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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.