the bad traffic in Asia, this is what they’re referring to. But eventually we could turn off onto a quieter road and, after a tea break, we started climbing and left the population behind.
We were slightly puzzled as to why there were hundreds of bikes climbing this steep, twisty road. Groups of them parked by the roadside too. When we came to the top of the pass the answer lay before us. A glorious view out across the valley below and to the steep hills beyond. There were crowds of people there, with plenty of stalls to supply them. There’s a special viewing point, accessed by climbing up another slope, but that has to be paid for although it possibly has some cultural significance too. I haven’t been able to find out. We just settled for the cheap seats and enjoyed the views and being among the people.

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A popular place.

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With a fool blocking the view.

We pushed on, down, around, up etc, stopping at one point to allow some rain to pass us by. Every time we stopped people would want to talk to us, find out where we’re from and so on. It was nice to be among such friendly people. On one particularly steep hill I made a complete arse of myself by falling off the bike. As we came round a bend we found a truck stuck on a steep slope. I would have just gone round it but there was a car coming towards me. So I stopped and promptly overbalanced on the very steep camber and fell off the bike. Dan went past and stopped but couldn’t help me because he had the same problem. Fortunately the truck driver and his mate came over and helped me pick the bike up. Then they jammed a rock under the back wheel so I could pull away easily. I think they owed me that!
Although the roads we’ve ridden so far have been generally good, they aren’t what you might call ‘engineered’ very much. By that I mean that they follow the terrain faithfully rather than having any bends levelled off or brows of slopes flattened. There’s been very little sign of anything as drastic as blasting the rock face away or building a viaduct. All of this means that steep bends will have steep cambers, in either direction; you can’t see what’s over the next slope and it could well be a sharp bend; the roads can be very steep and narrow – think back roads in the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales. So caution has to be the watchword, all the time. As I discovered, you never know what’s around the corner.

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You might brush into one of these half way round a blind bend.

Eventually we reached the waterfalls we were heading to at Senaru, near to Lombok’s north coast. The spectacular Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls are on the slopes of Mount Rinjani, a favourite place for trekking and forest walks. We pulled in to the car park of Café Emry and allowed ourselves to be persuaded that we needed a guide to take us down to them. There were a group of young lads there and one of them led us down some very steep earth steps, which had crumbled away quite badly, until we joined a proper path going further down. This café had been the first we’d come to as we rode up the hill and they’ve very enterprisingly cut these steps to give access from their premises to the official path. I’d kept my riding trousers and boots on and promised my self I wasn’t going to try to climb back up that way. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it.
The waterfalls are quite something. They’re a few hundred meters apart and, for reasons of irrigation control, are linked together by a tunnel so that water flows between them at ground level and is controlled by sluices. Visitors are free to walk through the tunnel if they want to as the water is only up to about thigh level. We stuck to the path. The first one we got to was Sendang Gile, a water fall that drops from two places but falls into one pool. Swimming permitted and plenty of people did just that. Then we back tracked a bit and followed the path, part of which was above the tunnel, over to Tiu Kelep. Getting there involved wading across the river in two places and I’m pleased to say that my riding boots proved to be completely waterproof. None came into the boot until the water got deep enough to flow over the top, and then once inside it wouldn’t come out again. Tiu Kelep is the most spectacular of the two, with multiple cascades falling down over the rocky ledge and above them a much higher fall. The bathing pool beneath is cold but plenty of people felt the obligation to get in anyway. I never have a problem resisting that kind of masochism.

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Tiu Kepel waterfalls. Quite spectacular.

When we went back up to the café I took the longer route and by the time I got there Dan had got the teas in. There was a honeymooning Dutch couple there so we chatted with them. They were highly amused to have discovered that the Indonesian word for Holland is Blunda. Roy, the guy who runs the café, recommended a homestay just up the road and said to mention his name for a discount. It worked, and we got good rooms at a reasonable rate. We went back to the café for a couple of beers and a meal which we ate while Roy regaled us with tales of mountainside ganja farms and how the local mafia destroyed a 400 hectare crop simply because it hadn’t been approved by them. He reckons this kind of thing happens on most of the islands. Well, maybe but who knows?
It really was a beautiful place up there. Roy had done an excellent job with the garden of the café and the backdrop provided by Mount Rinjani made it a peaceful and special place. We were very glad we’d come up here especially as were going to be on the ferry to Bali next day, signalling the end of our trip together.

Beauty and peace in the garden of Cafe Remy while gazing out at Mount Rinjani.

An early start saw us on the road to the port at Lembar. Nice riding at first, with blue sea and white sand to admire, but eventually we hit the busy urban streets and exchanged sea air for diesel fumes. Nothing to be done other than put up with it but we were very pleased when we reached the port.
No hassles with getting on board. Buy the ticket, ride on, tie down the bikes and find a place to sit. We opted for the indoor lounge as the deck had no comfortable seating, but it did get rather hot after a while so we went outside and discovered our Italian friends out there. One of Dan’s concerns was that he had no IDP, not having planned to be riding a bike when he first left home. The police in a tourist filled place like Bali will often stop tourists, knowing that the fine for not having one can supplement their pay very nicely. I’d experienced this myself. Simone said there was very likely to be a checkpoint when we left the ferry and he was right. But to Dan’s great relief all they wanted to see was vehicle registration documents. In Indonesia these must be carried on the vehicle. I had mine, Elisa had left hers with the bike and the Italians’ scooters were all rented so they had theirs too. Easy peasy.

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A typical inter-island Ro-Ro ferry.

Simone had a rented house down in Seminyak, part of the Denpesar conurbation, so we headed off down there via the Expressway. Dan needed to be in Seminyak too. He’d managed to borrow some riding gear from a shop called Eiger. In effect, they sponsored his trip across from Kupang by lending him some boots, jeans and a jacket provided he posted pictures of him wearing the gear to Facebook regularly. He’d bought his own crash helmet and goggles though. As I said before, he’d had no plans to ride anything when he’d left Aus four months earlier. As far as he knew he was obliged to return everything and he wanted to talk to the manager to tell him how he got on.

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Fill up all the spaces with scooters and cars and you have some idea of what Seminyak traffic is like.

As the Expressway entered the city everything slowed down until we were obliged to ride on the dirt at the side of the road to make any progress at all. We came to a cross roads which was completely jammed up, with nothing moving. The Italians zipped around via a zebra crossing but Dan and I, on our bigger bikes, got a bit stuck in the narrow gaps and upset a few car drivers by forcing our way through. In fact one got so upset that he got out of his car and threatened to hit Dan. That was funny in a tension relieving kind of way and we made good our escape and caught up with the others. They’d pulled in because they were turning off the main road and it was time to say arrivederci. We Googled to see what accommodation was available, bearing in mind this area was a tourist hotspot and it was now nearly dark. We were relieved to find the M Boutique Hostel, very close by, and worthy of mention because it had capsule style accommodation. This is rather like having a closed in bunk. We had a large locker for personal gear (although most people seemed to prefer the floor) and then we could crawl into the capsule, pull the blind down behind us and shut out the world. The capsule was as wide as a single bed and with enough room to sit up. With power points and a light it was cosy, private and comfortable. These places are popular in Japan although I didn’t use one while I was there. A hot shower, cold beer and a good meal at a nearby warung brought back some much needed peace and harmony to the soul.

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Capsule living. Cosy and private.

The last day with Dan started with us making our way to Eiger where the manager was happy to tell him he could keep the riding gear. Dan had been hoping this would be the case – who wouldn’t? It was all very second hand now anyway but had done the job required of it. The store is very much like places such as Cotswold Outdoors or Kathmandu except that they provide motorcycle riding and touring equipment too. After tea and photos with the manager we set off towards the small village of Mas, near Ubud. This is were Nancy lives and it was were Elisa’s bike was going to be kept until she could collect it and restart her trip. Nancy is a friend of Elisa’s father, which is how that offer came about. We followed her instructions and got ourselves there easily enough, once we’d fought our way through the traffic again. Nancy is quite a woman and a very interesting character. I’ll write more about her in my next blog. Suffice to say she made us very welcome and we got the DR650 tucked away and covered up.

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Safe travels Dan. I hope to see you again somewhere.

Journey’s end for Team Dan and Geoff. He was getting a taxi back to Seminyak and would then spend a few days with friends before flying home. I was going to ride into Ubud and spend a couple of days enjoying the town and its delights once more. As you all know, I’m a solo traveller and prefer it that way. But the opportunity had presented itself to ride with Dan and it made complete sense to do so. We had a great time and got on very well, both personally and as riding buddies. Neither of us felt pressured by the other, either into doing something we didn’t want to, or not doing something we did. Our two weeks together had been really good. It was Dan’s first taste of this type of motorcycling and he’s now keen to do more. That’s great news. So thanks for your company Dan and good luck with your new life direction.

Heading West: Kupang to Flores

Timor Leste/West Timor border. Friday 8th September.

While it would have been nice to linger a few days longer in Dili, mainly to rest my back, the validity of my Indonesian visa was swiftly drawing near. My rib and back were still sore but I knew I could ride without problems. I also knew that in time it would all be OK. So this will be the last mention of that sorry incident.
You just never know what border crossings are going to be like, especially in third or second world countries. Travellers will often describe corrupt practices or seemingly pointless hassle from immigration or customs. Up to now I’ve never had a problem, except the one time in Kazakhstan, when I hadn’t registered my presence and he made me sit around for an hour and a half before letting me out. But, like the road from Dili to the frontier, this time is was as smooth as you like. A helpful young Timorese showed me where to get my passport stamped and then where to get my carnet stamped too. At some borders I’d faced a 5-10 kilometre dirt road ride between leaving one country and entering the next. This time it was 300 metres of concrete, with not even a pothole in sight. The Indonesian officials were equally helpful and efficient, although customs did insist on me removing my panniers so they could go through the x-ray machine. Not a problem, just a nuisance. But I felt better about it after they’d let me sit in their air conditioned customs hall while I ate some lunch.

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There’s even a better quality of town centre statue in West Timor.

Setting off into the twenty first country of my trip, the difference was immediately noticeable. The villages were better laid out, with buildings constructed from breeze block rather than bamboo. They appeared to be more prosperous but even so, I still saw people carrying buckets of water into houses. The terrain was, as you might expect, just the same, but there was more obvious agriculture. The traffic was no different though, with small scooters or bikes everywhere, mixing it with the heavier traffic with he usual Asian panache. Best of all, the roads were great. Twisty, windy and mountainous, of course, but I always had the feeling that whenever I went round a bend there’d always be a good surface all the way through. Not that I abandoned caution. I was still in Asia after all.
Kefamenanu, and the Victory hotel, were my overnight resting place. Evening meal at a cheap and cheerful warung (café) just down the road, followed by a good night’s sleep. The only problem was that I forget to say ‘Tidak Gula’ – no sugar, when I ordered my tea. I’d got used to tea with no milk, but adding in sugar makes it undrinkable. I get the impression people in these parts have a very sweet tooth.
It was a nice ride to Kupang, the capital of West Timor. Good roads, nice weather and nice views too. There was a fair bit of traffic around, with the occasional overtaking manoeuvre taking place halfway round a blind bend, but slowly enough not to pose a threat. I was often amused by some young pup on a scooter, overtaking me seemingly just below my elbow as I rounded a bend. Obviously keen to show the foreigner on the big bike how it’s done in those parts and taking advantage of local knowledge and lack of fear. I stopped for petrol in one of the towns, joining the long queue of small fry to fill up, but pleasantly surprised that it was only 7,500 Indonesian Rupiyah per litre – about 0.40GBP.

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A similar sign to those I’d seen in Japan. Where to run to in the event of a tsunami.

Once in Kupang I found the Lavalon Seaview hostel, up on a cliff above the beach. The owner, Edwin, spoke good English and was renowned among travellers for his knowledge and helpfulness. It was here that Elisa had left her bike, and I sent her a photo of it just so she knew it was OK. There were plenty of shops nearby, including one that sold SIM cards. Best of all was an evening fish market in one of the side streets, were I could go and choose the fish I wanted to eat, watch them BBQ it, then have it served at the table along with rice, vegetables and tea. It was delicious. The area was very atmospheric, with the illuminated stalls, all the fish laid out for inspection, the smoke from the BBQs, all on a warm, pleasant evening.
I made contact with Elisa and she told me that Dan, an Aussie friend of hers, would be arriving in Kupang to take her bike to Bali, where it could be safely stored. When she was well enough she would fly out to collect it and continue her travels. Dan was already on a long holiday in SE Asia, so he agreed to extend his time and ride her bike to Bali. The obvious thing was for us to ride there together, so that was agreed on. Likely to take about three weeks, it would be a different experience for a solo traveller like me. But I was looking forward to it.
Various people drifted in and out of the hostel while I was there. Thomas is Finnish and had been on the road eleven years, including four in India riding a Royal Enfield. Lee had been travelling for four years and they planned to ride their small Indonesian registered Suzukis into Timor Leste, then across to Indonesian half of Papua, where they would sell them. The next stage would be to go into Papua New Guinea, buy a dinghy and take it across to Australia, about forty kilometres away. It sounded totally mad.

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Thomas, a new bike and a mad plan.

Kupang, and this hostel, seem to be a gateway in and out of Timor Leste as well as a jumping off point for ferries to nearby islands where there’s good surfing and diving. Edwin used to be an actor, a journalist and, more recently, a professional photographer. His claim to fame is his involvement in the making of the Channel 4 drama which replicated the journey made by Captain Bligh when the Bounty’s crew mutinied. It began near Tahiti but ended in Kupang, on the beach below the hostel. He was an advisor on the programme and feels the history so strongly that he wants the beach officially renamed Bounty Beach. I asked why there were no stairs down from his place to the beach and he just said “Crocodiles!”

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Pick it, cook it, eat it. Delicious.

I went for a walk down to the old port area one morning and strolled around the market. Lots of fish for sale, fresh or dried, vegetables, spices and some fruit. Plenty of clothing and dry goods too. Busy, noisy and a bit smelly, but nothing that tempted me. I jumped on a Bemo, Kupang’s version of the small, fixed fare microbus, and went to the museum. Very small entry fee and I was shown around by two high school students who act as guides so as to be able to practice their English. It was interesting enough to make the visit worthwhile, focussing on local culture and artefacts. Cotton weaving and wicker boxes for betel nuts seem to be very important. In a separate building was the skeleton of a Blue Whale, which had been washed up on a local beach in the 1970s. I was surprised to read that one of the local islands carries out an annual ceremony where they catch and kill a Blue Whale, which is then cut up and divided between all the families. It’s part of a ritual of some kind but I’m surprised such a thing still goes on in this era of conservation. They showed me some ancient skulls, found in a nearby cave and reckoned to be 60-70,000 years old. It seems ancient humans got about a bit, aided, no doubt, by the land bridges that linked many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands before sea levels rose.
A short walk took me to the Lippo Mall, a big, Western style shopping centre. I was in a hardware stall when I spotted another European, a Swiss guy names Matthias. He’s ridden across to Indonesia from home on a BMW GS1200, a choice of bike he said he regrets. They weigh in at 220kg unladen, so I didn’t need to ask him why. He was in the company of Radin, a Czech guy currently living in the USA, riding a KTM 990. They’ve met on the road a couple of times and have teamed up for the journey to Darwin, at least, where they’ll stay with Dave while their bikes are cleared through customs. We had a long chat about the dreaded AQIS and I warned them to expect it to be a slow process. Radin had ridden through Myanmar as part of a group. It can only be done with a guide and he was full of praise for the way this worked out. I’d heard similar stories before so I wasn’t too concerned about there. Thailand is a different matter but Radin had managed to avid the permit/guide requirement on his way back from Laos. He’d also managed to get his big bike into Vietnam, something I’d heard was impossible. If only Thailand would drop their new regulations my life would be so much easier.

