Sunday, 18 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day Four)

Day Four

         Brolga cranes, wedge-tailed eagles and whistling kites seemed to litter the sky on the morning of the fourth day of our Outback challenge.  Dan had said more than once that he preferred 'challenge' to either 'adventure' or 'rally'.  Indeed, it was a challenge.  The bikes were small and the roads were beginning to get rougher. 
         Before I left UK I'd shown someone a picture of the Honda 110 and he sneered and called it a 'girlie bike'.  Well hell, mate, it's a lot more difficult ploughing through dirt on a girlie bike than on a 650 Macho Machine like Charlie and Ian use.  The narrow tyres, the lack of engine power, the weight of the goods on the rear, all make the little Honda difficult to handle off road.  It dances on the dust.  It would pirouette if it was allowed to.  It certainly bucks like an ornery mule at odd times, just when you're not expecting it.  No worries, mate, the Postie Bike's no girlie when it comes to battling with cracks and craters.  I said to the critic, 'What would be easier, pal – crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship or setting off in a girlie rowboat?'
         I knew from Pete we were coming to bull dust days and keeping one's bum on the seat was not going to be as easy as before.  But I just loved the scenery in the mornings.  The sense of foreverness did not go away.  In fact it increased.  I recalled the lines from a poem by the American, Robert Frost: 'You cannot scare me with your spaces between the stars, where no human race is, I have it in me much nearer home, to scare myself with my own desert places'.  Of course, he could have been talking about the empty places in our lives or in our spirits – poets are deep fellahs when you start to probe – but equally he may have meant the Australian Outback.
         As I hummed along the empty highway, heading out into the sandy-coloured unknown, I thought about the previous night's camp at Barcaldine.  We camped at the show ground where there just happened to be a country show in progress.  Tractors there were in plenty, and rare breed sheep, cattle, horses, tame carpet snakes, quad bikes, pies, beer, and all the rest of the paraphernalia you find at country fairs everywhere.  All the men wore big cowboy hats and all the women sported big cowgirl hats.  There was line dancing in a cowshed and Country songs belting out from a barn.  We were no longer the main curiosity, us postie bike riders.  There were other serious contenders for that crown at Barcaldine.
         Most of our riders put up their tents in an empty cattle stall or stable.  I preferred the open air.  It didn't seem right putting up a tent without using the pegs. 
         The Country songs went on until the early hours of the morning, but I was so tired from the long haul along the bitumen, with its 'white-line fever', that I just fell onto my air bed and went out like a light.
         Again, today, it's all bitumen, or bitch-u-men, as some of the riders called it.  I love the Aussie habit of twisting the words to get something quite outrageously descriptive from it.
         At noon I passed a rider with a blown front tyre.
         As always, we crossed over several dry creeks, all of them with original names, some of them quite intriguing.  'Big Dinner Creek' and later, 'Little Dinner Creek'.  One creek we crossed must have brought a smile to everyone's face.  It was called 'Christmas Creek' and it was way out in the bush, 2000 kms from anywhere, not a house in sight, not a town for miles, yet someone had decorated its stunted trees with tinsel, baubles and paperchains.
         How's that for an Aussie sense of humour? 
It’s as quirky as the British. 
Near where I live in the UK is a town called Great Dunmow where every year since the Middle Ages they have held the Dunmow Flitch Trials.  This ‘court’ awards a ‘flitch’ (a side of bacon) to married couples from anywhere in the world if they can satisfy the a jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors that they have been married for a least ‘twelvemonth and a day’ and have not during that time wished themselves unmarried.  There are many such idiosyncracies in many odd towns in the UK. 
Australia has invented its own such bizarre events.  One of the more famous ones takes place in Alice Springs every year and is called the Henley-on-Todd regatta.  The Todd River is dry baked earth.  Every spring ‘No Fishing’ signs go up along the dusty banks of this Aussie wadi and people start building boats with holes in the bottom.  The contestants stick their legs through the holes and race the boats along the hot sandy bottom of a waterless river bed.  There are ‘yachts’, ‘Oxford tubs’, and bottomless ‘eights’.  Those taking part are bombarded with flour bombs and other such weapons.  The town is 1,500 kms from the nearest body of water.  Some of those taking part are said to be sane.
         Later that day, I was on my own, travelling through the eerie landscape of Dreamtime, when out of the dust haze came a shimmering line of dark riders on even darker Harleys.  Black bandannas swathed their faces, black sunnies covered their eyes, black beards wrapped their chins, black dome-helmets sat uneasily on their heads -  black everything, everywhere.
         Sinister.  Strange.  Weird. 
         I felt a tingling go through me.  They could have been phantom riders from 'Lord of the Rings', except they were on big bikes, not horses.  They passed me by with barely a flicker of acknowledgement, me on my little red pony and they on their big black war horses.  I stopped a little later and took a drink and mused a for a while.  I got to wondering if they were the Christmas Creek Chapter of the Hell's Angels, on their annual pilgrimage to decorate their shrine.
         Afterwards I learned they were members of Bikers United Against Child Abuse.  Good blokes, not bad guys.
