I remember that morning vividly. It wasn’t the Outback, there were still fences, but the landscape opened up like untying a brown parcel. It became immense. Even though 50 riders started off almost together, we soon became strung out. There were younger more vigorous riders who wanted to burn it up out front. There were those who wanted to dawdle and take photos of everything from yellow-flowering wattle trees to dead kangaroos. I sort of found myself in the middle. Mostly I stuck to Pete’s tail, terrified I would get lost if I didn’t. (It was bloody easy to miss those coloured ribbons marking our route). But on occasion I was the only person in a gigantic flat bushland. Solitary Max. It was quite cold early on, before the sun had warmed the world. The wind cut through me as I hurtled into it at 70 kms. I made a mental note to stuff newspaper down the front of my jacket.
This is what I had joined this rally for. Being alone in the Australian hinterland is indescribable. It’s truly awe-inspiring, frightening in its immensity, and stunning in its aspect. I felt so very privileged to be able to experience such a scene. It drained me of all the bad feelings I had ever had. It filled me with wonder. My spirit expanded with the wide open wilderness as I hummed and rattled along the road, the bush stretching to infinity on either side, to back and to front. I was in the bubble of a sky the size of a universe. It was royal blue with puffs of cloud like the spots on a fallow deer’s flanks. Except, down the centre of heaven was this long, long cloud, oh, a hundred kilometres long, under which I travelled most of the morning. Talk about white-line fever. I had one under me and one over me.
And crossing this rufous, sandy landscape horizontally, every half-hour or so, was a narrow creek. It might be CARVING KNIFE CREEK, or WOOMBA CREEK, or simply, JACK’S CREEK. Most had no water in them. One or two did. The trees around waterholes hid kangaroos and other wildlife. But I have to say most of the roos I saw were road kills, that threw up an unholy stink from their open-vault graves. No doubt they’d been hit by road trains, trucks or big cars. Unlike the rabbits or crows of England, they didn’t flatten. If they were actually on the tarmac their bloated forms looked like hot-air balloons. I swerved round them, disturbing a thousand flies. Some of them were meals for the carrion-eating whistling kites, that soared overhead.
Today we started out towards Mundubbera, heading first towards Cracow. I saw a twelve-inch blue-tongued lizard crossing the road in front of me: lovely creature. Around me the bush, with the occasional shrub, dwarf tree, or rocky outcrop. The noise from my bike engine was excruciating after a while. It grated on the nerves and I realised why a lot of the lads wore earplugs. Also my riding gear was uncomfortable. The goggles pressed my glasses into the bridge of my nose. Flies got inside the helmet and drove me insane. I itched in various places. My bum got sore after two hours. My teeth rattled along with the loose bits of metal on the bike frame. When I hit a bump in the road the jolt went right up my spine and kicked my cerebellum like a football. The scenery was magnificent. The method of viewing it less so.
That last evening one of the Ozzie biker boys had sat down next to me after the meal and had started to talk bikes. Pistons, drive-chains, cooling ribs, fairings, etc., etc. He might have been speaking in the tongues of angels, so far as I was aware. My eyes glazed over after five minutes, though I listened politely for half-an-hour before saying, ‘Look mate, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I’m not a biker. I’m on this trip for other reasons.’ He stared at me in a puzzled way for a minute or two, then said, ‘Yeah, OK, mate . . .’ then carried on for the next hour-and-a-half in the same vein as before, without pause for breath.
If I knew nothing about bikes when he’d started his talk, I knew even less about them at the end, realising as one does, how complex and intricate was this holy subject, and how utterly confused I was by it. I knew where the gear lever was (quite a lot of the time actually) and the rear brake (when I remembered it wasn’t on the handlebars, like the front brake) and a few of the little switches like the fuel switch and cut-out switch, oh, and the bung hole where you top up with oil, but as to what lay beneath the cladding, that was still a occidental secret. I could lube my chain, refill my fuel tank, put air in the tyres, check the oil, start and stop the machine (with only occasional hiccups) and that was good enough for the run we were on. If anything else went wrong I ran to Richard-the-mechanic and started to cry. Richard is one of those unsung geniuses who know everything about bikes and probably bikers, has taught kings and princes the fundamentals of bike maintenance, and who never ever reveals his disdain for idiots like me. When fixing whatever it was that had gone wrong he always told me what he was doing, why he was doing it, and what the end product should be.
Miraculously I absorbed these snippets of knowledge so that next time I could fix the same problem myself.
