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.’
‘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.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 8)

Day Eight

         'Morning, Bill.' 
         (This was Bill the American, a genial bloke from Arizona who worked in East Asia).
         'Morning, Bill.'
         (This was Bill the Aussie, a writer of non-fiction histories. Very tall, very elegant for an Aussie.)
         'Morning, Bill.'
         (This was . . .)
         Heck, if you shouted 'Bill!' in the morning, about a dozen replies would come from all sides.  Just like that oldie, if you yell Jock down the hatch of the engine room of a seagoing vessel (or rather more lately, a spacegoing starship) someone is bound to appear wiping his hands on an oily rag.
         I stared out over the landscape.  One of the two Cuzzies had accidentally hit a kangaroo over the last few days and unfortunately killed it stone dead.  The rider and his bike were undamaged, so I understood.  How this can happen with a Honda 110 is astonishing, kangaroos being big fellahs and bikes and blokes being a great deal smaller.  Accidents like this were rare, but they did happen on occasion.  A kangaroo had almost jumped on my bike earlier. It managed to swerve away when it was almost on me.  Something spooks the creatures, out in the bush (maybe the bike engines?) and they just bounce off at high speed, crossing the highway if it's in their path.
         There were also non-indigenous creatures out there. Wildcats, camels, wild pigs.  I had been reading about the camels. Apparently when they were first introduced to Australia they came with Arab camel drivers.  The writer of the article also said that when a camel driver died the lead camel was always killed and buried with him.  Tradition.
         I imagined a little scene in the Outback with the lead camel waking up and seeing the stiff body of his driver lying nearby, thinking, 'Oh crap!' and trying to make a run for it.  This would account for all the wild camels now roaming the antipodean desert. Escapees from a sort of camel suttee.  I didn't see any wild camels this trip but they had seen them last year.  I think Pete took one or two photos of a herd.
         I saw wild pigs, big ugly fellahs, but they were always on the side of the road, having been struck dead by traffic.  These cadavers were usually bloated to twice their normal size and smelling fairly ripe.  The stink would wrap around you like clingfilm as you rode past, reluctant to let you go.  There was also a danger of hitting these carcasses and going over the bars, especially late in the day when the tiredness came on.  
         I was on the lookout for my first wild camel carcass.
         After breakfast at the Purple Pub, we set out for Karumba, a small town on the Gulf of Carpenteria.  So far the trip had been totally linear, but Karumba was a sort of side-shoot, a day trip to the seaside.  Our eventual destination was Croyden – no, not one south of London – an old mining town on the way back to the east coast.
         Karumba! Doesn't Bart Simpson say that, ever so often?  Aye, karumba!  I think I used to say it too, when I was a kid.  Anyway, this offshoot was a pleasant diversion, across marshy country and close to mangrove swamps.  The sky was full of those beautiful birds the brolgas, majestic as the herons of my own Suffolk waterlands. I did not tire of seeing flocks of them above me and more than once almost ended up in the ditch through not paying attention to where I was going.
         Karumba is a fishing town.  Prawns and barramundi apparently earn somebody in the region $130 million dollars a year.  That's a lot of dosh.  On approaching the town I saw a sign: WELCOME TO KARUMBA – POPULATION SMALL, BUT WE LOVE THEM ALL.  Nice way to tell people to drive carefully.  The Outback towns were fond of their signs.  One of them, no doubt suffering a drought, said: WANNA BATH? - BYO WATER.
I would have liked to visit Sweers Island, 30-odd miles out from Karumba, but my little 21 was unfortunately not aquatic.
         Sweers Island is home to about fifty species of bird. Charles Darwin dropped off there on his way around the world in the Beagle.  He might have met the Kaiadilt people who it seems traditionally use the island for seafood gathering.  That redoubtable sea captain Flinders gave the place a name in English, though undoubtedly it had one anyway in another language.  He called it Sweers after a politician.  Personally I wouldn't even name a dunny after a politician – or maybe I would – but only a dunny.
