And so, another day dawned over the vast hinterland of north-eastern Australia. Kookaburras, those charming sweet-voiced birds of the Queensland bush and billabong, woke me with their trilling. Their song can only be compared to the nightingale, for its musical range and depth of passion. Ha!
I rose – it was still dark of course – with my miner's light wrapped around my head. Packed my kit, washed and did certain other unmentionables in the ablutions, and then went to breakfast with my pals, Pete and John.
As usual at breakfast I read the Queensland edition of Lonely Planet and looked up the towns we were going through. I'm a huge fan of Tony Wheeler's Lonely Planet and have been since its conception. I bought one of the first copies of Asia on a Shoestring, and travelled the Far East with it back in the days when Tony Wheeler was a struggling entrepreneur and I was a young buck of just 50 years of age. Since that time he has published only one fiction book with his publishing company, an anthology of science fiction stories entitled Not The Only Planet which featured one of my own stories, the first I ever wrote, called Let's Go To Golgotha.
Today was Gregory Downs to Normanton. Burketown was on the way. I had thought Proa Station was going to be the most difficult ride. Wrong. Today was going to be the ultimate test of my basic biking skills (virtually zero), my stamina (pretty good), my spirit level (reasonably high) and my ability to bounce (which has got worse with age). However, there was some bitumen at first, and Burketown was an early stop.
Most of the bikes were behaving very well, with one or two exceptions. Murray Nettheim's little gem apparently changed gear of its own accord when he hit soft sand. Pete's bike was running too rich at one point and I think Scotty fixed that for him at a fuel stop. The engine of another lad's bike cut out at odd times leaving him coasting.
Murray's strange gear-changing sounded very frustrating, since he said it often jumped from 4th to 2nd without warning. Such a sudden change might have the rider somersaulting over the handlebars if he's not ready for it. Murray suggested that the bike had decided it was an automatic, rather than a semi. Or maybe the machine had decided it could read the road better than its rider? Who knows, one day perhaps Steven King will write a horror novel about it and there'll be a movie.
I always started 21 after breakfast, ran her for a few minutes to warm up her engine, then switched off again. She started as ever like a dream. Once I had a bit of trouble, but that was me, having knocked the choke lever on, thus trying to force rich fuel down her throat that she didn't want. You can't blame a girl for objecting to that. Another time the tall-guy Irish-Aussie surreptitiously messed with my cut-out switch, so I was left kicking the starter for a while, obviously with no result. I saw him grinning at me and guessed what he'd done. All a bit of fun, but it gave me grey hairs for a few minutes.
Burketown, the first stop, was only 93 kms from Gregory Downs. Almost 50 bikes hurtled into town and began devouring food and coffee, leaving the locals stunned and lacking provisions for at least two seasons. I love Australian coffee shops and always enjoyed our brief stops at them. It's very easy for a Pom to forget he isn't in his own country when everything on the menu is in English.
Then again when I'm in Oz or Kiwiland, I miss those strange distortions of the English language one gets on foreign menus. In Greece once I had 'scrawbled eggs' and in Thailand 'massed potatoes'. My all time favourite however, comes from Spain, where someone asked a friend for the English equivalent of aguacate (avacado), but what the friend heard was abogado. What appeared in print on the menu was a wonderful salad consisting of 'tomatoes, lettuce and lawyers', an abogado being a Spanish lawyer.
Burketown is on the Albert River and has a population of just under 200. (About the size of my Suffolk village, back in the old United Kingdom). Burke and Wills, the explorers, went past here on their way to the Gulf of Carpenteria. This is where I saw another of those wonderful Morning Glory clouds which can reach sometimes to a 1000 kms in length. Isn't that as long as Britain? It was great to ride under it, trying to get from one end to the other.
Local weather is back to front if you want ideal conditions: hot humid and wet summers, but warm dry winters. Cyclones are not unknown in the streets of Burketown.
The area is rich in fossils and this is one of the regions where the giant Doom Duck, which I mentioned earlier, roamed the landscape in prehistoric times.
Nowadays it's a large fish that draws the tourists. The barramundi or 'silver jack', a South East Asia game fish. It's at home in fresh or salt water. Its Australian name (I am told) means 'big scaly one' in the language of a tribe that lived near Rockhampton. These fellahs get to 1.5 metres in length. An interesting fact about this big fish is that if there’s an imbalance in their numbers - say, 100 girl fish, to only 50 boy fish - 25 of the girl fish will change their sex to even up the numbers. Real gender benders. That’s what I’m told. I believe it to be true.
