Circles In The Sand

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

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

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

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

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A Merino sheep ready for her annual trim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time to remember.

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

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Vietnam war veteran Johnny Ainsworth.

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

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

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

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‘Jump Ups’ seems to fit, somehow.

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

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Big, red and sandy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Goes Around Comes Around

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

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

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

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

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Nice to see you again Michael.

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

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

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

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A very ancient old tractor.

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

Setting the field alight.                                  Maybe a bit too much!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another business closes.

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

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

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

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You can tell it’s a mining town.

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

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Pretty minerals.

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

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

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

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Another important building.

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

Line of Lode Miners Memorial. Outside and inside.

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

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An example of how workers used to die.

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

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Silverton Hotel, plus mob of Harleys.

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

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

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

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No prizes for guessing what this building is all about.

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

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Vehicles from the film.

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Adrian, who turned his dream into reality.

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

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

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World War One comes to Broken Hill.

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

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

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‘Horse’ by Jumber Jikiya from Rustiva, Georgia.

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A selection of some of the others.

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

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Seen outside the station. Time to go!

Getting Back In The Groove

Sydney, Australia. 22nd March 2017

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

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Sydney opera house and a rather nice fountain.

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

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Jo and Jamie.

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

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You meet the strangest people at ice rinks.

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

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Early morning ballooning over Melbourne.

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

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Old friends reunited.

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

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

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

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A very lovely Vincent Rapide.

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A very rare Gnome et Rhone.

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

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Say hello to Trixie, plus luggage!

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

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Very nice racing Triumph.

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And this Norton Commando is pretty good too.

Regroup, Refresh and Return

London, UK. 20th October, 2016

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

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Cliff, plus CCM.

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

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

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

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Doris arrives home. Retirement beckons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GP450 Adventures in the making, on the factory floor.

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

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Mick at work on my bike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Battered, Burnt and Bewildered.

Melbourne, Victoria. 12th August 2016.

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

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

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Damaged collarbone joint. Just one of the injuries.

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

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

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Some of the Jesus Trolleys.

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

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Desmond and his sister.

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

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A couple of Deborah’s pieces.

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One of the stranger paintings in her collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shrine of Remembrance.

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One of the sculptures outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mudguard missing, headlight smashed.

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A passable bodge sees it rideable again.

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

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Disaster!

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

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Burnt bag!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Having fun on a day out near Brisbane.

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Trish is far more classy.

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

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

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After more than 92,000kms she deserves a rest

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

I ‘ve a Feeling I’ve Being Here Before.

Robina, Queensland 20th July 2016

At the end of my last blog post I was jetting back to England. At the start of this one, a month later, I’m back in Australia and looking forward to moving forward.
But what of my time back in England? Family visits and celebrations. Catching up with friends and organising some new equipment to take back with me. The highlights?

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My wife is an Eric Clapton fan so guess which building this is.

The family celebrated my wife’s 60th birthday which, as well as a delightful party filled with old friends and a very appropriate cake, included a visit to the Globe Theatre to see Macbeth. This copy of the original Shakespearean building is a wonderful place, capturing the style and atmosphere of Elizabethan theatre-going, although without the raucous audience and rotten fruit. If you like Shakespeare and are ever in London, go there and enjoy being close to the stage along with the amazing acoustics. One tip though: take advantage of the cushion rental scheme. Those wooden bench seats are hard!

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The Globe Theatre.

I was delighted to visit Aileen and Steve, the Brit couple I met over in Western Australia. Touring in an Aussie camper convinced them to get one of their own and I caught up with them just before they headed off to Cornwall. Down in Malvern I visited old friends Rich and Sae. It was Sae’s family friends that made my visit to Japan so special.
I also caught up with Bill, a guy I’d met in India when we were both exploring the Himalaya in 2010 on Royal Enfields. (Read about it here, if you’re interested: Himalayan Adventure)
One of Bill’s passions is Morgan three wheel cars and he owns a 1934 model. Malvern is home to the Morgan factory and having recently moved to the town Bill quickly got himself a job as a factory tour guide. He didn’t need much persuading to offer me a private tour. Morgan is still a family owned business specialising in hand built sports cars. They’re not cheap, at up to £80,000, but each one is made to the unique specifications decided on by the buyer. Definitely not aimed at School Run Mummies, most customers are better off, financially secure, middle aged men.

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Bill’s 1934 Morgan.

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Today’s version.

Until recently the main models were the 4/4 and the 4 plus 4. But a few years ago the company was visited by ex CBI president Digby Jones, as part of the BBC Troubleshooters series. It was struggling, and he suggested they introduce a new model, along with outsourcing some of the more general manufacturing, as a way of reviving its fortunes. It’s probably hard to believe that going back to their roots was what turned the company round. Almost sixty years after the last ones were built, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, they reintroduced the Morgan Three Wheeler. No longer with a Matchless engine, it has an American S&S V-Twin engine mated to a Mazda gearbox. A tubular steel chassis and hand crafted aluminium bodywork mounted over a wooden framework completes the picture, along with all the safety requirements dictated by today’s regulations. Each car is built by one employee. Bill parked his 1934 model near to one of the new ones and the pedigree is clear to see. We’d driven from Bill’s house to the factory in his car and it’s quite an experience. A motorised soap box cart comes to mind. I have no doubt the new one is many times more sophisticated while still offering the same thrills. A tour through the workshops completed this fascinating visit. Thanks Bill!

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Handcrafted body ready to be fitted.

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Threewheelers in the making.

