Thursday, 16 August 2018

A Short Story.

Readers of my age may recognise the family in this story from a series of books written in the early 1900s.

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The Blackwall Tunnel Trolls

a short story by

Garry Kilworth


         ‘It’s been in the newspapers.’
            ‘Which one?’
            ‘I don’t know - all of them.  I saw it somewhere.  Stop that, Billy,’ turning round.  ‘Leave your big sister alone.’
            ‘It wasn’t me, it was her.’
            ‘I don’t care who it was, you don’t hit your big sister.’
            Father was annoyed that his argument with mother had been interrupted.  He was clearly nervous, mother could see that.  However, she couldn’t leave it there.
            ‘Well how did they get here?’
            ‘I believe they stowed away on a ship going from Norway which called in at Glasgow.’
            ‘But Glasgow’s a long way from London,’ she pointed out.
            ‘Jack Laver says they cling to Eddie Stobart lorries - camouflage you know - trolls are the same colour.’
            ‘What?  Red and green?’
            ‘No, just dark green,’ father snapped, irritated by this cross-examination.  ‘Trolls are dark green.  At least, the ones from Norway are.’  His voice took on a horrified tone.  He shuddered, before adding, 'Apparently they look horrible.  I'm told some people have died of shock simply at the sight of them.'
            ‘And now they’re under the tunnel?’
            ‘Inthe tunnel,’ filled in Bob.  ‘If you believe in such rubbish.’
            Father glanced in the rear-view mirror at his eldest son occupying one of the three of the back seats.
            ‘Thank you for that input, Bob.  What is relevant is the fact that there have been several deaths. People dragged from their cars and . . . and . . .’ father swallowed.
            ‘Eaten,’ finished Ethel.  ‘Ripped to bits and gobbled up.’  She started singing.  ‘I’m a troll, foldee-ol . . .’
            ‘. . . and I’ll eat you for sup-per!’ finished Billy.
            ‘That’s enough,’ said mother.  ‘You’re annoying your father.’
            ‘Oh come on, mother.’  Bob laughed.  ‘You can’t believe everything you read in the tabloids.  They’re often full of rubbish.  If I’m learning anything at university, it’s that.’
            ‘I would have said so too,’ father replied, ‘but there’s been too many reports to dismiss it as fiction.  Jack Laver says . . .’
            ‘Jack Laver’s a boozy twit,’ Bob interrupted. ‘Everyone says so.’
            'Well I respect Jack Laver's opinion,' was the only answer father had to this defamatory remark on his golf club companion. 'He said the trolls are invincible and I believe him.'
            One would have thought that father was a coward, yet he had fought bravely in a war: indeed he had been awarded a commendation for his courage under fire.  However, here he was, terrified out of his brains by a fictitious carnivorous monster simply because he had been told he ought to be.  It was his work that did this to him.  Sitting behind a desk should have permanently stultified his imagination.  Instead all his fantasies were released at weekends in a huge surge, having been pent up for five dull days.  Everyone else in the car was were aware that the Blackwall trolls was an April Fool spoof invented by the media.
            They sped along the M25 motorway, towards the Dartford. Going there they had to cross the one-way bridge over the river Thames, the other way - coming back - they could have crossed the Thames through the Dartford tunnel but this was closed for repairs.  They were on their way to Blue Water, the huge shopping complex which mother loved. It was not a life or death visit. No one would expire if they had postponed or cancelled the trip.  Billy hated shopping, father’s shopping-tolerance was about two hours, Bob was fine so long as he was left to roam the sports’ shops at will.  Ethel could shop alongside mother until one of them fell from exhaustion.  Father was the driver and did what mother wanted, most of the time.  It had seemed stupid to cancel the trip before they left the house.  Now they were getting closer to the bridge, such action seemed to him to make a little more sense.
            ‘Do you think we should turn around?’ asked mother, winking at Billy.  ‘I mean, if it’s true . . .’
            Father nodded at the rear view mirror.
            ‘I saw that - I’m not stupid.’
            ‘Of course not dear,’ said mother.
            The sky under which the car was travelling had blackened considerably in the last half-hour.  Great thunderclouds rolled over themselves above.  There had been a few patches of light blue earlier, but these seemed to have disappeared.  Certainly the sun had now been smothered, even if no rain fell.  With the coming of the dark heavens was a distinctly chill wind which whistled through an invisible gap between the nearside rear window and the car door frame.
            ‘Ethel, can you close that?’ father requested.  ‘The window?’
            ‘You have to do it from the front,’ Ethel explained. ‘You’ve locked it from us.’
            ‘Oh, yes.’  Father closed the window tight and turned up the heating a little.  ‘I don’t like the look of that sky.’
            ‘I hope it doesn’t storm,’ said Billy.  ‘Jumble hates storms, ‘specially when I’m not there.’
            ‘The dog is in good hands,’ replied father.  ‘Mrs Prendergast said she would take very good care of him.’
            ‘Least he won’t be et by the trolls,’ said Billy, darkly.
            No one commented on this remark, not even father. The family head was quite prepared to ignore the jeers of his wife and children.  He was more than a little worried, having seen a Panorama programme in which friends and relatives of alleged victims of the trolls had recounted their experiences.  Then there had been that report of an increase in carnivorous fish in the Thames, some said feeding on the waste blood and gore that had reached the river through the drains. 
