Sunday, 25 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day Five)

Day Five

                                    RUNNING SHEET

2008 Brisbane - Cairns
via the Gulf
The following running sheet has been provided as a guide

Day 5 continued
Straight on past Norollah off to left

Cross two causeways
Take fork to LEFT. CAUTION! Most traffic appears to go right
Windmill and grid
Straight on past Glenlyon off to left
Right at T-intersection
As a check, you should cross a grid shortly with truck tyres.
Keep to Right- Past Colleraine homestead
Wollston off to right
Straight on past Wimmera/Winchester ccrossroads crossroad.
Right Turn
Right Turn (veer right) to JULIA Ck CREEK
Straight on past Belford/Ardbrin cross road
Right turn at Junction (Helen Downs) off to left)
Edith Downs off to Left
Left Turn immediately over 2nd grid to PROA
Turn Left to PROA- about 4k in to homestead

TODAY'S   FUEL   STOP Corfield

            The second column on the running sheet is the one we had to fill in ourselves, working forward from the kilometres on our speedos.  There is no guarantee that my arithmatic is correct here.  I do not have a head for maths and I probably filled it in by torchlight in the early dawn, while sitting with a bunch of noisy eaters at the breakfast table.  This is the sheet we would attach to our handlebars in a plastic envelope, using sticky tape.  It flapped around so hard in the slipstream it was impossible to read without holding it still with the left hand, while glancing up and down at the road.  My running sheet nearly caused the death of me and would have caused the death of several kangaroos if they hadn’t already been run over by monster trucks or four-wheel drives.