         Anyway, today it was Barcaldine to Winton, a journey of 294 kms, making our total mileage – sorry, kilometreage – to date 1554 kms.  Had we ridden so far, so quickly?  Who was I to doubt the speedo?  294 kms was an easy ride, especially on tarmac, so we had time to dawdle and gape.  We would be passing through Longreach, where stood the Stockman's Hall of Fame and the QANTAS Museum.  I had seen stockmen out in the fields, riding their stock horses.  Grizzled, sunburnt, star-burnt faces, some of them Aboriginal.  Hard, tough-looking characters that one associates with Australia.  Never mind your mid-Western USA cowboys, these stockmen were as granite and teak fused together.  They looked a part of the landscape over which they rode.
         'Are we stopping at the Hall and Museum?' I yell to Pete and John, as we pause to water the bush.
         Pete says, 'Don't worry about Quaint-arse, but you might find the Hall of Fame quite interesting.'
         And so we did.  It was indeed an interesting museum, full of tack and tackle, and farm machines, and pictures and stories of famous Outback men.  You have to be someone special to live and die in the Outback.  It must be a hell of a lonely life, but probably a fulfilling one.  They know who they are.  Us city folk (OK, I live in a Suffolk village, but I have travelled the world) really never find out who we are.  They have their daily tasks and they get down and do them and don't whinge or whine or sweat over their lot in life. 
         I felt the same about the gold miners of the Canadian Yukon, when I visited Dawson City, that clapboard town on the Klondike where bitumen is unknown.  Many hope-filled miners still exist there.  They eke out a living from their mines these days, not striking it rich, but finding enough nuggets to make ends meet, so that they can continue to look for more nuggets.  They're called 'sour doughs' in Canada, after the sour bread dough they used to take with them to last out the terrible -50 degree winters you get in the Yukon. 
         You have to know who you are to be digging in the ground in weather like that, not even guaranteed enough gold to make a decent tooth filling.
         I learned at the Hall of Fame that the Aussie stock horse is possibly the most versatile horse in the world.  It's known as, 'The breed for every need'.  Tough, resilient and strong, they have the speed of a cheetah and the agility of a mountain goat.  (In fact they reminded me of our Honda postie bikes.)  Among other things, such as polo and show jumping, the stock horse is apparently good at campdrafting.  I have to admit at that point in time I had no idea what 'campdrafting' was. 
         The Australian stock horse grew out of a one-time need for military mounts and work horses that were required for a variety of army tasks over the last two centuries.  This led to the all-rounder we know today as the Aussie stock horse.  I also heard these beasts referred to as 'walers' but whether that strictly meant horses from New South Wales or not, I failed to discover.  Today you can buy a three-year old second-hand Honda 110 for about $1000, whereas a stock horse will set you back at least $3000, but more likely $10,000.  If you feel you need one, go to Dalby Queensland in December of any year, but if you want a really good goer in a private sale, take along a thick wad of notes amounting to somewhere in the region of $200,000.
         Back on the road I was passed by DIPSTICK BRO and GERONIMO, the road names written on the backs two riders.  I knew the latter was my pal from Leicestershire, John, but with a lot of the blokes and bloke-esses I never ever did get to know all the real names, so Dipstick remains Dipstick.  We were heading now for Winton, home of Waltzing Matilda, the song written by Banjo Patterson.  This was where he first performed the unofficial National Anthem of our antipodean cousins.  It's a great song, once heard it buries itself in the psyche whether you are Australian or not, and is sadly mutilated by the Barmy Army when they're trying to get the under the skins of the Aussie team cricket supporters, bless their English socks.
         Around mid-afternoon I was almost shouldered into a ravine by a road train.  Road trains are truly terrifying creatures: the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Outback.  A monstrous cab pulling up to three long trucks taking up almost all the road space. This oblong giant appeared out of the heat haze on the highway enveloped in a huge cloud of dust which he kindly shared with every other road user, including me.  I slowed down to pull of the track, as I was supposed to do, when I realised there was a drop off the edge about a metre deep.  I had nowhere to go as the monster drew up alongside me, all 54 metres of him.  He was a cattle truck and as well as dust there was the stink of penned animals to contend with.  I was coughing and spluttering as he thundered past me with centimetres to spare, when from the other direction along comes another beast of the same magnitude.  My truck then edges towards me to give the guy room on the other side of the road.  Now I was riding on a strip of track only a few inches wide with the drop on my left yawning.  I braked, not realising one of the other riders was right on my back wheel.  He skidded up alongside me and we both teetered on the brink of oblivion for a few moments, before finally the road train squeezed away again.
         Cold sweat mingled with the warm stuff, as I gathered myself together and tried to stop my heart from jumping out of my mouth.  The other rider gave me a look.  I gave him a look back.  Then we both disentangled ourselves and sped away.  I never did learn who he or she was: when you’re all kitted up in your road armour you’re virtually anonymous - but I never braked after that without looking in my rear view mirror, even if I did have the king of dinosaurs fighting me for road space.
         We rolled into Winton in small groups, twos and ones like old-time sundowners, ready for the evening meal.  It had been another day of mystical scenery and wide wide landscapes.  Who would not be a sundowner or a swagman in this great country?  It was made for the wanderer, the traveller through ancient ways.  Hence, of course, the Walkabout, which had probably been going on since Man first arrived on the Australian shore in their little boats, looked around him, and said to his companion, 'Bloody hell, mate, we've picked a winner here.  Never mind the weekend camping, we can do it all the time.  The camping grounds go on forever.'
