Thursday, 22 February 2018

Biking through the Aussie Outback

I've been doodling with my blog for several years now, not with a great deal of enthusiasm since it seemed to me that getting people to read it was far harder than actually writing it. I have only recently looked at the stats and while I only have a handful of 'followers' almost 16 thousand people have 'viewed' the blog since its inception. That figure gives me heart to try an experiment. In 2008 I did a motorcycle ride of 4000 kilometres in the Australian Outback, along with a bunch of others. I wrote a book about it, which I hope has its humorous bits and a little drama now and then. I'm going to post it chapter by chapter, one a week, to see if I can build up a few more followers. I'm not looking for an army, a horde would do. So here goes nothing.


An Australian Motorcycle Challenge

(My thanks to Ewan Grenenger and Murray Nettheim
for their notes on the ride.  Also to Ross Buxton and Geoff Vautier,
cousins, who kindly loaned me their prepared presentation.  And finally
thanks to John Hales who dragged me along to training on dirt
bikes with him over several counties.)

This book is for Dan, Kylie, Lang, Andy, Mick and Richard,
the team who got us from B to C.

And of course, not forgetting my mentor Pete Worth, without whom
I would never have been daft enough
to take part. Pete is also responsible for
the cover photo.

The Riders

Vaughan Adams       Lee Bolding      Brian Bosch      Ross Buxton
Frank Cogan      Bill Cooney      Tony Davis      David Davidson
Debra Drummond      Peter Drummond      Andrew Ebert      Bill Edgar
Dave Engstrom      Bill Fee      David Folpp      Ewan Grenengar
John Hales      Peter Hickie      Doug Hogg      Louisa Jade
Garry Kilworth      Neville Lewis      Jim Lightfoot      Warren Limpus
Geoff Madder      Bob Mathieson      Cameron McCarthy      Scott McMullen
Chris Mercer      Graham Meyers      Klaus Misins      Gary Moss
Murray Nettheim      George Pender      Vanessa Priest      Anna Renolds
Frank Smith      Bill Stevenson      Dave Thompson      Andrew Thompson
Michael Tulk      Geoff Vautier      Jack Walker      Josie Watts
Jenny Whitlock      Peter Williamson      Geoff Wilson     
Alan Worsfeld      Peter Worth      Roger Zwierlain