The run to Cracow was just short of 200 kms, some of it over gravel roads which required a certain amount of respect.
In a roadside café, many of us were sipping coffee, dressed in our biker gear, with the robust red Honda Postie Bikes propped up in a neat row in the parking lane outside. A little old lady of the Outback entered and stared around with saucer eyes at the luminous-jacketed riders.
‘My goodness,’ she said, ‘what are all you posties doing out here?’
One of the guys, on his way to the exit, said firmly, ‘Step aside if you please, madam - the mail must get through.’
We laughed then let her in on the secret. She laughed with us.
At another place, a real postie joined the end of our straggling line of machines, staying with us for a couple of kilometres, before turning off on a farm track and waving a cheery goodbye.
Cracow is an ex-gold-mining town in the unlikely named Banana Shire area. Cracow was obviously named after the Polish city with a different spelling. All we saw of this ghost town was the Cracow Hotel, which is owned by a guy called Fred Brophy, a famous bush boxing manager. The large bar inside the hotel (which looks a bit like a giant clapboard shack) is crammed with artefacts, from antlers to music boxes to worn saddles. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of junk that would send a Victorian era collector into shudders of ecstasy. Apparently tourists are attracted the place, one of the reasons being there is probably no other watering hole in the district. I liked it. It has to be seen. We were told the first bit of gold to be found, back in the glory days of Cracow, was discovered by some wandering fossil hunters. Then another nugget was picked up by an Aborigine (who I hope made himself a rich man) and the subsequent mine was only closed down in 1976.
And so we thundered on towards the famous Banana itself, a small town named after a dun-coloured bullock who lived and died there in the mid-1800s, a beast held in affection by the local stockmen who used old Banana to herd the wilder elements of their cattle into the stockyards. That’s what you do in Oz. You don’t have fancy Anglo-Saxon or Viking names for your towns. You name them after your favourite hound or work horse. And past Banana we went, with barely a backward glance, intent on reaching our goal which was the town of Rolleston over 200 kms away. We were staying at the Rolleston racecourse that night. My little motorbike was hot between my thighs and as we ate bitumen at the end of that day I recalled similar bikes and bikers I had seen in various parts of the world, especially on the Asian continent.
The small motorbike has been a great boon to the poorer areas of the world (some of them no longer so poor). I’ve spent a great deal of time in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries and have witnessed some hair-raising small-motorbike-sights.
I remember once seeing two men riding in Ho Chi Min city. One guy was sitting on the saddle, head down, throttle open to the limit. His friend was standing on the pegs over the top of him. In the hands of the standing man was a huge pane of plate glass. His arms were stretched wide in the shape of a crucifix, his fingers hooked around the far edges of the glass. Around, in front, behind, and just about everywhere, were other bikes, cars, trucks - whizzing near this pair with only fractions of a inch to spare. I leave it to your own imagination how close these two came to death by multiple lacerations.
In another Far Eastern land, it was quite common to see a man sitting on a small motorbike with a live domestic beast sitting on the pillion seat, usually a pig, its front trotters tied together, its legs around the neck of the driver of the vehicle. It seemed never to bother either rider or passenger that they were cheek by jowl, the snout of the sow alongside the nose of the man. In fact it appeared to be the most natural thing in the world and I wonder if conversations were held between the two, one in animalese and the other in humanese. A grunt here, a snort there, an understanding developing over the journey to market.
By the afternoon we were still not in the Outback. I could see fences all around. There were irrigation channels too. Someone, Ewan I think, said he’d noticed cotton farming around the area. Ewan came from Darwin, so he knew the north well. He was a tall quietly-spoken man with ‘Lonesome Rider’ on his back. I liked him. There was no brashness or side about Ewan.
We refuelled at Theodore that day. Refuelling was done off the back of one of the trucks. You started out in the morning with 5 litres in the bike tank and five litres in the spare can. That would, in theory, take you 250 kms or more, depending on the rider’s weight and how fast you pushed the bike along. Some days, like today, we had 450 kms to do. At the refuelling, usually midday or thereabouts, you took on another 10 litres and so could finish the journey comfortably.
In the afternoon we passed mining operations with trucks going back and forth. Otherwise it was endless road, going on to the edge of the world. I’m told that one of the riders, a guy named Cam, was attacked by a dog in Theodore town. Then in the afternoon a Jack Russell flew at him from out of nowhere. I noticed him around the Rolleston camp, later, with ‘Two Dogs’ written on his back. Cam must give off one of those atmospheres that drives dogs wild. Who knows, maybe he had some kangaroo dung on his boots?