         In those days, of course, he had to contend with  prehistoric mammals such as the Doom Duck, a monstrous flightless bird that could swallow a pig whole, and various other big fellahs: marsupial lions, marsupial wolves and a load of huge lumpy looking monsters that might have been rhinos or hippos.  No doubt the boys and girls slept in the forks of trees and never went Walkabout without a spear.  It's not difficult even now to imagine those old mammals lumbering about the landscape, looking for new meat on two legs.
         Our camp that night was in the local footy oval, where they play – well, play is a sort of loose word when it comes to Aussie rules football, since the object seems to be to murder as many of the opposing players as possible – that unfathomable blood sport which only Australians understand, but many other nationalities enjoy watching in the way that they would the spectacle of gladiators killing each other in an arena.
         The area was already littered with tents that were up, tents that were half up and tents that were flat as pancakes.  Riders were milling about, talking, drinking beer, getting showers, doing bike maintenance.  It was the gathering of the herd.  Stories were being swapped.  Disasters were being recounted.  So-and-so had gone into a ditch and bent his gear lever.  Whatisname had blown a tyre and had ended up in a thorn tree.  Thingymejig had run out of gas out in the plains of nowhere and couldn’t start his bike for twenty minutes after refuelling.  Such conversations floated through the evening ether as the herd milled.
         Once the tents were up and showers taken we were conveyed in a bus to a kind of craggy hill top similar to the one in the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.  It appeared to be an ancient place, no doubt with Dreamtime significance.  There were gullies and strangely-shaped rocks sculpted by wind and water out of the landscape.   It did not take much to imagine carpet-snake-people and hare-wallaby-people meeting here to foment war or seal a peace.  The view over the plains was awesome.  A sort of scarred browny-red landscape stretched out on all sides, mile upon mile upon mile, to the far horizons.
         We watched as the sun went down behind a distant range of hills and I'm sure we all experienced that humble feeling one gets while witnessing a natural occurrence where a fantastic but simple beauty is produced by a common-or-garden event – simply, the end of an ordinary day.  The  rays of the dying sun stretched out over the russet landscape to enhance the ochre redness of the soil.  It could have been the end of a Jurassic day, or as it actually was, a day several million years after giant lizards lumbered over the land.  Certainly the ghosts of dinosaurs were there, tramping over that ancient earth.
         Once the natural phenomenon of a huge dark-red sun sinking into a vast dark-red landscape had ended and things spiritual gave way to things mundane, we tucked into a great meal provided by the Winton Lions Club.  The yarns began, the camaraderie growing with every day.  Any wariness had now been tucked away as riders got to know each other better and like-minded people swapped biking tales, stories of where they came from and what they did, and all those exchanges that  happen when a group starts coming together.
         Over these exchanges I learned that Ewan, my new buddy from Darwin, had had to change his bike for one of the spares.  His first bike refused to start after he'd stopped at the Stockman's Hall of Fame.  I stroked my own machine, hoping she would not prove as fickle.  So far she had been an absolute beauty, starting every time, running as smoothly as a young colt.  I did have one bit of trouble, but that was my fault.  I found out that if I turned off the engine while it was still in gear I had hell's own job of getting it into neutral.  It had to go into neutral, because you couldn't start it in gear.  If you did it would leap out of your hands like a kangaroo with its pants on fire and bury itself in the nearest inanimate object.
         I kicked down and kicked down, but realised I would do some damage if I jumped on the gear lever any harder.  So cap in hand I went to Richard-the-mechanic, who showed me how to gently rock the beast back and forth until she slipped into neutral.  From that moment on I never switched off the engine while the bike was in gear.  I thanked Richard humbly – thanks he waved away with a yeah-sure – aware that my biker inexperience had shown, probably not for the first time.
         'What did you think of the Hall?' asked Ewan, over a beer. 
         'Not a bad little museum,' I said.  'How about you?  You're a local.  Did you learn anything?'
         'Probably, but what struck me most were the items which displayed as being part of the pioneer's time – the early days of the bush.  Things like saddler's repair kits, wind-up telephones and milk delivered in billy cans.  What worries me is I remember those things as a kid.  It makes me feel old.'
         Ewan is about a quarter of a century my junior.
         'Listen,' I said, 'I remember when eggs came as dried powder in cans – you ain't as old as me, mate.  I was six years old before I saw a real egg and I thought it was a squashed tennis ball . . .'   But though things were starting to get fanciful, I really had known a time when dried egg and powdered lemonade came to our house in cans, back in the olden days.
         There were stories about the road kills we had seen that day – feral pigs, kangaroos of course, even cattle.  Ewan also told the tale of the live black snake that was minding its own business, crossing the road, when a line of riders came at it.  The first rider tried to miss the creature, but this local serpent was stretched from one side of the bitumen to the other.  In the event, the lead postie biker clipped its tail.  The snake was naturally incensed at this uncalled-for treatment and reared up, swishing itself about as other riders come upon it.  There was a great deal of dodging and swerving, as bikers fought to remain upright without hitting the snake or getting bitten.
         'The choreography was brilliant,' said a tall Irish-Australian, a three-timer on the Postie Bike Challenge.  'Nureyev could not have done it better.'

         Oh, and one of the guys told me what 'campdrafting' is.  It's sort of herding cattle in a precise way.  The stockman cuts out one of the herd and hustles it into a pen the way a Welsh Border Collie does with a sheep.  Something like that.  Apparently it's become a popular rodeo sport with youngsters and oldsters proving their skill with the stock horse.  Good Outbacky stuff.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 3)

Day Three

Chink, chink, rustle, chink.  Somebody has obviously given up trying to sleep.  They are up, pulling out pegs, wrapping their tent.
