Someone told me at breakfast that we had actually lost a rider at Emerald. One of the blokes had damaged his back kick-starting the bike. It's easily done. A back can go just bending over and tying a shoelace. Poor devil, to have to leave the group after not even experiencing the high-flying excitement of going over the bars of his bike. That must have been a real bummer. I'd have been spitting bull dust.
A few of the lads found some skulls the previous day and had mounted them on their bike bars. These were the pure white headbones of dead rams, with beautiful curling horns, but they looked kind of sinister and cool as trophies on the front of the bikes. Big, bad riders and small mean-looking bikes. One rider had found a set of horns – ox by the look of them - and they too made a statement. The Wild Ones.
After a massive breakfast that would have fed an army, we gathered around Dan for the daily briefing. Today was another loooong ride. 459.5 kms. I was looking forward to the last .5 kms. I ached a bit from the previous day's battle with the bull dust. Perhaps it was my inexperience, gripping the bars too tightly, holding my body rigid instead of loosening up and going with the flow? Anyway, I was not looking forward to leaving Proa. We still had a few kilometres of dirt road and loose dust before we hit any solid ground. However, Dan told us the road out of Proa was better than the road in, so I thought to myself, 'Gotta learn to relax when I'm riding.'
We went out in our usual stream, 46 bikes now, all in a line, until the overtaking started and the wild ones went flying out in front, leaving their dust to be eaten. The headwinds were ferocious that day, forcing down the speed. Temperatures on the other hand, had risen, to around 35 degrees centigrade. There were kites and hawks feasting on kangaroo carcasses every few hundred metres. A bike passed me, with SQUIRTER written on the rider's back. And then TRYPOD, who was another Pom like myself. TRYPOD owned a good expensive camera and took some great photos with it, including some eagles and hawks which I'd specifically requested him to get for me. My own little camera was fine for most things, but photographing wildlife is an art and science in itself, and requires something more than a point and shoot.
YOU'VE BEEN PASSED BY ROGER was the next to throw dirt into my face with his back wheel. I said to Roger afterwards that a more penetrating statement on the back of his coat would have been YOU'VE JUST BEEN ROGERED, but alas they can't all be literary geniuses like moi. When I was thinking of writing something on my own back, I eventually put MONKEY CATCHER, the idea being 'Softly, softly catchee monkee', in that I would eventually finish the ride, no matter how slowly I went. In retrospect, I wish I'd put my other choice, which was MARVEST HOON, a spoonerism of HARVEST MOON. Australian 'hoons' being wild youths who drive bad boy cars at reckless speeds. However, this convolution seemed to erudite at the time.
I decided to ride alone again, given that we did have a good stretch of dirt road, and so let John and Pete shoot off. They were very competent riders, both of them, though John was ever impetuous and was known to leave the road and hurtle into paddocks to say hello to horses and other livestock. John is a wonderful talker and when he hasn't got anyone to listen, he probably talks to himself and his attention strays. There is nothing so cheery as John in the morning and he sort of bucks you up from the moment you rise. Good lad that he is.
However, our John is also fastidious. I'm amazed he was never a regular soldier in the army. I spent 18 years in the RAF and have some excuse for folding my shirts just so, but alongside John I'm a slob. Pete and I would stand waiting for John in the morning, as that man spent eons taking down his tent, packing his kit, and polishing the grass afterwards. Tent pegs would be lined up, poles standing to attention, clothes laid out just so. We all had to cram our gear in the army style kit bag – there was never enough room for tent, air bed, underwear, spare shirts, camping towel, air pump, and all the personal items – so even if stuff went in neatly, it came out looking like a jumble sale at the village hall.
Pete on the other hand is one of your taciturn Aussies. He would stand there watching John pack, shaking his head slowly and thoughtfully. Sometimes he growled. Sometimes he cast his eyes to heaven. We all have our foibles. I probably exasperated the pair of them, but heck, I'm lucky because I'm the one writing the book, and as far as I'm concerned, Kilworth is the perfect buddy to go on a bike ride with.
I got a bit of stick from John for not shaving and keeping the standard up – in Leicestershire they wear blazer and tie to the pub – but I did that anyway, later, because the bloody beard threatened to stifle me inside the helmet. It was one of those nightmarish imaginings, the hair growing and growing and filling the helmet until it finally suffocated the wearer. So I did shave, and I did wash out my underpants once or twice.
Underpants! Now there's an interesting subject for a bike riding challenge. Pete had warned me to get t-shirts and underpants that would dry quickly. You can get quick-drying clothes, towels, etc at any good camping shop. I'd got the towel and t-shirts, but not any underpants. Pete had also told me to bring boxer shorts, rather than briefs. I didn't know why and ignored the advice, bringing (it has to be said) mostly boxers, but two pairs of briefs also. I found out why.