Eventually it was time to return ‘home’. And by that I mean getting back on the road. Travelling seems to be my natural state these days and I’m not referring to the twenty four hour plane journey back to Aus, something to be endured but rarely enjoyed. After a couple of days back with Elisabeth and Hans on the Gold Coast I was ready to roll again.
I rode up to Capalaba and stayed with Craig for a few days. I had some jobs to do on the bike, including an oil change, new clutch springs and upgrading some of the electrics. All of it pretty straight forward. I’d also bought some new panniers back with me. I liked the Ortlieb Moto Panniers I’d been using up to that point but the problem with them was that they had no abrasion resistance. You’re all familiar with my habit of throwing the bike down into the dirt. The bike stands up to that pretty well, not so the panniers. So I bought a pair of Adventure Spec Magadan Panniers, which claim to be able to handle this kind of abuse. They’re the ‘throw over’ type, which means they hang either side of the seat, resting against my pannier frames and are secured by Velcro straps that go across the rear of the bike. I don’t like this arrangement very much and I’d bought some webbing straps to attach to the back of the panniers so they could be attached directly to the frames. More convenient and more secure. I’d used the same arrangement on the Ortlieb panniers, to excellent effect. Find out all the info on them here: Magadan Panniers This was the last job to get done at Craig’s before I headed off towards western Queensland, away from the coastal towns and into the outback.

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This was where I longed to be.

I had in mind to visit Birdsville, a small and seemingly insignificant town about 1100kms inland from Brisbane. Why? Just because it’s there. It marks the last outpost before the Simpson Desert and about 3,000kms of nothing very much. It’s about as ‘outback’ as you can get. I was feeling jaded by cities, towns and the easy convenience that went with them. Like a dog straining at the leash, I was itching to get back to the wide open spaces, big skies and lonely roads that lie beyond Australia’s busy coastal fringes. Birdsville is something of an iconic destination anyway, simply because of its remoteness. At the beginning of July it hosts a rock festival, increasing the population of around 120 to over 7,000, and by a similar amount at the beginning of September when the town hosts the Birdsville horse races. Quirky and well worth a look-see.

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When they say ‘No Rabbits’ they mean it!

The ride would take about four days or so, depending on what there was to stop and see en route. So on a chilly Monday, at about 6am, I set off. I don’t normally leave that early but Craig had a plane to catch, out to his own lonely destination somewhere in Australia’s nowhere. The cold dawn gave way to the sunny uplands, once I’d cleared Ipswich and Toowoomba, leaving behind the urban snarl and the boring, chilly motorway. The riding was good and I was back among the hills, trees and wildlife. The town of Goondiwindi beckoned, with plans for brunch. As I came up one particular hill the bike started to slow down. I pulled into a convenient lay-by, where I checked the oil. I’d heard a bit of a tinkling noise from the engine. There was smoke coming off it and I noticed a small weep of oil coming from somewhere. The oil level was fine but the engine seemed to be hot. I took the opportunity to put my spare fuel in the tank, knowing that I would need it before I got to Goondiwindi anyway. Was this hesitancy caused by low fuel? Did that noise indicate some other problem? I’d heard it before a couple of times, when I was on my running-in rides. But the engine was running well so I assumed it was low fuel and carried on.

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One way of making a water tank blend in – sort of.

Well, I’m sure you can all guess that bad news, like a waking nightmare, was just around the corner – after a fashion. About 200kms further into the ride, and not too far from where I was planning to stop for the night, that horrible slowing down feeling came over the bike again and this time it definitely wasn’t fuel. My stomach sank like a plunging lift as I ground to a halt. The oil level was low and when I tried to start the engine it was seized. I stood at the side of the road, looking at the bike and wondering how much more of this I could take.
Despite being a long way from any town to my surprise I still had a phone signal. Google found me the number of a garage in the nearest town, St George. Just then a couple of guys in a Ute pulled up to see of I was OK. They said they’d be coming back in about an hour and would stop again if I was still there. I appreciated their offer. I was on a road to somewhere but it wasn’t a busy one and it was getting late. By the time they came back I’d managed to contact Maranoa Mechanicals and Brad, the owner, had driven the 100kms in his recovery truck and was just loading me up. I knew this would cost money but I really didn’t have a choice. Brad is a great guy and when we got to the town he stopped at each of the three hotels. I chose the Cobb and Co Hotel, a name with some history. This innovative company used to operate coaches out of Melbourne, carrying passengers, mail and supplies. Although the coaching company folded in 1929 the name lives on in various ways, including the hotels. An important part of the settlement of the remoter areas, their story can be read here: Cobb and Co. History
I arrived at the hotel thoroughly fed up but after a tasty meal, nice beer and a good sleep, I arose feeling a little more optimistic. I’d contacted Barry, at Byron Bay, who was happy to give me the use of his workshop once more and said if I could get to Brisbane, or nearby, he’d be able to pick me and the bike up. He’d also put up a post on ADV Rider, a bike traveller’s forum, describing my predicament. A few helpful replies had come in including news of an engine for sale in Sydney. I sincerely hoped my problem wasn’t quite that drastic.

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On the way back to Byron Bay.

Brad had mentioned that a damaged car had to be transported to Brisbane and I may be able to piggy back a ride. He checked out the details and then quoted me a fair price for taking me along too. Departure was at 7am next day. I also had to settle up the recovery cost too. As a member of the AA in Britain I knew I could get some level of reciprocal service from the local motoring club, the RAC Queensland in this case. When I rang them they wouldn’t help because I’d contacted a garage direct, rather than ringing them first. Brad is one of their agents and was having none of it. He got on the phone and they quickly agreed to cover half the cost. Like I said, Brad is a great guy. We spent some time talking about our experiences in our respective breakdown industries. (For those who aren’t aware, I spent over thirty years working for the AA.) I was very impressed by the quality of the business he runs. He takes on apprentices and delivers all kinds of training for his staff. A small town firm but with a serious approach to doing business.

Time to kill in St. George, so I went for a walk.

In the morning I met Will, one of the mechanics, and we were on the road soon after 7am. We arrived six hours later. Not bad time for a 500 plus kilometre journey, including two coffee stops. I learned much from Will during the drive. He answered all my questions about Aussie road rules, licence requirements and how businesses like Brads are run. He’s a young man with ambition and I reckon he’ll open a place of his own one day. He dropped me off by a café in the industrial park, where he was dropping off the car, and eventually Barry arrived to pick me up. Getting the bike back to his place was a great relief. Of course it had cost money, but it could have been a lot worse.

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Deja vu.