Father had heard too many stories to dismiss the trolls as mythical.
Mother had at first pretended to go along with father, but only for a short way. 
Ethel, the most level-headed of the family, was disgusted with father’s gullibility.  There were no disquieting feelings in her breast.  She only read the broadsheet newspapers and watched documentaries on the television.  Not because she was especially bookish, but in order to stun any boring know-it-all boyfriends with her knowledge.  She hated it when men told her stuff that was supposed to impress her and show her that she was just a girl and they were superior beings. As well as the Panorama programme, there had been several other documentaries which had treated the subject of the trolls with serious consideration.  Ethel however had from the very start remained a fully-fledged member of the camp of disbelievers.
‘Well, there’s the bridge,’ said father, a sinking feeling in his chest. ‘Let’s get it over with.’
The Queen Elizabeth II bridge curved up and over the Thames majestically, its cables taut and singing in the wind, its girders braced and its stanchions sure-footed.  Like most modern bridges of any great size, it was beautiful.  You had to be a Philistine not appreciate that magnificent sweep of the arch which was painted on the broad sky ahead.  Father used to have a special feeling about bridges - before the trolls came, that is - and believed them to be the architectural equivalent of fine art.  Now of course they had a dark side to them, or under them, and all that love of arc and arrow-straightness had been soured.
‘Soon be over it,’ father murmured, as they began the drive up the ascent along with a scores of other vehicles in the several lanes.  ‘Soon be over and off into Kent.’
Indeed they had left Essex and were in no-man’s-land, or to be more precise in this p.c. age, over no-person’s-water.  They were soaring above that ancient river Old Father Thames, a title which might or might not be p.c., he was not sure.  Father was not sure about a great deal these days, but he guessed that was a consequence of growing old in a fast-moving technological age. Father had great difficulty in understanding new electronic equipment: programme recorders, music players, mobile phones, and even new car engines.  Once upon a time he could strip down the engine of his Morris Minor in a twinkling.  It would take light years before he could do the same with his current car and then he would not have a clue how to put all the bits back together again.
Now they were on the down-curve of the bridge, hurtling towards the pay booths. Billy was given a pound coin by his mother and he pressed the switch to make the window go down, forgetting that his father had locked the controls.
‘I’ll manage your window, Billy,’ said father, ‘when the time comes.  We don’t want it open wider than necessary or for longer than we have to.  I’ve been told the trolls have been migrating to the Dartford tunnel as well.  Did you know they can squeeze themselves through a gap no wider than the crack under a door . .?’
‘Oh, father!’ cried Ethel.  ‘Please!’
Father ignored this attack on his credulity.
When they reached the booths, he slid the back offside window halfway down and Billy threw the coin towards the bin.  Unfortunately it struck the rim of the basket and bounced away, into the next lane.  They whole family watched it roll under a silver-grey Mercedes.
‘Missed,’ said Billy, half-opening the car door.
‘Leave it!’ cried father, sharply.  ‘I have another.’
Father slid his own window down and tossed a second pound coin.  This time it successfully rattled in the wire basket. The barrier bar went up and father surged forwards beneath it, suppressing a gasp of relief.
Mother said, ‘What a waste of money.’
‘Better a waste of money than a waste of life.  How much is Billy worth in monetary terms?’
‘Three pee?’ suggested Bob.
Billy punched his older brother on the arm.
Once the capital of shopping malls was reached, without incident, everyone calmed down.  They split up, going three different ways.  Father and Billy went for burger and then to an electronic’s store.  Bob decided he needed a new jacket.  The two femailes were of the firm opinion that they needed whole new wardrobes and intended to enjoy themselves thumbing every garment that hung on a rack.  
Everyone met up at four o’clock in the car park and father soon had the engine running.
Stomachs started to churn.
‘Homeward bound,’ said father with false cheerfulness.  ‘Soon be there, eh?’
No one said a word until they reached the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel, where Billy suddenly announced he wanted the toilet. 
‘I’ll burst if I don’t go.’
Indeed he was bright red and squirming.
There was a layby, with toilets, just before the tunnel entrance, though no other cars had parked there.
‘Stop dad!’
Father automatically turned into the lay-by before he realised what he was doing. A feeling of horror swept through him. Hastily he crunched into first gear and prepared to pull out again, into the traffic stream.  Billy saw what he was doing.
The boy protested loudly.  ‘Dad, I’ve to go.  I’ll do it in my pants.’
Still, father was desperate to get out into that fast-moving flow of traffic, heading for the safety of the London hinterland.
Mother said, ‘Let Billy use the toilet.  You can’t just ignore him like that.  Bob, you go with him.’
‘No!’ father said.  ‘There - there might be unsavoury characters about . . .’
‘I’ve got my mobile,’ muttered Bob.  ‘If there’s any problem I can call the police - look, there’s a police car over there, back there on the A2.  Stop panicking.  Really father, you have to get a grip on yourself or you’ll end up in the loony bin.’
‘Is my own mobile switched on?’ asked father, realising he was losing ground. ‘Where is it?’
‘Here in my hand,’ replied mother, ‘Ethel switched it on for you before we started the journey, didn’t you, my love?’
‘It’s on - I did it before we left.’