Pete grumbles, ‘Is that you, Kilworth?’
‘What the hell are you doing?  It’s only four-thirty.’
‘It’s not me, I tell you.  It’s Wikipedia.’
Wikipedia is our name for a guy who is truly a carrier of knowledge, especially about the local wildlife.  I’m always asking him questions.  He knows about whistling kites and blue-tongued lizards.  And many insects.  Wikipedia is quietly getting his stuff together.  Well, almost quietly.  Just the occasional chink or rustle.
‘It sounds like you.’
‘Well it bloody well ain’t.’  Sound carries in a campsite.
John’s voice.  ‘Is Garry getting up already?’
I give in.  ‘Yes, it’s me - I’m getting up.’
The whole camp is stirring.  Torch-lights are battling with the rising sun to see who can remain brightest longest.  The torches lose of course.  There’s no beating the Ozzie sun once it’s over the horizon.  Most of the torches are of the headband kind.  Miners’ lamps.  They leave your hands free for tasks.  I climb into my riding gear, boots last.  They’re a pig to put on, the leather being stiff and unbending.    They’ve lost their shine and are now thoroughly embedded with red and sandy-coloured dust.  My plastic elbow guards, knee guards and bollock guards feel uncomfortable at first, but after half-an-hour I’m used to them.  I trudge off, being ahead of the others in packing, and fetch three teas.
The shed where the breakfasts are being cooked is full of riders.  Many have forgotten they’ve got a lit headband torch around their skull.  Me included.  They walk about, bemused, looking for the toaster.  I get three paper cups full of tea and return to John and Pete.  They are appreciative, which is something.  John is a talker, bless him, and he talks while he’s packing his bag.  Pete screws up his eyes and looks at the new day as if it’s challenging him to a duel. 
We’re almost ready for the road.
Once breakfast is over, the daily briefing from Dan is next on the agenda.

We left Rolleston, bound for Barcaldine.  Today was all about bitumen.  Tarmac from door to door.  No dusty tracks.  No interesting creeks to skid into. Just black tar and white lines.
Barcaldine is the town where the great shearers’ strike took place in the late 1800s.  I remember seeing a movie when I was a kid called ‘The Shiralee’ based on a novel by D’Arcy Niland, about a roving swaggie shearer and his child.  Shiralee apparently means ‘burden’.  The burden is the young daughter the shearer has to drag around the sheep farms with him.  I loved that film.  It had great atmosphere.  Where it was accurate or not was irrelevant to me as a young boy.  I wanted to be out there, on the dusty roads of Australia, in the Outback of Queensland.  Now, here I was, heading for the heart of that shearing country, where shearers downed their clippers and told the establishment to go to hell, if for a short time only.
Barcaldine was an American bomber base during the war and has around 2000 souls today, one or two of whom apparently look north eastwards to the USA for their forebears.  Pete, who did the ride in 2007 as well as 2008, told me how he had fared in that year.  He had arrived in the town and asked for the oldest pub.  Sent to a hostelry called ‘The Artesian’ he found he was a minor celebrity there amongst drinkers who were well into their favourite sport.  They all had their photos taken with him, then he said he had to leave.  A young woman tried to persuade him to stay, but he had to join the rest of the riders camping at the showgrounds and told her so.  As he rode away she yelled after him, ‘I’m only 30.’  Despite the inferred offer he kept going.
On the way to Barcaldine we passed through Springsure and Emerald.  There are precious stone mines at Emerald, but they don’t mine emeralds there.  The emerald the town is named after is a lush green hill at the back.  What they mine at Emerald is sapphires.  Not green stones, but blue.  Most confusing.  Apparently the sapphire fields at Emerald are the richest in the southern hemisphere.  What is very interesting at Emerald is a tree that’s 250 million years old.  Happy Birthday, tree!  It has now turned to stone, having fossilised, but still it’s an impressive age.  Dead though.  The region is famous for its live plants too: sunflowers.  A Van Gogh land of big blooms.
The journey that day was long and tedious, except for one incident when we were going across a creek.  Pete was just in front of me.  We were hammering away noisily at around 75 kph when this large kangaroo suddenly shot out of the bush and bounded across the road right in front of him.  Pete didn’t deviate, but I thought wow, that was close!  Then a quick movement to my right made me turn my head.  Another roo was leaping out of the undergrowth, this time towards me!.  I braked sharply and skidded, while the kangaroo suddenly realised he was going to hit one of those many angry red machines that were careering through his territory.  He did a quick sideways leap and then athletically spun round, turning back towards the way he had come.  I missed his plumbob bottom by inches.  Pete waved a hand over his shoulder as if to say, ‘Pay attention, mate, or you’ll end up as a kangaroo road kill.’
 450 straight kilometres of bitumen is not great fun.  Still, Pete entertained me at the stops with his dark tales of ‘bull dust’ trails to come.  I would part company with my bike, he told me, everyone does.  Secretly I thought: not me.  I shall stay stuck to the saddle because I shall be sensible and ride at a speed that will keep the bike firmly under my backside.
Little did I know. 
Little did I understand the devious nature of bull dust.