Next day I stripped down the top of the engine. I had feared camshaft damage; there was none. I was worried about severe damage to the cylinder barrel; all it had was some aluminium from the piston stuck to it. The piston, of course, was wrecked. I rang up Craig, the guy who’d re-bored the cylinder barrel last time and he said to get it to him and he’d take a look. Originally I was going to borrow one of Barry’s bikes and take it up there but it would have been over 300kms there and back, then the same to pick it up again. Common sense prevailed and I used the overnight courier service offered by the local Ducati dealer. I wouldn’t have saved any time by taking it there myself anyway.

Wrecked piston. But what about the cylinder?

Craig rang me next morning to deliver some welcome good news. No damage to the cylinder, it would just need honing to clean it out. He’d have the new piston and gaskets by the afternoon. I rang him later and everything was ready for me. I arranged to collect it next morning (Saturday) and the cost would be much less than I deserved to hope for. At last, some good news! We’d discussed the cause of the problem. I was keen (read desperate) for it not to happen again. When I rebuilt the engine the first time I’d put a picture of the old and new pistons on Facebook. One of my friends pointed out that the new one looked to have a higher compression ratio than the original (Thanks Gary). Craig agreed it was, and we discussed the implications and concluded I needed to increase the fuelling to compensate. This made sense and I was lucky to locate a bigger main jet for the carburettor at the local Suzuki main dealer. Higher compression equals more heat in the engine and this may account for extra oil usage.
There’s something to be said for running your business from home and having an understanding wife. On Saturday morning I rode up to Capalaba, and was able to collect my parts from Mrs Craig. I called in at the Suzuki dealer for the main jet and was back at Byron Bay about 2pm. By 8pm I had everything back together and my little girl was running sweetly once more. I finished the day in a great mood but mindful of the fact that nothing was proven yet.

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An excellent use for a nice old building.

Over the next couple of days I covered nearly 700kms of gentle riding, keeping a very close eye on oil level and using higher octane fuel. This seemed a good idea, especially during the running in period. Then I said goodbye and thanks to Barry and headed back inland, still keen to get to Birdsville. First stop was at Goondiwindi. On the way there I discovered I’d mounted the new pannier securing straps in such a way that they hung too low. How did I discover this? They scraped the ground when I was going round bends, is how!

I had a wet night on the campsite and wasn’t very cheered by the overcast sky that greeted me when I finally got up. But first I needed to sort out the panniers and I’d just finished altering the first one when a guy came over for a chat. Dave rents one of the units on the site and invited me over for a coffee. He has a caravan parked next to the unit, hooked up for power. He invited me to stay over for a night and it only took one look at that sky for me to say ‘Yes please.’ Chilly rain does not a happy rider make. So I moved everything over and carried on with my alterations. Meanwhile the heater in the caravan was busy drying out some of my wet gear. Dave told me his back story as the day and evening wore on. He’s a truckie but had an accident in Coles, one of the big supermarkets, when he slipped over on a wet floor. He’s suing them but has become unemployed as a result. His daughter lives with him having left her mother’s house over problems with her step-father. I’ll leave you to work that one out. His grandfather used to be secretary of the Auto Cycle Union, officiating at all the local race meetings. Dave had loads of photos to show me, of local riders and their bikes. They say nostalgia is a thing of the past, but I like it.

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Dave, a very nice fella.

Leaving Dave, with my grateful thanks, I carried on westwards, stopping at St George once more to call in on Brad. He was glad to see the bike running now and after some tea and chat, I carried on. The red roadside dirt told me I was back outback once more and the green of the grass beneath the low trees told me the ground was responding well to the recent rain. Kangaroos (a)bounded, the riding was steady, the engine felt and sounded sweet and all was well with my world. I bush camped by some rain filled ponds before continuing on towards my next overnight stop.

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The Cunnamulla Fella.

The town of Cunnumulla offered coffee and a visitor centre. It also presented a statue of the Cunnumulla Fellah. Aussie folk singer Slim Dusty sang about this young man, representative of the young lads who used to hit the bush trails, working their way around the cattle and sheep stations of the outback, before finding their way back home later in life. In many ways this still happens, although these days it’s mining and trade work rather than mustering and shearing. Even university graduates often follow a wandering path and it seems to be something of an Aussie rite of passage. At the VC I checked on the status of the roads I was planning to ride, worried that the unseasonal rain may have closed some of them. All good, was the news. I finished that day’s ride at a campsite in Thargomindah.

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How the wheel works.

Before I left I rode out to look at the town’s old hydro-electric plant. The town sits on top of the Great Artesian Basin, a 1.7 million square kilometre area of geothermal water (22% of Australia’s landmass). The early settlers drilled down over 850 metres to tap into it. As well as providing hot water, including for the town swimming pool, the pressure was great enough to power a small hydro-electric plant which supplied power to houses and street lights, although in the early days it only worked between 5.30 and 11pm. A Pelton Wheel drove two 110v DC generators, later replaced by diesel engines. The water comes out at around 80 degrees Celsius and some is stored in ponds while it cools down, so it also supplies the cold water too. A great bit of bush technology, simple and effective. These small outback towns invariably have some great stories to tell.

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And the generator the wheel drives.

When I tried to go down the road I’d originally planned to take I saw a sign saying it was closed. I debated about trying it anyway but decided to go the longer way round. At my lunchtime roadhouse stop I learned that the road had been badly damaged in May’s heavy rain storms so I’m glad I stayed sensible.

I’d now got into the habit of carrying plenty of water with me because I could never be sure of reaching anywhere. This far into the outback ‘anywhere’ just meant a roadhouse with campsite. That suited me just fine. But that morning’s delayed start meant another bush camp was called for.

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Good roads ahead. Well, open at least.

Sunday, bloody Sunday. What a day! By 11.30 that morning I’d reached Cameron Corner, a surreal but busy place. Its claim to fame is being the meeting point of three state borders: New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland. I can’t imagine the good citizens of Sydney, Adelaide or Brisbane getting too excited about it, but it intrigued me. There’s a couple of signs, a surveyor post and geo marker, some fences and vast amounts of sand. A poor memorial to a notable geographical location. But when you give it due consideration it’s only an accident of bureaucracy anyway. Settlers claiming the neatness of ownership. The land doesn’t care.

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Where the state borders meet.