         Climbing out of my tent at 5.30 am I looked up to see a marvellous cloud.  They call it Morning Glory here in Queensland.  It’s a giant rolling wave of white cloud, like a tsunami crossing the sky.  I’ve never seen any other cloud like it in my life.  For serene beauty nothing surpasses it.  For elegant, majestic motion, there is nothing more poetic.  You just have to do what I did - gape at it in wonder.  I wanted to climb up there into the heavens and lay in its path, let it wash over me.
My diary told me it was bull dust day.  Here at last.  No more talk.  The real deal.  Now, you novice, you green Pommy bastard, your lack of experience and biking skills will be tested to the limit.  Oh you idiot, what the hell were you thinking of, biking across the Ozzie Outback with only six weeks on-road biking experience?'
         I have never owned a bike.  This postie bike was my first.  All my 12 one-hour lessons had been on an Italian motor scooter, an automatic with wheels the size of jam jar lids.  Riding that machine prepared me for nothing but a gentle chug along Felixstowe sea front.  Sure, I had had four days on my postie bike now, but very little of that had been on gravel or dirt.  So, with about 40 hours flying time I was about to go solo.  I recalled the hellish day I had spent with John on a dirt bike, ploughing through the thick mud of Essex and Hertfordshire in the rain.  That was supposed to be training for something like this.  Somehow a day in the wetlands, on a bike that was taller than a lamp post, wasn't going to help me much out here in the arid wastelands of Mad Max country.
         I told Pete we would not be riding together.
         'I'll only slow you and John up.  You shoot off and leave me to my battles with the shires of Queensland.'
         Pete tells me, 'Head up, look ahead, keep the revs up when you hit the soft stuff.  If the bike starts to lose it's rear end, drop down a gear and plough through it.  Don't grip the handlebars too tight, stand on the pegs if you need a bit of central weight.  You'll be okay.'
         The destination was Proa Station, a once sheep farm out in the middle of nowhere.  We went out in our usual manner, with the young blades shooting off in front, the older riders not greatly worried about coming in first, second or third, and finally a big bunch whose individuals keep changing places when they get fed up of being near or at the back.  On this day I was somewhere in the middle, but would end up about two thirds down the pack when Proa came into view.
         Clown-suited Scotty, Cam and Murray, three larrikins but good riders, were as usual way out in front.  Scotty had been given a special cap by Dan for spending time helping others on the ride.  I understood he was a rally driver as well as a biker and obviously had good mechanical skills.  I was barely a competent operator of a machine, let alone a diagnostician or surgeon.  I was still learning what things were called – (Er, cut-out switch?) - and although I'd drilled myself to do all the maintenance necessary, if something went wrong inside – like if a thingy got jammed in a thingy – I was stumped.  Scotty was a guy you could call on in such emergencies – if you could catch the bloke.
         We refuelled at Corfield outside a pub and my running sheet told me to look for RICHMOND-SESBANIA after that, apparently written on a big truck tyre.  We were then went onto the dirt.
         At first I was surprised by the track.  It didn't seem too bad.  We had already ridden on hard-surface dirt, with rocks and stones embedded, which was where we lost Jack.  On that surface I managed to keep my speed up in the seventies.  Today I was more cautious, keeping it down in the sixties, but mostly because of the horror stories I'd been fed.  Soon I began to get a bit arrogant.  This is easy, I thought.  What the hell were we worried about?  Even a sign that said, 'TRAFFIC HAZARD AHEAD – WHEEL RUTS, BULL DUST AND CORRUGATED SECTIONS – DRIVE WITH EXTREME CARE' did not faze me at all.  I was cutting a swathe over this red dust without a care in the world.
         I stopped for a drink at one point and Lang pulled up in a truck alongside.
         'You all right?'
         'Yeah,' I said, and going all Aussie, 'no worries.'
         'Better than last year,' he indicated, nodding at the track.  'The bull dust has all but disappeared from this section.'
         'Oh really,' I replied, thinking, thank God for that.
         'Yes,' he said, 'but there'll be some later on, you can bet on that.'
         Oh, great, I thought.
         A road train went past us both.  54 metres of it.  Three articulated waggons.  It covered us in a cloud of dust which didn't settle for about five minutes.  As I’ve already said, road trains are the biggest and most dangerous hazard of the Outback.  These huge trucks got up quite a speed and you have to get off the road if you see one coming.  They can't stop suddenly without jack-knifing, so anything in their way just gets mown down.  They carry cattle, goods, fluids.  They’re monsters.  Giants of road and track.  Luckily you can see them coming from miles away by the dust cloud they leave in their wake. 
This one was going in the same direction as me, but when they come towards you their slipstream is like a solid wall of air.  It can knock you out of the saddle.  I was always a bit wobbly on my wheels.  One minute I would be doing 70 kms, then a passing road train slipstream would instantly brake me down to 30.
         Scary things, road trains.  They will henceforth haunt my nightmares.  I wonder Steven Spielberg hasn't made a horror movie of a road train – oh, wait a minute, what about 'Duel'?  That was one of his first movies, wasn't it?  Well believe me, the sinister black truck in 'Duel' is a baby next to those  monsters, the road trains.
         I got back on my bike, toed her up into third gear, and set off once again on the powdery surface.  We had about 200 kms of track to cover to Proa Station and I'd done a good stretch of it.  I was feeling quite merry. Then a real motorcycle came out of the billowing dust and haze and waved me down.  The bloke removed his helmet and bid me a very good day, sitting astride this wonderful BMW, 650 I think, but it could have been more.  If his bike had fallen over as bikes sometimes do, I wouldn't have the strength to get it upright again.  It was huge and the throaty engine growled contentedly like a male lion after a mating session.
         'Nice bike,' I said, wondering if I should have called it a hog, or something street-talky like that.  'Must go over the ruts easier than this one.'