There were two more casualties in camp. One of the women had fallen off her bike on the dirt road coming into the camp. Her leg was injured and the ambulance was called for. Also someone else was stretched out on his back, clearly in pain from that area. Two days and three casualties? Heck, at this rate would get through half our number before the ride was over.
There was a sheet we were supposed to sign when we arrived at our destination every day. It was a simple task, but one which I constantly failed at. As usual when I arrived at the camp that afternoon I forgot to sign the arrival sheet. I always forgot to sign it and in the end they got tired of bollocking me. My head was so full of long white clouds and distant horizons there was no room for ordinary things like the signing of sheets to confirm that I wasn’t actually lost out in the wilderness, but here in camp humming a simple tune as I knocked in tent pegs one by one. Kylie must have got awfully tired of this Pom.
We had corned beef, cooked Aussie Outback style, for dinner, amongst a bunch of vegetables and bread. And pudding too. Followed by coffee or tea. It was clear from the start we weren’t going to starve on this run. I had thought I might be able to lean down over the trip but the meals on those first two days soon put that wish back at the bottom of the well. I could just not eat so much, of course, which would do the trick, but damn me it would be a strong man who could resist that country cooking after a day in the saddle, yippy-ay-yay old buddy.
Everyone was getting to know each other a bit better by this second evening and exchanging stuff about home towns, home countries, home continents. The Aussies and the Kiwis got on best of course, and worst, just like rival neighbours anywhere. They reminded me of the English and Scots back home. When I see some Kiwis and Aussies sitting together, I just like to toss in the world ‘rugby’ or ‘cricket’ and watch as the temperature rises on both sides of the table. The Brits and the Yanks did not have the same ground to battle on. They don’t play soccer or rugby and we don’t play baseball or their football, so we ended up being awfully polite to one another, which was a bit tame. I went to look for Pete later, to have a talk about cricket. He was good for a blast at any time and would lambaste the English cricket team at the drop of an Akubra, while I - albeit with lesser ammunition - would have a good go at destroying the myth of Australian cricket domination.
I went to bed that night about 8.30, along with most of the camp. I woke again at about 11.30 and went to the toilet. It was dark over the camp site but there was one area where it was lit. Under a pool of light that fizzed with black clouds of flying insects the small team of mechanics were still hard at work. Richard, Lang, Mick and Andy were probably all there, tinkering away with problems we had given the machines during the day. I noticed a sad-looking bike with its guts strewn all over a slab of concrete flooring, the frame already thick with dirt. An autopsy. How the heck these metal surgeons put such dismembered bikes back together, all the bits in the right places, was beyond a mind like mine. This scene of engineering men - heads uncluttered by literary junk - toiling under late lamplights, righting mechanical wrongs, repeated itself over the next few nights.
It was of course a long way from the world of the wordsmith, this world of mechanics, though I too have laboured nights at getting the right line in the right place, turning a few jumbled words into a poem. This was a vision of men who had made a modern day craft into an art. My work had never been good enough to cross boundaries like that. I could not turn an art into a useful thing: others took what I did and did that. They took my words and produced books. I have the greatest admiration for men like Lang who can rebuild antique aircraft and then have the guts to fly their recreations halfway round the world.
Men like Lang Kidby turn metal puzzles into actual shapes that one can not only touch and smell, see and hear, but that can do things like race along the road or fly in the air. I’ve written 80 novels and over 200 short stories, but they don’t race and they don’t fly, they don’t do anything except sit there and wait to be read. As for engineering, if I can mend the toilet ballcock when it goes wrong (which I can do fellah) I congratulate the engineer in me. To understand the precision-made parts of a modern machine, to make an engine actually work, must be immensely satisfying. That kind of achievement is so far out of my mental territory it might as well be on the moon.
The blow-up pillow was useless, so I stuffed a sock bag with a towel and used that. It wasn’t like home, but then nothing was. Indeed, I slept well until shocked awake by clanks and crashes. I sat bolt upright at 4 am thinking we’d been invaded and the tanks were breaking down the metal corrals. Then I remembered we were in the middle of Queensland and tanks would have job getting through the bull dust. It turned out to be a cattle station nearby, that was loading up its cattle B Doubles (articulated cattle trucks) ready for the day. What a racket! Had no one told them there were tired bikers in the next field? Would they have given a monkey’s uncle if they had been told? Of course not. I managed to fall asleep again, but my dreams were full of sledgehammers.