Perhaps the most significant thing there is the Wild Dog Barrier Fence (formerly the Dingo Barrier Fence). First built as the Rabbit Proof Fence in the 1880s, having failed in that task it was later improved and extended to separate dingos from the cattle and sheep raising areas. Up until 1980 it was reckoned to be, at over 8,600 kilometres, the world’s longest fence, but has since been reduced to 5,600 kilometres. Even so, if there’s a longer one I’d love to know where it is and its purpose. There’s a sad but uplifting film named after the Rabbit Proof Fence, all about the Aboriginal children of the Stolen Generation. Well worth seeing, if you get a chance. The area has designated national parks in it so there is plenty of information about flora, fauna and geology. Well, underwhelmed initially but I ended up impressed.

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Anti dingo and wild dog fence.

In the roadhouse I chatted to the woman who served my coffee. She told me they see about two hundred vehicles per day in the winter, although only about ten in the summer. It’s also a key stopping point for The Great Australian Ride, a popular trans-Australia dirt bike challenge which raises funds for charity (a common thing among Aussie bikers. Great Australian Ride). So maybe those city citizens care more than I imagined. She said their busiest time is at the New Year’s Eve Party, where people can celebrate the turn of the year three times, once in the different time zone of each state. Ah, now I’m beginning to see the attraction of this out of the way corner. In fact, the roadhouse itself lives a tri-state life, getting its postal address from Queensland, its supplies from New South Wales and its telephone services from South Australia.

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Some of the people who visit Cameron Corner.

With advice gleaned about the road ahead, I set off on the last 220kms of the day’s journey, aiming for Innamincka Roadhouse. Heavily corrugated track on the first section, as advised. Narrow and twisty on the next. The last 50kms was on a smooth, wide track, nicely graded and populated by more vehicles than I’d seen over the whole of the previous two days. That was both good and bad. By the time I was about 25kms from Innamincka I was hitting about 90kph, seduced by the smooth surface and, probably, the nearness of food and a shower. I was keeping over to the left to avoid the dust from other vehicles and going well until the bike suddenly went into a massive tank-slapper, flip-flopped from side to side and unceremoniously dumped me on the dirt – hard! I lay there for a moment, thoroughly winded, then took my crash helmet off and tried to get up. ‘Oh no you don’t’ said my body. So I obeyed its instructions and tried to get my breath back. I was winded, seeing double and feeling like Mohammed Ali had been using me as his punch bag. After about ten minutes a fourby pulled up and I was helped to my feet, then into the front seat. The guys picked the bike up and took me the rest of the way to the roadhouse, one of them riding the bike. By the time we got there my vision had changed from triple, to double, to merely blurred and I’d worked out where I was hurting the most, and where the least. I’ve been off the bike a few times now but this was easily the hardest landing I’d ‘enjoyed’. But things are never as bad as they seem. On all previous occasions the bike has been rideable afterwards and this time was no different. A small mercy to be grateful for.

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Ready to go into the helicopter.

Outback people are unfailingly wonderful, especially to someone in trouble. They know how close is the difference between coming up smelling of roses and sinking into the pit. Survival and disaster, if you will. In my case Nichelle and Geoff, who run the roadhouse, put into gear some well rehearsed processes to set up the next steps for someone in my predicament. We’d worked out I had damaged my left hand, right ribs and right collarbone. I wasn’t going to be riding any further and I needed medical attention. ‘Who you gonna call?’Not Ghostbusters, but the Flying Doctors. While we waited for them I was happy to be taken to a room where I could lie down. My blurred vision told me I definitely had some mild concussion. Even so, I managed to take off my riding gear and sort out my luggage so I would have all the essentials with me when I flew out. I wasn’t going to be seeing my bike for a fair few weeks. Nichelle said they would happily look after my bike and gear until I could get back to collect it. ‘This is by no means the first time we’ve done this,’ she said. Wonderful.

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RFDS helicopter.

Concussion is a very funny condition and I wasn’t left alone at any time, just in case. Eventually a helicopter arrived, the professionals swung into action and my bag and I were loaded up. It was touch and go whether my bag could go with me because of the helicopter’s weight/fuel range ratio. I told them my bag weighed 15 kilos, calculations were done and I was allowed to take it. But it was a close call and if I’d weighed maybe ten kilos more, it would have been left behind. A worrying thought.

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RFDS plane.

The helicopter took me to the nearest airport where I was transferred to a RFDS plane, arriving at Base Hospital, Broken Hill, about 11pm. There I was poked, prodded and x-rayed, with the diagnosis being: three broken metacarpals, one cracked rib and the inner joint of my collar bone swollen from being wrenched when I hit the ground. The effects of concussion had pretty much gone away and there was no neck damage, something the RFDS had been concerned about. So, not too bad. My hand was put in a cast and finally I was put in a room, given some food and drink then left to sleep.

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At least I had a finger and thumb free.

My status over the next few days: breathing – mostly OK; coughing – bloody painful; showering – needed help for that, plus a plastic bag to cover the cast; shaving – didn’t bother; sleeping – bloody uncomfortable, I hate lying on my back; everything else – manageable. So three days passed by, with me getting more mobile daily. I was in a room by myself, with a TV and shared facilities. Tasty meals turned up three times per day, with tea, coffee and biscuits in between. Apart from the regular checks on my vitals, it was a pretty peaceful time. But sadly the day came when I had to leave. As far as the doctor was concerned they were done with me. Where to next? I would struggle to look after myself. Not enough mobility yet to cook so lodgings and bought meals would prove expensive, especially over the expected healing time of six weeks. Fortunately I have friends around. The best choice, I thought, would be Bernard and Mary, whom I stayed with when I was in Melbourne. They’re retired so my presence wouldn’t be quite so inconvenient. When I rang them they immediately offered to put me up. All I had to do was book the two flights necessary to get me there. Easily done and on Thursday morning a taxi took me to the local airport, paid for by the hospital. Bernard was at the airport to pick me up. Before long I was settled in the spare room enjoying the relaxing warmth of friendship and care. All I had to do now was heal.

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This is where it happened, and where I’ll need to get back to when I’ve healed.

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Seen on the hospital wall.

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Also seen on the hospital wall.

Compression, Depression and Rejuvenation.