         'Yeah – but, hey look, watch out a bit further on – the road gets worse the nearer you get to Proa.  Good luck.'
         Sure enough, the dust began to thicken under the tyres.  Now we were in bull dust country.  The bike began to slither and slide away from under me every few yards.  My speed got slower and slower, until I was doing 30-40 kms, sometimes less when the ruts threw me into the central bull dust pile, or out on the edge where the build-up was just as bad.  Sometimes it was six inches to a foot deep in places and the back end of the bike was doing a dance all of its own, not paying any attention to my steering at all.
         'Who's the master of this thing?' I yelled at the rear end.  'Me or you?'
         It was definitely, you.  A fly got in my helmet, the bridge of my nose was killing me where my glasses were digging in underneath the pressure of the goggles, and I was sweating and itching from every pore.  I stopped for a moment and watched others.  Some bikers were ice skating just like me, while others seemed to hold a dead straight line.  It looked easy, as the good ones simply cruised past me, not going fast but doing a reasonable speed.  They could have been delivering nitro-glycerine in their milk crates for all anyone would guess.
         Envious of this skill I got back on and falling in behind one of the good guys, tried to emulate his riding.  It did me no credit when my bike continued to swerve and skid.  What was I doing wrong?  Maybe the speed was too slow?  I tried speeding up and nearly came a cropper.  I slowed down again to about 30 kms.  I felt it would be a shame to come off the bike so near to the station.  Others had, I knew.  I could see the skids of those who had gone before, with the occasional hollow mark where someone had taken a fall.  So far my bum had stayed on the saddle, despite several near tumbles.
         When I looked over my shoulder, down that long and dusty road, the heat haze warped the riders coming up behind me.  The drifting clouds of dust mingled with the snaking ribbons of heat thrown up by the earth and created a kind of red-dust fog.  Riders came out of it like dark phantoms rippling into view.  Some of them were wobbling and skidding, others keeping a slow straight path, but all were shimmering, serpentine shapes that appeared as crinkled ghostly shadows and gradually formed into solid human beings on motorbikes.  It was an eerie sight that held my attention for quite a while.  As a writer of speculative fiction this scene was something right out of a fantasy story.
         I shook my head clear and continued on my own unsweet way, ploughing through that same hot dust.
         Here's one of the problems with being a rookie.  The motor scooter on which I had learned my trade and passed my test, was an automatic.  Since there's no clutch, automatics have both brakes on the handlebars.  The left hand lever is the front brake, the right hand lever is the back brake.  On semi-automatics, e.g. the Hondo postie bike, the right hand lever is the front brake, the rear brake being down by the right foot.  So, where I had been trained to apply the back brake was now where the front brake was located.  Thus, in moments of panic I grabbed the right hand lever mistakenly thinking I was applying the back brake.  Once or twice this almost had me flying through the air, over the jolly old handlebars, and into the path of my own machine.
         The last thirty kilometres were agony.  Finally the driveway into the farm came into view.  I tootled along this track and found John and Pete sitting in the sun gulping down beers.  I felt a little triumphant, I had to admit.  I certainly wasn't the last bike in by a long shot and I had stayed in the saddle.  Pete congratulated me.  So did John.  It was all, all so premature.  I thought Proa would be the worst day.  It wasn't.  The worst was yet to come.  I would indeed part company with my beloved machine, several times, but for now I was happy.
         However, both my hands ached from gripping the bars, even though Pete had given both John and me a little gadget – a sort of cruise control clip-on plastic spur – which required very little pressure to keep the revs up.  I could not open my fingers for a while and walked about with hawk's talons.  My shoulders, my back, and my neck also ached like mad.  In fact the only part that didn't hurt, the part which I had expected to hurt, was my bottom.  I had spent so much time up on the pegs, my backside had hardly touched the saddle that day.
         Two people had to be medivaced.  Anna, who had already hurt her ankle, damaged herself further on the ride to Proa and was whisked away from us by men in green. 
         Also one of the guys had dislocated his shoulder.  He walked about for a while, bearing the pain stoically, but in the end had to give in to his fate and was out of the challenge. 
Among the other guys thrown off that that day, was one a mechanic told us who was, ‘ . . . motionless, face down in the bull dust, slowly suffocating . . .’  That treacherous red powder.  It bucked you off your bike and then did its best to drown you. 
A brave guy with a brave face.  But you can't have a dislocation like that and carry on riding a motorcycle.  The greenies took him off that evening. 
         Proa Station no longer seemed interested in sheep.  There were a few emus about, and a nuisance of a gobbling male turkey who tried to flirt with everything that moved on two legs.  I kept my legs out of the way.  Dogs are always trying to hump my legs.  I wanted no bloody Outback turkey trying it on, even with shin-guard protection.
         Duncan, the owner, took us on a tour and explained what the sheep ranch did now.
         'We farm red claw crayfish in ponds now,' he said, 'ponds fed by fresh water from down below, which comes up through a bore hole.  The red claws grow to about 14 or 15 centimetres long and make a good meal.'
         I can't remember how deep the artesian well was, but I remember being very impressed.  When harvesting time comes they drain the ponds to about two-feet deep then set up a large vat in the middle.  The vat is located up stream of the flow and the natural instinct of the crayfish is to walk against the current, perhaps to find the source.  This leads them up a ramp and into the barrel, so to speak, harvesting themselves.
         Over a drink Pete told me that the local fauna included the Green Tree Frog.  Since this particular Ozzie frog is normally found in damp rainforest conditions, and the Outback at Proa is dry and dusty with hardly a tree to be seen, I found this a bit hard to believe and said so.