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Matthias and his BMW Behemoth.

Friday arrived and so did Dan. He flew in from Bali and we started to make our plans to ride back there. He had a visa deadline to meet but we had plenty of time, reckoning three weeks should be enough to island-hop westwards. Dan is very easy to get along with, a typical laid back young Aussie. He’s between jobs and took an extended holiday before he returns to throw himself into the family plumbing business. We hit it off straight away and I was confident we’d enjoy the trip together.

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Dan, my new Aussie riding companion.

Ferries from Kupang to Larantuka, in Flores, leave on Thursday and Sunday, at midday. We decided to take a reconnaissance ride to locate the port rather than put ourselves under pressure on Sunday morning. It was just as well we did because we had to try three times before we found it, despite the ‘assistance’ of mapping software. We parked our bikes and took a walk round, checking where to buy a ticket etc. Then we were approached by Daisy, a thirty something local woman who’d worked in the tourism industry and spoke excellent English. She took us under her wing and showed us where we needed to go for everything. She is a delightful young woman, very helpful, and once we’d finished at the port she offered to show us a couple of local sights. She jumped on her 50cc scooter and we followed her – slowly – to the Crystal Cave. We walked down between some houses, then down a rocky slope, where we found the cave on the side of a limestone rock escarpment. Scrambling down the slope into it we came to a very deep, crystal clear pool, apparently very cold too. On a thirty plus degree day, it looked tempting. It’s popular for cave diving too and her cousin rents out cameras to visiting tourists.
Next we followed her to the western beach, popular for sunset viewing, where her cousin (a different one) sits up in a watchtower guarding the oyster beds out in the bay. Two big searchlights for spotting potential thieves, but no sign of the machine gun the tower looked like it ought to house. Daisy kept apologising for her slow scooter. She used to have a bigger bike but her family pressured her into giving it up for something more ladylike. She’s worked abroad and was in Kuala Lumpur for five years, but it seems now that family pressures prevail. We followed her back to her house and said our goodbyes to this lovely, cheery woman, before heading back to base.

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Our lovely guide and assistant, Daisy.

We decided to have an eve-of-departure meal out so walked down to the local market area looking for a place we’d been recommended. It was closed but we found a great alternative, with good, cheap food and cold beers. A large dining area with a band due to be on later. We got chatting to the owner who was telling us that Kupang was a big Aussie tourist area until the late nineties, when flights from Darwin were suspended. It seems that Indonesia and Australia had a falling out over the situation in Timor Leste, around the time of the referendum there. The direct flights have never been resumed. It was noticeable how few Europeans there were in Kupang although Edwin’s hostel seemed to attract plenty. But the city isn’t that much of a tourist place anyway.
By 9am we’d left for the ferry terminal. On the way I spotted Daisy waving at us from the side of the road. She came with us and really made life so much easier. She showed us where to buy the tickets, made sure we got charged the correct amount (there was a risk of being cheated here,it seems) and accompanied us onto the boat. We strapped our bikes down as best we could within the confined space we’d been forced into. So tight, in fact, that we had to use the side of a truck as an anchoring point. It’s a sixteen hour journey and I’d been warned that we should get up on deck as quickly as possible to be at the front of the queue for bunks. Once the doors to the bunk room are opened it’s everyone for themselves and devil take the hindmost. But once again Daisy came up trumps and took us straight into the sleeping area, aided by yet another cousin who was a crew member. I’ve never met anyone with so many useful cousins!

The sleeping room. Not wonderful but better than the alternative.

We claimed a couple of bunks then waited around until the doors were opened and people flooded in, accompanied by all their goods and children and, in one case, a box from which a cheeping noise emanated. This was placed on the floor at the head of Dan’s bunk although it later disappeared, for reasons we didn’t bother to ask or want to know. Daisy waited around until we’d had our tickets checked and had paid for the bunks, before heading ashore. What a lovely woman.
How was the voyage? At sixteen hours long, very wearing. But it could have been worse. There were fifty bunks in the sleeping room but everyone got settled in, with their bits and bobs packed around them. The room was air conditioned so didn’t become the sweaty, smelly hell that it might have been, and smoking wasn’t allowed below decks. Indonesians are considerate and tidy people. The toilets remained clean, unlike some cross channel ferries I’ve been on, no doubt helped by the absence of alcohol. There was a small café for drinks and snacks, mostly pot noodle. We spent most of our time lying around, chatting, reading and so on.
Up on deck there were people sat on every seat or laid down on mats under the available shelter. Calm and hot, the weather was ideal for being on a boat. This one was nearly thirty years old and the exhausts for the twin 650hp Perkins diesels were noisy enough to make conversation difficult while on deck. This inconvenience was fully compensated for by the finest sunset I’ve ever seen. Unlike others, where the sun’s last rays are shining through the clouds on the horizon, this one had no clouds to obscure it. Dan and I watched the fiery disc slip gradually behind the edge of the sea, starting with the edge resting on the water then sliding down until there was only a tiny sliver left. Then it was gone. Wonderful.

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See you tomorrow Sun.’

The ferry docked on time at 4am. Dan and I waited a while before following the crowd down to the car deck. We managed to unhook our bikes from the side of the adjacent truck a few minutes before he pulled away, then we followed the crowd onto dry land and out of the port. We’d already worked out a route across the long, thin island of Flores, so we headed west, off into the dark, planning to overnight in Ende, another mucky old port town.
With the buildings now left behind the road started climbing upwards, twisty, steep and challenging. My LED headlight and spotlights threw a goodly amount of light ahead of us so I took the lead and we made good but wary progress as we followed the coast. We stopped for a break after an hour or so, next to an inlet where we decided to watch the sunrise. While we waited we could see large shoals of fish swimming around feeding. They presented a solid mass as they wheeled around, rather like a flock of starlings, hoovering up their food. The early fisherman out in his boat seemed unimpressed though. A routine event for him, no doubt.

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The strange sight of feeding fish, en masse.

Rather than go to Ende we stopped at Moni, the step off base for visiting Kelimutu, with its three crater lakes. We found a restaurant with nice home stay rooms, which we got for a good price. We chatted to some women who were staying there too, with Dan agreeing to take one of them, Charlotte, up to the crater on his bike when we went up there to see the sunrise. Sunrise happens early, departure for the crater would happen even earlier, so after a good meal it was time for an early night.
Another 4am start. “Why can’t we watch sunsets,” I wanted to know. “They take place when I’m not in bed!” Charlotte wasn’t feeling too well, so she cried off. Which was just as well really. The road up to the national park entrance was even steeper and bendier than that of the previous day and I know that Dan would have seriously struggled with a passenger on board.
We left the bikes in the car park and walked up the path to where we could see the lowest lake. Then we walked up the steep steps to the higher level, with a couple of pauses for breath on the way, in my case. Was it worth all the effort? You betcha! We’d heeded the advice to dress warmly and that advice was good. There was a very keen breeze up at the top. There’s an obelisk there, with a variety of people selling hot drinks and snacks. All of their goods had been carried up there and I did wonder at what time they must have started in order to get there ahead of us. Looking across towards the volcano (extinct now) we could see two of the three lakes. The odd thing about them is that they all lie inside the caldera but are separated by jagged rock walls. Each has its own mineral content and will show different colours when the sun shines on them. One blue, one turquoise and the third a reddish colour. We weren’t going to get that effect at sunrise unfortunately, and we had neither the time nor the inclination to climb up in the hot afternoon sunshine to do so.

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It’s a long, hard walk up to see the sunrise.

The sunrise was spectacular, with the sun slowly creeping over the far edge of the crater and illuminating the deep waters inside. It was a bit cloudy, sadly, but we felt it had been worth the hard climb just to see the start of a new day in such a special place. It’s easy to understand why ancient peoples revered such places and events so ardently.
Back in the car park we enjoyed a rather expensive glass of tea and chatted to two of the women who’d been at the hostel the previous night. They’d been told of a path that led down the side of the hill, back down towards the village, allegedly a nice two hour walk. We had our bikes to ride so we left them to it.

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What we’d climbed all that way up to see.

Our next destination was Bajawa where we planned to visit one of several nearby traditional villages. As we rode through the very busy town of Ende I felt my clutch cable give a bit, right in the middle of some seriously heavy traffic. We managed to get clear but as I pulled in to check it, that’s when it snapped. “No worries here, I have a spare,” was my thinking. I pushed the bike across the road and into some shade where the usual crowd of onlookers gathered to watch as I fitted the new one. All done and adjusted up, I got on the bike to pull away and promptly dropped it. Why? Because the idiot who fitted it misrouted the damn thing and the front forks wouldn’t turn, that’s why! All credit to my audience, who where too concerned that I’d hurt myself to laugh, but helped Dan and me to pick the bike up. Once I’d done the job properly we set off again.
The road followed the coast for the most part and was a pleasure to ride. We’d noticed that as we’d come further west the whole aspect of Flores improved. Villages where much neater; houses where more modern and built of block and tile rather than bamboo and thatch; the roads were excellent and seemed to have been recently resurfaced. It may seem like a cliché to talk about coconut trees and banana plants, but they were everywhere and mostly seemed to be growing wild. Bananas were always on sale, often from street sellers, although they tended to be small. We didn’t see coconuts for sale much, but their main use is in cooking, so I wasn’t surprised.

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Lots of pretty blue pebbles, on Blue Pebble Beach.

We had a lunch stop at Blue Pebble Beach, which lived up to its name quite well. Local people gather up the stones, bag them and sell them on. We saw stacks of bags at the side of the road, awaiting collection. I believe they get sorted, polished and then sold as art or jewellery. They come from a pale blue rock, which lines the coast in this area. I don’t know how the colour gets into the rock, which seems to be limestone, probably from a mineral source. The café where we had lunch also seems to cater for larger parties, judging by the rather odd arrangement of umbrellas strung out along a section of the beach, which we presumed were to provide shelter from sun and rain. Strange but pretty.

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Mary Poppins was nowhere to be seen.

After a couple of false starts we found a nice hotel, close to ‘restaurant alley’, where finding a good place to eat should be easy. We went to acafé on the first floor of a building, remarkable mostly for the fact that the wooden floor bounced every time somebody walked across it. It was like trying to eat a picnic on a bouncy castle and I felt slightly seasick by the time we’d finished.
The nearest traditional village is Bena, a nice, twisty ride through the exceedingly green countryside. We paid our entry fee and had a walk around. The houses reminded me of a similar place I’d see in Japan. Very high and steep roofs, thatched with reed, built around bamboo frames. Nothing like as well built though, or as decorative. People sit on the verandas, under the extensive overhang of the roof, working on crafts: weaving for the women, carvings for the men. Most of the women had very red mouths and teeth, a sure sign that they ate Betel Nuts. Their juice stains the whole mouth and looks, to my eyes at least, horrible. But they’re an important part of Asian culture and we could see them laid out on mats, drying in the sun, as were several other nutty type fruits. These are part of the cash crops that help support the village.  Betel Nuts are so important that decoratively woven storage boxes are often included as part of the exchange of gifts between bride and groom at weddings. The red stain is considered to be a thing of beauty but the nut also gives a nice buzz and can become addictive. The major downside is that they cause various oral cancers and can contribute to other health problems too. I hadn’t seen them in use up to now, but in a place full of tradition I suppose it wasn’t so surprising.

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How things used to be.

The village rose up a slope, with the roofs of the houses tiered upwards on each side, like any row of terraced houses you’d see in a British city. There was a large compound in the centre where villagers gather for ceremonies and the like. At that time it was full of the previously mentioned drying mats but we also saw arrangements of jagged, upright stones, surrounding some flat rocks which had space for fires beneath. We couldn’t quite puzzle out what these were for – cooking for village feasts, maybe? – but it turned out that they’re simply where offerings are placed as part of ceremonies. Although generally Catholic, it’s common for villages such as these to follow their ancient rituals where they maintain contact with their ancestors, who they believe are still with them. There were some curious, small huts at one end of the largest compound, which were clearly used as schoolrooms, judging by the pictures drawn around the frieze above the open walls. One of them contained the skulls and horns of water buffalo, but we couldn’t guess at their significance. There were several homes which had these outside too, so clearly they’re culturally important.

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The women weave this cloth. The patterns have cultural significance. Some are men only, some women only.

It was easy to see that this is a ‘living’ village, not just a tourist site. Yes of course they make some of their income from entry fees, and the sale of cloth and carvings, but they don’t go home at night to somewhere else. Their facilities match those of most other rural villages and we were amused by a couple of incongruous modern touches, such as a fire hydrant (very sensible) and some corrugated iron peeking out from beneath some of the thatching (cheating!). There was a new house being built, seeming to use traditional methods but with timber beneath the rattan walls. But that fire hydrant seemed like a really good idea in a place so full of flammable materials.

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Ceremonial offering site.

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This information summarises how the village functions.

Talking of water, we rode further down the same road and found Mangeruda hot springs. This is a wonderful place where geothermal springs rise out of the ground and then join with a normal mountain stream. You can choose to go hot, cold or a mixture of both. I was able to sit in a pool where I could alternate between the two just by moving across slightly, from one rock to another. It was bliss. The hot water has minerals in it. I don’t know of what type but the water tasted rather sour, like milk that had gone off. The kind of thing that Victorians would have paid a fortune to drink down at Tonbridge Wells, or somewhere similar.
After some lunch we rode back to the hotel where the two Dutch women we’d met at the car park at Kelimutu had now arrived. Sitting around in the late sunshine was very pleasant, as was the meal we all enjoyed later. Then they taught us a Dutch card game, whose name I forget, but which kept us amused for the evening. Such are the pleasures of life on the road.

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Lotte, Flo and Dan. Chilling in the sun with a beer. It’s just about culture you know.

Up on the north coast lies the town of Riung, where the main attraction is to go on boat trips out to the Seventeen Islands. We then planned to ride along the coast, and inland to Ruteng, home of the Hobbit cave. When we told this to the hotel manager he threw his hands up in horror, telling us that the road along the northern coast from Riung was really, really bad. Dan looked at him and thought of the fun he’d had on rough tracks on a KTM out in Cambodia. I looked at him and thought “You’ve clearly never been to Timor Leste mate.” But we just assured him we’d be OK and headed off. About 30kms north of town the road turned into patchy, potholed asphalt, as if to give us a training run for the ‘terrible road’ that was to come. The villages were starting to get poorer and I noticed steel poles lying at the side of the road, looking like street lamp posts. My curiosity led me to realise that, unlike other areas we’d ridden through, there was no obvious electricity supply. That explained the steel poles then. Although Riung did have power, it came from a very noisy generator. What with the state of the road, it seems that the north of Flores still needs modernising.

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If you want fuel, you join the queue. It can take a while, in the hot sunshine.