Anyway, not today.  Today we were cruising through greenish countryside, with kangaroo road kills every several miles.  They were somewhat whiffy.  I imagined the poor bastards being hit by a road train.  Those big articulated monsters would mow them down as easily as a car going over a weasel.  Bang.  Squish.  Kangaroo heaven.  The kites were feeding though, and the ants, and various other beasties.
There are other road kills.  Taipan snakes.  Feral pigs. 
‘Anna has gone to the hospital,’ one of the riders tells us as we stop for a coffee.  ‘She might be back, but maybe not.’
Anna was one of the female riders who had damaged her ankle when she parted company with her machine.  That’s two down so far.  Maybe more.  I had heard about someone whose back had gone, not from a fall but from a simple task like kick-starting the bike.  My knees gripped the fuel tank of my lovely redheaded Honda beauty, with her hot vibrating flanks and willing chassis.  We were not getting divorced if I could help it.  Let no bull dust put us asunder.  Till death us do part, I thought, hoping of course that it wouldn’t come to that.
We entered Barcaldine by crossing a railway.
Railway journeys I have known.
My wife Annette and I were in Thailand in the late 1980’s.  We wanted to travel by train from Bangkok to Chang Mai on an overnight sleeper train.  Just obtaining the ticket turned the clock back to a time when Rudyard Kipling was in his youth.  First we obtained a number at a kiosk.  We took that number, just a simple figure like 8 or 9, to an office where a man wrote our names in a great ledger.  We then went to another office where we were assigned seats and canvas bunk beds that unrolled from the side of the carriage.  Finally, we went to the last office, where we were issued with tickets for the 6 pm train to Chang Mai.
We were excited.  This was our first long rail trip in the Far East.
At quarter-to-six that evening we boarded a train which said ‘Bangkok to Chang Mai’ on the side in big letters.  The platform from which it was leaving was registered on both our tickets.  We stowed our luggage, sat in our seats and were delighted to be served curry from a man who had a portable paraffin stove set up in the linked bit between the next carriage and ours.  We had especially opted for no air conditioning, because we like the climate of Thailand and don’t like to freeze.
The train pulled out at precisely 6 pm.
Once out in the countryside we would stop only at the odd station, but on the edge of Bangkok there were a number of suburban halts where people could board.  At about 7 pm a Thai family entered our carriage.  There was dad, mum and two children.  The man looked at us, looked at his tickets, and said, ‘Madam and sir, you are in our seats.’
I took out my own tickets, looked at the seat numbers, checked the carriage number, and shook my head.
‘You’ve made a mistake.  These are our seats.’
He shrugged and showed me his tickets.  I showed him mine.  They were identical.  Damn railway clerks, I thought.  They’ve either sold the seats twice, or made a stupid error.  All those ledgers too!  You would think the system infallible with so much bureaucracy.
‘I must fetch the ticket inspector,’ said the Thai gentleman.  ‘He’ll know what to do.’
‘Good idea,’ I replied, safe in the knowledge that possession was nine tenths of the law.  ‘He’ll sort it out.’
In the meantime I offered my seat to the man’s wife and Annette chatted to the two children.
The ticket inspector turned out to be a corpulent official covered in gold lanyards, medals and scrambled egg.  He looked like an amiable general in Thailand’s army.  However, he was accompanied by a lean narrow-eyed lieutenant who wore a gun at his hip.  This one looked like an officer in the Vietcong, the one from the movie ‘The Deerhunter’ who keeps yelling, ‘Wai!  Wai! Wai!’ or some such word into the ear of Robert de Niro.  This man’s hand never left his gun butt as he stared at me from beneath the slanted peak of his immaculate cap.
Neither of these rail officials spoke English.
The ticket inspector studied all the tickets on show and then spoke softly to the gentleman with the nice family.
‘He wants to know,’ said the gentleman, turning to me, ‘why you are on the wrong train?’
We were nonplussed.  Stunned.  Gobsmacked.
‘What wrong train?’ I argued.  ‘This is the 6 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, isn’t it?’
‘No,’ came the calm reply, ‘this is the 3 pm from Bangkok to Chang Mai, running late as usual.’
‘What?  You mean . . .’
‘All trains run late here, sir.  The 6 pm will still be standing in the station.  The ticket inspector says you will have to get off at the next station and wait for your right train.’
Annette and I stared out of the window at the blackness rushing by.  The country stations had no lights whatsoever.  They were pits of darkness in a world of utter darkness.  I had visions of standing on one of those rickety wooden platforms trying to flag down an express.  It was scary.  Too scary to contemplate.  I’m sure the people who lived near those stations were perfectly respectable citizens, but the night time jungle does things with the imagination.  There was no way we were going to get off our train, now that we were rattling towards Chang Mai.
Through our gentleman translator we managed to persuade the inspector to let us stay on the train.  At first he wanted to sell us first class tickets to the air conditioned compartments.  When that didn’t work - Annette digging in her heels - he found us similar seats to the ones we already had.  It occurred to me he could have done that in the first place, but since all was well that ended well, I really didn’t care.
There is a post script to this short tale.
To avoid any repetition of this near horror story, we chose to return to Bangkok by a reliable bus.  I kid you not when I say that when we boarded the coach our pre-booked seats were completely overflowing with Thai monks.  We explained to these orange-robed young men that they were in our seats and they pointedly ignored us, staring out of the window.  I fetched the driver who said, ‘Sir, as monks they are permitted to sit anywhere, eat anything, and the law tells us we can do nothing.’  Since young men serve a year or two as monks, in the way that they do their national service in the army, we weren’t too impressed by the piety side of things.  They were not dedicated holy men, having taken vows of poverty, but ordinary youths serving out a set time.