         Captain Flinders and Captain Cook are well thought of in Oz, which is rare considering they're Poms.  There's railway stations, streets, squares and even towns named after them.  Good blokes, apparently, who navigated much of that which needed navigating back in the days when hardly anything had been mapped or charted.  And so far as I know, neither of them were whingers, which goes down well with the local populace.  Good on yer, captains courageous.
         'You want to see the sea?' asked Pete, as we arrived in Karumba.  'There's quite a bit of it.'
         So there was.  A lot of sea.  Blue too.
         The first thing I saw above the beach was a sign which said, 'Watch out for salt water crocodiles.'  It said it in English of course, but it also had a huge 'ACHTUNG!' and then said it more emphatically in German.  Perhaps the crocs don't eat Frenchmen or Italians?  Or maybe the Germans are particularly careless with their bodies?  Who knows, I know I wasn't going to go swimming off that damn beach, which incidentally was being churned up by reckless young men on postie bikes when I arrived.  They were having a sand party.  I wasn't skilled enough to do the doughnuts and other stuff they were making their Hondas do, but it looked great fun.
         Schoolteacher Josie's bike now had training wheels on the back.  Someone had found the wheels in a garage sale and fitted them on for a joke.  Richard-the-mechanic did not approve and they were removed a little later.
         Pete and I went for a quiet coffee.  I tried another of those double-shot long blacks that he always kicks his system off with.  I was getting used to them.  Whether I'd ever get to likethem was another matter. They certainly got the blood racing round the arteries.
         We were supposed to be visiting the barramundi factory and I had been looking forward to seeing a live one of these fish, but the factory was closed.  Someone had forgotten it was Sunday.  Apparently Aussies don't work on Sunday, which is pretty slack of them when you come to think about it.  Still, we zoomed around town like the Wild Ones, and had a good look at everything before heading back towards Normanton.
         John told us later that he had come across a broken down road train, a monster that had been stilled.
         'The driver was kicking the wheels and calling it all sorts of ugly names,' John said.  'The vehicle was stuck halfway across the road and had seized on the turn.  When I arrived they'd got two tow vehicles trying to shift it, but it didn't look as though it was going to move.'
         Like trying to get a dead diplodocus out the way, I should imagine.
         John didn't get any photos which was a shame.
         The ride to Croyden was long and hazy. One of those stretches of bitumen which can make you sleepy.  I hate that feeling when your eyes begin closing and you have to force them open with muscles you don't usually use.  On those occasions I sang lustily to myself, old folk songs, old scout songs, anything, it didn't matter because it was all inside my helmet.  No one else could hear and that was a blessing. 
         (I was once lost for 48 hours in the Yemen wilderness as a boy scout of 13 years – the maps were poor and a companion and I ended up circumnavigating an extinct volcano - and I sang the same songs then, only at that time brown kites, gazelles and pi-dogs were within earshot and I'm told they registered a complaint with the British Embassy.)
         One way to make the journey on bitumen go faster was to lean forward and flatten yourself against the handlebars, thus presenting a low target for the wind.  (Sit up and you act like a sail-brake).  I used this method, as did others, for overtaking some of the larger members of the ride.  And for going up long hills.  I could get past Pete easily on a hill, though he still argues the fact.  I passed QUASI-MOTO on this run, who took umbrage at my audacity and immediately repassed me.  STEADY and EDDIE were there, and CUZZIE BRO 1 and CUZZIE BRO 2, the two cousins who rode together.
         Still, the wide open spaces of Australia amazed me as I rode along.  If I was to get poetic (which I sometimes do) I would say it filled my spirit with something quite extraordinary.  I have never been to anywhere like it.  The deserts of the Middle East come close – I got a similar feeling when standing on the pink sands of Wadi Rum in Jordan – but Australia is unique in its atmosphere. I would like to have captured the feeling of riding through the open countryside of Queensland, and bottled it. In my great old age I would open that bottle and take a draught 'Aussie Outback' for I'm sure it would be more invigorating than any drug or medicine.