‘I suppose we’re not actually in the tunnel,’ said father, looking round at all the hundreds of cars zooming by in the nearby lanes.  ‘As I understand it, the trolls like the damp dark corners where they can’t be seen. This is probably too far away . . .’
Bob and Billy were already out of the vehicle, Bob striding behind the boy who was running ahead for the toilets.  They both disappeared around the back of the building where the Gentlemen’s entrance was situated.  Father tried to calm down and think of pleasant things: the good old days, when he could sack members of his staff for incompetence without having to defend his actions at later tribunals; a time when he could clip Billy around the ear without fear of criminal prosecution; a period of his life when they went to Southend-on-sea for their holidays and did not have to fly halfway round the globe.
He jerked himself out of his dreamworld.
‘They’re taking a long time,’ he said, peering through the gloom.  The storm was coming back again. ‘What’s keeping them?’
‘I need to stretch my legs,’ said Ethel.  ‘I’ll go and see where they are.’
Before father could stop her she too was striding across the concrete and had disappeared behind the toilet block.
Mother and father waited - and waited - and waited.  Soon it began to rain.  Lightning ripped the sky above the bridge behind the car.  Thunder smacked the belly out of the air over the Thames.
‘Where the hell are they?’ shouted father, losing control completely.  ‘Just tell me that?’
Mother pressed some buttons on the mobile.
‘Let’s find out, shall we dear?’ she said, pleasantly, ignoring his outburst. ‘There.  Bob’s phone is ringing.  Ask him yourself.’  She handed father the mobile phone.  He took it gingerly, not at all familiar with its workings.  A voice at the other end said, ‘Hello?’
It was Bob.
Father said, ‘We’re still here, waiting - mother is getting worried.’
‘No I’m not,’ snapped mother.  ‘You are.’
‘It’s the bloody boy,’ said Bob.  ‘He’s gone and locked himself in the toilet and we can’t get the door open.’
‘Well . . .’ father gestured helplessly at mother, ‘. . . what am I supposed to do about it?’
‘Bring a tool of course,’ Bob came back, coolly.  ‘We need to take the door off.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sakes,’ cried father, .  He got out of the car, still fearful of trolls but genuinely angry now with Billy.  How on earth did that boy always manage to get himself into trouble?  If it was not stealing apples from Swain’s orchard, it was crashing his bicycle into a neighbour’s gate.  He opened the boot of his car and went into his tool kit, selecting a huge screwdriver.  ‘This should do it,’ he muttered, ‘and I expect we’ll get a blasted bill from the Council - haven’t any doubt about it.’
The rain was soaking his hair, running down the back of his neck.  The fear he felt was almost paralysing. Somehow he managed to move forwards, towards the toilet block.  Halfway there he turned to wave at mother, then continued with shaking legs, sploshing through the puddles, his eyes darting looks right and left.  A zig-zag of lightning streaked over the river nearby startling him.  The mobile phone crackled and he realised he still had it in his left hand.  He put it to his ear.  
‘I’m on my way,’ he croaked.  ‘Hello? Are you still there, Bob?’
‘Still here,’ came the answer.  ‘Get a move on.’
Father reached the corner of the block and turned it, coming face-to-face with the most gruesome creature he had ever seen in his life.  It was naked and down on its haunches.  Its green skin was smooth and reptilian, and was stretched tight over sharply-jointed bones.  The arms were spindly, but strong-looking, and each ended in a clutch of long talons. When the beast opened its mouth to grin, rows of yellow fangs revealed themselves.  There were two more of its hideous kind squatting behind it, gnawing on bones.  Father could see Bob and Ethel’s clothes scattered on the ground in front of the fiends who had killed them.
The monster in front of father - he could smell its foul breath - was gripping Bob’s mobile in its claws.
‘Hello old man,’ it said in Bob’s voice, ‘I’m glad you’ve brought the tool thing. Now we can get at the boy too. You can go though.  You’re too old and your meat’s too tough.  Go on, run away.’
The rest of the trolls laughed and sneered at this.
‘Father?’ Billy’s frightened voice came from within the toilets.  ‘Is that you?’
It was true father had been utterly terrified of meeting the trolls.  His imagination had whirled with horrifying images. But now was face-to-face with one, now he had seen the monster, his fear suddenly took a step back, into the rear of his brain.  The unknown was a far greater force than the known.  Yes, this creature was fierce, dangerous-looking and incredibly ugly, but it was also real.  It was not some invulnerable, unspeakable horror thrown up by father's subconscious, impossible to defeat.  Flesh and bone stood before him.  Flesh and bone were assailable.
Father's first and second born had been murdered by these disgusting beasts. The life of his one surviving child was being threatened by them.  This was not the freeze or run choice given to rabbits: this was where menace forced a man to stand and fight for survival.
 Father suddenly lunged forward and drove the screwdriver through the troll’s right eye deep into its brain.  The surprised creature screamed, dropping Bob’s mobile phone and began thrashing on the ground, until a moment later it lay still.  Its startled two fellow conspirators let fall the human remains they were chewing on.  Indignant, they moved forward, hissing, their eyes fiery.
Overhead, thunder crunched within the blackness.
Father withdrew the screwdriver from the dead troll with feelings of triumph and exhilaration.  He held it like a dagger in his chubby right hand.  Monsters these Blackwall trolls might be, but there is none so terrible as a wronged human with a weapon in his hand.  He snarled.
            'Which one of you bastards is next?'

