I rose at 5.30 and dressed in my road armour: helmet, boots, shoulder and elbow protectors, and shin and kneecap guards. Then I kissed Annette goodbye (she opened one eye, briefly) and then went to the start point of the rally. Fifty riders and fifty postie motorbikes. A couple of Americans, a few Brits, several New Zealanders, and naturally in the great majority, Australians. Mostly men, but also a handful of women. One of the women, a good-looking lass, was wearing the full body armour of Boudicca, the Celtic warrior Queen who thundered around in a chariot killing Romans right, left and centre, in BC Britain. Most impressive. I was envious. With armour like that who cared whether you came off the bike and bounced around a bit?
‘Howya doin’?’ asked a lazy-eyed, dark-haired Aussie about half my age, as I wheeled the bike out. ‘You up for it?’
‘As I’ll ever be,’ I replied. ‘You?’
‘No worries,’ he came back with the traditional Oz reply, and gave me the broad grin of a rider who knew what he was doing.
I was actually quite nervous. I’d only had about 20 hours riding in my whole life, all on borrowed motorcycles. Nothing came automatically to me. I could drive a car without even thinking, had been doing for 50 years. Now I had to think ‘throttle’, think ‘brake, where is it, which one?’, think ‘gears, where are they, what am I supposed to be in?’, think ‘lifesaving look over left shoulder for turning left, over right shoulder for turning right’ and a dozen other things. They did not just happen in any natural way. I had to think about them and think quickly. Nothing was instinctive.
So of course I was nervous.
I didn’t want to make an ass of myself on the first day. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself on any day, of course, but I knew I was going to at some time, so begged it would not be just as we started out. I didn’t want to be the butt of jokes or the one they picked out as the dodo from amongst all these Kiwis, Yanks, Ozzies and Poms. We lined up two abreast. A long line, stretching back the length of the sideroad. One support truck was in the lead and another followed, with two others somewhere around. There was supposed to be a police escort out of the City of Brisbane, but other things were going on too. A charity run for a start. We had lost our motorbike escort to the Heart Foundation.
‘Start up!’ came the call down the line.
Please start, please start. One kick and 21 roared to life, the little darling. Gear up into first and we were away. The line broke up fairly soon afterwards, both longwise and sidewise. We went out as a trickle, finding our way through the Sunday morning traffic to the outer reaches of the city. It was a fairly straight route, for which I was thankful. Getting lost in the Outback actually held fewer fears than getting lost in the city. In the Outback there was only kangaroos and the very occasional road train to worry about. Here in the city was mindless traffic and a multitude of unfathomable roads.
Those on their way to churches and/or pubs on that Sunday gave us a good hooting send off. It must have been something to see 50 postie motorbikes scrambling along the highway. One of us, Scotty, was dressed in a clown’s outfit, wig on top of his helmet. Why? Only Scotty knew. ‘It seemed like the thing to do,’ he told me later, when I asked if it was a bet or charity stunt. ‘I just felt I needed to do it.’ Scotty was an expert mechanic and of great assistance to those who broke down when the repair truck was nowhere in sight. There were others with similar skills. What had I got to offer? I could write them a poem, of course, on the wonderful song of the Australian bell bird or the absurdity of the duckbilled platypus, but somehow I didn’t see that helping.
(I remember a writer friend of mine, who when he obtained his doctorate in literature from Canterbury University saying he longed to be in a theatre when someone fell ill. When the call came out, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ he planned to rush forward and cry, ‘Yes, stand back while I read the patient a couple of verses from Shelley.’)
I was not wearing my goggles at this point. Only prescription aviator sunglasses, or ‘sunnies’ as the Ozzies call them. The goggles would not go on over my glasses, which I needed in order to see properly. Later, after several stone chips had nearly taken my lenses out, I forced the damn goggles over the glasses. They were uncomfortable but absolutely necessary. The weather was good. It had been raining hard when we arrived in Brisbane. Torrents, accompanied by an earthy, rainforesty smell. People had been getting onto buses and trains and emptying pints of water out of their shoes. But the rain had passed and it was a mild and pleasant spring day in Southern Queensland.