Katoomba, NSW. 12th May 2016

During my time at the hostel I’d messed about with my bike’s carburettor in an attempt to improve the running. Cleaned and adjusted, I hoped that things would be better. A tickover would be nice. Well, I got that, but only after a real struggle to get it running. After more messing about it started up and I left Sydney for Katoomba, up in the Blue Mountains. I’d booked a hostel for two nights and intended to do some walking. I was leaving behind the city and the sea and heading for the mountains and fresh air. At that time I had no idea how appropriate ‘blue’ would be.
I began to wonder If I’d ever get there! Although all was OK as I rode through Sydney’s traffic, when I was climbing the hills things were not so good. A definite lack of power made it slow going but I reached Katoomba in the end. But as I rode through the town to the hostel the bike wouldn’t tickover and became reluctant to start. By that time all I wanted to do was to get to my friend’s place at Byron Bay and throw it in a corner!
While in Alice Springs last year I’d met some walkers who’d been trekking one of the long distance routes in the mountains. Alison had given me her details, with an invite to explore some of the paths near where she lived. We arranged to meet next day and I planned to catch the train there, rather than use the bike. Apart from anything else, cross country walking wasn’t such a good idea in heavy riding boots.

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The Three Sisters, looking across to the blue of the mountains.

Meanwhile, with an afternoon to spare, I took a walk through the town out to Echo Point, a local beauty spot which has a view out across the valley and hills. Plenty of lush greenery and impressive cliffs. The viewpoint looked out across the Three Sisters, tall sandstone towers formed by erosion, and the quality of the light on the opposite hills clarified the origin of the name ‘Blue’. Lots of Chinese tourists too, all brightly clad and chattering, like visiting migratory birds. Most of them were, let’s say, not young and were taking things slowly. I went charging off in my usual manner but the steep steps soon had me huffing and puffing like an old steam train. I began to reach the conclusion I may be ‘not young’ either! But I enjoyed the exercise anyway and felt a little better prepared for whatever a seasoned hiker like Alison might throw at me.

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My walking companion, Alison.

Alison met me at the station, then took me to the local coffee shop were I met some of her friends. A mixture of keen cyclists and walkers, none of whom were young either. But like active retirees everywhere, they loved to live life to its fullest. I just hoped I could keep up.
The two of us set off, heading for Red Hand Caves. This is an ancient Aboriginal meeting place and has hundreds of hand prints all over the walls. She set a fairly fast pace, which suited me, and I had no problems keeping up. Perhaps I’m fitter than yesterday’s efforts led me to believe. We chatted happily about places we’d been and experiences we’d had. She’d travelled the hippy trail through India when she was younger, before marrying and bringing up two kids. A picnic is a nice thing to share and Alison had the foresight to pack sandwiches for us both. I was fascinated by a native tree we saw called an Angtheras. They shed their bark to leave smooth, brown trunks, with dimples on them where the bark had been attached. For some reason we couldn’t fathom, the trunk would be damp or even wet. One of them had water running down it from the top of the trunk. I’ve heard of water cress and water lilies, but water trees?

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Red Hand Cave.

So a very nice day of walking ended up back at the café for tea before I caught the train back to my hostel. I was fascinated by the carriages, which were double deck, with a kind of mezzanine area between them. I remember, from when I was at school, double deck carriages on trains that used to run through south east London.I wonder what happened to them?
Saturday dawned bright and sunny, I was neither of those things. A cliff top running race was being held that weekend and my hostel room was alive with late arrivers and early starters. My plan was to head straight for Byron Bay, ignoring the 700kms or so of explorable New South Wales coastline. So I got myself organised and loaded up my motorised camel, which promptly gave me the hump because it wouldn’t start. ‘The best laid schemes of mice, and men, gang aft agley.’ So said some smart alec Scotsman. I had to admit he was right. The battery ran flat before I could get it to start and the guy at the bike shop nearby, while giving me a jump start, said it seemed like there was no compression. But it ran eventually and I set off, mentally sticking two fingers up to Rabbie Burns. But after 40kms of rough running, Rabbie had his revenge. Doris stalled at a set of traffic lights, and would run no more. Bugger!
There was a servo by the lights so I pushed the bike onto the forecourt, got my tools out and started fiddling. Well, Rome might as well have been burning, for all the good it did. Carburettor stripped, cleaned and adjusted more times than I can count. Various passers by collared to assist with jump starts. Much coffee bought and drunk at the McDonalds attached to the servo. All to no avail. I got the bike started a couple of times but it never ran right. As suggested by the guy in Katoomba, there didn’t seem to be enough compression. In the end I had to admit that Doris had died.

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A calming scene from yesterday’s walk. Hoping it will make me feel better.

I rang up Barry, my friend at Byron Bay, who said he’d ring round some friends to see if anyone could help. I, reluctantly, rang my erstwhile walking companion Alison, to see if she knew of anywhere I could stay. I was close to the small town of Blaxland, along the Sydney to Katoomba main road. She lived in Glenbrook, not far away, and lifted my spirits hugely by offering to put me up for the night. She came to pick me up and next morning dropped me back at the bike. ‘A friend in need ….’. Thanks Alison for proving the truth of that saying.
After another failed attempt to get the bike running I set myself up in McDonalds for some breakfast and internet access. Barry had come back to me with various suggestions for transporting the bike and although one or two would have been quite cheap, they would have meant waiting around for a few days, or leaving the bike at the servo to be collected. Not practical really. So I decided to do it myself and researched the hiring of a van. The nearest big town is Penrith and after some phone calls and frustration, I decided to widen my search To Sydney. Syd came up trumps and I found Orana van hire, who were open long enough for me to get there on the train before they closed, earlier than normal because it was Sunday. Blaxland station was close by so a couple of hours later I was in their office making the arrangements. Because I was going to be covering a fair old distance – 1600kms all told, they did me a deal on the excess mileage costs and I set off to collect Doris. At last, a plan was in action, a solution under way and I felt a whole lot better.

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Helpful guys assist in loading up Doris.