         ‘Ah,’ said Pete, supping his ale, ‘you have to take into account flush toilets.’
         It seems the Green Tree Frog has chosen another environment to live out his life cycle.  This fellah is now found in cisterns all over the Outback and where the cisterns are of the overhead variety he makes his home in the ceramic bowl itself, gripping under the rim with tenacious feet when some thoughtless user flushes the toilet.
         Duncan had a story of a Green Tree Frog which caused a disturbance in the shearers’ quarters one night.  The building had been cleaned up for some city visitors and Duncan had particularly checked the toilet for stray frogs before allowing his guests inside.  Not well enough, apparently.  A middle-aged woman went into the toilet but within seconds screamed and took the dunny door off its hinges in her rush to escape.  When calmed she told how she had just sat down when ‘something cold and slimy’ leapt at her from within the bowl.
         That evening we were fed by the Country Women's Association.  Someone left in a light plane while we were eating, which seemed a good way to get out of the dust bowl we were in.  The man with the big shiny BMW bike arrived back at the farm and stayed for the evening, before setting off in the dark – oh what fools these mortals be – back to someplace about sixty miles away.  We had corned beef hash that night, which was wonderful cuisine.  There was other fare, dishes too numerous to mention, including wonderful afters. 
Lose weight?  What a laugh!  I have never eaten so well as on that ride, not in Hong Kong, not in London, not in any city restaurant or hotel anywhere.  Ladies of the Outback, gentlemen of the Outback, I salute you - you are chefs extraordinary!
         I put up my tent in the yard, along with John and Pete, while many others slept in the shearers' huts.  That night the heavens were encrusted with stars.  I never felt so good as I lay there on my airbed looking through the open flap at the trillions of bright chips of light embedded in the darkness.  One of nature’s great shows.  And yes, the Southern Cross was still there.  From the backyards of Oz they can see all five stars of the Southern Cross, and naturally that’s how the constellation appears on the Australian flag.  New Zealand also has the same constellation on its flag, but with only four of its stars since the Kiwis live around the corner of the world and are denied sight of the smaller fifth star.
         The sixth star on the Australian flag, is the Federation star.
         Since my trip people at home have asked me whether I was worried about snakes or spiders, with leaving the flap wide open all night.  It never crossed my mind.  Such creatures have never really bothered me.  I was raised in Aden and camped in the Hadramaut Desert as a boy. I’ve lived in tropical lands most of my days.  Snakes and spiders worry those who live in temperate lands.  When you've been used to the wilderness on your doorstep, such creatures are commonplace.  All right, I wouldn't want a coral snake or camel spider in my bed with me: they're both bloody poisonous bastards.  But they don't want to be there either, so the feeling's mutual.  I don't love 'em, but they don’t worry me.
         Earlier it had been another beautiful sundown which crept gently over the broad long plain.  If I had lived in central Queensland all my life, I would probably belong to the Flat Earth Society.  Much of it is as flat as paper, mostly dust, with the occasional pink grasslands.  A spiritual land, without question, so no wonder its first inhabitants are a spiritual people with a deep belief in the mystical offerings of the landscape.
         As I lay there that night, I got to thinking about the previous day's surreal experience with Christmas Creek and the black riders.  I have had one or two 'surreal' happenings at Christmas, the weirdest being in Sumatra while I was waiting with Annette on the shores of a lake called Toba, in an area of volcanoes.  It was Christmas day and we had walked down through the market to the water's edge, one of those markets where the locals spread blankets and sell a small pile of beans, nuts or fruit.  One of those markets where you want to buy something from everyone, so they don't go home disappointed to their families.
         We were just in the process of buying tickets for a ferry to an island on the lake when a four-wheel-drive vehicle skidded to a halt on the far side of the market.  A Caucasian man got out dressed in a red suit trimmed with white, a black belt, big black boots, a false white beard, and a belly as big as a bass drum.  He ran down to the edge of the shoreline and with arms akimbo, stared out over the waters of the lake.  Then he let out an expletive, a nice rich juicy swearword in English, then marched back to his vehicle and drove off at high speed.
         Not only were the market sellers agog, so were Annette and I, and also the ferry ticket seller.  We all stood there with our eyes out on stalks.  The event had been so abrupt and sudden it had knocked all the wind out of everyone's sails.  Previous to this the only European faces we had seen was at local Methodist church when some tourists had gathered to sing carols with Christian Indonesians.
         Then to cap the strangeness of the event, the ticket seller said with awe in his voice, 'Who was that?  Moses?'
         'No,' Annette replied, 'Santa Claus!'
         For some inexplicable reason this knowledge caused the ticket seller to let out a sigh of disgust.
         'Oh, him,' he said.
         Who the ex-pat guy was, what he was doing in the middle of the Sumatran countryside dressed as Father Christmas, and why he was so angry, we never discovered.  Nor did we find out why Moses was so revered and Santa Claus so despised by the Indonesian ticket seller.  The whole scene took on a dream-like effect which faded into oblivion – until Christmas Creek reminded me of it, on the previous day's ride.
         As with previous nights, someone at Proa was snoring very loudly.  Several people, actually.  It could have been the zoo, not a sheep station.  We had been warned about this before coming on the challenge and I'd brought some earplugs with me.  However, earplugs only work to a degree.  They don't block out the noise completely.  So I lay there sort of dozing and waking, the whole night, but feeling happy at having reached day five of the trip without injury.

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