The first thing we did in Riung was to book a boat trip for the next day. We were the only two on it but the guy said that the price would come down if we could find people to share with us. We found a really nice hotel and restaurant and, by dint of good luck we found six other people to join us, some of whom had come to the hotel to eat. One of them even gave us a lift down to the harbour in the morning.

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Nice boat, blue sea, beach BBQ. Wonderful.

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A hungry clam.

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Cheeky face among the coral

The point of the trip was to see, and admire, the very pretty islands out in the bay, and to enjoy some snorkelling. The sea here seems to be more saline so it was easy to float over the coral, almost with no effort, and admire the different types and colours, and the very pretty fish that swam among them. Add into that a very nice lunch of freshly BBQ’d fish and fresh fruit, and it’s easy to say that it was a terrific day out. On the way back we stopped by some mangrove trees, which were full of roosting fruit bats, and our boatman swam over to roust them out of their slumbers. He soon had them all wheeling around the trees, reminding me of flocks of starlings on an autumn day. These bats are strange creatures, very noisy and smelly, and I’ve no love for them, but I felt rather sorry for them as they were forced to perform for the tourists.

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The excellent La Mar hotel and restaurant.

Once we’d found the right road out of Riung we soon discovered why the manager down in Bajawa had reacted that way. It was dreadful! Rocky, sandy, washed out and broken up. Dan was in his element. Even on a heavy bike like the DR650 he was having fun. I was more cautious, the memory of my last fall still fresh, but we enjoyed the challenge and the surrounding countryside was very nice, with some spectacular coastal views to enjoy. But that road reinforced how much development work the north of this island still needs.
Eventually we turned inland, onto better roads, and tried to find the Hobbit cave. I’d marked it on Google maps but I missed the turning so we tried to follow a different route. In the best traditions of this usually useful software, it led us along ever smaller roads, through villages where the inhabitants stared at us as if we were mad, until we eventually left the sealed road and took to a stony track. After one particularly tricky uphill climb we turned round and saw that the track we should have taken just beforehand was nothing more than a narrow, muddy trail wandering across the hillside. Tolkein wrote “The road goes ever on and on” but we quickly decided we weren’t going to be finding any Hobbits along that particular goat track and turned back. The villagers enjoyed their second chance to stare at the mad foreigners as we regained the main road and headed into Ruteng. Heavy tropical rain accompanied the last part of our journey. We were very pleased that we found a nice hotel so easily and began to get warm and dry.

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A crowd of curious schoolkids. They’re always happy to pose.

As we walked back to the hotel after our meal a group of lads suddenly approached us out of the gloom. Slightly startled, we wondered what was about to happen, as might be expected. But all these teenagers wanted was to talk to us briefly, then ask us to sign their contact books to confirm we’d spoken with them. It seems they’re tasked with speaking English with tourists, whenever they can, as part of their school work. We were happy to oblige these pleasant young guys.

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Flo’s skeleton. She’s just over a metre tall.

Next day we found Liung Bua (the Hobbit cave) very easily, simply by following the signs from the town centre. Although the mapping software shows several routes to it, there’s only one that actually goes all the way there. So we were on a hiding to nothing yesterday anyway. Homo Floresiensis lived in the area from around 100,000 up to about 12,000 years ago. The archaeological digs revealed a layer of volcanic ash below which the remains of Flores Man, and various now extinct animals, were found. The cave was later used by modern humans, with modern animals, suggesting that it was volcanic activity that caused their extinction. Other research suggests that modern humans may have lived alongside Flores Man and may have been part of the reason for their demise. It’s a confusing picture. What is fairly certain is that they moved out of Africa around one million years ago, along with many other branches of the Homo Erectus species. Their main feature is their size. At just over a metre tall they are the smallest known humanoids. Scientists suggest that evolution shrunk these people because the available food wasn’t good enough to support their original height. Their prey was fauna such as the Giant Stork and the Stegodon (a small elephant), both of which went extinct at around the same time. Although their brain was only one quarter the size of Homo Sapiens, the section that controls cognition was the same, suggesting they would know how to use tools and to control fire. Ultimately there’s almost as many theories as there are scientific groups studying them. Wikipedia lays them all out, if you want to have a read through. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis
The museum told the story, with lots of information to see, described in English too. There are copies of all the skeletal remains and two versions of how Flo, the almost complete female skeleton, might have looked.

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How Flo might have looked.

The cave itself is large, with a floor that used to be much lower than it is today. They had dug down several metres when they found these bones and were initially searching for evidence of modern man’s migration to Australia. The workings have been filled in now but the cave has a definite air of mystery to it. There are stalactites and stalagmites but instead of the needle-like formations normally found underground, these are misshapen lumps of rock, hanging around like monsters at a beauty pageant. I’m guessing the reason is that the cave is open to the weather. All in all, a fascinating place.

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The rather atmospheric cave where the remains were found.

We left Hobbiton behind and continued across country towards the west coast. This part of the island is definitely more prosperous, with agriculture taking place on a more industrial scale. Huge paddy fields climbed up hillsides and there were other crops growing too. The villages all had electricity and the houses were of a much higher standard. Best of all were the roads. Instead of being steep and twisty they were fast flowing and in great condition. We even got into top gear sometimes, a real contrast to the first and second gear climbs back in the east. We saw some large churches too, although not so many mosques. Like West Timor, Flores is largely Catholic. As we got close to our destination the clouds rolled in over the hills we were riding through but this time we stopped and joined a dozen or so other people in a roadside shelter, clearly built for wimps like us. We sat there and watched the rain hammer down for the next two hours, very pleased we weren’t riding. It would have been quite dangerous anyway. Eventually the rain slowed down and the clouds started to clear a little, so we donned our wet gear but soon rode away from the bad weather and made it to the port town of Labuan Bajo, right at the western end of the island.

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I believe we were right to shelter from this.

We made our way to Dragon Dive hostel, another diving orientated hostel recommended by Kate. The price seemed rather high so we only booked in for one night, but after we’d made enquiries at some other places we decided it was probably the best option and we stayed for three. It was full of Europeans and it had a wood fired pizza oven too. A taste of home and a benefit of being among tourists again. The quality of the dorm was good, with thoughtful things like a USB charge point, socket and reading light for each bunk. Dan and I had been using hotels but had kept the cost down by sharing a room. If a hotel didn’t have a twin room then we simply found one that did. This is a slack time of year for tourism so it was never very difficult.
Our early wake up call next morning came from three sources. The Muezzin at a nearby mosque; the bells from a nearby church (it was Sunday); and the bloody cockerels right outside the door! The muezzin and the bells eventually stop, the cocks seem to want to crow forever. I’m surprised that none of the religions use these birds for gathering in the faithful. Let’s face it, they’re very reliable, very cheap to run and they definitely don’t need a loudspeaker.
The day was spent organising a boat trip to see some Komodo Dragons, checking where we needed to go for the ferry to Sumbawa and just generally chilling out. We had a choice of two boat trips: one to Komodo Island, the other to Rinca island. We chose the latter, having been told we’d see more dragons. We’d also get to do more snorkelling. There are dozens of places selling these trips and we’d enquired at lots of them. They all quote the same price, more or less, but the place we chose was cheaper and the people seemed better organised. This town has an evening food market so we were delighted to enjoy some BBQ’d fish once more.
An early start saw us down at the port, clutching our packed lunches, where we joined our fellow passengers. No beach side BBQ today. This boat was much bigger than the last one so we had plenty of room to spread out while we chugged our way across to Rinca Island. The two islands form a national park so there was a fee to pay, but that included a guide who told us all we needed to know about these ancient creatures.

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Hanging around, hoping for a handout.

They are a type of Monitor Lizard, grow up to three metres long and live off wild deer and carrion. Humans are sometimes attacked, especially by nesting females. The warning was, Don’t Get Too Close! They kill their prey by means of bacteria from their mouths (up to fifty different varieties) and an anti coagulant. The victim will run away but will slowly die from the infection. Ironically the Komodo that killed it may not actually get to eat it if the animal managed to get out of range of its sense of smell. They also have a bite strong enough to kill smaller animals outright. If they can catch something like a goat they will swallow it whole then slowly digest it and not eat again for a month. They’ve been known to dig up recently buried humans too. We saw plenty of them hanging around the lodges at the visitor centre, where they are happy to live on kitchen scraps. On our walk round the island we were shown a nesting female. She would have dug, or adopted, several holes but laid her twenty or so eggs in only one of them. They take about eight to nine months to hatch and then the young live in trees, eating insects, to protect themselves from predators, including cannibalistic adults. Once widespread throughout Asia and Australia, they now only survive on Komodo, Rinca and Flores islands. If I’m honest, they’re nothing special to look at. Just a dull, grey, scaly lizard, lying around in the sun. But it’s their size, rarity and that they’ve been around for about 40 million years that makes them fascinating. Guess what? There’s loads more info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komodo_dragon

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Definitely not a good idea to get too close to this nesting female.

After some great snorkelling we enjoyed a sundowner beer with a couple we’d met on the boat. They both come from Birmingham. Justine came to Australia as a young woman and now lives in Bali. Her friend, Cameron, is deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph website and we had a great time putting the political world to rights while the sun set over the bay.

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A Batman Fish.

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Some rather strange looking coral.

It was time to leave Flores, a fascinating island showing us a real variety of Indonesian life. It’s a place of great beauty and friendly people. The name is the Portuguese for flower although we didn’e see too many of them. But Indonesia has 17,000 island so we needed to move on and explore the next one.

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Cameron and Justine, enjoying a cold one while the sun sets.

Timor Leste

Dili, Wednesday 16th August 2017

As I came through airport arrivals I was swamped by taxi drivers all keen to do business. “How much to the city centre?” I asked. “Ten dollars” came the replies. A friend who’d recently had the same experience had told me that I’d be able to knock that down to five. So I kept saying “five dollars, five dollars,” until one of them accepted my offer. Even so, another driver tried to carry my suitcase for me, hoping to drag me over to his taxi and to charge me seven. I resisted and loaded my gear into the boot of my chosen carriage and we set off.
Dusty streets, full of decrepit yellow taxis, motorbikes and scooters, beaten up trucks, gaudy buses and no real sign of traffic discipline. Honking horns, the bikes buzzing around and through the rest of the traffic, vehicles stopping and pulling away with no warning, all in blazing sunshine slightly fogged by the exhaust fumes. All of this said to me “Welcome to South East Asia.”
Dili is the capital of Timor Leste (or East Timor), a former Portuguese colony about six hundred kilometres north of Darwin. It was also, for a very unfortunate twenty five years, part of Indonesia before gaining its independence in 2002. I’d flown in from London, via Bali. My bike had arrived by ship from Darwin a week or so earlier. Timor Leste was to be my gateway into Indonesia and the rest of SE Asia.
The taxi took me to Dive Timor Larosse, a SCUBA diving centre which also had backpacker accommodation, pleasantly located across the road from the beach. Once checked in I met up with Elisa, a young American woman whose motorcycle travels I’d been following on Facebook (search for Travel Bug Blues to read her story). Hostels in under developed countries can be a bit so-so, and Dili was no exception. Elisa had found Dive Timor and recommended it to me. I wanted to meet her anyway so it was the obvious place to go.

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Elisa plus Suzuki DR650.

Elisa is a teacher from Seattle, is in her late twenties and is an experienced motorcycle traveller. She’s ridden in South America but recently came to Australia, bought a Suzuki DR650 and headed for Timot Leste. We were introduced by a mutual friend on Facebook and ended up using the same shipping company out of Darwin. Her plans were also to head west, into Indonesia and beyond, but she’s had to call a temporary halt. She started to suffer from severe joint pains all over her body, which laid her low and prevented any riding. The initial diagnosis was suspected Osteo Arthritis. Not unheard of in one so young but not good news. In the end she went back to Australia where blood tests revealed a vitamin B12 deficiency. Latest news is that she’s recovering well and likely to be able to continue her journey soon.
Once I’d settled in at the hostel Elisa took me down to the port to show me where to get my carnet stamped by customs. We then walked round to the offices of SDV, the shipping agent in Dili used by Bolloré, the Australian shippers. This is where things ground to a halt in a mire of ill feeling, mostly mine. It was all about the charges that SDV wanted to levy for handling the container and my bike. Elisa had also shipped with Bolloré and paid SDV $75US; the staff at Bolloré had estimated $100US; SDV wanted to charge me $245US. I was not at all happy! There’s a story here, which goes like this.
I’d taken my bike to Bolloré in early July, asking them to put it on the ship due to leave on the 29th. My plan was to have three weeks back at home then fly to Dili in time to meet it there. These scheduled sailings rarely leave on time but that wasn’t an issue. About a week before the sailing date I contacted Bolloré because I’d yet to receive an invoice for the shipping charges. I worried that they might not load my bike if I hadn’t paid. My contact there had gone on leave so I rang up his colleague who told me my bike wouldn’t be going on that sailing after all because they didn’t have enough cargo to fill a container. (Elisa’s bike had gone on an earlier ship). The next scheduled departure was on the 14th August. What to do? I’d already booked flights out to Dili, via Bali, so the options were to take those flights and wait in Dili; go as far as Bali and wait there; change my flights to suit the new sailing date. Dili is an expensive place in which to kick your heels, Bali less so. But I decided to pay the cost of changing my flights and stay at home for two extra weeks. All well and good until Luke, my contact at Bolloré, came back from leave and proudly told me my bike was going to sail on the original ship after all. So I’d wasted £270 on changing my flights, all for nothing. I was not impressed. The only upside was more time with people back at home. So that’s why I was down hearted and wound up in Dili.

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Unpacking my bike, after I’d unpacked my wallet.

The guy in the office explained to me that the container handling charges were divided between all those who had goods inside it and because there were only two of us using that container it was a 50/50 split. The cargo manifest showed that the other user had three cars and two bikes in it, I just had my bike. The injustice of this situation really angered me. He wouldn’t budge on it so in the end I told him I wasn’t going to pay that amount and stormed out. Now I’m sure you’re all aware that SDV held the whip hand in this situation. No pay, no bike. So on Friday, having complained bitterly about it all to Bolloré, I went back down there, paid the money and got the necessary paperwork to get my bike released from the bonded warehouse. I, and the guy at SDV, knew it would come to that but I wasn’t going to give in easily. Thankfully, with a new battery installed, Trixie started on the button and I rode her back to the hostel and tucked her securely away in the yard.
Meanwhile Elisa had reached a decision about how to deal with her situation. She decided to ride across into Indonesian West Timor, go to a hostel in Kepang, the capital, and see a doctor there. She left on Thursday, with my grateful thanks for her help, and a couple of days later got to her destination. After some inconclusive tests she decided to leave her bike in Kepang and fly to Sydney, where she felt she’d get better care. The doctor in Kepang was good, but testing facilities there weren’t as sophisticated as those in Australia, and she needed a solution. Now that it’s under way she’s may be back to collect her bike soon.

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Alternator stator gets replaced.