On a bike you wear so much clobber you feel like a knight in armour. Once the stuff's on, you can't reach things like underpants without calling for your squire and having him assist you in de-armouring. I went out from Proa wearing briefs for the first time. Within two hours, having crossed the dreaded dust and found blessed tarmac again, I was writhing in agony. The briefs were cutting into the inside leg of my crotch like cheesewire. It was excruciating. I knew if I didn't stop soon I would sever both legs at the joints with the pelvis.
The motion of the bike – not the velocity but shaking and rattling – judders the rider forward all the time, while on the other hand for some inexplicable reason which has puzzled Greek philosophers from the beginning of time, underpant briefs remain static on the saddle. Rider shuffles forward, pants stay where they are. Pants then become a cutting instrument, trying to sever limb from torso.
I stopped to top up the fuel tank, but was exposed to girl bikers and cars going by every few minutes, so I couldn't strip and get rid of the offending item. There was no real cover off the highway. The bushes were pathetic little things that wouldn't have hidden a modest elf. The arboreal landscape was no better. The trees were stunted eucalypts – known affectionately as 'gum trees' in Oz – and acacias – known affectionately as 'wattles'.
Aussies, as you probably know, like to smooth awkward words – if they can't add an 'ie' to the end – sunnies, Pommies, etc – they give it a nickname. This has nothing to do with any lack of intellect. Aussies are at least as bright as any pommy bastard, most of them coming as they do from the same stock. It's more to do with liquidity of speech, having the words flow off the tongue. After all 'sunglasses' is not a word that poets instinctively find easy on the ear. 'Sunnies' is much more fluid. Americans call them ‘shades’ but they go for drama, rather than smoothness of speech.
I got back on my bike and rode on. Within the next hour there were genuine tears in my eyes. I became convinced that the Gestapo must have made their captives wear briefs, forcing them to ride small motorbikes until they burst into tears and spilled everything they knew about troop movements.
By lunch time I was desperate. The fuel stop for the day was a patch of stunted gum trees and wattles. Bugger, I thought. Not even an old oil drum to hide my white British bum. Then I had an idea. In with my compass and map (insurance against getting lost in the bush, like some tourists and even locals, who get out of their car for a toilet stop and end up lost and walkabouting until they die of thirst) I had a Swiss army knife. I got this weapon, reached down inside my rider's trousers and pulled up the edge of my briefs.
I slashed through one flank of the offending undies, then the other, and with great relief pulled the buggers out and threw them into a waste bin. Job done. Then I looked up to see I was being observed, with amusement, by one of the Aussie women riders. I grinned and shrugged. She laughed and turned away, and I saw WIND on her back.
I supposed she rode like the wind.
Going commando for the rest of the day was like having six birthdays all at once. I couldn't have been happier. The relief from pain was tremendous.
Regarding my map and compass. These were security blankets. I'm sure if someone gets lost out there, where there is nothing but empty red space, it's better staying where you are and waiting for help. As mentioned earlier, in my more anxiety-ridden moments I'd thought about bringing a GPS, but the expense did not justify the purchase. How much is your life worth, I asked myself before leaving England? Well, at least the cost of a compass, but a GPS? Not that much mate.
Two young bushmen who didn't get lost were Duncan and Donald McIntyre, mere youths at the time, who founded the town of Julie Creek in 1862. They named the town after their aunt after travelling from the south with 10,000 sheep and twenty-five horses. It's flat country around Julia Creek, once good cattle and sheep land, but now silver, lead and zinc mining has taken over. The area boasts a local marsupial which I did not see hair or pouch of, perhaps because it's nocturnal. It's called the dunnart. I would have liked to have seen a dunnart, simply because I'd never heard of the creature before passing Julia Creek. Also around the region somewhere is the Combo Waterhole, the billabong in Waltzing Matilda, but I didn't see that either. They've had fire, flood and drought in Julia Creek, and I wouldn't want to be there in mid-summer, that's for sure, because the temperatures climb to the forties.xxx
I caught up with Pete and John at Julia Creek, joining them for coffee at the local cafe. Pete always likes a double-shot long black which takes the roof off your mouth. I don't like flat white (a sort of latte) but I like my coffee a bit less system-shocking than double-shot long blacks. In Spain I usually order an 'Americano with milk on the side', so I can mix my own brew and get the strength to my liking. I tried to do that in Oz, got into all sorts of muddles, gave up and joined Pete.
'Did you see the road sign about planes landing?' I asked.
John said, 'You mean the one that said, ROAD MAY BE USED AS AN EMERGENCY RUNWAY?'
'That's the beggar. I kept looking over my shoulder for Jumbo jets.'
'Hercules,' muttered Pete. 'Not Jumbos.'
'Well they're big enough to knock me off my bike,' I argued, having flown in many a Charlie 130 in my time in the RAF. 'Hercules aircraft are no microlights.'
