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