*****

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (The Last Day)

The Last Day

This was the day we had all been looking forward to.  Not simply because it was the last day, but because we were going on the Bloomfield Track through the Daintree Rainforest.  All being well we would be in Cairns for the mid to late afternoon.  The end of the ride.  There we would hand over our darling machines to the Rotary Club, who were going to sell them and donate the money to various charities.  It would be like parting from a courtesan.  One or two riders were going to buy their bikes for the second time, and keep them.  For Poms like me, this was impractical.  We’d have to ship them back to the UK at great expense and I’d already spent a great deal on this expedition.  With fares, the cost of the challenge, and various other expenses, it had come to around £5000.  I’d been saving that for my next car, but what the heck, you can’t put a price on the great Outback experience we’d had.
Daintree rainforest is over 135 million years old.  The oldest rainforest on Earth.  Nearly 500 feathered friends live there, including a dozen species that are found nowhere else in the world.  It has the most diverse range of plants and animals on the planet.  It’s 1200 square kilometres of frogs, marsupials, butterflies and birds.  On the human front the Kuku Yalariji people inhabited and lived off the forest for over 9000 years.  The non-aboriginals, who followed in Captain Cook’s footsteps, began logging the area, but were later halted by the Australian Federal Government who made it a World Heritage area.
‘There’s a steep hill on the track,’ Pete warned me, ‘after a sharp bend.  You’ll need to be in first gear.  If you don’t start it in first, you won’t make it to the top and it’s a hell of a job trying to kick-start on a forty-five degree slope.’
‘You slide back down?’
‘If the dirt’s loose enough, yes.’
The moment we entered the Daintree, I knew this was Nirvana.  I love trees, wildlife and flora.  This place had the lot.  
I had to be on the watch for giant tree frogs (14 cms long!), man-eating crocodiles, golden orb spiders and musky rat-kangaroos.  Daintree was also home to that most famous of live bush-tucker meals, the witchetty grub, a fellah I would just as soon not meet if it’s all the same to you.
There were some beautiful trees, of course, as magnificent as cathedrals, others with pretty foliage and blossoms to gladden the heart.  But there were also a few bad guy plants.  We had to watch out for the Stinging Tree, which brings you up in large blisters that are extremely painful.  Next to him in the gang was the Wait-a-while Vine, which apparently rips you to bits with its small spikes. Then there’s the Idiot Fruit, which you mustn’t get mixed up with the Wild Ginger that also grows here. Idiot Fruit will kill you stone dead with its heavy dose of strychnine.  Annette loves ginger and I just hoped she hadn’t gone wandering in the forest and seen something that looked tasty.
The Bloomfield track itself was bumpy dirt and rocks, quite wide in most places, but with not just one steep hill (as my Aussie chum had implied) but dozens of them.  We went up and down a hundred times, my heart stopping on the downstrokes as I hurtled towards a narrow v-shaped dip below before the next steep climb.  The Big One that Pete had mentioned was attacked by a huge crowd of us at once.  I almost made it to the top (in first gear naturally) when someone slewed sideways right in front of me.  I had to brake sharply, which brought me to an immediate stop on a hill which flies had trouble clinging to.  Somehow, I managed to struggle up the last few metres, but it wasn’t fun while all around was the chaos of loud machines battling with the landscape.
The next obstacle was the river at the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Community.  We had three rivers to cross, or possibly the same river three times, with the water up to our wheel hubs.  This was salt water crocodile country, so eyes were skinned.  
In the last few days a Belgium tourist in the region had caused his arm to be chewed by a salt-water croc when he stupidly splashed water on the croc’s face ‘because it wasn’t moving’.  It could move pretty quickly, actually, and clamped its massive jaws on his forearm. He got more than the photograph he was after: teeth marks all along his flesh.  He’d actually been extremely lucky to escape. Most crocs of this huge variety spin over and over once they’ve got a grip on their victim, and the arms are twisted from their sockets.  Either that or the victim is dragged down into the water and becomes a feast for the beast.  Crocs often stash the remains under submerged logs to allow them to rot.  Seemingly humans taste better when the meat tenderises and falls off the bone.  
An Aussie croc has been known to take a victim in three inches of water, so the shallowness of our river, about two feet, was no protection.
The first crossing was easy, a shallow ford with a concrete base.  The only hazard there were the 4x4 vehicles that wanted to go faster than we could.  The next crossing was a wide creek with rushing, tumbling water and boulders and smooth stones for its bottom.  Riders went over in swathes and singles, and were thrown this way and that by the uneven surface below, as well as having to contend with cold water over the tops of their boots.  One or two machines bounced wrongly, cut out halfway over and had to be man-handled to the far shore.  
I went across with John, whose bike conked out halfway over.  I had a 4-wheel vehicle right on my tail so I had to bump my way awkwardly past him.  Everyone was yelling at me and pointing to the car behind me, but I knew the blighter was there.  I got a bit hot under the collar with all the shouting and started shouting back.  No one could hear me cursing them of course, because my voice simply reverberated around my helmet and only served to deafen me. It was very frustrating and I rode off in a bit of a temper.  There’s nothing like a bit of a temper to help increase the usual velocity and the next thing I did was go down one of the hills at much too fast a pace, only to meet a truck coming round the bend at the bottom.  It was taking up most of the track width.
Here’s where my inexperience was my downfall, literally.  Instinctively I reached for the rear brake on the right hand side of the handlebars.  It wasn’t there of course, because I wasn’t riding the automatic I rode in England, but a Honda 110 which has a footbrake.  The bike fishtailed and threw me off.  I slammed jaw-first into a boulder on the edge of the track.  The same arm that I’d hurt in the last tumble came between me and a hard place.  I ended up in the dirt in a humiliating bundle of arms and legs and a twisted body.
‘Are you all right?  Can I help?’
It was the driver of the vehicle, looming over me.
I climbed awkwardly to my feet.  I was embarrassed, as one is when one feels stupid.  I wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible.
‘Yes, I’m fine.  Just a spill.’
‘Sure?’
‘Absolutely.’
‘Anyone with you?’
‘My support truck will be along in a minute.’