1. Beginnings

         You know you’re getting on a bit when you’re told that the next dog you get will probably outlive you. ‘We’d be better to get one from the rescue centre,’ said my wife Annette, ‘they’re often older dogs.’  It was reflecting on this very stark and sobering news that made me think, ‘I need a challenge.  Something that will test me before my bones grow brittle and my mind wanders off to the far side of the moon.’
         Have you seen the film ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ starring Anthony Hopkins?  It’s a true story about a New Zealander with a passion for motorbikes, who takes his Indian motorcycle to the Salt Lakes in America at the age of 60-something in order to break the world speed record.  Well I’m also 60-odd and the movie impressed me.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something like that before I keel over.’  The Australian Postie Bike Challenge is not as magnificent as a world speed attempt, but it did look more my mark.  Since I was in Melbourne at the time, it also seemed more appropriate.
         It’s true about the flies in Australia, they cluster around you like . . . well, like flies.  They’re not particularly large, like the British cattle-bothering clegs, but they are very, very persistent.  They hop around your face like fleas and crawl into all your orifices - up your nose, in the corners of your eyes, in your ears - seeking moisture, and boy are they determined to get it.  When I spent six months in Melbourne in 2007 I carried switches broken from a garden hedges and got carpal tunnel from constantly flicking it across my face to clear the ground.
         ‘You should see the flies up in Queensland,’ Peter, my Ozzie host told me.  ‘Big as bloody hippos.’
         He was exaggerating of course  It’s an Ozzie prerogative.  But Pete went on to talking about an expedition they do in that state every year, a thing he called the ‘Postie Bike Challenge’.  ‘I’m going to do it one year,’ he told me, ‘before the bones seize up.’
         I met Pete in 1971 on a camp site outside Athens.  He was newly married to Carolyn and I was driving home to UK from a 3-year RAF posting in Cyprus.  Besides Annette and myself, I had two kids in the VW Beetle, the camping gear, and everything else I owned in the world.  Pete and I played table tennis in a Corfu barn where the rain came down in torrents.  We kept in touch and visited from time to time.
Peter has done some wild things in his time.  He’s a competent yachtsman, holds a pilot’s licence and has had some adventures in the Australian way that would satisfy Odysseus.  His back yard is made for adventures and hearing him talk made me wish I’d emigrated to that land when I was younger.  I almost went as an older man.  My daughter’s family lived there for a few years and Annette and I would have joined them if they’d stayed.  Now that Pete has more time on his hands he seeks more adventures and I watch him closely to try to hang on to his coat tails when he finds a good one.  I’m not a sailor, but am up for almost anything else.  Pete is younger than me by about five years, but we’re both in our sixties.  Both fairly fit and healthy, me mostly from walking and dashing about a tennis court, but who knows when ill-health will strike a nasty blow, or the years become too heavy.
         ‘That sounds like good fun,’ I said.   ‘Tell me about it.’
         I thought he was going to extol the virtues of  bicycles.  A nice gentle pedal through the rainforests of Northern Queensland.  He wasn’t.  Australian postie bikes are not of the push variety.  They are full-blooded pedigree motorcycles.  Not big ones, admittedly.  110cc Hondas.  But they’re still quite fast.  I’d seen the local postman zipping about the streets of Melbourne on these machines and presumably they used them in the more remote areas of the land down-under too.
         Every year an organisation called Gridley Enterprises buys a batch of old postie bikes from the post office.  Gridley is not a charitable organisation in itself but it facilitates donations to Rotary.  A participant in the ‘challenge’ buys his second-hand Honda, flogs it over tarmac, dust road and gravel track, then gives it to Rotary at the end of the rally to dispose of as they will, either passing the bike on to a needy country or selling it and doing the something worthy with the cash.  Dan Gridley and Kylie Kidby plot a course, put it on the internet, and wait for would-be riders to contact them.  I make light of the organisation it must take: the hard work and logistics must be a nightmare.  Apparently they’ve never lost a rider in the wilderness, though they’ve had one or two fall by the wayside through injury or illness.
Pete said, ‘We should do the ride together.  The next one is from Brisbane to Cairns - B to C if you like.  It’s around 4000 kms, some of it through the Outback, some of it through rainforest.’
         We were drinking beers on the veranda of his house on the outskirts of Melbourne, contemplating the antics of a dozen noisy rainbow lorakeets in the branches of a massive tree above our heads.
‘I haven’t got a licence,’ I said at last
         Pete blinked.  ‘What?’
         ‘I haven’t got a motorbike licence.’
         The grizzled grey beard on his chin twitched.
         ‘Why?’  I began to get annoyed, more with my inadequacy than Pete’s incredulity.  ‘Because I never took the test.  I rode a bike, once, for a couple of weeks - a 250 Ariel Arrow - but I never got around to passing the test.  That was, oh, several hundred years ago, when-I-were-a-lad.’
         ‘Well bloody-well get one then.’
         And that was that.
         Actually, we were in March at the time.  The Postie Bike Challenge took place around September/October.  I wasn’t going home to UK for a while, so I knew 2007 was out.  I’d never get my test and organise another trip out to Oz in three months, not to mention the cost of the enterprise, which was over $4000, excluding air fares and other expenses.  It would have to be 2008.  Pete however was impatient.  He put in for the 2007 run, did it, and then wrote to me in UK and said he would also do the 2008 run, with me and a guy I hadn’t yet met, another Pommie friend of Pete’s who lived in Leicestershire.  John.
