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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.