Back at Blaxdale I persuaded a couple of guys to help me get the bike in the van, lashed it down and set off for Byron Bay, at about 17.30. At around 03.30 I reached Barry’s farm. I’d already let him know my ETA, so disturbed, but not perturbed, he welcomed me with a cup of tea. When I got up next day Barry had already unloaded the bike, fine fellow that he is, so I ate breakfast and left for Sydney. I wasn’t sure how I’d get back north but Barry suggested flying as it would be quite cheap. The alternative would be 800kms on a coach, which didn’t appeal too much.

An easy van journey back south. At least, it was until I reached Sydney, where I missed the turning off the inner city motorway and ended up crossing the harbour bridge – which has a toll. No choice then but to turn round and cross it again, feeling like one of those clockwork cars that never travel in a straight line. Another toll. It doesn’t cost much but the hire company would charge me a fee for paying it. I found my way back to the hire depot and, as arranged, left the van outside and the keys through the letter box. Then I got the train into the CBD, where I’d booked a hostel bed. Stages one and two of the recovery operation were complete.

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Loaded and ready to go. The 1600kms round trip begins.

I’d already decided to follow Barry’s advice and fly back. So next morning I went online and booked a midday flight with Tiger Air for $80. Cheaper flights meant an early start so it would do. I also rang the van hire company to check all was OK. I asked them if I could pay the tolls myself, to avoid their charges, and he directed me to the toll company website. They have a very useful facility where I was able to give my details, the van registration number and nominate the dates for which I wanted to pay the bridge and motorway tolls. Clearly aimed at vehicle hirers like me, it worked like a charm.
The plane landed at the Gold Coast airport so getting back to Byron Bay would have meant a coach ride. But Barry found a cheap hire car offer. He needed to go to Melbourne for a few days and was taking advantage of the scheme that hire companies often run, which is where you return a car to its home base for them and enjoy a $5 per day hire rate in the process. Barry had ridden his BMW1200GS to the airport, and also brought my riding gear, so all I needed to do was jump on his bike and ride it back. So, like gears all clicking into place, my three days as a human yo-yo had reached a satisfactory conclusion. It had cost over £500 all in all, but I was ready to suffer that because I now had the bike and myself where I needed to be, had achieved it quickly, and could get on with repairs. Once he’d arrived back with his hire car Barry made some room for me in his workshop and the strip down process began.

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On the bike stand, ready for the strip down.

Things went well. It’s a straightforward engine to work on and by teatime I had removed all the parts necessary in preparation for taking off the cylinder head and barrel. I left it there. I was tired and needed a fresh eye on events as they unfolded. Barry and I went for a meal, a beer and a chat. We discussed where I might get the engineering work done and he said Brisbane would be a better area, being much busier than his small corner of the world. I concurred and decided to ring my friend Phil in the morning. I remember him introducing me to a mechanic friend who I thought would be a good place to start.
There’s something very rewarding about mechanical work. It involves several human faculties and I enjoy the thinking process as much as the doing. Dexterity, planning, observation and knowledge all come in to play. If only I had some of them. Just kidding – I hope! I’m sure those of you who experiment with recipes, enjoy DIY or love creating your own garden will know what I mean. Now the angst of breaking down and rescuing myself had faded, I was looking forward to the challenge.
I wondered what I was going to find. Off came the cylinder head, then the barrel and all was revealed. The piston had been worn away at the front edge, near the two exhausts valves, and had simply died of old age and hard work. No surprise after 95,000 kms. If I think back over the harsh conditions she’s been ridden through it’s no surprise really. The barrel was going to need reboring, with a new piston to suit, and I had a few other jobs to do too.

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‘Some truths are self evident.’ Or, to use a different quote, ‘Pissed and broke!’

Some of you might remember Hans, the Swiss cyclist whom I met in Vladivostok. You may also remember that he and his wife, Elisabeth, live on the Gold Coast and that I stayed at their house when I first came to Australia last May. I looked after their dog MoMo while they were away for a few days. Well, they’d been in touch and wanted to know if I could dog and house sit once more, this time for two weeks while they were in Japan. I was delighted to help as it would have given me some breathing space to work on the bike. That was plan A. Because working on the bike was now a necessity, the benefit would be the same, especially as Barry was going to be away for a few days and I needed a place to stay. Barry was happy to lend me one of his bikes so I rode the 90kms north from his place to theirs, with the bike parts for repair included in my luggage.

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No real damage to the barrel but it was rebored anyway.

Reunions are always nice, Elisabeth’s home cooked lasagne was even nicer. I’m always delightfully surprised by how easy it is to make friends quickly and to find so many things in common with strangers. I’m sure it’s in the nature of being away from all that’s familiar. It’s so easy to open up and let things flow. I think it’s probably the greatest delight of travelling. It was like this with Hans and Elisabeth and I was particularly pleased to be able to help them while they helped me.
I took Hans and Elisabeth to the airport next morning, was given strict instructions on watering all the plants, then got on with organising essential repairs. Thanks to Phil I contacted a machinist who would undertake the cylinder rebore and also check and replace any worn parts in the cylinder head. I took the parts up to his workshop, out to the east of Brisbane, not too far from where I was staying. Then I ordered various other parts from the local Suzuki dealer.
Walking the dog, writing the blog, waiting for words of cheer from the engineer. So the week passed by. In amongst all this I chased up the insurance company, who still hadn’t paid the ambulance bill presented to them last December. Useless! Take my advice and never buy travel insurance from any company that uses TCF PLC to handle their claims.

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One of the Echidnas that regularly visit Barry’s verandah.

If the devil finds work for idle hands then it’s also true that it finds work for idle credit cards too. I needed new riding gear. My jacket was patched in several places and the trousers had actually worn through just above the knee. They’d suffered a very hard two years. They were the Revitt brand. Well designed and priced above average, but not outrageous. I had been thinking about checking out some Klim riding gear. This American company makes what is possibly the world’s best adventure riding clothing. It certainly is quite special, along with being quite expensive too. Checking some out was on my list of things to do when I got back to the UK in a month or so but with time on my hands some research revealed that it would cost significantly less in Australia. I don’t normally buy this kind of thing without being able to try it on first but when I spoke to the shop, based near Sydney, they assured me I could return it via their Brisbane based business partner if I needed to, thereby saving on return postage. So I went for it. It arrived in a couple of days and although there are some design flaws, to my mind at least, they are minor enough that I decided to give them a try. While I was on a roll I bought a new crash helmet as mine was getting a bit battered. Its best days were way back in the past. I went for exactly the same one as I already had – a Shark Evoline. It can be worn as a full or open face and the chin piece flips back right over the helmet, so it’s not sticking up like a sail above your head. That arrived very quickly too, but equally quickly I decided to return it. The chin strap fastening is of the double D ring style rather than the micro ratchet fastening of the old one. I tried to convince myself I would grow to like it, But I knew I wouldn’t, so back it went. Oh well. ‘Two out of three ain’t bad,’ as Meatloaf once sang.