         As soon as I got home I rang an establishment called the Ipswich Rider School.  A pleasant young woman called Sue answered the phone.  ‘You come along here, darlin’,’ she said.  ‘We’ll soon have you riding around the Suffolk countryside.’  I went along there, and met Claire, Andy, Rob, and my instructor to be, the ever-patient Charlie.  Naturally they were all a bit puzzled as to why an ancient old scribe like me suddenly wanted to belt along the A14 on a 650cc Kawasaki Ninja.  (I wasn’t exactly a born-again biker: this being my initial birth.)  I explained it was all a bit tamer than that.  I needed to get a licence for a 125cc bike in order to tootle along the Bruce Highway in far-off Oz. 
They were all very polite.  Not one of them sniggered and they all patted me on the head and said they would do their very best to turn the raw material, this 5 feet 7 inches of effete writer, into a trail-blazing John Surtees - or they might have done, if they weren’t half my age and had actually heard of John Surtees.  I could see they weren’t optimistic.
I wondered who would take on the task of moulding this lump of clay into a mean-machine rider.  Claire, dark-haired and attractive, with a lovely smile, also took out riders, but I guessed most of her students were women who wanted to be taught by another female. Andy was tall, lean and rangy, a bit like Clint Eastwood.  He had tough-looking features that belied the guy underneath.  Andy was actually, like Rob and Charlie, a serious biker who strove to get the best out of young lads who were desperate to get out on the road on two wheels.  Rob was shorter, but more solid and tightly packed.  He looked like a martial arts instructor.  Charlie was something between the two.  Like me he wore glasses and had been a military man at one time.  It was Charlie who took me on. 
Good old patient Charlie.
‘I’ll get you up to speed,’ said Charlie.  ‘You buy yourself a helmet, jacket and boots, and a develop a good positive attitude.’
First, before I could even plant my bottom on a bike that touched the Queen’s highways, I would have to pass the government Compulsory Basic Training test.  I felt I was back in the R.A.F. again with TLAs (Three-Letter Abbreviations).  Charlie and some others took us in a truck to the site of a disused sugar factory on the edge of Ipswich.  I had three fellow students, all very much closer to kindergarten than me.  We were each given a motor scooter.  There followed an eyesight test (I just squeezed through by squinting in a semblance of Jack Palance playing Ghengis Khan) and a talk on safety.  Then we went outside and received instructions on the bikes’ controls. 
Finally we got to sit on one and tootle around some spaced-out traffic cones, getting the feel of the machine, learning some choreographed handling skills and feeling like Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’.  After which we had a ‘long but important talk’ - I forget what it was about, but amongst it was probably a warning about the dangers of forming our own biker gang and challenging the local chapter of Hells Angels.  (Adversity had brought us all quite close).  Later on in the day we at last burned up the highways and byways of Suffolk for two hours, which I found exhilarating and heady, even though we probably didn’t go above 25mph.  At the end of the day, having all passed, we relaxed with tea, while the youngest of our group shot away.
‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’ asked Charlie.
The youth grinned.  I’m 17 today - I’m off to pick up my the new Suzuki bike my mum and dad have bought me.’
He could ride it on the roads now his CBT was under his belt, so long as he wore his L-plates.
For me it was the beginning of on-road lessons, with Charlie riding patiently behind me, the voice over his radio mike gently steering me clear of killing either myself or any unwary pedestrians.  I had one nasty moment when I failed to see a car coming (my view was blocked by a parked van) when doing a U-turn.  Charlie stepped out into the road and held up his hand traffic-cop-like, to halt the vehicle speeding towards me.  I then got a strong lecture on lack of observation.
‘Don’t follow orders like an automaton,’ he chastised me, ‘you’re riding for yourself, not for me.’
I was to hear that phrase many times, even from the examiner on taking my test - Ride for yourself.  You were supposed to forget someone was tracking your every move from a few yards behind you.  You were supposed to be riding oblivious of that fact.  However, when someone’s murmuring instructions constantly in your left ear, it’s very difficult to imagine you’re on your sweet lonesome.  It’s easy to relinquish responsibility for yourself.  Fatal, but very, very easy.
I found the hardest things to do on the bike were the little manoeuvres like U-turns.  The bike wasn’t as sensitive to the touch as I’d have liked and it wasn’t difficult to under or oversteer when trying to U-turn on a narrow council estate road.  Touch either curb and you failed.  Put your foot down during the exercise, and you failed.  Whistle ‘Dixie’ and you failed.  It was very easy to fail the U-turn.
The thing to do was ‘look long’.  It was deadly to stare at the opposite curb as you turned - because that’s where you’d steer the bike.  You have to sit up straight and whip your head round halfway through, stare over your shoulder down the long road where you eventually want to be heading.  Right up to the test I was never sure I was going to get round without a foot going down.  On my first test try I did a perfect U-turn - I failed on something else.
Before I could take the practical test of course, I had to do the theory tests.  It’s fifty-seven years since I took my first driving test in a 20-year-old Austin 7.  That little Austin was a 747cc ‘Box Saloon’ motorcar which weighed less than its four passengers.  Based on the Ford Model T it had all the appearance of an 18th Century black carriage that had lost its horse.  A flimsy little vehicle - you could poke your finger through the upholstery - everything connected by wires.  Sometimes one of the wires snapped and you would lose the brakes, acceleration or steering: usually something fairly important to a long life. 