Elisa had put me in touch with an Aussie guy who managed a car hire company in Dili, name of Phil. I rang him up and he sad I would be welcome to use the workshop facilities at the car hire base. The staff there were very helpful and I spent a happy Saturday servicing the bike and replacing the failed parts, which I mentioned in the last blog post. While back in the UK I’d visited the CCM factory and the ever helpful people there had supplied the the bits I needed, most of them under warranty. Many of you will know that there’s great satisfaction to be derived from riding into a workshop on a bike that’s not working as it should, then, thanks to your own hard work and skill, riding back out with a bike functioning as it should. After my tribulations with the shipping, it was just the tonic I needed. The final note on that situation is that my strong complaints to Bolloré have elicited a promise to refund me the excess charges I suffered in Dili. Good news.
I spent the next few days making plans and looking around. I was helped in this by Kate, another hostel resident. She’s from Brighton and has been travelling through Asia for the last three years. She suggested some places to head for in both East and West Timor. She also gave me a list of Indonesian words to learn. Possibly useful in Timor Leste, definitely good to know for Indonesia and Malaysia too, as the languages for both countries are similar. On Sunday I went down to the eastern end of the bay to have a look at the Christo Rei (Christ the King) statue. This sits on top of the headland and is a modelled on Rio De Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. It is nothing like as big, neither is it, fortunately, anything like as high up. In the area around the bottom of the hill were several large groups of people, mostly young, engaged in some kind of religious performance competition. Music and karaoke, or so it seemed. A scoreboard sat on one side and the enthusiastic audience applauded the participants. This was no surprise as Timor Leste has been Catholic since priests arrived with the Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, but more of that later.

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Sitting on top of the world.

As I walked up the steps, and then stairs, I passed alcoves containing bas relief carvings of the crucifixion story, with biblical quotes above them. Very uplifting, or they might have been if they hadn’t been written in Portuguese. While I walked up fit young men and women ran past me, some of them stopping to throw a few push-ups into the mix, before running on again. I was impressed but not tempted. At the top is a nice viewing platform, with great views across the bay. The bronze statue sits atop a globe and looks pretty impressive. Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for the sunset, mostly because of the haze. Shame.

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Memorial to the massacred students.

Kate had told me all about the massacre of student protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, an atrocity carried out by the occupying Indonesian army. She also mentioned the Chenga! Exhibition and as they were close to each other I took a Microlet from outside the hostel round to that part of the city. Microlet’s a small mini buses, with bench seats facing each other in the back. You flag them down, jump on, then when you want to get off you just tap on the hand rail with a 25 cent coin and the driver will stop. That same coin then pays the fare, regardless of how far you’d traveled. Very cheap, very handy.

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Typical Microlet.

The student march that culminated in the massacre had begun in the city centre. As it progressed the army became more aggressive and eventually corralled them in the cemetery before opening fire on them. Over 250 were killed but the events were filmed by British cameraman Max Stahl, and witnessed by two American journalists, both of whom were beaten. The footage was smuggled out of the country to Australia then had to be smuggled out of there back to Britain. It was shown in the ITV documentary ‘In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor.’ It helped to wake the world up to events in that country. Much more info here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Cruz_massacre

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A place people should go to when they’re dead, rather than to die.

The nearby Chega! Exhibition (Chega! means Enough!) is housed in the former prison building that had been used by the Indonesians to hold political prisoners. It was refurbished, post independence, as gift from the Japanese government and was home to the CAVR, the post independence Truth and Reconciliation committee. It now houses the exhibition which tells the story of the struggle for independence after the Portuguese left and is a harrowing tale of genocidal murder across the twenty five year Indonesian occupation. Up to the time of the massacre the rest of the world mostly supported the Indonesian annexation; partly for oil, partly for arms sales; partly for convenience or disinterest. The UK redeemed itself late in the day when Foreign Secretary Robin Cook supported negotiations which eventually led to a referendum for self determination. On another occasion I visited the Resistance Museum, which told the same story but also covered the early history of the island.
On that note a brief run through of Timorese history seems appropriate. The island was occupied by both the Dutch ad the Portuguese during the 16th C. At first they fought over who ‘owned’ what but eventually they more or less agreed a border, although it wasn’t finally ratified until 1914. For the Portuguese it was the Sandalwood which attracted them. They had constant battles with indigenous peoples but as is always the case, superior forces and weapons gave them the edge and soon it was just another Portuguese colony. After that the priests moved in and today Timor Leste is 97% Catholic.
Roll forward to 1974 and the Carnation Revolution, which ended the dictatorship in Portugal. All its colonies now saw the opportunity for independence and in East Timor FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionaria Do Timor Leste Independente), the largest of the revolutionary parties, declared independence from Portugal on 28 November 1975. Fearing a communist state within the Indonesian archipelago, the Indonesian military, with Australian, British, and US support, launched an invasion of East Timor in December 1975. Indonesia declared East Timor its 27th province on 17 July 1976. A minority of Timorese wanted to be part of Indonesia but the majority didn’t. The genocide of the next 25 years led to a near 25% reduction in the Timorese population, such was the determination of the Indonesian military to quash all resistance. Here I have to give praise to the Catholic church, which supported the rebels as best they could and, in particular, tried to keep their plight active back in Portugal.

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Far too much of this went on.

As mentioned above, it was the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre which woke up the world, particularly Portugal, but it wasn’t until the death of Indonesia’s President Soharto that the UN was able to broker an agreement for a referendum on self determination. It asked the Timorese whether they wanted to remain part of Indonesia and the proposal was rejected by 75% of voters. Elections followed and in May 2002 Timor Leste became the 21st century’s first new sovereign state.
Timor (meaning East in Malay) Leste (meaning East in Portuguese) is about 15,000 square kilometres in size (about 10% larger than Northern Ireland), with a population of around 1.2 million. Its currency is the US dollar and its economy centres on oil, sandalwood, coffee and other agriculture. The official languages are Tetum and Portuguese although English and Indonesian are designated as working languages. It has a low but improving literacy rate, likewise with life expectancy. It will take time for this poor but new country to develop and grow. It starts from a very low base and it could be said that it’s done remarkably well in such a short time. So there we are. Lots more info to be found here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Timor.
Meanwhile it was time for me to leave Dili and head off to explore the Eastern part of East East.

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I was sorry to leave these little cuties behind when I left. Kate and I had adopted them.

Once I’d left Dili the road climbed up a hill before swooping back down again, through a series of hairpin bends, to rejoin the coast. I’d been following a young woman riding a scooter, who tackled the bends with a panache I didn’t have the confidence to match. And the good sense not to try, either. Local knowledge is sometimes all that counts on these roads. But the sea was blue and pretty so who cared about speed of progress? Not me, which was just as well really because it wasn’t very rapid at all. The road was ‘enjoying’ improvement work and about every 100 to 200 metres traffic would be diverted down into a gully alongside it while culverts were installed beneath it, intended, I presume’ to carry monsoon water away. Further along, and as an alternative, there were huge humps in the road where culverts had been half buried then had gravel laid over them, forming the kind of ‘whoops’ beloved of motocross riders. Trixie is not a motocross bike, so ‘steady as she goes’ was the order of the day. I’m guessing that once finished the road will eventually be raised to the same level as the humps and will run on a causeway, making it an all weather route.

A

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A colourful bus makes its way round the roadworks.

I passed through the modern looking town of Manututo but, by contrast, also some very poor hamlets, with driftwood shacks. Some villages consisted entirely of bamboo houses, with deeply overhung reed thatched roofs, but maybe with a brick built administrative building as well. Some others had breeze block houses being built alongside the bamboo ones, so improvements are clearly under way. All villages had electricity, to the village if not to each house, but water mostly came from wells. Timor Leste is a very poor country and is a long way from having the kind of infrastructure that provides running water and sewage disposal, but progress is under way. In the late afternoon I came to the town of Baucau where I found the Victoria Café, precisely as marked on Maps.me. (Easily the best mapping system around). I also found that it was a hotel too, so stopping for the night seemed like a good idea. A simple room, cold shower but cheap price. A nice meal too. I took a walk around the town and was quietly impressed with the quality of this regional capital. It seemed well organised, plenty of shops, buses buzzing up and down and generally clean and tidy. One very encouraging thing I’d seen was that even the smallest villages seemed to have a school, with neatly uniformed kids in attendance. I stopped to take a photo at one point and they all rushed over to look at the curious visitor. I later learned that elementary education is provided up to the age of twelve but I don’t know what the provision is past that age.

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Curious kids wave at me.

Next morning I was woken early by a cacophony of cockerels, and once they’d started they didn’t stop. The loudest of them was right below my window and I was tempted to go out and wring its neck. But I didn’t know what the penalty might be for cock nobbling, so I let it be. A simple breakfast, then back on the road, still following the coast in the warm sunshine. No roadworks now so progress was swifter. I planned to get to Bauro, then head down to Jaco Beach, right on the eastern end of the island. Jaco Island was just off shore, recommended by Kate as being a beautiful place to visit for swimming, snorkeling and so on. At one point I stopped in a village to check directions and a group of lads came over to say hello and to confirm where I needed to turn. One of them asked me for ‘a ciggy’ and his mates where highly amused when I told him off for smoking.

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Standard village housing.

When I eventually turned off the coast road I discovered just how bad Timorese roads can be. A steep track took me up the hill, where I had to fight my way over loose stones and rocks. A guy walking down looked at me in amazement as I bounced past him but I was enjoying the challenge and made it to the top with no problem. Through the town of Bauro, hoping for a cup of coffee, but none to be seen. I did ride past an estate, for want of a better word, of pre-fab houses, neatly laid out and all looking the same. I wondered if it was some kind of camp, but I saw ordinary people doing normal things so I think it was perhaps just a housing project. It did look very out of place though.

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Very put of keeping with the more normal bamboo.

Although I’d been warned about the road down to Jaco Beach I was still surprised at how bad it was. I’m sure it was once a really nicely laid, compacted stone track. But now it was a rocky horror show. Very steep, hairpin bends, loose rocks the size of melons, with ‘step-offs’ from one rock ledge to another of about 200mm. But Trixie and I enjoyed the challenge and got down with no real drama. But I knew that coming back up would be a different story, a real test of man and machine.
There’s beachside accommodation down there so I got a hut for just one night. I’d already decided not to go over to the island but I had a nice swim anyway. At dinner I met two French couples so we had a nice meal, chatting and swapping stories. One of the guys worked for Heinecken, in Dili; his girlfriend, rather mysteriously, does ‘this and that’; the other couple were friends on a visit. They’d come down in a 4WD Ute and very kindly offered to take some of my luggage and to follow up behind me in case I needed assistance. And that assistance was very much required. I nearly made it on my own. I came off when I simply ran out of steam on a steep, loose section, but managed to pick the bike up myself and carry on. But the second time was more than I could deal with. I gently collided with a rock at the side of the track, the bike rolled backwards and I couldn’t stop it, so I baled out and laid it down.

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This time I needed assistance.

Unfortunately it was laying across the track and was over centre, so even with the help of a passing local, I couldn’t manage it. Knowing the others were close behind, I didn’t get too stressed and just waited until they turned up. With five of us it was easy to lift the bike and push it up the last part of that particular steep section and then I rode it up the rest of the way. Even the Ute got stuck at one point, and they had to roll back for a second go. At the top of the track we paused for breath, took photos and said our goodbyes. Although they had introduced themselves last night I didn’t make a note of their names. They said they would email me a couple of photos and remind me of the names as well, but I’ve heard nothing so far. So for now they are simply Mes Amis Francais.

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L’Equipe de Secours.

Going back through Bauro I stopped for some fuel. Not at a petrol station, servo or gas pump. There’s none of that kind of thing out there. I just looked for the wooden rack of 1 litre bottles that I knew would be at the side of the road somewhere and sure enough, I soon saw a row of them, filled with blue fluid. I pulled up and asked the price, and at $1.50 it was half as much again as the price in Dili. I tried to talk it down but he was having none of it, so I settled on ten litres. I’ve no idea what grade it was , nor did I really care. They were poured into my tank through a cloth filter and a funnel by a cheerful young guy. Meanwhile I chatted to his friend who had worked in Manchester for a year so spoke good English. The other young lads in attendance just crowded round and watched the show.

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“Fill ‘er up please mate.”

The road carried on, up and down, and rough as guts. Steep climbs, loose stones, narrow but not too much traffic. Villages tended to be strung out along the road, the buildings a mixture of traditional and modern. Sometimes I came across buses and wondered just how uncomfortable the journey might be on those roads. The continuous stream of small motorcycles and scooters coped quite well but mostly by riding slowly and using local knowledge to pick the best course. I was OK on my off road orientated bike, with its soft, long travel suspension.
But however capable the bike is, the second half of a successful equation is the rider. And here there was something missing. As I came down a slight slope and round a bend, I managed to drift off the side of the road and the front wheel went into a ditch. The bike flipped round, I flew off and landed on my back, hard enough to completely knock the wind out of me, and I somehow managed to face-plant into the muddy ditch too. I sat up, trying hard to draw breath, and was immediately helped by some people who’d been working in the adjacent fields. They picked me up but I couldn’t manage to stand, so sat down again. One of them went off to fetch some water and then washed my hands and face for me. Eventually I was able to stand and was helped up the slope to one of their buildings where I laid down on the floor, seeking a position that was comfortable and pain free. And I stayed like that for most of the next three days, taking painkillers, sleeping and eating the simple food they provided me with. They were kindness personified but unfortunately we had no common language so were completely unable to communicate past simple sign language. They only spoke a local dialect so even my few words of Indonesian didn’t help. Later on some other people came round and moved my bike off the road and up to where I was.

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I didn’t look, and I wasn’t feeling, very good.

The family seemed to consist of a married couple, with five young children; another man of a similar age to the husband; an old couple; another man of the same age. Their accommodation consisted of a two storey building, the upper part of which was for cooking, the lower part for sleeping. Another building had a bedroom in it and there were various outhouse structures connected with animals. Apart from one, which had a large fire pit in it. This was used for boiling their spring water to make it drinkable. After three days of I was getting a bit sick of woodsmoke flavoured drinking water! They kept cattle, hens, a variety of skinny looking dogs, and a pig, which walked around with a stick tied to one end of the rope that was tied around it. An effective means of preventing escape. They also had some agriculture on the go, but I’m not sure exactly what.
Some visitors came by, one of them speaking a little English. He asked me if I wanted an ambulance but I declined, saying that f I could stay where I was for a couple of days I’d be better off. I couldn’t imagine where an ambulance might have taken me anyway as there were no medical facilities nearby. They were all OK with that so that relieved me somewhat.

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One of my hosts and the place where I slept.

The old fella was very solicitous in looking after me, making sure I had plenty of water, showing me where I could wash etc. He took it upon himself to clean my muddy riding gear too. I couldn’t have asked for more, despite the very basic facilities. On the third day, Sunday, I felt ready to try riding again. I was desperate to change the hard floor I’d been sleeping on for a soft bed, and the chance to eat something other than rice, scrappy bits of chicken and noodle soup. So I slowly packed my gear away and changed into my riding gear. I gave the old fella some money but that was very quickly demanded by his wife, obviously the boss of the operation. Handshakes and hugs, and then I left.

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The Boss.

I headed for the regional town of Viqueque, where I knew there was good accommodation and a hospital. The road there was no better than previously, proving to be 70kms of hell. But, by stopping every 10-15kms for a rest, a stretch and a drink, I made it to Motel Borala. There I had a soft bed, a hot shower and a nearby café that sold good food. On Monday I was taken down to a clinic to see a doctor. I couldn’t quite understand why the people who ran the motel didn’t take me to the hospital, but the Cuban doctor soon confirmed what I had thought – that I had cracked a rib.The back protector in my riding jacket had done its job well but I’d been bruised up nicely. He just gave me more paracetamol and told me to rest. I asked them how much I owed – Nada. I offered a donation – Nada once more. This was one of those free clinics gifted by Cuba to third world countries. All I could say was “Thanks Fidel, you weren’t such a bad guy after all.”