He stared at me for a while, then went to his own truck.
I gathered myself together, brushed the dust away as best I could, though me and the bike were covered.  Inspecting 21 I noticed the gear lever was bent and the handlebars were twisted.  I was straightening the bars when Andy arrived in the support truck.
‘Come off?’
‘Again,’ I replied.
He sorted out the bike’s bars but told me not to try and straighten the gear lever.
‘It might snap off.  You can still use it, can’t you?’
I tried and found I could.
He looked into my eyes.  ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Not seriously.  There’s a big lump on my arm and my jawbone’s a bit out of kilter, but luckily my motocross helmet stopped me from breaking anything.’
It was fortunate.  If I was wearing the half-face helmet I also owned, I would have had a broken jaw for certain.  Thank you, Pete, for insisting that I buy the motocross helmet.  I had quibbled at the expense of the thing, but it had saved me months of having my face wired up, and having to suck soft food through a tube, not to mention all the associated pain that goes with resetting broken mandibles.
‘All right.  On the bike.’
I got back on and a few minutes later crossed the river again.  It was just as difficult at the last crossing, but this time I did it perfectly.  Of course there were no witnesses present.  Ain’t that just the way of things?  The longest putt of your life at golf is when you’re a single, solitary player going round alone. The loveliest girl you pull is when you’re on holiday without your mates.  The biggest fish you catch is when all the other anglers have packed up and gone home. 
Did you see that?  
No, they didn’t.  Nobody saw it, because no one was there watching.  And you can’t tell them later, because they refuse to believe you, no matter how much sincerity goes into your tone.
I was now switchbacking the hills towards Cape Tribulation, where Captain Cook’s ship came to grief.  On my shoulder was a damn white truck that began to first annoy me, then anger me. Finally I stopped the bike and shouted at the driver.
‘Why the hell don’t you pass me?’
Andy poked his head out the side window and grinned.
‘Sweeper truck, mate.  You’re the last rider.’
The last rider.
I had never been the last rider.  I couldn’t possibly be the lastrider.  I’d promised myself that wouldn’t happen.  Even just on a single short stage.  It wouldn’t matter a great deal to an experienced rider, but I was a beginner and it was really important for me not to look like one.
‘There’s one bloke back there,’ I said, recalling passing a bearded rider savagely kicking the tyre of a prone machine way back on the trail.  He had never passed me.  ‘Someone’s behind me.’
‘His bike broke down,’ replied Andy.  ‘They took him and his machine in the repair truck.’
Shit! I was the last rider.
When I got to Cape Tribulation, the rest of them were just preparing to leave to catch the ferry across a much wider stretch of river.  I had just enough time to grab a coke and get Lang to straighten my handlebars properly.  Then I was back on the road again, but smooth bitumen this time.  I ached a bit, but not enough to spoil the last day of the ride.  Now the tarmac hummed under my tyres and there were enough bends in the road to make it an interesting ride.  There was more traffic of course, but it was easy enough to let them pass, and usually they gave a friendly wave, which was pleasant.
A beautiful foot-long lizard crossed my path, running on high legs to keep its belly clear of the hot tarmac on the road.  It made me think about the rainforest.  I hadn’t noticed a single bird or animal while I was in there. One of the most populated rainforest parks in the world and I had simply rattled through it on 21 without seeing a thing.  That was upsetting.  I made up my mind that I would come back again, on foot, and look for those creatures and plants that I’d missed this time round.
Finally we were on the Captain Cook Highway, the coastal road from Daintree to Cairns, which was a very pleasant twisty piece of bitumen with lots of sweeping up and down curves: a perfect end to a journey full of grit, dust and surprises. We gathered in a side road just inside the city, to slap each other’s backs.
‘We made it,’ said John.  ‘Well done, Gazzer.  Well done, Pete.’
John looked quite chuffed and I was feeling pretty good too.  It could so easily have ended in disaster.  One guy did not make it past the first day and that could so easily have been John or me.
It was of course Peter’s second time around.  
Pete nodded, saying, ‘I set out with two priorities this year.  Firstly, to stay on my bike, something I failed to do last year.  Secondly, to make sure two you didn’t kill yourselves.’
He had succeeded in both, firstly by using his previous year’s expertise to stay glued to the Honda’s saddle, secondly by passing on lots of good savvy to the green pommies.  ‘When you hit bull dust, drop down a gear and power through it . . .’  Stuff like that which I had only listened to with half an ear, but which, when the bike started to fishtail and my heart rate went shooting off the scale, came back to me vividly.  He had done a good job on both counts.  There weren’t many who hadn’t come off their bikes and tasted the fine Australian dust.
When we were all in, Dan organised us into a long line.  Then we cruised neatly in pairs into the heart of Cairns as if we were a police parade.  Sadly though, only forty-six out of the original fifty.  We entered and clustered together in a small park below the hotel where most of us were staying.  Local press and well-wishers were there to welcome us back into the real world. After the pictures and the interviews, the Cairns’ Rotary Club led us once again through the streets to a warehouse where they wrested our bikes from our firm grips.  21 was going to a new home.  I hoped they’d appreciate her.  She was a beaut.
The residue aches and pains of the ride would be with me for a while.   My fingers would still be in a claw-like grip for many days afterwards.  I had lumps and bruises on my arms and legs from fighting with boulders and dirt roads. Whenever I went to sleep I could see a white line stretching into infinity in my head.  My backside would take a while to get any real feeling back into the buttocks.
The showers in the hotel ran red that afternoon, as riders washed every corner of their bodies, getting rid of the Outback dust.  My riding clothes were put into plastic bags which Annette had brought with her.  They carried half a continent in their seams.  The white rim of my helmet was no longer white and never would be again. My boots, God bless them, could have belonged to one of Wellington’s soldiers.  They were shapeless lumps of leather ingrained with Australia.  I would be going home carrying much of the Outback with me in my suitcase.
That evening we had a dinner to which the riders, organisers and Rotary people were invited.  There we were presented with some treasured certificates and received a talk from a Rotarian.  We learned where the money from the sale of the bikes was eventually going in the countries that needed it most:

+ 30,000 polio vaccinations
+ 200 cleft palate operations
+ 100 wheel chairs

As a side issue there was fund-raising for 11 community groups who assisted us with meals and bedspaces on our journey.
Good on yer, postie bike!
The following morning we shook hands with those who were up and about. Pete, John and I, and our wives, were going to Port Douglas to spend a week in a house with a swimming pool. Others were going home to tell their stories to their families, to their mates in pubs, and perhaps even stopping people on the street and regaling them with adventures tales.  There had been a touch of the Ancient Mariner about this ride. It had been an extraordinary voyage through an immense mysterious land with hazy edges and shimmering shapes.  A forever place where the sky is a huge dome of blue peppered with bits of white.  A timeless dreamscape.  Had it been 11 days and 4000 kilometres?  It was an experience none the riders would ever forget, I’m sure.  Friendships had been forged along with the memories.


Monday, 30 April 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 10)

Day Ten


My plan worked quite well.  We were travelling due east from Innot Springs to Cooktown.  There was some dirt road, but not a great deal.  I was getting used to dust and grit under my wheels. But it was a long hot day ahead. 377 kms, passing through Atherton and Mareeba.  Refuel stop today was at Mount Carbine roadhouse.  I stayed by myself, sometimes with no other rider in sight, and just banged along the highway thinking about the end of the day.  The scenery was quite pretty, with hills to look at and trees in partial bloom.  It would have been a pleasant ride, if I wasn’t feeling so sick.  However, I was grateful to Dan for getting me back on the bike. I know I would have felt cheated at the end of the ride if I’d missed even one single stage.
Atherton itself was a small pleasant town.  Where it was, was more important than what it was.  It was the gateway to the Atherton Tablelands, where Annette was staying.  The Tablelands is a high cool plateau, rich with wildlife and scenery.  There were scores of different birds there, from the Cassowary to the Double-eyed Fig Parrot to the Papuan Frogmouth.  Among its animals were dingos, bandicoots and echidnas (those giant hedgehogs of the bush).  It also boasted, amongst its reptiles, the second most venomous snake in the world, the Eastern Brown Snake.  I thought its name was pretty tame for a such a poisonous fellah.  It surely should be called something like, the Deadly Silver Medalist, or the Instant Killer Runner-up.
An Eastern Brown Snake was seen slithering onto a gas station forecourt during the ride.
Not only were there live wonders on the Atherton Tablelands, but natural wonders too, with over 13 waterfalls, including the Dinner Falls and the Zillie Falls.  I wondered how many of these beasts and sights Annette had seen, as I rattled through Atherton on my trusty machine, little knowing that she was there on a bus watching me, and a few dozen other pretend posties, beating up the tarmac. She couldn’t recognise me of course, because we all looked more or less alike in our riding gear and on identical bikes. Nevertheless, the whole bus knew about her husband and kept pointing riders out as they shot past, saying, ‘Is that him?’
I trundled out into the bush again, still feeling very weak and wobbly, and managed to shoot past the refuel truck and about thirty bikes and riders, not wanting company at that moment.  Luckily I stopped myself just a few hundred yards along the road.  One of the trucks came out with Richard the mechanic driving.
‘What’s up, mate?’ he asked me, climbing out of the cab.  ‘That’s the refuel stop back there.’
‘Oh,’ I said, desultorily.  ‘Sorry - missed it.’
‘Well, get your backside on your bike and find it again, eh?’
I did as I was told and when I got there Richard had a can of gas ready to put in my machine.
‘Go and sit in the shade,’ he said, kindly.  ‘I can see you’re still feeling crook.’
He filled my tank and put a full five-litre spare in my milk crate.  Good old Richard.  He was now due to go in my last will and testament, if I ever saw dear old merry England again.
Pete came to then.  ‘I saw you shoot past - still chucking up?’
‘Not so much, but I feel like I’ve been in a washing machine on full cycle for four hours.’
‘Ah, you’ll be fine,’ he said.
The afternoon was incredibly hot.  I still stopped every 50 kms and met a wizened Grey Nomad on one of my stops. He was as dried up as an ancient gum tree by the wind and the sun.  He had no teeth, but he could talk for both Ireland and Australia.  He told me all about the ‘Beezer’ bike he’d owned when he was a young man - back in Captain Cook’s time I guessed by the look of him. I sat there about an hour listening to him.  He had the gift all right.  Although I hardly understood a word he was saying - it was all biker and bush talk - I found him a really interesting character and would like to have had a pint with him.