         Driving in Australia is in complete contrast to the other country where I spend a great deal of time: Spain.  Andalucia has its wide open spaces of course, its mountain fastnesses and its red-and-yellow coloured landscape, but when I'm there I find myself driving mostly through pueblos blancos, the white villages in the hills, with their ever-narrowing streets. 
         I can't count the times I've driven into a town or village in Southern Spain on a normal width road, only to discover that within a few yards my wing mirrors are brushing the walls of houses on both sides of the car.  I once mistakenly went down one of these funnels in a village in the Sierra Nevadas and realised we were not going to emerge out the other end of the street without ripping the doors off the hire car.  I had to turn round.  This involved asking a very obliging senora to open the front door of her home so that I could reverse over her stoop.  She was very generous and helpful, and so were her neighbours, who all emerged from their houses to give me advice on inching the corner of my car into her living room.  By the time I actually managed to turn the vehicle the sweat was pouring from my brow – most of it due to embarrassment and humiliation – while the villagers all cheered clapped.  There was probably more than a little sarcasm behind that applause.
         Croyden was a welcome sight.  We camped at the Rodeo Grounds again.  The Shire Council were looking after us here in this old goldmining town.  Would you believe there were once 5000 gold mines around this district?  Once we'd tented up, seen to our bikes and showered, we got a talk from one of the local officials who shall remain unnamed.
         'We used to have a shit-load of bawdy houses and pubs, and now we're down to one pub,' he said, 'but we're still on the map, with a shit-load of sheep, and a shit-load of cattle . . .'  He was great.  I wish he'd been my history teacher at school.  I listened to his talk with undivided attention.  He had one of those Outback accents which you only hear in old black-and-white movies about sheepshearers and flying doctors.  He used a shit-load of phrases I'd never heard before in my life.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 7)

Day Seven

         And so, another day dawned over the vast hinterland of north-eastern Australia.  Kookaburras, those charming sweet-voiced birds of the Queensland bush and billabong, woke me with their trilling.  Their song can only be compared to the nightingale, for its musical range and depth of passion.  Ha!
         I rose – it was still dark of course – with my miner's light wrapped around my head.  Packed my kit, washed and did certain other unmentionables in the ablutions, and then went to breakfast with my pals, Pete and John.
         As usual at breakfast I read the Queensland edition of Lonely Planet and looked up the towns we were going through.  I'm a huge fan of Tony Wheeler's Lonely Planet and have been since its conception.  I bought one of the first copies of Asia on a Shoestring, and travelled the Far East with it back in the days when Tony Wheeler was a struggling entrepreneur and I was a young buck of just 50 years of age.  Since that time he has published only one fiction book with his publishing company, an anthology of science fiction stories entitled Not The Only Planet which featured one of my own stories, the first I ever wrote, called Let's Go To Golgotha.
         Today was Gregory Downs to Normanton.  Burketown was on the way.  I had thought Proa Station was going to be the  most difficult ride.  Wrong.  Today was going to be the ultimate test of my basic biking skills (virtually zero), my stamina (pretty good), my spirit level (reasonably high) and my ability to bounce (which has got worse with age).  However, there was some bitumen at first, and Burketown was an early stop.
         Most of the bikes were behaving very well, with one or two exceptions.  Murray Nettheim's little gem apparently changed gear of its own accord when he hit soft sand.  Pete's bike was running too rich at one point and I think Scotty fixed that for him at a fuel stop.  The engine of another lad's bike cut out at odd times leaving him coasting. 
         Murray's strange gear-changing sounded very frustrating, since he said it often jumped from 4th to 2nd without warning.  Such a sudden change might have the rider somersaulting over the handlebars if he's not ready for it.  Murray suggested that the bike had decided it was an automatic, rather than a semi.  Or maybe the machine had decided it could read the road better than its rider?  Who knows, one day perhaps Steven King will write a horror novel about it and there'll be a movie.