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The kind of bed you dream of scoring in.

I spent another five days resting and trying to find how best to manage the discomfort but eventually I felt fit enough to tackle the ride back to Dili. As I left Viqueque the road out of town was smooth asphalt and I was hopeful of an easier journey, but it didn’t last long before it deteriorated into the usual rocky hell. But it did improve eventually, especially after it had come down the 1200 metre mountain. Although the last 50kms were really tough, I got there in the end. And I really did enjoy the beer I had that night.
Seven days in Dili, mostly spent resting. Various people passed through, with whom it was nice to socialise. They included a very blonde German woman who said that when she was in Flores people kept prodding her to make sure she was real. Given that she was on her own this was, not unnaturally, very disconcerting for her.

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A sacred house, although I’m not sure what goes in them.

I did a few jobs on the bike and in the process discovered that one side of my luggage rack had broken in two places. Bad roads always take their toll. Just down the road was a small workshop where I got it welded back together. I was amused but concerned to see the guy sensibly using eye protection when he used the grinder to prepare the metal, but none at all when he actually welded it with his arc welder. But it was not for me to say anything and he did a good job.

Not much good.                                                   Now good to go.

Eventually I had to leave because the validity of my Indonesian visa was soon to expire. I was annoyed by the delay and that I hadn’t been able to visit some of the places in Timor Leste that had been recommended to me. All my own fault, of course, but that didn’t make me feel better about it. At least I could safely(?) say that it had been an adventure. I packed my gear on a sunny Friday morning and set off for the border.

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It always puzzles me when non-English speaking countries write signs in English.

Topping Off The Tour. Part 2

Wangi Falls Camp Site, Litchfield National Park. Thursday 15th June, 2017

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Wangi falls, Litchfield NP

Litchfield National Park. It’s not far from Darwin, less than half a day’s ride, and was the first place I chose to visit on my ‘final tour’. I camped at the Wangi Falls campground for a couple of nights and explored the park from there. It’s a usefully compact park, only 1,500 sq kms, but with plenty to see. There’s five different waterfalls, tumbling down off the sandstone rock outcrops. Beneath most of them are swimming holes, with cool, clear water in which to take a refreshing swim. I sampled those delights at Wangi Falls twice, particularly when I’d returned from a hot and sweaty walk around the trail above the spectacular Tolmer Falls. The area beneath those falls isn’t accessible for swimming, being a special place for the local Aboriginals. I also took a look at the Magnetic Termite mounds. There’s an area which has hundreds of them, almost like they were planted there. I’d seen them before, up on Cape York, two years previously. The termites build them with a north/south orientation so they always have a shaded side to escape the heat in. Some species can be very destructive to buildings, but not these. They are often referred to as White Ants but are actually related to cockroaches. Their bodies are almost translucent and they have no defence against the sun or its heat.

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Florence falls and their popular swimming hole.

The Bamboo Creek tin mine was a reminder of people’s determination to extract value out of the land. They managed to haul in some heavy machinery, including a large engine. Opened in 1906, it became too difficult to extract the ore because of water ingress and it was abandoned in the 1950s. The rusting machinery left behind is a testament to the tough mining life and the tough men that lived it.

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Old tin mine workings, up on the hillside. Industrial archaeology in natural surroundings.

At the camp site I met another biker, named Jorge, a German now living in Leeds where he is a vet. His sister lives in Aus and he asked her to obtain a bike for him. She managed to get him a Kawasaki KLR650, fully equipped with panniers, at a great price. A French guy was selling it urgently so he could buy a plane ticket home. Stress sales can be a great way to find a bargain. Jorge was very happy with it and I’m not surprised.

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Jorge and his nice’n’cheap Kawasaki KLR650.

Talking of bikes, I discovered a fault with mine,of  which I had been conscious for a few days. The battery had gone fairly flat while I was in Darwin and wouldn’t always start the bike. On my Suzuki that was never a problem because I’d had a kick start as back up. No such thing on this one, so I’d bought one of those Lithium Ion battery packs that can be used to charge electronic device,s and also to jump start cars. It’s not very big, and I had doubts about its capability, but it always did the job, for which I was very grateful. While I was at the camp ground I decided to run some tests, enlisting Jorge’s help, and quickly realised that the bike’s alternator stator wasn’t working properly. There was enough output to run the bike, once it was started up, but not enough to charge the battery too. I knew I’d be OK until I left Australia, but it was another item on the list for the factory to replace under warranty. It was a bloody nuisance though and the hassle of constant jump starting tended to discourage me from making unplanned stops to look at things!

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Flying in to check my braking system. I stayed clear!

After Litchfield I decided to head down to Douglas Hot Springs, a bit further south. I’d met another biker on a camp site who had recommended them, and they sounded good. I really do wish I hadn’t listened! On the way there I was on a dirt road and came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t wide or deep so I went across at a sensible speed, but stood up on the footrests. Usually I’d be sitting down with my feet close to the ground. What I hadn’t realised was that the road base was concrete and, of course, was covered in slippery weed. As I came out of the creek the rear wheel slid round and I came off the bike. It was all at low speed but I landed awkwardly enough to bruise a rib and my foot got twisted round as I came off. The result was a twisted ankle, which was to give me trouble for several weeks. I could walk on it, so I knew nothing was broken, just for a change. But it was swollen up and appropriately painful. I managed to get to Douglas Springs and camped there for a couple of days. The problem was that the river water was hot when all I wanted was cold! There were no facilities there to speak of, so nowhere to get any ice, or similar. I paddled in the hot springs but my heart wasn’t really in it. Once I felt rested enough I headed for the town of Katherine and booked into a hostel to rest up.

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Twisting the night away.

My initial booking of three days grew, a few days at a time, into seven. I long ago learned the art of sitting still and to avoid the urge to be doing things. And my sore ankle encouraged that attitude. I bought ice and placed bags of it over the swelling. The bruising gradually went down but the ankle itself stayed swollen up and stiff to move. After a few days one of the other guys there offered me some heavy duty anti inflammation tablets. He said to only take one a day. He’d got them in Thailand when he pulled a shoulder muscle. I took one that evening and in the morning it was as if a miracle had happened. The swelling had gone right down and I could walk without limping. Wonderful! He gave me a few spares, which I took over the next few days, reveling in the relief they brought.

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Katherine Gorge from the cliff top above.

Katherine isn’t a very big place, with only a few tourist sites within the town. But there are several in the area around it. Nitmiluk National Park is the most significant. It includes Katherine Gorge, a series of thirteen gorges strung along the Katherine River like green pearls. They can be explored by canoe or on foot, but I sensibly chose to visit them on an organised boat trip. I only explored two out of the possibe three, which involved changing boats half way along. At this time of year the water level is too low to pass from one to another. It was fascinating to see how high up the water reaches in the summer months – easily five metres above the winter levels. The gorges are, of course, beautiful, with plenty interesting geology. One of these was a feature known as sub gorges. Land movement causes gaps to open up in the cliffs that line the gorge, creating sub gorges, which sit opposite each other. I hadn’t seen this before.
On the rock face near where we changed boats was some Aboriginal rock art. The Jawoyn people are the traditional owners of this area. They were among the first Aboriginal groups to successfully reclaim ownership of their land. As is common now, they immediately leased it back to the government so that a national park could be created.

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Between the gorges, where we have to walk past the rocks.

Katherine suffered from Japanese bombing during WW2, the furthest point south to do so. It was a base for troops and a supply line for invasion forces too. This information was on display in the town museum, along with much else. The town itself only started when a bridge was built across the river as the railway headed south from Darwin. The original town of Emungalan, centred around the new telegraph station in the 1870s, had many of its buildings moved there. Pastoral activity supported that town too, as did mining activity. The river had been named by explorer John Stuart, chosen in honour of the daughter of one of his sponsors, as he headed north. Perhaps the most significant incident in the town’s history was the flooding of 1998, when the river rose by twenty one metres and destroyed most of the centre of town. There had been others before, but this was by far the worst. But the town recovered and nearly twenty years later it thrives as a busy regional centre.
One of the strong impressions left by the town was how close it is to the edge of nowhere. There’s several towns on the way north to Darwin of course, but the road sign to the south told me that the nearest place of any significance was Alice Springs, all of 1,200kms away. To the west it’s Kununurra, over 500kms. To the east? Nothing. Just bush. It brought home the size of Australia and just how vast and remote the Top End is.

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The nest of a Bower Bird.

With the clock ticking, and my injuries feeling much better, I decided it was time to explore Kakadu National Park, lying north and east of Katherine. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it is the Territory’s largest and the second biggest in Australia. Its wetlands are visited by vast numbers of migratory birds and it is populated by a huge variety of flora and fauna. I wanted to take a closer (but not too close) look at one of these, Estuarine Crocodiles – or Salties, as they’re called. The biker who had told me about Douglas Springs also mentioned Cahill Crossing, where the crocs go to catch fish along with careless tourists. Definitely intriguing enough to be worth my while. I had already seen plenty of natural beauty, which often involved walking, so me and my still painful ankle where going to limit the sightseeing to the Aboriginal rock art the park is famous for.
One difference between this park and most others is that an entry pass has to be bought. You’re trusted to go and buy one once you enter, but there are plenty of rangers around who may ask to see it. Fair enough in itself, but what annoyed me is that I had to pay for seven days when I was only going to be there three. Although it wasn’t very expensive, at $35, it’s still a bit annoying to pay for more than you plan to use. But I suppose the positive side of it is that the money helps support projects aimed at Indigenous Peoples. They own the land and are heavily involved in managing the park. It borders Arnhem Land, which is totally given over to Aboriginal people. It’s a vast area that borders the coast and had I wanted to go there I would have needed a special permit, as would all non Aboriginals. There are a number of such areas around Australia, a positive attempt to enable Indigenous Peoples to regain their culture.

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Seen at the visitor centre. A sign of the times?

Once I’d set up camp I visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Centre, where I bought my pass then looked around the information displays. The focus was on local culture; about the six or seven different seasons Aboriginals recognise; various hunting and fishing artefacts; some displays telling the stories of how children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to mission schools; how the people had to rely on working on the stations in order to get food, although without pay. The history and effects of the destruction of Indigenous culture is a long and troubling one but the existence and operation of the national parks is at least a beginning in the search for a solution.

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Figures from a Dreamtime story.

Next day, as I rode to a different campsite, I went to see the Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie. The park has created access by installing a walkway which took me up around the rocks and enabled a great view of the artwork. Fortunately they also have infoboards, essential for interpreting the drawings. It’s common to find new art drawn over old. Some of it relates to the Dreamtime stories. These are the Aboriginal creation stories; how the landscape was formed and how animals came to be. Others relate to activities such as hunting, dancing and other ceremonies. It’s not uncommon for them to be simply diagrams used to help the elders teach boys necessary skills. Some of them are as much as 20,000 years old, although most of them are clearly more recent. They tend to be located up in rocky areas, hidden from easy view. They were the best I’d seen anywhere, much better than those in Katherine Gorge, for example.

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Dancing figures. Rhythmic story telling.

Some of the drawings showed kangaroos but my next stop was all about crocodiles. Cahill Crossing is where the road into Arnhem Land goes over the East Alligator River. Was that name ironic or just a simple confusion by explorers between snappy jawed reptiles? Whatever, the river at this point is tidal and at high tide sea fish swim upriver and the salties wait upstream of the causeway and snap them up as they swim across. Clever!
I’d checked the tide times at the visitor centre and got there in plenty of time to watch the fun. The river was running downstream, across the causeway and there were plenty of people fishing. The best of them were the young Aboriginal lads who forsook expensive rods and reels and just used spools with line on. No bait is allowed so lures are used, to great effect. I’ve no idea what the fish are but by the time the tide had started to come over the causeway the lads had loaded about twenty into their car. Most of the other fishers released those they’d caught. Just downstream was a 4WD lying on its roof. By the time the tide was full all except a wheel was under water. Apocryphal tales abound about careless tourists who misjudge the strength of the water flow and end up as crocodile lunch. Was this one of their vehicles?

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Abandoned 4WD at Cahill Crossing. Did the driver become crocodile dinner?

The fishers abandoned their positions as the waters rose and eventually it was possible to see the crocs, over on the other side of the river, swimming around purposefully. It was plain to see they were catching fish although details were hard to see. It does seem as if the causeway slows the fish down, making the crocs’ task that much easier. Man and nature in perfect harmony then. It’s worth noting that fifty years ago crocs had been almost hunted to extinction, mainly for their skins. Making them a protected species has increased their numbers hugely, with 10,000 reckoned to live in Kakadu alone. Apart from a very few locations, swimming is not advised because of the risk. Finally, how do you tell the difference between a Freshie and a Saltie? A Freshie will swim away from you, a Saltie will swim towards you. But they’re not easy to see anyway. A stark warning indeed!

 

Deep and fast flowing at high tide.                                  Crocs await their lunch.

It was a ride of only a few hours from Kakadu to Darwin. Once I’d settled in I made a ‘to do’ list. At the top of it was to go to Alicross Motorcycles for new tyres. I’d called in to see owner Richard when I was in Darwin last time. He’s a friend of Dave’s and, like Dave, often helps travelers passing through, letting them use his workshop and so on. He fitted my new tyres while we chatted about bikes and traveling. I met Jason there too. He was having his racing BMW R100 checked on the dynomometer for power output. He uses it for drag racing, a bit of an unusual bike for that activity. It looked nice though.
Next task was to organise the shipping of Trixie the short distance across to Dili, in East Timor. Getting a bike across water is a vital step in any journey and can be fraught with difficulty. You hear tales of people turning up at a port, talking to crew members and getting their bike onto a local ‘onion boat’. I’m a realist and experience has taught me that the best way is to do it ‘official’ and use an agent. More expensive but always easier. Apart from anything else I planned to leave my bike in Darwin while I went back to the UK for a few weeks so I needed it all to be handled properly. Bolloré are based in Darwin and deal with ANL Shipping, a company that runs freighters to Dili, Singapore and back to Darwin. Just what I needed. I’d already chatted to Luke, at Bolloré, last time I was in the city and he’d assured me they could find a transportation frame for my bike and that they would arrange everything for me. So I called him and made the final arrangements. He couldn’t quote me a full price but was able to give me an approximation, which sounded OK.

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Coffee time visitor.

The customs office was just up the road from the hostel and I took the bike up there so they could check its details against those on the carnet. Next job was to sort through my panniers and separate all the gear I was planning to bring home with me. I won’t need my camping or cooking equipment in South East Asia as living is very cheap out there. It will just be an unnecessary burden. The rest would stay with the bike. In the morning I rode the bike to Bolloré, sorted everything out with Luke and waved goodbye to Trixie. See you in Dili!
A helpful truckie went out of his way to give me a lift to the bus stop on the main road, where I immediately got a bus back into town. Straight to customs to get my carnet stamped. And once that was all done I could relax.

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A nice display in the Botanic Gardens.