In those days there was no such thing as theory tests and if there had been, it wouldn’t have been taken on a computer.  The first part of the exam was the Hazard Test, where I had to play a game as the driver of a car indicating road hazards where they seemed likely to develop.  I’ve never been good with uncontrollable movements on screens and by the fifth hazard I felt desperately motion sick.  I did make it through to the fourteenth hazard, then belted for the toilet bowl.  When I came out, wiping my mouth, the examiner said wryly, ‘Mr Kilworth, the good news is, you don’t have to take it again.’  I’d passed.  And I also passed the multi-choice questions.  I’d taken that as a given anyway: I’ve always been good with ticks and crosses on paper.  It was the practical exam that I was concerned with, and I was right to be so.
Charlie took me over all the routes the examiner was likely to take me, pointing out the awkward places where I might meet a bus coming towards me, or junctions with strange angles.  In the main these did not bother me, nor the emergency stop or anything except the blasted U-turn of course.  What did bother me was the fact that I could be on a 40 MPH road without knowing it and could be failed for ‘not progressing’ or in layman’s language, going too slow.  Since I was new to the area and was being guided by a bodiless voice all the time I never quite knew where I was most of the time.  And some nice local kids had stolen a lot of the 40 MPH repeater signs: those little reminders normally fixed to lamp posts.  I often found myself doing 30 MPH on a 40 MPH road. 
Andy provided a good solution to this problem.
‘If you think you’re on a faster road,’ he said, ‘look down the sideroads.  If you see a thirty sign, you know the road you’re on must be forty.  You might pick up a minor for not progressing for a short distance, but if you do the whole length of the road without speeding up, it’ll be a major fault and he’s bound to fail you.’
I took my first test in May 2008.  I thought I’d done all right.
‘I’m afraid on this occasion you haven’t passed,’ said the examiner.  ‘Lack of observation.’
‘What?’ I asked.  ‘How? Where?’
‘On one stretch of the road there were vehicles parked down both sides and a bus coming down the middle.’
‘I saw that,’ I replied.  ‘I observed that, all right.  I slowed down and changed direction to avoid the bus.’
‘True, but you didn’t look in your mirror first.’
‘I did.’
‘Did . . .’ but of course,  I wasn’t going to win a playground battle of dids and didn’ts with an omnipotent examiner.  I had failed.  I felt devastated.  He asked me when I wanted to retest and I told him, ‘Never.’  Of course when I’d cooled down, Charlie and Andy persuaded me to take the thing again, which I did at the end of June.  Meanwhile from the far side of the planet Earth Pete was sending gently-encouraging emails like, ‘Pass your test you pommy girl’s blouse!  What’s the matter with you?  You’ve got two arms and two legs like everyone else.  Don’t think with your arse, think with your head.  You have got a brain somewhere in there, I suppose . . .’ and other such helpful rosy phrases.
I did take the test again, of course.  I was still totally obsessed with the U-turn, but again it went like a dream.  About halfway through the test disaster struck.  The examiner had managed to get himself a hundred yards or so behind me, back in traffic.  This is not unusual.  It’s always difficult for someone following behind to keep in touch with the man ahead.  I came to a roundabout and, since Charlie had always taken me a certain way, I turned right.  Even as I began my majestic sweep around the roundabout, having done my lifesaver - a brief glance over the right shoulder - I heard a voice in my ear saying, ‘Turn left at the roundabout.  Take the left turn.’  But I was already committed to turning right, and instead of continuing right round the bloody circuit, I panicked and took my usual exit.  It was a fast road.  I went quarter-of-a-mile before I was able to turn round and begin searching for my lost examiner.  The first person I saw was Charlie, who had been following both of us.
‘Where is he?’ I yelled, panic-stricken.  ‘Do you know?’
‘Somewhere on that housing estate,’ replied Charlie in a cool voice.  ‘Come on, we’ll find him . . .’
I followed faithful Charlie, who then left me parked by a curb while he did a square search of the region.  He found the examiner and brought him to me.  The first thing I asked the examiner, as he removed his helmet, was naturally, ‘Have I failed?’
His face was deadpan.  He replied quietly and calmly, ‘Unfortunately I can’t fail you for not following my instructions - only for making an error on the road.’  There was a moment’s silence while I digested this wonderful, unexpected piece of news, then he added, ‘But you’d better be very good after this, Garry,’ we were on first name terms now, ‘because you’ve just cost me most of my lunch hour.’
I did pass that day, by the skin of my teeth, and went home to find a short cheerful message on my phone from downunder Pete.  ‘Well done, Garry’ he said, ‘congratulations on passing your motorcycle test.’ I thought, how the hell does he know?  He was in Oz.  But of course Pete didn’t know.  He was guessing.  I like to think he had a little faith in this Pom.  I was like a two-year-old, full of jumping joy.  I was going to Oz to take part in the Postie Bike Challenge!  I had passed my bike test and was on my way.  It’s true to say I was as happy as Larry, which on reflection seems appropriate, since the expression is an Australian one and refers to Australian scallywags, which the Aussies call ‘larrikins’.  A larrikin is worse than a bloke, but not as bad as a hoon.  Hoons drive too fast and drive dangerously, I didn’t want to be one of them.  No-sir.  I just wanted to ride my bike and I wanted to ride it where I liked.
Pete said on the phone, ‘Once we start the ride though, you’re on your own!’
‘Fine,’ I replied, ‘but don’t expect me to share my jolly jumbuck with you when you run out of bread-and-jam.’

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