The guys wouldn’t budge.  They knew their rights.
A fierce woman conductor told us to ‘get off the bus’.  We told her we had tickets for the seats these two queue jumpers were sitting in.  We were not going to move.  Other passengers began to get restless.  The driver started looking panicky.  Finally he came to us with his hands clasped as if in prayer and said, ‘Sir, Madam, I beseech you.  I plead with you to understand my problem and leave the bus.’  We sighed, gave up and got off the vehicle.  It’s a tough man who can withstand a Thai beseeching, I can tell you.  Tougher than me, anyway.  We collected our luggage from underneath the bus and waited for the next one.  Hopefully the place had run out of monks and we could get back to Bangkok.  And where do Thai bus drivers learn words like ‘beseech’?  I guarantee half the population of the English-speaking world doesn’t know that word.  He probably had a degree in English Literature, having read Chaucer and Piers Ploughman, while all I know of Thai is ‘good day’.

         One problem began to mar my voyage through the Outback.  Although I had managed to phone Annette at Gayndah on the first evening, I hadn't managed to contact her since then.  She had taken the tilt train from Brisbane to Cairns, then set out for some Quaker Friends located on the Atherton Tablelands. 
         The trouble was we both had UK mobiles which for some reason would not work in the Outback.  I borrowed Pete's Aussie mobile but by that time Annette had disappeared into the Tablelands, a remote area of rainforest and bush, where she would be looking for wildlife.  (She eventually became 'the platypus lady' having located some of these strange creatures and asked by the eco lodge to take out parties to see them).  Her location was as bad as mine, for cell phone reception.  I knew she would be worrying about how I was managing, but I couldn’t get hold of her.  (In fact, we would not manage to speak again until I reached Innot Springs near the end of the ride, though she had by that time contacted one of the organisers’ mothers and ascertained I was not in surgery).

         It would have been nice to get all excited by each day's events and share them with Annette on the going down of the sun, but hey, when we were first married the Royal Air Force sent me to South Yemen for a year during which we could only communicate by letter, and it had been far more dangerous then, since I was being shot at, probably quite rightly, by anti-colonialist Arabians who wanted me out of their country almost as much I wanted to get out.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback - Day Two

Day Two

I remember that morning vividly.  It wasn’t the Outback, there were still fences, but the landscape opened up like untying a brown parcel.  It became immense.  Even though 50 riders started off almost together, we soon became strung out.  There were younger more vigorous riders who wanted to burn it up out front.  There were those who wanted to dawdle and take photos of everything from yellow-flowering wattle trees to dead kangaroos.  I sort of found myself in the middle.  Mostly I stuck to Pete’s tail, terrified I would get lost if I didn’t.  (It was bloody easy to miss those coloured ribbons marking our route). But on occasion I was the only person in a gigantic flat bushland.  Solitary Max.  It was quite cold early on, before the sun had warmed the world.  The wind cut through me as I hurtled into it at 70 kms.  I made a mental note to stuff newspaper down the front of my jacket.
This is what I had joined this rally for.  Being alone in the Australian hinterland is indescribable.  It’s truly awe-inspiring, frightening in its immensity, and stunning in its aspect.  I felt so very privileged to be able to experience such a scene.  It drained me of all the bad feelings I had ever had.  It filled me with wonder. My spirit expanded with the wide open wilderness as I hummed and rattled along the road, the bush stretching to infinity on either side, to back and to front.  I was in the bubble of a sky the size of a universe.  It was royal blue with puffs of cloud like the spots on a fallow deer’s flanks.  Except, down the centre of heaven was this long, long cloud, oh, a hundred kilometres long, under which I travelled most of the morning.  Talk about white-line fever.  I had one under me and one over me. 
And crossing this rufous, sandy landscape horizontally, every half-hour or so, was a narrow creek.  It might be CARVING KNIFE CREEK, or WOOMBA CREEK, or simply, JACK’S CREEK. Most had no water in them.  One or two did.  The trees around waterholes hid kangaroos and other wildlife.  But I have to say most of the roos I saw were road kills, that threw up an unholy stink from their open-vault graves.  No doubt they’d been hit by road trains, trucks or big cars.  Unlike the rabbits or crows of England, they didn’t flatten.  If they were actually on the tarmac their bloated forms looked like hot-air balloons.  I swerved round them, disturbing a thousand flies.  Some of them were meals for the carrion-eating whistling kites, that soared overhead.
Today we started out towards Mundubbera, heading first towards Cracow.  I saw a twelve-inch blue-tongued lizard crossing the road in front of me: lovely creature.  Around me the bush, with the occasional shrub, dwarf tree, or rocky outcrop.  The noise from my bike engine was excruciating after a while.  It grated on the nerves and I realised why a lot of the lads wore earplugs.  Also my riding gear was uncomfortable.  The goggles pressed my glasses into the bridge of my nose.  Flies got inside the helmet and drove me insane.  I itched in various places.  My bum got sore after two hours.  My teeth rattled along with the loose bits of metal on the bike frame.  When I hit a bump in the road the jolt went right up my spine and kicked my cerebellum like a football.  The scenery was magnificent.  The method of viewing it less so.