My idea of relaxing somehow seems to involve a lot of walking. From the hostel down to the botanic gardens – which were very good. Then along the seashore path to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. There was plenty of modern Aboriginal art to enjoy and puzzle over; some excellent natural history; and a film all about the effects of Cyclone Tracy. Apart from Japanese bombs, the cyclone was the most devastating event that Darwin had ever suffered. It pretty much wiped out the city, and on Christmas day to boot. There were 49 casualties, but fewer than the amount of damage caused might suggest. If there is an upside to such a disaster it’s that a rather dowdy city was turned into somewhere much more attractive; and that building regulations throughout Australia were changed to make buildings more cyclone proof. The scale of the disaster provided a wake up call to the whole of Australia and its ability to manage such disasters was stepped up considerably.

 

Modern Aboriginal art at MAGNT.

The piece of artwork above reminds me that the Maroons beat the Cockroaches, by a healthy margin, in the deciding game of the State of Origin competition. Making it, I believe, eleven wins out of twelve. It’s shame I missed the game.

So in general my last few days in Australia were spent enjoying Darwin in a very relaxed fashion, sampling coffee, food and beer. But eventually my last journey on Australian soil was completed on the airport bus before I flew out of one of the most remarkable countries I’d been to on my travels so far.

Topping Off The Tour. Part 1

Gregory Downs Roadhouse, QLD. Thursday 1st June 2017

The Northern Territory covers about one sixth of Australia’s land mass and the Top End is the northern part of it. I’d been to the Territory before of course, when I visited Alice Springs. On that occasion I’d only traveled south of Tenant Creek, this time I was north of it, where the Top End is considered to begin. But one question on my mind as I rode there was this: why did the Northern Territory never become a State? After all, there’s Western Australia, South Australia, so why not North Australia? The basic answer seems to be that there was nothing and nobody there – not of any consequence to the settlers in the south at any rate.
South Australia attempted to colonise the north during the late 19th century. It was slow going but Palmerston (later renamed Darwin,) and Port Darwin were established and some pastoralists began operations there. When I said ‘nobody there’, I meant Europeans. There were plenty of indigenous people but in the Australian mindset of that time, they didn’t count. There were problems with populating and administering the area, although the numbers did slowly grow. SA kept trying to create a northern colony in its own image but gave up in the end and sold the area to the new federal government in 1911.
One of the fundamental problems with the NT was that it didn’t have much to offer economically and is still reliant on the Federal Government for much of its income. At 30% it has the highest proportion of Aborigines out of all the states too. In effect it’s unable to be independent financially and to contribute to national funds. This situation is improving, especially with an increase in mining activity. There is a desire among many Territorians to apply for statehoood, although a 1998 referendum on the proposal failed. Current thinking is that it is likely to come about in 2018. It’s a complicated business though, so I’m not going to bore you too much but will use my usual cop out and provide you with a link for further reading if you wish to learn more.
http://tinyurl.com/jrak5pp.

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Northern Territory humour? Or a snappy snack?

Meanwhile, I hadn’t even got there. My journey from Mount Isa was going to include lots of dirt. A 1,400km journey, more than 1,000kms of that on gravel roads, as I rode from Queensland to the Territory. I would be camping and refueling at small roadhouses, with only two small towns to call in at for supplies. Probably my last ever taste of outback Australia. Gregory Downs was the first of these, where I watched the Maroons, Cockroaches and some frogs.
I know that sounds very odd so let me explain. Every year Queensland and New South Wales enjoy an interstate Rugby League challenge called the State of Origin. The Maroons (QLD) and the Cockroaches (NSW) battle it out across three games for nothing other than honour. Oh yes, not forgetting lots of TV money. It’s a big event and the first game happened to be on TV that evening. What does ‘state of origin’ mean? It refers to the location of the players’ first professional club, either QLD or NSW. No other states are involved, the competition simply reflecting the general sense of rivalry between the two states. Gregory Downs is in QLD and the bar was filled with a large crowd of road workers,billeted just across the way. It was very noisy but good natured, although things went quieter when QLD, usually the stronger team, lost by a big margin. It was good fun and I was cheering for the Maroons too. Fortunately they won the next game so the third game is a decider. It’s a real shame I’ll have left Aus by the time it’s played.

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Frogs ahoy! And they do’t look as if they’re just passing through either.

And the frogs? Well this was very peculiar. I had used the camp site toilet earlier and when I flushed it I saw a pair of frogs legs fighting the flow of water as it came out from under the rim of the bowl. I looked behind the cistern and found a pair of blinking eyes staring at me from a green face. Ah, mystery solved. A frog had wandered into the toilet. Not quite! I lifted up the cistern lid and found a whole family of them looking up at me, sitting on the various bits of plastic inside. I counted nine of them, who had clearly taken up residence. I stared at them, they stared back at me. In the end I put the lid back on and left them to it. Who am I to disrupt nature’s ways? When I left next morning I told the staff about them and their response was “Only nine? There’s usually more than that.” We had a laugh about it and then I hopped it.
Meanwhile there had been an increase in volume from my exhaust and I could feel a buzzy vibration coming from the bike. I had a good look around and discovered that a weld had broken on the exhaust header pipe. It was where a lug is welded on for the purpose of securing the heat shield. This was annoying but not a disaster and it explained the increase in noise and vibration. It also explained why my leg was getting hot! The escaping exhaust gas was warming me up nicely. So when I came to the small town of Burketown I located a young guy who had a TIG welder and asked him to try a repair. We couldn’t undo the rusted in heat shield bolts so he only managed to weld about a third of the crack. But he did manage to charge me $50 for the privilege. OK, I know that TIG welding is specialised but even so, it came as a bit of a shock!

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Cracked weld. Followed by an expensive partial repair

Feeling poorer, and a bit hard done by, I carried on to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse for another night in the tent. No frogs here but I chatted with Kate, who comes from London, about road conditions further along. (One of the guys working there comes from Gravesend, so it was almost like a reunion.) This part of QLD tends to be a bit wetter than most other parts. I was now in the tropics, where there is more rainfall and the creeks actually have water in them most of the time. She told me the latest news about Calvert Creek and the Robinson River, two crossings that I would need to take care at. The roadhouse isn’t quite the fount of all knowledge but they do gather useful information from other travellers as they pass through, and share it.
When I headed off along the track I actually came to five creeks, all with water in and with varying degrees of difficulty. Hang on, they’d only mentioned two! The dreaded Robinson River was by no means the worse. I managed to drop the bike in the sandy exit of one of them, with no damage done. I’d tried to ride up in 2nd gear instead of 1st and just didn’t have enough momentum.

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Lying low for a while. My first ‘off’ with this bike.

I stayed in the town of Borroloola that night and rang Hells Gate to give them an update on the creeks. It seemed right to pass back some information. The town has a high Aboriginal population so there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol. I fancied a beer so I walked up to the local restaurant, where I could get a drink with food, and enjoyed the best piece of battered Barramundi I’d eaten since arriving in Aus. It’s a delicious fish, always moist and tasty. Much better than cod. A couple of beers to wash it down too.
Parked next to me on the campsite was a very battered looking trailer, towed by an equally battered truck. I got into conversation with the elderly Kiwi who was with it and he told me quite an amazing story. As well as living in it, he uses his trailer as a kitchen too. He drives out to stations at shearing or mustering time and cooks meals for the hands. He was driving along one of the nearby tracks and was just crossing a narrow bridge when a road train came round the bend, going too fast and with no way of stopping. My Kiwi friend accelerated off the bridge, managed to swing his truck to one side but the trailer was squashed up against the bridge railing by the road train, half tilted over. Meanwhile the road train had just carried on as if nothing had happened. He was unhurt but his trailer was pretty smashed up. He has a satellite phone so he rang the police and they managed to stop the truck 200kms further along the road. The driver said he simply had no chance of stopping the truck. It was found to weigh 165 tonnes. The legal limit is 73 tonnes! The driver said his company forces him to run overweight. If he didn’t agree he’d be sacked, he said. How awful. Meanwhile the old fella had to arrange for a crane to come down to lift the trailer off the bridge railing and also had to get two tyres helicoptered in to replace the burst ones. That must have cost a powerful amount of money but the freight company will have to pay for it. The driver will be prosecuted as well.

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Don’t argue with a road train!

So with that cautionary tale at the forefront of my mind, I carried on, taking extra care at any bridges I came to. The road was getting steadily rougher though. Plenty of corrugations and stony creek crossings – the dry ones that is. At one point I stopped for a break and noticed something a little odd about the bike. The rear light lens was missing. What? Where on earth had that gone? At the same time I realised that the rear mudguard had fractured on both sides, right where the indicators are mounted. It was clear that the vibrations had been taking a toll. Later, when I was discussing the various faults with the factory, they refused to accept this damage as a warranty claim. Their point was that taking a bike off road was going to be risky. I was astonished by this attitude. My belief is that if you’re going to sell a bike aimed at off road riders then you should fit components robust enough to handle the work involved. I never had any problems of this kind with my Suzuki. This bike isn’t proving to be anything like as tough. So I’m not too happy with CCM at the moment.

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Please try harder on the next model CCM! More robust components are required.

I called in to have a look at the Southern Lost City. Skyscrapers dominated the landscape here, but built from sandstone rather than concrete and glass. Once upon a time they were part of the seabed but movement of the Earth  exposed the land they were part of. Erosion has done the rest. They reminded me of the Bungle Bungles, over in Western Australia, although their rock content is different. There are other examples of the same thing in this region.

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The Lost Southern City shows off its tower blocks.

I bush camped that night and discovered that I’d left my wash bag behind in Borroloola. Now that’s the kind of thing that is seriously annoying. A moment of forgetfulness leading to loads of hassle. But being on the road brings these fun filled moments.
I was gradually making my way north and west, towards the Stuart Highway, which is the road that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. Grace had told me about the hot springs up at Mataranka and had recommended Bitter Springs as the best one to visit. I camped in the nearby site and walked down there for a dip. The water was only lukewarm so I felt a bit disappointed, but what did strike me was how the vegetation had changed significantly over the last few days. Since leaving Mount Isa the scrub land had gone and been replaced by woodland. But here I was in tropical forest. Palm trees, giant ferns and fig trees. They all love the wet areas and the walk down to the spring revealed their dank habitat, among the wetlands. I was quite taken by the change from the random shapes of woodland trees to the almost geometric patterns these plants offered the eye. I’ve no idea why this should be. There must be a reason but I don’t know it.

Nature’s perfection.                                   A marked change in flora.

Camping next to me was Dan and Colleen, a friendly biker couple. Dan has a Honda Goldwing, with which he tows a trailer, although this time they were trying out their new caravan and the Grey Nomad lifestyle. Dan had brought me over a beer as soon as I’d pulled in and they invited me over for some dinner and good conversation. Being able to share a meal with friendly strangers is one of the delights of travelling in Aus.
Next day I made it to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory and Australia’s northern front line and gateway to Asia. I was heading up there to stay with Dave for a few days. Dave is a terrific guy who offers hospitality to motorcycle travellers as they enter or leave Australia via the port. Darwin is probably the most common entry point for overlanders as there’s a regular freight service to East Timor and to Indonesia. I’d contacted Dave via the Horizons Unlimited website (horizonsunlimited.com) and he’d invited me to stay while I sorted out my Indonesian visa and organised the shipping of my bike. He’s a very well travelled man, having been to Europe and South America often. He has bikes there ready for him to fly in and ride. He’s a great fan of the Isle of Man TT and has been there several times, as well as to Northern Ireland to watch bike racing there. He’s a gregarious character and he had plenty of tales to tell. There were five other people there too: a Swiss couple, Thomas and Sylvie; another Swiss guy, Kevin; Joe, a Kiwi; and Elaine, a French woman who was staying at Dave’s long term. She had a van parked on the lawn, which she slept in. Apart from Elaine, they had all met up at a Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia and had decided to share a container to get their bikes across from Dili to Darwin. The problem with coming in to Australia with a vehicle is that it has to go through quarantine and it’s impossible to know how long this will take. I’ve done it twice and have been fortunate both times in that my bikes were cleared in less than a week.

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Elanine, Sophie, Thomas, Kevin and Joe.

I had some jobs to do on the bike and Dave was happy to lend me the equipment I needed and to assist me as well. I sorted out some wiring, cleaned the bike up after its dirty experiences and made various adjustments to this and that. Dave has a big shed and I put it to good use. He decided I needed a Camel Toe, which in this case is a large foot to go on the bottom of my side stand. Perfect for stopping it sinking into the sand.
I went into the city (Dave lives about 20kms outside it) and found the Indonesian consulate. The process for getting a sixty day tourist visa was far easier than I had expected it to be, especially compared to my previous experience in Melbourne. They’d told me it would take over four weeks because they had to send my passport back to the UK for processing. That was obviously nonsense because the helpful guy in Darwin said it would be about four days. And that’s all it took in the end.

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One of Dave’s friends called round with this beautiful Panther.

My plan had always been to arrive in Darwin, sort out the visa and shipping, then tour the local area. I arrived in early June so had plenty of time on my hands. Getting the visa took a bit longer than it should have though because a three day weekend got in the way. Most states have a bank holiday for the Queen’s official birthday so I had to wait an extra day. I’m no royalist but it would be a handy excuse for another one in the UK. Meanwhile the others where getting the real run around with regard to releasing their bikes. Their container still hadn’t passed its quarantine inspection, let alone the bikes inside it. Problems with spiders I believe. I learned later that things moved quite quickly for them once the container was given the all clear and they had their bikes the next week. Their experience is a warning though. Things may not happen very quickly when taking a vehicle into Aus.

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Darwin’s Knowledge Tree. An Aboriginal meeting place.

Darwin itself is a nice city. It’s not large and the CBD is only a few blocks in length and width. It’s a nice place, with plenty of parks and gardens. None of the buildings are very old. Let’s be fair, neither is the city really. But it suffered almost total destruction when it was hit by Cyclone Tracey in 1974 and had to be rebuilt. It was originally called Palmerston but the name was changed in honour of Charles Darwin. There is now a suburb called Palmerston so the name has stuck around. It is a port so there’s plenty of shipping activity as well as marinas all around. There are several headlands so there’s plenty of seashore to enjoy. The winter weather is invariably sunny and warm, with little rain, so it’s a great place to walk around. It has a tropical climate so summers tend to be wet and often stormy. Cyclones are not all that uncommon.

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Tailfin of the Boeing B-52 bomber. A truly massive aircraft. Four engines on each wing!

Perhaps Darwin’s biggest reason for a special place in Australian history is that it became the country’s front line in WW2. On the 19th February 1942 around 188 Japanese aircraft bombed the harbour in a raid that equalled Pearl Harbour in terms of size and damage. In fact it was the same aircraft, from the same aircraft carriers, that carried it out. Many ships were sunk and some of the town centre buildings were destroyed, most notably the post office. The two raids killed at least 243 Australians and allies. Almost 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. Fortunately all but essential civilian personnel had been evacuated because the threat had been present for some months. Even so, the city was not prepared militarily, giving the raiders an easy ride. The true record of events was suppressed throughout the war so as to avoid undermining morale, especially in the southern states. The city suffered a total of sixty four air raids over the next two years, although none were as devastating as the first one. It became a military base, both for American forces as well as Australian ones, and was the launch pad for the Allied invasion of South East Asia. It’s the 75th anniversary of this event so there was plenty of information on display. Lots more information here:

http://tinyurl.com/j3vfo5k

I visited the Aviation Museum and saw some great aircraft. Best of all was the absolutely huge Boeing B52 bomber. Too big to get a photo of the whole plane. FOUR engines on each wing! The F-111 was another fine aircraft on display. Sleek and purposeful.