         I always started 21 after breakfast, ran her for a few minutes to warm up her engine, then switched off again.  She started as ever like a dream.  Once I had a bit of trouble, but that was me, having knocked the choke lever on, thus trying to force rich fuel down her throat that she didn't want.  You can't blame a girl for objecting to that.  Another time the tall-guy Irish-Aussie surreptitiously messed with my cut-out switch, so I was left kicking the starter for a while, obviously with no result.  I saw him grinning at me and guessed what he'd done.  All a bit of fun, but it gave me grey hairs for a few minutes.
         Burketown, the first stop, was only 93 kms from Gregory Downs.  Almost 50 bikes hurtled into town and began devouring food and coffee, leaving the locals stunned and lacking provisions for at least two seasons.  I love Australian coffee shops and always enjoyed our brief stops at them.  It's very easy for a Pom to forget he isn't in his own country when everything on the menu is in English. 
         Then again when I'm in Oz or Kiwiland, I miss those strange distortions of the English language one gets on foreign menus.  In Greece once I had 'scrawbled eggs' and in Thailand 'massed potatoes'.  My all time favourite however, comes from Spain, where someone asked a friend for the English equivalent of aguacate (avacado), but what the friend heard was abogado.  What appeared in print on the menu was a wonderful salad consisting of 'tomatoes, lettuce and lawyers', an abogado being a Spanish lawyer.
         Burketown is on the Albert River and has a population of just under 200.  (About the size of my Suffolk village, back in the old United Kingdom).  Burke and Wills, the explorers, went past here on their way to the Gulf of Carpenteria.  This is where I saw another of those wonderful Morning Glory clouds which can reach sometimes to a 1000 kms in length.  Isn't that as long as Britain?  It was great to ride under it, trying to get from one end to the other. 
         Local weather is back to front if you want ideal conditions: hot humid and wet summers, but warm dry winters.  Cyclones are not unknown in the streets of Burketown.
         The area is rich in fossils and this is one of the regions where the giant Doom Duck, which I mentioned earlier, roamed the landscape in prehistoric times. 
         Nowadays it's a large fish that draws the tourists.  The barramundi or 'silver jack', a South East Asia game fish.  It's at home in fresh or salt water.  Its Australian name (I am told) means 'big scaly one' in the language of a tribe that lived near Rockhampton.  These fellahs get to 1.5 metres in length.  An interesting fact about this big fish is that if there’s an imbalance in their numbers - say, 100 girl fish, to only 50 boy fish - 25 of the girl fish will change their sex to even up the numbers.  Real gender benders.  That’s what I’m told.  I believe it to be true.
         The World Barramundi Fishing Championships are conducted out of Burketown.  If you're a good angler you can win $2600 dollars for the heaviest single catch.  Where I come from angling is the most popular sport, but you have to eat all you catch.  I would rather catch a cod than a barramundi. 
         You can also find freshwater crocodiles in the region around Burketown.  These prehistoric throwbacks aren't as hungry or ferocious as their salt water cousins up in the Gulf of Carpenteria and don't normally eat tourists.  I imagine they still have a nasty bite, so be careful when petting them.
         Back on the road again, grinding along.  Some of the riders were fairly hefty blokes, quite wide in the beam.  I often tucked myself behind one of these substantial characters and used them as a windbreak.  What I could never understand was that if they wanted to go fast, they did, and I had a job catching them, even though I was half their size.
         Next stop was the Leichhardt River, by way of Gunpowder Creek and Fiery Creek.  The Leichhardt was named after Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt, explorer and naturalist.   His name sounds a little Germanic to me, but apparently he was a Russian.  After several expeditions in the interior, Leichhardt vanished, as so many do in that wilderness even today.  His body never found but only in 2006 the remains of a shotgun bearing his name was discovered near Sturt Creek in Western Australia.
         After navigating the historic Leichhardt River the postie caravan came to the worst track I have ever seen.  It crossed the bush like a twisted red scar on the villainous face of the Outback.  There was bull dust lurking in every crevice.  On its surface was scattered loose gravel, rocks, sand and worst of all, corrugations.  It had been gouged both ways, long and wide.  There were horizontal ruts that resembled a corrugated iron and lateral ruts that grabbed the wheels and gripped them hard to prevent the rider from steering.  In the first few kilometres many riders bit the dust.  I was one of them.