One of the lads, Cam, told us the clutch was slipping on his bike. My 21 still purred along, or rather screeched along, without a sign of a problem. I felt very privileged to own her. I loved her as I love my own children. It troubled me that at the end of the ride I would have to sell her into slavery.
After Julia Creek I headed for our destination for the night, which was a pub at Gregory Downs. I'd been told there was a river there, running past the pub, where we could all have a lark about and a swim. I'd not done any scallywagging up until then and was looking forward to it. The Gulf of Savannah seemed like a good place for larking around. The river at this point was supposed to be quiet tranquil water. I also thought to look out for the unique and spectacular Livistonia palm tree, but I must have missed it, both going and going out.
On the way to Gregory Downs we passed thousands upon thousands of termite mounds, like traffic cones covering a vast area. It was an amazing sight for a Pom, though the locals were not that impressed, having seen as much many times before I suppose. At a ten-minute stop later on, I spoke with a retired couple driving an RV, or campervan. There are hundreds of them in Oz where they're known as Grey Nomads. This pair were heading for the camp at Gregory. I was feeling frivolous and pretended I didn't know about the mounds.
'All these grave markers,' I said, 'there must have been quite a massacre here at some time.'
The man frowned. 'Termites,' he said.
'No,' said I, 'that can't be. Termites are little creatures, like ants. You wouldn't have big grave markers like that for termites.'
He closed one eye and I think he would have thumped me if I hadn't got on my bike and shot off down the road.
On the subject of termite mounds, we had a lass with us, Josie from the Sunshine Coast I believe. A schoolteacher. Josie decided to ride by one of the mounds and kick it, presumably to watch it disintegrate into dust particles. There were two big guys who watched out for others a lot of the time – I believe they too gained helper caps - but they failed to keep Josie out of trouble on this occasion. Josie found that termite mounds are as hard as concrete and she broke some toes. One more for the doctor at the next available clinic.
Gregory Downs pub was pretty good. There was vegetation down by the Gregory River. There were birds and signs of other wildlife. I liked the place. I tried to reach Annette again, but still no signal on my mobile. Pete's mobile worked fine, but it seemed that Annette's phone was still not in a state to receive the call. I knew she would be upset by this, but there was little I could do.
Since I wasn't going to use the bike again that day I decided to fill out my Running Sheet for the following morning. This was a horrible mental exercise for someone like me. I've never been great at arithmatic. In fact I'm crap. I'd got it wrong once or twice and had to use the rubber and start again. It was agony having to do it once, let alone twice over, so I furrowed my brow in concentration and used a piece of scrap paper to write down my calculations.
Gregory Downs to Normanton, past Burketown and over the Leichhardt River. My speedo read 38, 136 kms at this point in the journey. I added 93 kms to this figure which was the first stretch in the morning, making 38, 229 kms. When my speedo registered that figure I would have to Right turn to BURKETOWN according to my sheet. The next stretch was 119 kms, which again I added to the original 38,136 kms (not to the running total 38,229 as I had done once at the beginning of the ride, an exercise which would eventually result in a journey to the moon and back) making 38,255 before I had to right turn right again, to Normanton. Then the next stop, 190 kms further on, was the Leichhardt River, an historic crossing point, where we would refuel.
And so on, a whole sheet of figures which I taped to the bars of my bike each day. When I wanted to read this sheet, which was extremely difficult since with my glasses on my eyesight is remarkably poor at a distance of two feet, I would have to hold the shuddering, flapping sheet still with my left hand, squint down, glance up at the road, squint down, glance up, squint down, glance up – this series going on long enough for me to eventually read where I'm supposed to be going without leaving the road and hurtling into the bush.
Only twice on the whole ride did I take the wrong turning and somehow I instinctively knew I'd gone wrong, backtracked, waited for one of the others to come along. When I saw a red bike and had made sure it wasn't the local postie trying to fool me, I then took the same direction. Only twice, which I felt wasn't bad for a stranger in a strange land, and a rookie biker at that.
At the end of the day we would have done 341.9 kms and would hopefully be in the rodeo grounds of Normanton. Always the last 50 kms of the day were difficult for me, and I believe for others. I had to force my eyes to stay open. My bones and muscles ached with the juddering. My brain was full of bees. The bike engine seemed to get noisier and noisier, the mind and spirit got tired, and all I wanted to do was get to the end of the road. Some of the riders wore ear plugs and some carried ipods to drown out the grinding bike engine with pleasant music. If I'd thought to bring music of some kind I'd have gone for good Aussie folk.
Pete had introduced me to the Bushwackers, whose single favourite of mine is Limejuice Tub. The Bushwackers, now defunct, sing a great mix of Irish, English and plain old Aussie folk songs. If not the Bushwackers, then Midnight Oil, my favourite cd of theirs being Diesel and Dust. How appropriate would that be?