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The beautiful F-111 bomber.

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One of the oil tunnels, built beneath the cliffs.

Having been to the visitor centre I took a stroll around the CBD, following the Heritage Walk. A few interesting buildings to look at, also another Knowledge Tree, this one still alive though. But the strangest place out of all of the sights was the Oil Tunnels. When the Japanese first bombed Darwin they either had prior knowledge or were simply lucky, because they hit several of the oil storage tanks just after they’d been filled up. The port was a naval base and the government needed to find a way of protecting the stored oil from the raiders. So a scheme to dig tunnels under the cliff was born. In retrospect it seems a rather crazy idea and at the time many people had doubts. But it went ahead and turned into one of those never ending jobs which just have to be seen through to the bitter end despite, or because of, the amount of money, time and effort already invested. The idea seemed simple. Dig tunnels into the cliff, line them with steel and then concrete, store oil in them. Sounds simple, but almost insurmountable problems arose. The rock from which the cliff is made is very loose and unstable so the actual mining task was extremely difficult. A series of wetter than usual summers meant that the already difficult drainage problems were almost insurmountable. Chief engineers were engaged and then replaced and by the time the tunnels were ready to actually serve their purpose, the war had finished anyway. The plan had been to store oil directly inside the concrete lined tunnel but constant water ingress defeated this idea. Two tunnels did get used by a commercial company post war, for storing jet fuel. But that didn’t last long because of water seepage. But they do make a unique tourist attraction and are a good example of lateral thinking.

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Water ingress, the reason why the idea didn’t work.

It was fascinating to walk through the one tunnel that was open for visiting. Seeing the water running down the walls made it plain how difficult the task was. But at 172 metres long and 4 metres in diameter it certainly would have held plenty and easily protected it from Japanese air raids.
Darwin Waterfront has recently been developed for leisure, with a water park for swimmers and a nice eating area around Stokes Hill Wharf. There’s a museum there, dedicated to the events of WW2 and the Flying Doctor service. It was Sunday and they’d closed by the time I arrived, so I settled for sitting in the sun drinking coffee. There were more sites to visit in the city but I was going to leave those until I returned. But I did walk up through the Bicentennial Park, where there’s a lookout over the harbour and various memorials relating to Darwin’s history.
After a few more days, some of that time spent socialising with Dave and his friends, I got my passport back from the consulate and headed out of Darwin to explore the Top End’s beauty spots.

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Dave’s patio area. We ate and socialised out there.

Beyond The Black Stump

Blackall, QLD. Monday 22nd May 2017

I said at the end of my last blog that it was time to be a tourist once more. So a run through the where and what seems appropriate.
All Aussie towns tend to be interested in, and proud of, their history. Some of the towns in this area have good reason to be too. They’ve known growth, decline, tough times and prosperity. Cattle, sheep and mining. Sometimes all three. And there’s also old bones and a song or two.
Blackall was the first of these I came to, a fairly typical outback town. Except for the fact that it contains a Woolscour. A what? Let me explain. Australia’s early prosperity was built, quite literally, off the back of Merino sheep, over one hundred million of them. Their wool was sent all over the world, although the bulk of it fed the hungry mills of northern England. There was a symbiotic but ironic relationship between the rejected poor of Britain and Ireland, now working on the other side of the world, and the downtrodden poor who worked in the mills. In those days wool was more valuable if all the dirt and, in particular, the lanolin were removed before export. That was the role of the Wool Scour.

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Scouring the wool. The tines on these large forks force the wool through the cleaning solution.

Blackall’s opened in 1907 and operated until 1978, when changes in practice led to its demise. It was steam driven for the whole of that time, using a 15HP engine which powered everything. This scour includes a 20 bay shearing shed, so the wool could be shorn, cleaned and baled all in one place. The cleaning process halved the weight of each bale which reduced shipping costs hugely. More profit, of course. These days its sent to its destination uncleaned, with the lanolin being extracted at the destination for use as a valuable lubricant. Our eighty six year old guide, Graham, explained all this to us. He used to work there and during his time had done every job there was except shearing. The work was hard, hot and very demanding. It’s easy to feel admiration for anyone who lived that life. In 1892 a local shearer named Jackie Howe set an as yet unbroken record for the number of sheep sheared in a day, 321 in under eight hours. And that was with hand shears. That’s amazing, especially when I think back to when I was watching shearers in Tibooburra, where 200 odd is the norm. Jackie also went on to set a record for mechanised shearing of 237, which stood for 58 years. So straight away it begs the question, how can hand shearing be so much quicker than mechanised shearing? The answer is that they didn’t use to shear so close to the skin with the hand shears and the wool was less dense, so it took less time.

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Graham shows us the various types of shears. Jackie Howe used the hand shears when he sheared 321 sheep in an eight hour shift.

There used to be about fifty Woolscours around the country and this is now the only one still in existence that combines shearing and scouring. It took a lot of hard work and heartache to obtain and restore it and the town is justifiably proud of this unique piece of Aussie history. All the machinery still works, including the engine, although unfortunately they hadn’t fired it up that day.

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It’s the effect of the huge flywheel that enables a relatively low powered engine to drive so much machinery.

The other sight I was interested to see was the Black Stump itself. Here’s a direct quote from the tourist booklet: “This site represents the observation site surveyors used to establish a principal meridional circuit traverse around the town in 1888. This surveying was done to gain a more accurate basis for maps of Queensland. The surveyors used the stump for the placement of their transit to gain latitude and longitude observations. The use of a stump rather than a set of legs gave more stability for the transit. As time passed any country to the west of Blackall was considered to be “beyond the black stump”.” So now you know.

Civilisation.                                                   Out in the wilds.

We’ll leave it there, which is what I did as I rode north. Next destination, Barcaldine, but on the way I spent a night at Lara Wetlands. This is an oasis out in the bush. It’s on a 70,000 acre station and the husband and wife owners decided to create it to attract wildlife loving visitors. There is a hot spring, originating deep within the artesian basin. It runs into a shallow depression, forming a small lake. They created a bathing area around the spring and campers can set up anywhere round the edge of the lake. Facilities are minimal and the main attraction is the bird life, which visits the lake and surrounding wetlands, along with the huge sky and its millions of stars. The setting is quite magical in many ways. Tragically, Michael was killed in a helicopter crash soon after they began their project but Josie decided to carry on and finish it off. She did a great job.

Plenty of birds.                                                And a peaceful location.

Barcaldine held my attention for two whole days. I hadn’t planned it that way at all but it just seemed to creep up on me. I’ll explain in a moment.
It’s home to the Australian Workers Heritage Centre. Why locate it here? Because the town was the centre of the sheep shearers’ strike of 1891.
As now, shearers were itinerant workers and moved from station to station at their own expense, often making very difficult journeys during which they suffered hunger and deprivation. They had to pay for their food and board out of poor wages. So when wool prices fell station owners forced pay cuts onto the shearers and shed hands. That could be regarded as simple economics but the shearers expenses didn’t fall along with the price of wool so they simply became poorer. A number of trade unions had sprung up during the 1880s, among them the Queensland Shearers Union, formed in Blackall in 1887. The pastoralists, alarmed at these developments, formed the Pastoral Employers Association in Barcaldine. The stage was set for conflict.
The unions wanted a uniform employment contract with none but union members being employed. The pastoralists set out their ‘freedom of contract’, declaring their right to set wage rates free of union rules. Within two months, at the start of 1891, the strike had begun. Long story short, the shearers lost their battle. After five months of negotiation and then of trying to prevent blackleg labour being brought in, the strike committee was arrested and charged with Conspiracy Against The Crown. Eight of the ten members were convicted and sentenced to three years hard labour. Leaderless and short of funds, the strike collapsed.

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Born out of conflict and necessity.

That battle was lost but the strike led directly to the formation of the Australian Labor (sic) Party. The union leaders realised that the best way to bring about social change was through the ballot box. They encouraged their members to register to vote and Queensland elected the world’s first Labour government in 1899.
In the middle of the high street stands the Tree of Knowledge. It was a large Eucalypt under which the strike committee used to meet, and was subsequently the place where the first Labor Party manifesto was written. It’s a place of great significance to working Australians but sadly it was poisoned by an unknown person in 2006. The tree died but was removed and sent away to be chemically treated so as to preserve it. It’s been surrounded by a hanging wooden sculpture which is very attractively illuminated at night.

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Tree of Knowledge, with its nicely illuminated wooden sculpture.

I had a look around the museum, which focuses on the shearers strike, the efforts made by workers in the building of Australia as a nation, and their continuing role, especially in public services. It was all very interesting but I came away feeling there could have been much more. There were some large buildings with not very much in them.
Earlier, at the visitor centre, I’d been chatting to Mark, who was behind the counter. He suggested I try the Commercial Hotel for some food so I wandered down there later only to find there wasn’t any. So I went to another hotel, ate a nice meal, then came back to ‘The Commie’ for a beer and a chat to Mark. And that was what ‘crept up on me’. The beers. One of the other guys in there asked me if I like Guinness. I said I did and he told me they sell cans of it. So we had a few. I finally left there at 1am and staggered back to my hotel. Which was all locked up despite the landlady having told me it wouldn’t be. I managed to find a way in eventually and collapsed into bed. So the next day was necessarily quiet, having decided that putting myself in charge of a motor vehicle would not be a good idea.

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A complicated game but the result is usually a simple one. You lose!

When I was in the pub I saw that they sold the Aussie lottery cards called Keno. This is a system which originated in casinos, and seems rather complex. You can buy up to ten numbers out of eighty and you mark them on a card. You can ‘invest’ between one and one hundred dollars per game and play between one and five hundred consecutive games. Then watch the draw for the game(s) you’ve joined being made on TV a few minutes later. If any of your numbers are among those drawn you’ll win. The amount depends on how many of your numbers come up and how much you gambled per number. It struck me as being very complex and with an almost instant draw I can see how it could get seriously addictive. I spent a dollar on a game and, of course, won nothing. The pub has a special till for taking money and paying it out, and I noticed that the payout buttons were nothing like as worn down as the others. No surprise there.
Next stop was Longreach. There’s a police training school here and I had been warned to take care. I don’t break speed limits anyway but I was extra careful, just in case there were any spotty faced rookies looking to earn their spurs at my expense. But I had no problems. As I came into the town I saw the entrance to objective number one, the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and pulled in. As well as the main display building, this complex includes an entertainment area for equestrian shows and concerts, a replica station homestead and some gardens. I was really only interested in the displays so I coughed up the $27 entry fee and spent a few hours looking and reading.

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‘The Ringer’, with the exhibition building behind the statue.

The galleries tell the stories of the pioneer settlers, their properties and life, the specialist trades and other workers, and the role of indigenous peoples. I’d seen some of these stories elsewhere but here there is every aspect of station life all brought together. There were plenty of displays showing the trades associated with the industry, such as saddlers, smiths, shearers etc. Also about stock workers, focussing on mustering, branding, droving, the routes they used and so on. But I think the most fascinating part of the stories was the role Indigenous People played in the success of the industry. Success? It’s fair to say that in the early days the settlers wouldn’t have survived without their help. They knew where the water was and how to live in this often very hostile land. Over time the effective takeover of their lands drove the Aboriginals onto the stations to work, as a means of survival. Poor reward for their early help. It’s true to say that there was some armed resistance from them, but spears are no much for rifles so it tended to be both sporadic and ineffective. They became cheap labour, both indoors and out, and although they were appreciated on a personal level, they got little more than board and keep in return. When it came to mustering and droving the Aboriginal men, and often women too, became skilled horse riders and whole families would go on the droving journeys. During the wet summers they would usually return to their lands to undertake their ceremonies, thereby keeping in touch with their roots. That was in the early days. As the 20th century rolled on many things changed for the worse. But that story is to be saved for another time.

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Aboriginal women,. Among many women who worked as drovers.

It comes as no surprise that the most important thing for the drovers was water. The railheads were a long way away and, at no more than twenty miles a day, many months were spent on the trail. Stock routes were developed all over Australia, some more successful than others, and often referred to as Long Paddocks. As time went by railheads were extended, so droves became shorter. Post WW2 there was a huge road building programme throughout Australia and eventually road trains took over the movement of cattle and sheep. These days the old stock routes are mostly used by adventurous Aussies in their 4WDs, although today there are still travelling stock reserves, provided by the state governments and used as mustering corridors and grazing during drought.

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Map of the old stock routes. The Canning Stock Route was the longest in the world.

Quite naturally there is an aura of romanticism surrounding the role of stockmen, no different to that of the American west, but without the gunmen. It’s a key part of Aussie history and culture, and helped me to understand better the itinerant lifestyle many Aussie adopt, along with their sense of independence and ‘mateship’.

More soon, in Part 2.

Canaway Downs Station, QLD. Friday 12th May 2017

Australia’s cattle stations can be pretty damn big. How about over 23,000 square kilometres (9,000 sq miles)? That’s bigger than some countries. In fact that particular one is the biggest in the world. Queensland’s biggest is ‘only’ 15,100 sq kms (5,800 sq miles). In early settlement days they used to talk about how so-and-so’s front gate was fifty miles from their front door. So Canaway Downs isn’t very big by comparison, at 9,000 sq kms. But it’s worth remembering that it’s a family owned business whereas the large ones are usually owned by big companies.
It was nowhere near fifty miles from the gate to the door. I don’t think it was even that far from Quilpie, the nearest town. But when I arrived I was made welcome by Jody and three of her four kids. Her husband, Gerard, manages the station and he and Scott were out working somewhere. Jordan was there too. She’s the kids governess, for want of a better word. The older two boys ‘attend’ the School of the Air and it’s Jordan’s job to help them do their work. Tim is nearly ten so will go to boarding school when the next school year begins in December. Then Oscar will be joined by Sam, who’ll be old enough to start school. I was surprised to learn that the school day is from 7.30 to 3.30,with regular contact with school teachers over the satellite link. Eventually the others returned, along with Stuart and Clint. Stuart is a fencing contractor and had been working there for nearly a year. He also has his own, smaller, station. Clint had recently joined the crew as a general labourer.

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Scott and me.