         I saw Ewan go over and give himself a very nasty crack in the ribs.  Some people in a four-wheeler stopped to help him back on his feet.  A few minutes later I hit thick bull dust on the edge of the track and went over the bars.  On this occasion I wasn't going very fast and was more humbled than hurt.
         I suppose the worst thing about that ride was having my bones shaken for nearly 200 kms.  How the bikes stood the juddering of those corrugations were beyond me, because all I could hear was the rattling of metal on metal.  How the tyres never burst was again a miracle.  I know my body suffered from this hour on hour shaking.  It nearly drove me crazy. 
         At one point I decided not to ride on the track but to go on the edge of the bush, which was a little flatter.  Unfortunately every so often there was a natural ditch coming out of the bush which led right up to the edge of the dust road.  I hit one of these side-on ditches at medium speed and once more flew through the air with the greatest of ease.
         Unhurt again, I climbed back on the saddle and set off along the proper track, saying to hell with my internal organs if they wanted to change places I could do nothing about it.  I had a headache from the constant rattling of my whole frame.  I could see other riders having the same trouble, but the best of them seemed able to glide over the ruts.  It was one of the worst few hours of my life.  I thought it would never end.
         When I had about 60 kms to reach Normanton and despair was at its peak, I decided to try to emulate the good riders.  They were going at a much faster speed than me, so I assumed that speed was the answer, that one could skim over the ruts at a higher velocity.  I picked up my speed, until I was going somewhere between 60 and 70. 
         Of course, the faster you go the less time you have to see danger on the track.  I didn't see the huge lateral rut that trapped my front wheel until I was in it.  The rut had a twist in it at the end which knocked aside my front wheel.  This time I sailed through the air like a bird.  I didn't land like one, though, I came down like a bread pudding.  The track was iron hard.  It knocked all the wind out of me and I gulped on red dust.
         For a few minutes I just lay there in mild shock, looking up at the sky.  I remember seeing little puffy clouds.  I was hurting in several places, so I tested myself bit by bit to see if there were any broken bones.  Arms, legs, neck, back.   It seemed there were no serious breaks.  I got myself up and then dragged my bike to the edge of the road.  A single rider came along, a bloke named Gary, who I always called 'One-R' since my own name has two r's in it.
         'Are you OK?' he asked.  'Any real damage?'
         'No,' I gasped, still winded.  'Just shaken up I think.'
         He helped me off with my jacket to make sure there were no bones poking through the skin.  I had a healthy black bruise developing on my right arm and some lacerations.  Gary put some iodine on the cuts then asked me again.
         'Are you sure you're all right?'
         'I'm fine.  I'll wait for the repair truck.  You go on.  I'll be OK.'
         He rode off, leaving me to inspect my bike.  One of the mirrors had smashed, my speedo had bent over the front wheel and was pointing away from the rider and there were one or two other dints and scratches.  Oh well, I thought, at least I'll get a ride now, from the repair truck.  I won't have that last 60 kms to do over those sodding corrugations.  It was my only consolation for the tumble and my aches and pains.
         The truck arrived not long afterwards.
         It was Dan himself.  'Had a fall?'
         'Yep, I'm afraid I bent the bike a bit.'
         'Let's have a look.'
         I said, 'I must have been doing 70.'
         Dan replied, 'The damage isn't that bad – your handlebars would have been bent.'
         Most writers are prone to hyperboles.  It's our stock in trade.  We exaggerate.  Why spoil a good story with the truth, is what we maintain.  My dear wife is always straightening out the truth for me in front of people.
         'There were at least a hundred of them,' I say, excitedly.
         'Just twenty,' corrects my wife.
         Wives do that to you.  So do motorcycle challenge organisers.  Dan was having none of it.  So I guess I was probably doing less that 70, but how much less I don't know.  All I maintain now is I was doing 70 at some time, but probably at the time of the crash my speed had fallen to less than that figure.  My body felt it was 70, OK?