Dayglow youngsters roared past me, occasionally whooping and hollering, giving release to their feelings. They rode their bikes like young Mongols rode wild horses, following some invisible Ghengis Khan. Others, the middle-aged and older men were more sedate, but still highly competent. I clung grimly to my handlebars, mentally mumbling, ‘Change down to 3rd. Shit, I’m already in 3rd’ as I slowed almost to a stop. ‘OK, get a grip. Think about what you’re doing. No, don’t touch the front brake, use your back foot brake you idiot or you’ll be sailing over the handlebars. Whoa, miss that bus if you please, Mr Kilworth. Don’t wanna join the insects on the windscreen. Change up again, and again, heck there is no again, I’m already in 4th. Well at least I know where I am now, but for how long, god only knows and he’s a secretive little . . . heck, that engine noise gets my tinitus going, but don’t think about that, or the slight headache, think about what you’re doing, or you’ll oversteer. Look ahead, not down. Look right ahead, way, way ahead, so far ahead you’ll be staring over the world’s edge.’
Taped to my handlebars was my Running Sheet, which told me where to turn and when. I began the day at 36,862 kms and from that point all the way down a numbered sheet had worked out what my speedo should read when deviating from the straight and narrow. At 36,908 I needed to turn right to Esk, Brisbane Valley Highway #17 - CAUTION! Crossing duel carriageway. I followed the instructions, along with 50 others. There would be times when I would be alone in the world and these sheets would save my bacon. Today the destination was a town called Gayndah, northwest of Brisbane. Today’s fuel stop, where we would refill our spare tank and top up the tank on the bike, was Jimna Fire Tower, in a lightly forested region with a gravel road.
At 37,1018 we forked left to Jimna and there rested in a dirt layby by a 47 metre high tower from which rangers presumably watched for forest fires. After scoffing sandwiches and drinking water, I put on my motocross helmet back on. We were going onto gravel now, obviously more dangerous than bitumen, and Pete had suggested John and I followed him, did what he did, went at the same speed. After two minutes it seemed not so much gravel as hard dirt with lots of potholes and rocks sticking up. I tried to keep up with Pete’s 70 kph but was worried about the sticky-up rocks, so slowed a little to about 65 kph. Pete slowed too, to keep me and John company.
The track was undulating, with some fairly steep slopes and rises. We turned one corner, started to go down a descent when we noticed a knot of bikes and riders on the edge of the forest road. Someone had come off. More than one person. It seemed a jam so we didn’t stop ourselves. We’d only be adding to the clog-up. In fact we later learned that a rider had gone over the edge, into a culvert (I’d never heard of a culvert until that day) which is a kind of channel or watercourse alongside a road. The rider, a guy named Jack, had several broken ribs and facial injuries. Cuts and bruises too. At 75 Jack was the oldest one amongst us. Next oldest was a Kiwi, at 70-odd, then me at 67. I hoped the Biker Gods weren’t starting at the oldest and working their way down. Jack then was out of the rally and was whisked away in an ambulance. As someone remarked, you don’t bounce at that age.
Someone else had run into Jack from behind, when the accident happened, but I never found out who. Pete started to speed up after that and I actually passed him on this occasion. It was probably the only time I did while on dirt, but I felt quite good. We finished with the ‘gravel’ and once again went onto bitumen, or what I would call in UK tarmac. The next name on our sheet was Ban Ban Springs, on the Goomeri road.
Ban Ban Springs are a line of natural springs at the end of the Bin Bin Range of hills (dontcha just love these Aboriginal place names?) the water of which runs into wetlands covered with wildlife and plants. The springs were a source of water for the Aborigine clans of the region, a sacred place with Dreamtime associations with the Rainbow Serpent. It is the birthplace of the Wakka Wakka tribe. It’s one of those areas, apparently, where one should stop, relax, and contemplate the serenity of nature. Unfortunately, blokes and gals zooming along on 70 kph bikes don’t have time to stop and lay out a picnic blanket, then muse on the wonders of the natural world.
We hurtled past.
Goomeri, on the other hand, is famous for its Maytime Pumpkin Festival, which attracts thousands of people to the small town. Apparently the Great Australian Pumpkin Roll has made Goomeri internationally famous. It sounded very inviting but again, bike riders are obsessed with ‘getting there’ and we wanted to reach our destination at Gayndah before nightfall. 377km in total. A longish day.