‘Tell you what, mate, I miss that Beezer more than I miss a darling wife,’ he told me, chuckling.  ‘Bloody hell, she was a goer that bike was.  Give few bucks now to get her back.’ And his eyes went all misty as his thoughts disappeared somewhere back in the distant past.
I looked nervously at his RV but no irate lady appeared at the window.  I guessed he was on his own, but whether his spouse had passed on, or he was divorced, or indeed he may have been single all his life, I did not know.  I left him by the roadside and he promised to look us postie bike challengers up when he got to Cooktown.
I never saw him again.
I did look up ‘Beezer’ on the internet later: the bike he was referring to was the 650cc BSA Thunderbolt of the 1960s.
At the end of the day I was feeling a lot better.  My innards were stable, but as always with the tail end of the ride, I was getting very very tired.  Eight hours on a blistering highway, following a white line, is sure to make the eyes want to close.  I had to fight to keep them open.  I’ve always been a power nap man.  When I write for hours at a stretch there’s always a point where I can’t keep my eyes open any longer and I simply get off my chair, lay on the floor, and nap for twenty minutes.  After which I’m as refreshed as fizzy drink.  You can’t do that while you’re riding a bike, so as usual I ended up singing loudly to myself inside my helmet, which is a bit like a bathroom opera. Of course, desperatelytired and you have to pull over and throw water in your face, but when you’re very close to the destination this is a hard thing to do.
I was getting passed by other riders - NZ MALE SERVICE - went shooting past me, showing me his back.  But by that time we were sweeping the bends of the hills leading down to Cooktown, which was a great pleasure.  The town is of course named after Captain Cook, who is greatly revered on the east coast of Australia, at least by non-aboriginals.  (I confess I have no idea what the Aboriginal people think of him.) Cook was the first European in this region, and afterwards came the redoubtable Captain Flinders.  Both mapped the area, including the Great Barrier Reef, and their statues and names are found in several Australian cities and towns.  Cook’s Cottage, the home of his parents, was dismantled in 1934 and reassembled stone by stone in Melbourne, Victoria.
James Cook was a Scot with a mother who had the unlikely name of Grace Pace. (What were her parents thinking of?) Happily she later became Grace Cook when she married James’ father.
Captain Cook is of course one of Britain’s most distinguished explorers. He made three Pacific voyages and mapped the coastline of New Zealand.  He named many places on his journeys throughout the world, including Botany Bay, but my favourite is a small town in Queensland which he called ‘1770’.  I met someone from 1770 when on a trip to Karunda.  He seemed quite pleased that Cook had run out of names and had fallen back on the year of discovery.
Cooktown is beautiful.  Overlooked by Grassy Hill, which sounds as green as it looks, there are gardens and parks blooming everywhere.  We set up our tents in a camping park under the shade of a grove of eucalyptus trees. It was paradise after the dust and grit of the Outback.  I had a hammering head but a couple of pain killers took care of that.  I also started to feel hungry again.  The riders were all cheerful, smiling at each other, talking about cool beer.  Not that there had been any animosity on the ride that I’d noticed.  A couple of irritating moments, but nothing to start a war about.  But Cooktown was such a blissful place you couldn’t help but feel like singing and dancing.
I did inspect the gum trees closely.  On an earlier trip to Oz I learned of two types of eucalyptus tree: black box and river red.  One type, and I couldn’t remember which, was called the ‘widow maker’ because huge branches snapped off without warning and dropped on unwary people below.  Which was it? I kept asking myself, nervously, as there was no space to camp which was not below the heavy-looking spreading arms of these beautiful but deadly gum trees. 
It was in that Cooktown camping park that I saw my first ‘swag’ - a great Australian invention.  A swag is a not much more than a sleeping bag with a cover, but ideal if you want to see the stars as you drop off to sleep.  I was determined to get one at some time.  You need good weather before you decide to use one of course, but heck, who knows that I won’t be visiting Oz again in the near future.  I’m only 68.
Once again, the meal that evening was superb, being provided by the local Little Athletics Club.  And as usual, we gave the ladies who cooked it a great round of applause for their brilliant efforts.  The whole trip had been like that.  I had come on the ride thinking I would shed some pounds, but if anything I put them on. I went to bed as usual, around 8 pm, along with most others.  I don’t think anyone stayed awake beyond nine.  It had been a long and tiring day.  It had been a long and tiring 10 days.  One more day and we were back in real life again.
At least I wasn’t chucking out from both ends.


Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 9)

Day Nine


The countryside changed today from flat bush with a scattering of dwarf trees to hilly rainforest and curving roads.  There were pretty wattle trees by the roadside covered in yellow blossoms. We were heading for the Newcastle Range of hills, staying at a camp site with normal campers.  It was not a long ride to Innot Springs, 386 kms, the majority of it on bitumen.  An easy day then, for most of us.  However, Murray - who usually rides with Cam and Scotty-the-clown - told the story of Cam’s mishaps.  It seemed Cam’s bikes were triple cursed.  He’d had two, which had busted, and was on his third, which still wasn’t going well.  The three of them stopped and Scotty checked the air filter and found ‘. . . enough dirt to fill a sandshoe’.  After that Cam’s machine went along fine until, ‘. . . he blew the front tyre.’
So not all bikes were dream machines like my 21.
Today’s Running Sheet was very short.  Only six entries from Croydon to Innot Springs village, going through Georgetown, Mount Surprise and Mount Garnet.
Out of Georgetown, Mount Garnet and Mount Surprise I was interested mainly in the last, which has a pub, two cafes and a petrol station.  My sole interest being that I am a Yorkshireman and the town was founded by Ezra Firth, who was also from Yorkshire.  All three towns have had minerals and metals in their veins, from gold, to copper, to tin.  There’s also a few gemstones around.  Gem fossicking is one of the local sports and enjoyed by residents and tourists alike.
The ride itself, for me, was fairly uneventful.  I can’t remember much about it, except that we were travelling through different terrain and there was a good bit of wildlife about.  When we arrived at Innot Springs we had a hot bath waiting.  The camp site boasted natural hot-water baths which had their source in a spring that bubbled from the Nettle Creek.  Pete and I plunged in, going from one bath to another, with rising heat, washing the dust of ages from our bones.
After dinner that night, I managed to phone Annette from a landline, and at last got through.  We exchanged news.  She had actually phoned Bev Kidby a couple of days earlier and been told I was fine. Annette had been having an exciting time in the Atherton Tablelands north of Innot Springs and wasn’t that far away.  She’d seen much more wildlife than me, including tree kangaroos, and of course the platypus, plus a whole variety of birds.  Part of her time had been spent on a horse ranch with some Quakers who refused to take any money for her keep.  
It was good to hear her voice again.  I once spent a whole year at the beginning of our marriage without doing so, having been posted to Aden by the R.A.F. in a time when telephoning from such an outpost was hardly possible.  An emergency would have done it, but we went the whole year without the world collapsing around us.  It seems quite incredible now that in those days we were only able to correspond by letter. Those letters were treasured of course and now, with cellphones, such times seem to belong to ancient history.
‘I’ve been leeched again,’ she told me.  ‘Buggers!’
Annette is very attractive to leeches.  They smell her from two miles away and head straight for her nice legs. Once in central Malaysia she had kindly fed a couple of leeches for an hour.  Afterwards we couldn’t stop the bleeding, leeches having pumped her full of anti-coagulant.  In the end she was slopping along with a shoe full of blood.  We were due to fly home that day and she had to throw her trainers, socks and all, into a waste bin before boarding the aircraft barefoot. When we finally got home, almost a day later, she couldn’t wash the dried blood off her feet because our septic tank had backed up and the shower room was full of sewage.  Happy days.
On my way back to my tent I heard something ominous.  Four or five of the riders were outside their tents vomiting. I’ve had food poisoning once or twice before in my life and I knew the sound.  Poor buggers, I thought, they’ve either drunk some bad water, or eaten some bad food, and now they’re feeling bad.  I went to bed, the sound of rainbow yawns still disturbing the quiet of the evening.
An hour in bed and I was up again and, like a few others, was running for the toilets.  I must have gone about a twenty times that night.  Each time I got back into bed the churning in my stomach started and I would be up again and visiting the dunny.  I took two imodium tablets and some salt water.  At six-thirty, having had no sleep and with bowels that were spurting nothing but dirty water I went to see Dan.
‘I don’t think I can ride today,’ I said, miserably.
Dan rolled his eyes and sighed.  ‘I’ll need to hire a coach,’ he said.
‘Is it that bad?  That many?’
‘Well,’ and he stared me directly in the eyes, ‘up until now no one has actually said they’re notriding, except you.’
I got the look and I got the drift.
Get on your bike, you whinging Pom.
I walked away and for the first time began to throw up.  I must have got rid of the lining of my stomach in that bout, but afterwards I felt a little better.  I got some more rehydration salts, drank about a gallon of water, and took a handful of imodium pills.  I stayed away from breakfast and stood there by my bike feeling exhausted and frail. The imodium worked now that I’d taken a healthy dose.  Nevertheless I chucked a couple of toilet rolls into the milk crate on the back of the bike.  When the call came I got on my machine and set off.  I planned to stop every 50 kms to drink a half-litre of water.