         He took the broken mirror off, then straightened the speedo before testing it by spinning the wheel.  Within a few minutes he had the bike in shape again.  A horrible feeling was creeping over me.  I really wanted that ride to Normanton, yet I knew I would be a failure if I took one.  No chance of even having the choice though.  Dan saw to that.
         'Right, off you go,' he said, holding the bike so that I could climb back into the saddle.  'See you at Normanton.'
         'Thanks Dan,' I said, choking back something that was stuck in my throat.  'Yeah, see you.'
         Sore in a very many places, I started off again, my teeth rattling, my bones rattling, my liver changing places with my kidneys.  It turned out it wasn't so bad.  I only had 30 kms before the road conditions change to a hard surface.  I cruised into Normanton, missed the sign to the Rodeo grounds (where we were camping for the night) and had to ask two aboriginal young ladies for directions. 
‘What?’ one of them asked.
They obviously didn't understand my English accent.
‘The rodeo grounds?’ I tried again, in an Aussie accent, which I’m pretty good at by the way.
They still looked at me as if I'd flown in from Mars.
I mimed an imitation of riding a bucking horse.
Still no comprehension in their eyes.
‘Rodeo grounds.  Rodeo,’ I cried, desperately.
‘Oh,’ said the older girl, ‘the Rodeo Grounds.’
To my way of thinking she hadn’t said it any different to my mimicking of an Aussie accent.
They both pointed back the way I’d come.
‘Thanks ladies.’
         Once in the camp I was met by Pete.
         'I hear you had a tumble.'
         'Three,' I admitted, 'but only one really counted – the other two were just falling-over-sideways tumbles.'
         'It happens,' he said.  'I had one last year.'
         'Just one?'
         'Hurry up and get your shower, we're going down to the Purple Pub,' he answered.
         Sure enough, everyone gathered at the Purple Pub, a local tavern painted – you guessed it – purple. 
         It was a good evening.  Good food, rugby on the television, several drinks to heal the pain in my limbs and body.  Josie arrived in an ambulance with her foot in a plastic bag, but able to carry on the ride.  Ewan told me how he went over his handlebars after hitting a large polythene water pipe.  That must have been when I saw him take his tumble.  'Not necessarily,' he said, 'I took a bigger one later.'  Others have parted company with their Hondas today.  Victims of combination of corrugations, loose gravel and bull dust.  I don't feel too bad, just a little upset with myself that I had actually contemplated a lift in the ute.  I wanted to do all the stages with my bum on the saddle.
         The best laugh I had that night was when John fell off his chair – I don't think he was even drunk at the time.
         At one point in the day, I can't remember when, we had all crowded round an 8.64 metre salt water croc – not a real one, of course, but a statue – for a photo.  Of course someone had to crawl into its mouth and have just his head and shoulders protruding.  Anyway, this was a crocodile famous for its length, and why shouldn't it be?  Over thirty feet of ravenous beast wouldn't be out of place on King Kong’s island.
         The meal at the Purple Pub was good, but halfway through I went to the bar to get a drink.  One of our guys was telling the barman a long and windy joke.  The barman was leaning on his bar with his eyes glazing over when I asked for a drink.  He turned round to get me one and the guy telling the joke said, ‘Hang on, I’ve got another one for you.  There’s this bloke . . .’
         The barman whipped back round and said, ‘Shit man, I nearly went to sleep during the last one.’
         Nothing so blunt as an Aussie barman.  The joke teller moved away, looking hurt, but at least I didn’t have to wait to get my drink.
Later a local woman sidled up to Pete, saying, ‘You married?’  ‘Yes I am,’ Pete told her.  ‘Oh dear. Well never mind then, have you got a few cents you can spare?’  Pete reached into his pocket and produced a coin.  She took it and went straight to the bar and asked for a drink, whereupon the barman sighed deeply and told her, ‘Look, Alice, you can’t beg for money in here.  You’ll have to leave.’  The woman made a face and went back to Pete and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go to another pub, they won’t serve us in this bloody place.’  Pete of course stayed firmly in his seat, but we had a good laugh at her cheek.