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The head doesn’t look bad either but new valves and oil seals were fitted while it was off.

On Friday of my first week of dog sitting, the engineer rang to say my parts were ready to collect. Hooray! At last I could get on with repairs. MoMo, has one tail, I felt like I had two. I went over to collect them, seeking advice about installation at the same time. I’ve rebuilt engines before but unless you do it often, you never do enough that it becomes routine, so advice is always welcome. I called round to see Phil, admired his new Yamaha Pacer MT09, and we, plus his wife Trish, went out for a sushi lunch and a good chat. They’re very exited about the building of their yoga centre over in Bali, which is starting to take shape.
Finally I went to the Suzuki dealer to collect the parts I’d ordered. They handed me a bag with everything in it – or so I thought. Unfortunately I didn’t check and when I got back to the Gold Coast I found a couple of items missing. I rang them up to express my displeasure at having to undertake an unnecessary 140kms round trip to collect them. When I went back next day I discovered they’d refunded $50 of the original price by way of saying sorry. Now that’s what I call good customer service and I felt much better.
From there I headed straight down to Byron Bay, keen to get on with fettling Doris. But on the way there I had one of those interesting, and in retrospect, amusing confrontations that sometimes happen. Other bike riders reading this may well relate to it.
Sometimes when a bike rider goes into a garage for fuel the pump won’t get switched on until they take their crash helmet off. To me this smacks of a prejudicial assumption that anyone on a bike is likely to be a thief who is going to fill up then ride off without paying. Under those circumstances I just ride out and go somewhere else. So as I came into Byron Bay I pulled into the BP servo and filled up. So far so good. But when I went in to pay the guy at the till told me I had to take my crash helmet off. The conversation went something like this.

Him: ‘You’ve got to take your crash helmet off.’
Me: ‘Why?’
Him: ‘Because it’s the rules. It’s for security.’
Me: ‘Well I’m sorry, I’m not going to. I refuse to be treated like a thief in the night and anyway, it’s an open face helmet and your security camera can see my face easily.’
Him: ‘If you refuse I’ll take your registration number and you won’t get served at any BP servo anywhere in Australia.’
Me: ‘No worries, there’s plenty of others. If it’s such a big issue, why did you switch the pump on in the first place?’
Him: ‘You wouldn’t be allowed to wear it in a bank.’
Me: ‘We’re not in a bank. Now here’s my credit card. You can either take the payment or I’ll walk out, it’s your choice.’
He waffled on a bit more but realised I meant what I said and took the card.
Me: ‘I’d like a receipt please.’
Him: ‘It’s too late, I’ve closed the sale.’
Me: ‘Well this queue behind me is going to get very long because I’m not leaving without one.’

I left with my receipt and carried on to Barry’s, partly annoyed, mostly amused. A small victory in the fight against anti biker prejudice, I felt. Or perhaps an annoying idiot deciding to be unnecessarily precious. You decide.

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I think I prefer the one on the right.

There wasn’t much of the day left so I just did some preparation work, then gave myself Sunday off before going back down on Monday. Over the next few days I got on with rebuilding the engine, taking my time to make sure all was right. I had a variety of other jobs to do so by the weekend it still wasn’t finished. Not a problem as I had plenty of time. I was due to fly back to the UK on the 18th June, so I still had almost three weeks.
Halfway through the week I had an unusual day out. I met a professional photographer to get my picture taken. Lots of pictures, in fact. Was I modelling a new range of clothing for the sixty plus man about town? No. Was I escorting a dishy young woman as she modelled a new bikini range? Sadly, not that either. The Guardian newspaper had been in touch, wanting to include last year’s Cape York escapade in the ‘Experience’ section of their weekend magazine. So photographer David flew up from Sydney and we went to some local beauty spots where he snapped away as I gazed enigmatically out to sea, or sat on a rock; sometimes wearing my hat, or not. With and without a shirt on over my T shirt. Standing up, sitting down and so on. He must have taken over one hundred shots and will send the best to the paper. They’ll use just one. The advantages of the digital age. He’s a Canadian émigré who married an Aussie woman and took up photography as a professional seven years ago. He said I’d been a great subject to work with – meaning easy and obedient. That compliment got him a lift back to the airport.
On Friday I went to the airport again, this time to collect Hans and Elisabeth, and I spent the weekend socialising with them. On Monday I moved myself down to Byron Bay, eager to finish off work on the bike. At this point I didn’t even know if she’d start up.

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Back together and ready for a run out. A happy day.

On Tuesday I had both good news and bad. All the jobs on the bike were completed and it started up, on the button, and ran well. A short trip down the road just to check all was as it should be, and plans were made for a trip out next day to begin the running in process. The bad news? Elisabeth contacted me to say I’d picked up a speeding ticket while using their car. Sixty eight kph in a sixty limit. I’d been caught by a mobile speed camera. The fine was $157, plus one demerit point. She didn’t mind suffering that, I just needed to pay the fine. Ah well, these things happen and I didn’t feel too stressed about it, although I did fell I’d let her down a bit. Fortunately she said she wasn’t too concerned about it.
My mood improved dramatically when I went out for the first long ride. I covered over 400kms, all on rural roads. ‘High revs, low gear’ was my maxim. I didn’t want to ‘slog’ the engine. She ran very sweetly, even over some of the hills of the Great Dividing Range, which lies close to the coast in that area. I was amused by the town name of Woodenbong, mostly because it’s not far from the small town of Nimbin. The connection? Nimbin is famed for being the centre of the hemp growing culture. You can wander down its streets and get offered dope openly. The problem lies with knowing which seller is the undercover copper.