After a very nice meal we went over to the other house, just across the way, where all we visitors were staying. That included Scott, which struck me as odd at first, considering he owns the place. But of course he isn’t there much of the time and the homestead is occupied by Gerard, Jody and their kids. Most stations have extra accommodation, to house itinerant workers such as musterers. It was certainly comfortable enough, with wi-fi and an esky full of beer.
I was alarmed by how early the alarm call was! I’m not used to getting up in the dark. But the breakfast we had over at the main house was worth it and I’d made it clear to Scott that I wanted to join them out on the fence line and help wherever I could. The work had about two or three weeks left to go. Maybe I’d better explain what’s happening.
Scott, along with the owners of two neighbouring stations, decided to install a kangaroo and dog proof fence around the perimeter of the three properties. The aim is to keep kangaroos, dingos and wild dogs off their land so they can start to run sheep again. At the moment they only run cattle, 2,500 head in Scott’s case. The problem with kangaroos is that they are in competition with the sheep for the same food. The problem with the dogs is that they kill sheep for fun. They attack a sheep, tear its throat out then just leave it there and go to find another one. A dog could kill up to two hundred sheep in one night. Not for food but just because they can. The fencing is very strong and the bottom part is laid flat on the ground so that dogs can’t dig under it. It’s 1.8 metres tall so even a kangaroo can’t jump over it. The job is nearly finished and has taken over one year. It’s expensive to do but fortunately the QLD government provide a grant because they are keen to see more sheep being raised. They’re more labour intensive, which has the effect of boosting the economy in small outback towns. Having seen the way sheep shearers can drink, down in Tibooburra, I can understand what they mean. The state grant will cover around half the cost of the materials required. The stations will cover the rest. The fence will also help prevent the spread of diseases. Gerard told me that about five years ago their cattle suffered an infection which was spread by saliva, and eliminating it cost over $250,000. “But won’t there be loads of ‘roos trapped inside the fence” I asked? “Yes” was the answer “but we’ll cull them by about two thirds and they’ll go for meat.” “How many are there” I asked? “Around 50-60,000,” said Gerard. That’s a lot of meat. And a lot of shooting. It occurred to me that the baker down at Birdsville could be making pies forever more with that lot.

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The mesh is small, so kangaroos can’t get through it, and the bottom of the fence is flat on the ground to prevent digging.

The others headed off in the Ute but Gerard decided to take the plane and I went with him. Now, this was definitely novel, for me at least. I know that many stations are so big that planes are essential for getting around, and given that it took nearly an hour to get to the work site by road it’s easy to see why. Some places even use them for mustering, although small helicopters are more popular. Gerard’s plane is tiny but there was room for two, although I needed to keep my knees and arms clear of the duplicate set of controls. He showed me around a bit on the way out, pointing out some of the key infrastructure, which I’ll return to later.

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Gerard is tall, the plane is tiny.

Scott came out to meet us when we landed and I was immediately set to work driving the light truck, which was the work platform from which the fence posts were driven into the ground. There was a compressor on the back of the truck which powered an air hammer, along with stacks of galvanised steel posts. Clint would hold a post upright at the right spot, Scott would stand on the back of the truck and hold the hammer over the post, so as to drive it down to the correct level, then I’d drive forward ten metres and we’d do it all over again. One hundred fence posts per kilometre, times one hundred and thirty kilometres. Work it out, and then don’t be surprised that the job’s taken a year to complete.
Meanwhile Gerard and Stuart were concreting 100mm diameter steel tubes into the ground at various places. They are about two metres high and are used to provide support to the fencing mesh when it’s tensioned. Some would also support gates. They are strengthened with diagonal supports and these, and the gate hinges, are welded on. I was very impressed by the welder, which has a built in petrol powered generator and can therefore provide power for other tools too. I added that to my list of ‘things I’d like to have in my garage’.

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Drilling holes with an auger, ready to concrete in some fence posts.

The mesh itself comes in rolls of 250 metres and these were kept on the back of one of the three semi-trailers I’d seen in use around the station, hauled by a very old Mack prime mover. A steel tube was inserted into the centre of the roll, which was then pushed into a cradle at the back end of the trailer. Once the new roll had been linked to the old one, using special crimps, the truck was simply driven forward and the mesh laid itself out on the ground, ready to be hooked onto the fencing posts. At intervals we’d come to one of the strong steel tube uprights. At this point a special plate was attached across the mesh, a chain was attached to the plate and was pulled forward, usually using the loader (bulldozer) until there was enough tension in it. The mesh was then cut and wound around the steel post to secure it. Then it all began again.

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Attach chains to this spreader plate and put tension into the fencing. Then tie it off and start again.

Over the five days I was there I spent four of them helping with this huge task. I can’t say that I made any significant contribution but at least I can claim that lots of my sweat, and a few drops of my blood, have been left behind on a station in Queensland which is now in marginally better shape that it was before I arrived.
At one point Scott and I were driving along a track when we saw a kangaroo that had tried to get through one of the other fences and had got its rear legs twisted into the wire. We freed it and left it there to see if it would recover. When we came back some hours later it was still lying where we’d left it, clearly unable to move. No option other than to put it out of its misery, sadly, which Clint did with a the lump hammer. Another casualty of animal and human interaction.

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We’d have been delighted it it had hppped off once we’d freed its legs, but it didn’t.

Scott’s mother, Betsy, came to visit, bringing her partner Barney with her. She now lives in Toowoomba but used to live on the station before Scott’s dad died. Barney owns a vineyard down in South Australia but originally came from the Caribbean island of St Vincent. He’s white and he told me that most white Caribbeans used to be convicts. So I guess he felt right at home in Australia then! Betsy had plenty of tales of the days when she used to help with mustering on her motorbike and she clearly still takes an interest in the station. I’d guess that she’s still a partner in the business.
One morning we all drove out to look at some Aboriginal cave paintings that Scott had come across some time ago. He’d photographed them and sent the pictures to some experts but they couldn’t really make much of them. As the photos show, they’re not really pictorially interesting, except that they’re likely to be hundreds or thousands of years old. Clint is part Aboriginal and was clearly quite moved by them. He said he’d never forget this day as long as he lived and planned to see if his grandfather might have any knowledge of them. They were hidden under an overhang of rock, at a cliff face, which seems to be quite common. Places of this kind were regular meeting venues.
So after that bit of culture it was back to the fencing, which Betsy and Barney were delighted to join in with. Extra hands were welcome as Stuart had now gone off to do other work anyway.

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What do they mean? Nobody knows.

That evening Scott took me, Betsy and Barney up to look at the opal mine on his property. There are several ‘jump ups’ on his land and one of them turned out to be quite rich in usable opals. It seems that they were discovered many years ago and the mine was owned by a businessman from Brisbane. The tops of these hills are flat and this guy had an airstrip laid out so that he could fly out to his mine from the city. But no mining had taken place for the last seventeen years. Why? Well the state mining commission demands that mine workings are not allowed to spread further than the designated area and also that reinstatements must be made once an area is mined out. The mining company failed to meet both these obligations so was ordered to cease activity. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t undertake the the work. Scott said they’d tried to dodge paying for their licences, which had piqued the interest of the commission, with the results described. Serves them right really.

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We were sitting on the other side of this gap, where the hill has been torn away in the search for opals. It’s a mess!

I was amazed to learn that Scott, as land owner, gets next to nothing from the mining operation. There will be a compensation payment made at the start of operations but it isn’t much and there’s no commission payment or profit share to follow. It seems that he owns what’s on top of the land but not what’s underneath it. That means that any prospector can walk onto more or less any land and if they find evidence of valuable minerals they simply peg out a claim. Then they take their evidence to the mining commission and buy a licence from the state government. Then digging begins, however the land owner might feel about it. So we watched the sunset from the top of the hill, mused over the injustices of these things while we drank beer, then walked back down to the Ute and drove home.

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It was quite a nice sunset through the rain clouds at least.

In the morning Scott took Barney and me up in his plane for a look around the property. It was mostly for Barney’s benefit as I’d seen at least some of it before. Scott’s plane is a four seater and I was surprised when he told us it’s fifty years old. It’s very obviously more sophisticated than Gerard’s, and is clearly better suited to the longer distances that Scott tends to cover. But it’s age does at least explain the ‘Morris Minor’ look to the cabin.
One of the key pieces of infrastructure on any outback station is the borehole. A large part of Australia sits above the Great Artesian Basin, and towns and stations have been digging boreholes into this essential water supply since the mid 19th century. But there is a problem with this. Many old boreholes have been abandoned but still have water pouring out. In the early days it was assumed that this water came from annual rain which worked its way down through the rock and was therefore being constantly replenished. Like a giant storage tank. Later studies showed this to be incorrect. The water isn’t from the last wet, the last century or even the last millennia. It’s tens of thousands of years old and once it’s been used will take a similar time to replace. So it needs to be conserved. For this reason Queensland are providing grants to landowners so they can block the old, inefficient bores and drill new ones, to be used far more efficiently. In Scott’s case a 1.7 kilometre bore was dug – twice. The contractors messed up the first one so it had to be done again. Gerard told me the water comes out at 90 degrees and at a pressure of 160psi. Next to the bore head is a dam (a large pond, raised off the ground), and beneath the three metres of water is a giant heat exchanger, designed to cool the water down before it’s dispersed around the whole property. Gerard used Google Earth to design the pipe layout, all 160 kilometres of it! There are several dams around the station so all stock have access to water, wherever they are. It also supplies the homestead but as it’s a little sulphourous tends not to be used for drinking. Rainwater is collected for that purpose. I was fascinated by the whole geological story of the artesian basin but I won’t ‘bore’ you with it here. Follow this link to find out more.  http://www.gabpg.org.au/great-artesian-basin

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The dam has the heat exchanger at the bottom but also allows stock to drink.

Time to move on from Canaway Downs. Five days of experiencing station life, working for my keep and learning a huge amount about this extremely important part of the Australian economy. I was heading across country a bit, not too far though, to meet up with Grace, who was working at a different station. We’d been chatting by email and I was keen to meet a fellow traveller who, judging by her writing, had another viewpoint to add to what it was all about. So after saying goodbye to Scott and the others, I set off.
A three hour dirt road ride found me at Navarra, where I met Andy, the station owner, and Grace, currently working as his offsider (general helper). As well as running the station Andy also has a business supplying solar powered pumps to stations and other facilities. Andy’s property is ‘only’ 60,000 acres and he runs sheep. Currently only 1,000 although he could go up to 5,000, but it’s been too dry to support that number. It seems that the bulk of his work comes from his pump installation business. As with Stuart, the fencing contractor I met at Canaway Downs, I get the impression that owners of smaller station will combine that business with another. Having said that, it was shearing time so mustering and organising the shearers was likely to keep Andy and Grace away from solar pumps for a while.

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The welcoming committee.

Grace and I seemed to hit it off very well. She’s in her late twenties, studied then worked as a lawyer before she started her trip, and has ridden to many parts of Australia.We had a long talk one evening and she told me about the bike problems she’s currently having. It seems that her bike Beastie is being beastly. She rides a KTM690 Enduro and has been having starting problems. She managed to get it to a bike shop not too far from Navarra but it still isn’t right. “It starts eight times out of ten” the shop said. I wouldn’t have been happy with that and neither was Grace. If you’ve read her blog (www.bikehedonia.wordpress.com) then you’ll know that she prefers to camp in out of the way places and that means no help to call on when numbers nine and ten come to visit. Grace has made plans to get Beastie to a place where it will eventually get sorted out, which she’ll follow through with in due course.
Grace and I had a long talk one evening. We offered our stories to each other, chatted them back and forth, and realised that despite our differences in age, gender and starting point, we had much in common with regard to what we want from our travels. I feel that only long distance travellers can truly understand the mindset of one another. Add in the problem of maintaining a motorcycle and you have a unique combination of risk and reward. Our talk helped me to understand better what I’m doing and reinforced in my mind how much I like it.

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Grace takes the opportunity to improve her welding skills.

But Grace has another side to her journey. Compare these two phrases that an unthinking commentator might apply to each of us: “Middle aged man decides to explore the world on his motorbike”; “Crazy young woman risks life and limb by riding across the world”. That summarises the one thing that Grace has had to deal with which would never affect me. It’s very unfair, and Grace had to fight battles even before she started. Fortunately she has good friends who support what she’s doing. I was happy to tell her that I follow three blogs, including hers, and the other two are also written by women who are doing the same as she is. I admire her determination to overcome the negativity as well as all the ‘normal’ problems too.
Meanwhile it had started raining – hard! Hard enough to cause the electricity to cut out after a while. Fortunately Andy had a generator, no surprise there considering the remote location. But I was surprised when, having been conscious of rainfall throughout the night, Andy checked the rain gauge and there was only 18mm. Andy was on the phone half the morning, talking to his neighbours and swapping information about the contents of their gauges. What surprised me was how great a variation there is between areas that, to me at least, don’t seem very far apart. His mother’s station, which I’d ridden through on the way from Canaway downs, is only about 100kms away and had 26mm. All this concern reinforced to me how important rainfall is in the outback. But little though it was, it did stop us from having a night out at the local pub. The nearby town of Yarraka has a pub where the landlord is renowned for his ability to take the mickey out of his customers while taking the money from their pockets. There’s often music too. So we set off but at the first creek crossing Andy looked at the depth board, with the water level at 400mm, and said “This is as far as we go”. I suggested that the Ute should get through that quite easily and Andy agreed. But he said the next crossing will be at least a metre deep and the water was still rising. Oh well, Saturday night out cancelled. Just the beer in the fridge to rely on.

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The creek was rising so we weren’t going out.

One morning I asked Andy if he had any offcuts of steel tubing hiding in his gash bin. Uproars of laughter from him and Grace. They’ve never heard the word used that way before, to mean offcuts and odds and sods, put to one side for future use. It seems to have a completely different, and far less innocent, meaning in Australia. But once the laughter had died down Andy found me a length of tubing that I could use to support my luggage racks. The idea is to quell all the vibrations which will inevitably cause steel tubes to fracture. One side already had and had been welded up by Jock at Handlebar Haven. My plan was to borrow some tools and make the support brace myself but Andy, bless him, simply got on and did the job for me. And once some paint was added later, it looked pretty good.

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Linking the luggage racks together adds support against the dreaded vibrations.

Being, as I am, someone who likes to get involved in new things, and to help out when I can, I will tell you quickly about two such things. The first is mustering, a whole new experience for me. Grace and I rode down to one of the nearby paddocks to bring a small flock of sheep back to the homestead. Andy wanted to select one of them to use to restock the freezer. Now this was going to be a real new experience, watching a sheep being turned into mutton. But it wasn’t to be. We managed to round them up and get them down near the open gate, with Grace herding them and me off to one side, very much under Grace’s command. But I think I must have got too close because they suddenly spooked and ran back up the paddock. I went chasing after them and managed to get them heading back in the right direction, but Grace said to forget it. The sheep were now too stressed to be killed. It seems that a stressed animal supplies tough meat. So it was left for another day.

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Mustering sheep, with all mod cons.

I was much better at the second task, where we went down to the shearers’ quarters and gave the place a spring clean. The accommodation is very basic. A wooden building with iron bedsteads in the rooms, with foam mattresses on top of the bedsprings. A very basic kitchen and dining area and an ablution block across the way where the water is heated by a wood fire burning underneath the tank. I had the impression it hadn’t changed much in decades but the shearers would only be there a few days and their temporary home would be comfortable and clean.
By the time I left Navarra, very happy to have met Grace and Andy, my journey up the learning curve relating to station life had advanced a little further. I know that Grace was way out in front of me, feeding her desire to learn new skills and gain new experiences. Her journey will continue in due course, once she’s ready to press the starter button, do up her crash helmet and head off up the road. I wish her bon voyage and bon chance, in exactly the same way other people have wished it for me. I will add one thing – Grace makes a pretty mean sticky date pudding!

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Grace and Andy.

Meanwhile it was time for me to be a tourist once more. I had many places circled on my map, where people had said “You must go here” or “You must go there”. So I figured I’d better start moving along.