That last evening one of the Ozzie biker boys had sat down next to me after the meal and had started to talk bikes.  Pistons, drive-chains, cooling ribs, fairings, etc., etc.  He might have been speaking in the tongues of angels, so far as I was aware.  My eyes glazed over after five minutes, though I listened politely for half-an-hour before saying, ‘Look mate, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I’m not a biker.  I’m on this trip for other reasons.’  He stared at me in a puzzled way for a minute or two, then said, ‘Yeah, OK, mate . . .’ then carried on for the next hour-and-a-half in the same vein as before, without pause for breath. 
If I knew nothing about bikes when he’d started his talk, I knew even less about them at the end, realising as one does, how complex and intricate was this holy subject, and how utterly confused I was by it.  I knew where the gear lever was (quite a lot of the time actually) and the rear brake (when I remembered it wasn’t on the handlebars, like the front brake) and a few of the little switches like the fuel switch and cut-out switch, oh, and the bung hole where you top up with oil, but as to what lay beneath the cladding, that was still a occidental secret.  I could lube my chain, refill my fuel tank, put air in the tyres, check the oil, start and stop the machine (with only occasional hiccups) and that was good enough for the run we were on.  If anything else went wrong I ran to Richard-the-mechanic and started to cry.  Richard is one of those unsung geniuses who know everything about bikes and probably bikers, has taught kings and princes the fundamentals of bike maintenance, and who never ever reveals his disdain for idiots like me.  When fixing whatever it was that had gone wrong he always told me what he was doing, why he was doing it, and what the end product should be. 
Miraculously I absorbed these snippets of knowledge so that next time I could fix the same problem myself.
The run to Cracow was just short of 200 kms, some of it over gravel roads which required a certain amount of respect.
In a roadside cafĂ©, many of us were sipping coffee, dressed in our biker gear, with the robust red Honda Postie Bikes propped up in a neat row in the parking lane outside.  A little old lady of the Outback entered and stared around with saucer eyes at the luminous-jacketed riders.
‘My goodness,’ she said, ‘what are all you posties doing out here?’
One of the guys, on his way to the exit, said firmly,  ‘Step aside if you please, madam - the mail must get through.’
We laughed then let her in on the secret.  She laughed with us.
At another place, a real postie joined the end of our straggling line of machines, staying with us for a couple of kilometres, before turning off on a farm track and waving a cheery goodbye.
Cracow is an ex-gold-mining town in the unlikely named Banana Shire area.  Cracow was obviously named after the Polish city with a different spelling.  All we saw of this ghost town was the Cracow Hotel, which is owned by a guy called Fred Brophy, a famous bush boxing manager.  The large bar inside the hotel (which looks a bit like a giant clapboard shack) is crammed with artefacts, from antlers to music boxes to worn saddles.  It’s an Aladdin’s cave of junk that would send a Victorian era collector into shudders of ecstasy.  Apparently tourists are attracted the place, one of the reasons being there is probably no other watering hole in the district.  I liked it.  It has to be seen.  We were told the first bit of gold to be found, back in the glory days of Cracow, was discovered by some wandering fossil hunters.  Then another nugget was picked up by an Aborigine (who I hope made himself a rich man) and the subsequent mine was only closed down in 1976.
And so we thundered on towards the famous Banana itself, a small town named after a dun-coloured bullock who lived and died there in the mid-1800s, a beast held in affection by the local stockmen who used old Banana to herd the wilder elements of their cattle into the stockyards.  That’s what you do in Oz.  You don’t have fancy Anglo-Saxon or Viking names for your towns.  You name them after your favourite hound or work horse.  And past Banana we went, with barely a backward glance, intent on reaching our goal which was the town of Rolleston over 200 kms away.  We were staying at the Rolleston racecourse that night.  My little motorbike was hot between my thighs and as we ate bitumen at the end of that day I recalled similar bikes and bikers I had seen in various parts of the world, especially on the Asian continent.
The small motorbike has been a great boon to the poorer areas of the world (some of them no longer so poor).  I’ve spent a great deal of time in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries and have witnessed some hair-raising small-motorbike-sights. 
I remember once seeing two men riding in Ho Chi Min city.  One guy was sitting on the saddle, head down, throttle open to the limit.  His friend was standing on the pegs over the top of him.  In the hands of the standing man was a huge pane of plate glass.  His arms were stretched wide in the shape of a crucifix, his fingers hooked around the far edges of the glass.  Around, in front, behind, and just about everywhere, were other bikes, cars, trucks - whizzing near this pair with only fractions of a inch to spare.  I leave it to your own imagination how close these two came to death by multiple lacerations.
In another Far Eastern land, it was quite common to see a man sitting on a small motorbike with a live domestic beast sitting on the pillion seat, usually a pig, its front trotters tied together, its legs around the neck of the driver of the vehicle.  It seemed never to bother either rider or passenger that they were cheek by jowl, the snout of the sow alongside the nose of the man.  In fact it appeared to be the most natural thing in the world and I wonder if conversations were held between the two, one in animalese and the other in humanese.  A grunt here, a snort there, an understanding developing over the journey to market.
 By the afternoon we were still not in the Outback.  I could see fences all around.  There were irrigation channels too.   Someone, Ewan I think, said he’d noticed cotton farming around the area.  Ewan came from Darwin, so he knew the north well.  He was a tall quietly-spoken man with ‘Lonesome Rider’ on his back.  I liked him.  There was no brashness or side about Ewan.