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A lovely sign for an amusingly named town.

Back at base I was surprised, and very disappointed, to find the oil level had dropped significantly. I know I’d worked the bike quite hard but I wasn’t expecting that. At least I knew now to watch it more closely and hoped it was just part of the running in process. I was more cheerful after steak and beer at the Byron Brewery, a great way to restore optimism.
The next ride out was half the distance because I called in to visit someone. The daughter of Bernard and Mary, my friends in Melbourne, lives just inland from Byron Bay at the poetically named Mullumbimby. I do think Australia managed to create some great place names, often of Aboriginal origin. Established as a farming town, these days it’s something of an alternative lifestyle centre, full of quirky characters and odd sights. I met Sarah at the Brunswick Valley museum where she runs various local history research projects. It’s housed in the old post office building and traces the area’s history, as do all of these small local museums. A more recent aspect of the story relates to a successful protest movement against the logging of ancient trees. This was a very contentious issue, with ecologists pitched against loggers. One group fought to save irreplaceable ancient woodlands from destruction, the other to save their industry and livelihoods. Taking place in the early 70s, this was one of the early ‘hippy’ ecological battles, and the first against logging anywhere in the world. The hippies won. Logging was a big industry in many parts of Australia but was felt to be unsustainable. It still takes place of course as wood is very much n demand, but is now managed in line with best sustainable practices.

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Sarah and the museum.

Sarah, when she’s not working, lives an eco lifestyle on her 150 acre plot of land out in the country,along with her partner, Harry. It was a delight to meet her. She reminds me of her Dad – no bad thing – and as she showed me round the museum it was clear she was both proud of the work she does at the museum and happy with her lifestyle. Having already ridden round much of the glorious local countryside, it was easy to understand why. Sub tropical flora, peaceful beauty, great views. Plenty of trees too! The happy, hippy hills of the Border Ranges. What’s not to like?

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Park your bike where you like.

A relatively short and gentle riding day but I was pleased to find that oil consumption was much improved. Fuel consumption was delightful but I expected that from an unloaded bike, ridden gently. The only slight worry was that I’d detected a bit of pinking (detonation) a couple of times. Something to keep an eye on. After a day off the bike, helping Barry with some maintenance work, another 600kms day out left me satisfied with how the bike ran, happy with oil usage, which seemed to be dropping, and generally feeling good about everything. The engine was clearly loosening up nicely and I’d even been using top gear a fair bit. I’d been in the Gibralter Ranges, chilly up at 1100 metres, enjoyed the riding very much and now, like a man recovered from a broken limb, felt it was time to move on. But not too far. I was due to fly back to the UK in a week’s time so I rode up to visit a couple of friends near Brisbane.
I’d first linked up with Craig via Facebook, met him briefly before I left Brisbane last year and then met up with him again when we were both in Broome last September. He ride`s a Suzuki DR650, which he’`s been modifying a fair bit. That’s the fun of owning a bike that owes you nothing. He’d bought his as a cheap insurance write off and has been having fun with the spanners and credit card ever since. His daughter, Heather, was staying with him too and when I arrived it was the morning after a party and two other friends were there too. The woman, Bec, was interested to meet me because her parents` had been camping up at Canal Creek when the helicopters were out looking for me last year. I felt suitably embarrassed at having been ‘found out’ and some friendly mickey taking ensued.

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Tex and Bundy, who use their sponsored Motto Guzzi to raise money for charity. Bundy rides on the tank. Great, isn’t he?

On Monday I went to the funeral of a man I’d never met, or even heard of. A very odd thing to do maybe, but Craig was going anyway and he said to tag along. Strangely, I found myself very moved by the whole event. I got to know this guy backwards, so to speak. His name was Keith Weir, he died of cancer at only fifty nine, and was a skilled and sought after race car mechanic and general fixer. Originally from New Zealand, he’d come to Australia to pursue his race track dreams. He worked for a Holden dealership and quickly became part of their V8 Saloon Car race team. As in the USA, this form of racing is big in Australia and NZ. Keith worked with Peter Brock and Dick Johnson, two of Australia’s most famous Saloon Car racers. One of them came to the funeral and spoke eloquently of the great times they’d all had. He was full of fun and something of a practical joker, but would help anyone. The speeches from his friends and family were very moving and I couldn’t help getting teary and emotional, thinking about friends I’d lost too early.
He loved bikes too and this is how Craig got to know him. All we bike riders met at the funeral parlour and accompanied the hearse to the cemetery, then we gave Keith a noisy send off by the graveside with plenty of revving of engines. At the wake afterwards nobody seemed at all put out when I owned up to never having met Keith and I had some great conversations with some of the people there. Isn’t it strange where happenstance takes you sometimes, and how unexpectedly moving yet uplifting an unplanned event can be.

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The nicest man I never met.

After Craig I went to visit Phil and Trish for a couple of days. I went with Phil to meet one of his old work colleagues and we had a discussion about Mohammed Ali, who’d just died. The praise being lavished on him seem to stick in his gullet somewhat. He regarded him as` a draft dodger, who hadn’t been punished enough for what he’d done. I felt the need to defend him. I suggested that people who went abroad, or had their rich family find them a safe berth back at home, were draft dodgers. Ali simply refused to go and was prepared to stick around and take the consequences. If he ‘got off lightly’ it wasn’t his doing. So a man of principle, I felt. I was a bit puzzled by this animosity until I remembered that Australia had a system of conscription at the time of the Vietnam war and many Aussies died out there. Britain had the good sense to keep out of that mess.
Well, that was one hell of a busy month, what with one thing and another. ‘Challenging’ barely summed it up. ‘Fraught’ might be more appropriate. But with the help and encouragement of some good friends I was able to relax. The bike was in fine fettle once more and all that was left to do was enjoy a relaxing weekend back with Hans and Elisabeth, who were happy to look after my bike, before catching a train to Brisbane airport and jetting off back to the UK for family celebrations and the delights of seeing old friends again.

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Phil and Trish, getting in the Bali mood.