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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.