On the way I saw my first Whistling Kite, a beautiful bird of prey that skimmed the treetops.
Also saw a kookaburra on a wire. He laughed at me. Why wouldn’t he?
At Gayndah we camped in the local showground where I put up my one-man tent for the first time. It was simple and easy. Went up in ten minutes. Blew up the bed, unrolled the sleeping bag. Went for a shower, thence for a drink at the make-shift bar. Pete was leaning on a fence talking into his mobile phone. He used his hands for emphasis, despite the fact that the caller could not see him. Behind this darkening silhouette of a white-bearded Melbournian, along an immense horizon, was the most multi-hued sunset I’d ever seen. It stained the landscape red, orange, purple and mauve. Breathtaking. First day over and I had covered it pretty well. I felt good. This was cool stuff. No worries. Pete and John had beers, I had a Tennessee whisky-and-coke. Pretty soon the night sky stretched itself over us, smothered in unfamiliar stars. I sought that diamond symbol of Australia in the sky, the Southern Cross, and found it safely embedded in the sky amongst its fellows. The air was as clear as crystal. This was not yet the Outback. Pete reckoned the Outback began where fences ceased to be. We still had fences.
The Queensland Country Women’s Association (founded in 1922 for women who derived their living from the land) cooked us an evening meal which was delicious. I can’t remember what it was, but every meal we had on that ride was good and most of them were provided by the charitable QCWA. Wonderful ladies. The lunchtime sandwiches were something else, being sliced white bread smothered in marg, with processed meat innards. But heck if you’ve got a good breakfast inside you, eggs, bacon, beans and sausage, and you’re looking forward to a great dinner, what do you need lunch for? And what else were they to do? The fresh fruit and cake went down well, that’s for sure, while the kangaroos and kookaburras often got the sandwiches.
Gayndah, what we saw of it, was a pleasant town. The spot was discovered by a Henry Stuart Russell in 1843. He saw the River Burnett (named later) and thought the land around it looked fertile. Gayndah claims to be the oldest town in Queensland, Ipswich and Brisbane being cities. In Gayndah oranges are the only fruit. They grow the best oranges in the world, dontcha know. They also host a local Bush Poets Competition. I wanted to stay and take part in it, this being my forte rather than biking, but I was called to my bed by an overwhelming tiredness at 8 pm.
Anyway, I told myself, as I sped along a whitelined highway in my dreams, what did I know about the bush? It’s all very well being a poet, but that was only half the job. You need a special wilderness touch to write twangy Oz poems like ‘Nine Miles from Gundagai’ by Bowyan Yorke.
‘There goes Bill the Bullocky,
He’s bound for Gundagai . . .
Never earnt an honest crust . . .
Never drug a whip through dust.’
(carries great alliteration in its stride, finishing with)
‘. . . the dog sat on the tucker box,
Nine miles from Gundagai.’
Forget your prissy ‘O daffodils we weep to see thee fade away so soon’. Bush poems have a good hard outbacky feel to them with words like ‘Murrumbidgee’ appearing in the middle of the verse. Nothing too fancy. Nothing too airy-fairy. Just good solid verse with a story to it, a beginning and end. This is Australian history, where a dog eats a bullock cart driver’s tucker while he’s away having an honest drink. I like Oz poetry, just as I’d liked the poems of Robert Service when I visited the Yukon in Canada. Poems like ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’. You don’t write poems like that by growing up fancy. You have to be as hard as a bullet and eat gravel for breakfast. Who says it’s not poetry? A poem, like any art, is what touches the heart of the beholder.
Next morning, up at 5 am.
Pack away the tent, fold up the sleeping bag, get a fatter neighbour to roll over and over your inflatable mattress to try to get it flat again (you can never quite get rid of all the air, can you, just as dirt from a hole never quite fills it when you put it back - ah the mystery of physics - it was ever thus at school). Cram everything in the kitbag and throw the bag onto the sweeper truck. Go for breakfast, collect those astonishing sandwiches, and then gather round Dan-the-man for the day’s briefing. Everyone looks eager to go. Many riders want dust or gravel, preferably with lots of curves and ups-and-downs but most of today is bitumen.
I’m quite happy with tarmac at the moment.