We refuelled at Theodore that day.  Refuelling was done off the back of one of the trucks.  You started out in the morning with 5 litres in the bike tank and five litres in the spare can.  That would, in theory, take you 250 kms or more, depending on the rider’s weight and how fast you pushed the bike along.  Some days, like today, we had 450 kms to do.  At the refuelling, usually midday or thereabouts, you took on another 10 litres and so could finish the journey comfortably.
In the afternoon we passed mining operations with trucks going back and forth.  Otherwise it was endless road, going on to the edge of the world.  I’m told that one of the riders, a guy named Cam, was attacked by a dog in Theodore town.  Then in the afternoon a Jack Russell flew at him from out of nowhere.  I noticed him around the Rolleston camp, later, with ‘Two Dogs’ written on his back.  Cam must give off one of those atmospheres that drives dogs wild.  Who knows, maybe he had some kangaroo dung on his boots?
There were two more casualties in camp.  One of the women had fallen off her bike on the dirt road coming into the camp.  Her leg was injured and the ambulance was called for.  Also someone else was stretched out on his back, clearly in pain from that area.  Two days and three casualties?  Heck, at this rate would get through half our number before the ride was over.
There was a sheet we were supposed to sign when we arrived at our destination every day.  It was a simple task, but one which I constantly failed at.  As usual when I arrived at the camp that afternoon I forgot to sign the arrival sheet.  I always forgot to sign it and in the end they got tired of bollocking me.  My head was so full of long white clouds and distant horizons there was no room for ordinary things like the signing of sheets to confirm that I wasn’t actually lost out in the wilderness, but here in camp humming a simple tune as I knocked in tent pegs one by one.  Kylie must have got awfully tired of this Pom.
We had corned beef, cooked Aussie Outback style, for dinner, amongst a bunch of vegetables and bread.  And pudding too.  Followed by coffee or tea.  It was clear from the start we weren’t going to starve on this run.  I had thought I might be able to lean down over the trip but the meals on those first two days soon put that wish back at the bottom of the well.  I could just not eat so much, of course, which would do the trick, but damn me it would be a strong man who could resist that country cooking after a day in the saddle, yippy-ay-yay old buddy.
Everyone was getting to know each other a bit better by this second evening and exchanging stuff about home towns, home countries, home continents.  The Aussies and the Kiwis got on best of course, and worst, just like rival neighbours anywhere.  They reminded me of the English and Scots back home.  When I see some Kiwis and Aussies sitting together, I just like to toss in the world ‘rugby’ or ‘cricket’ and watch as the temperature rises on both sides of the table.  The Brits and the Yanks did not have the same ground to battle on.  They don’t play soccer or rugby and we don’t play baseball or their football, so we ended up being awfully polite to one another, which was a bit tame.  I went to look for Pete later, to have a talk about cricket.  He was good for a blast at any time and would lambaste the English cricket team at the drop of an Akubra, while I - albeit with lesser ammunition - would have a good go at destroying the myth of Australian cricket domination.
I went to bed that night about 8.30, along with most of the camp.  I woke again at about 11.30 and went to the toilet.  It was dark over the camp site but there was one area where it was lit.  Under a pool of light that fizzed with black clouds of flying insects the small team of mechanics were still hard at work.  Richard, Lang, Mick and Andy were probably all there, tinkering away with problems we had given the machines during the day.  I noticed a sad-looking bike with its guts strewn all over a slab of concrete flooring, the frame already thick with dirt.  An autopsy. How the heck these metal surgeons put such dismembered bikes back together, all the bits in the right places, was beyond a mind like mine. This scene of engineering men - heads uncluttered by literary junk - toiling under late lamplights, righting mechanical wrongs, repeated itself over the next few nights. 
It was of course a long way from the world of the wordsmith, this world of mechanics, though I too have laboured nights at getting the right line in the right place, turning a few jumbled words into a poem.  This was a vision of men who had made a modern day craft into an art.  My work had never been good enough to cross boundaries like that.  I could not turn an art into a useful thing: others took what I did and did that.  They took my words and produced books.  I have the greatest admiration for men like Lang who can rebuild antique aircraft and then have the guts to fly their recreations halfway round the world. 
Men like Lang Kidby turn metal puzzles into actual shapes that one can not only touch and smell, see and hear, but that can do things like race along the road or fly in the air.  I’ve written 80 novels and over 200 short stories, but they don’t race and they don’t fly, they don’t do anything except sit there and wait to be read.  As for engineering, if I can mend the toilet ballcock when it goes wrong (which I can do fellah) I congratulate the engineer in me.  To understand the precision-made parts of a modern machine, to make an engine actually work, must be immensely satisfying.  That kind of achievement is so far out of my mental territory it might as well be on the moon.

 The blow-up pillow was useless, so I stuffed a sock bag with a towel and used that.  It wasn’t like home, but then nothing was.  Indeed, I slept well until shocked awake by clanks and crashes.  I sat bolt upright at 4 am thinking we’d been invaded and the tanks were breaking down the metal corrals.  Then I remembered we were in the middle of Queensland and tanks would have job getting through the bull dust.  It turned out to be a cattle station nearby, that was loading up its cattle B Doubles (articulated cattle trucks) ready for the day.  What a racket!  Had no one told them there were tired bikers in the next field?  Would they have given a monkey’s uncle if they had been told?  Of course not.  I managed to fall asleep again, but my dreams were full of sledgehammers.