The World Barramundi Fishing Championships are conducted out of Burketown. If you're a good angler you can win $2600 dollars for the heaviest single catch. Where I come from angling is the most popular sport, but you have to eat all you catch. I would rather catch a cod than a barramundi.
You can also find freshwater crocodiles in the region around Burketown. These prehistoric throwbacks aren't as hungry or ferocious as their salt water cousins up in the Gulf of Carpenteria and don't normally eat tourists. I imagine they still have a nasty bite, so be careful when petting them.
Back on the road again, grinding along. Some of the riders were fairly hefty blokes, quite wide in the beam. I often tucked myself behind one of these substantial characters and used them as a windbreak. What I could never understand was that if they wanted to go fast, they did, and I had a job catching them, even though I was half their size.
Next stop was the Leichhardt River, by way of Gunpowder Creek and Fiery Creek. The Leichhardt was named after Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt, explorer and naturalist. His name sounds a little Germanic to me, but apparently he was a Russian. After several expeditions in the interior, Leichhardt vanished, as so many do in that wilderness even today. His body never found but only in 2006 the remains of a shotgun bearing his name was discovered near Sturt Creek in Western Australia.
After navigating the historic Leichhardt River the postie caravan came to the worst track I have ever seen. It crossed the bush like a twisted red scar on the villainous face of the Outback. There was bull dust lurking in every crevice. On its surface was scattered loose gravel, rocks, sand and worst of all, corrugations. It had been gouged both ways, long and wide. There were horizontal ruts that resembled a corrugated iron and lateral ruts that grabbed the wheels and gripped them hard to prevent the rider from steering. In the first few kilometres many riders bit the dust. I was one of them.
I saw Ewan go over and give himself a very nasty crack in the ribs. Some people in a four-wheeler stopped to help him back on his feet. A few minutes later I hit thick bull dust on the edge of the track and went over the bars. On this occasion I wasn't going very fast and was more humbled than hurt.
I suppose the worst thing about that ride was having my bones shaken for nearly 200 kms. How the bikes stood the juddering of those corrugations were beyond me, because all I could hear was the rattling of metal on metal. How the tyres never burst was again a miracle. I know my body suffered from this hour on hour shaking. It nearly drove me crazy.
At one point I decided not to ride on the track but to go on the edge of the bush, which was a little flatter. Unfortunately every so often there was a natural ditch coming out of the bush which led right up to the edge of the dust road. I hit one of these side-on ditches at medium speed and once more flew through the air with the greatest of ease.
Unhurt again, I climbed back on the saddle and set off along the proper track, saying to hell with my internal organs if they wanted to change places I could do nothing about it. I had a headache from the constant rattling of my whole frame. I could see other riders having the same trouble, but the best of them seemed able to glide over the ruts. It was one of the worst few hours of my life. I thought it would never end.
When I had about 60 kms to reach Normanton and despair was at its peak, I decided to try to emulate the good riders. They were going at a much faster speed than me, so I assumed that speed was the answer, that one could skim over the ruts at a higher velocity. I picked up my speed, until I was going somewhere between 60 and 70.
Of course, the faster you go the less time you have to see danger on the track. I didn't see the huge lateral rut that trapped my front wheel until I was in it. The rut had a twist in it at the end which knocked aside my front wheel. This time I sailed through the air like a bird. I didn't land like one, though, I came down like a bread pudding. The track was iron hard. It knocked all the wind out of me and I gulped on red dust.
For a few minutes I just lay there in mild shock, looking up at the sky. I remember seeing little puffy clouds. I was hurting in several places, so I tested myself bit by bit to see if there were any broken bones. Arms, legs, neck, back. It seemed there were no serious breaks. I got myself up and then dragged my bike to the edge of the road. A single rider came along, a bloke named Gary, who I always called 'One-R' since my own name has two r's in it.
'Are you OK?' he asked. 'Any real damage?'
'No,' I gasped, still winded. 'Just shaken up I think.'
He helped me off with my jacket to make sure there were no bones poking through the skin. I had a healthy black bruise developing on my right arm and some lacerations. Gary put some iodine on the cuts then asked me again.
'Are you sure you're all right?'
'I'm fine. I'll wait for the repair truck. You go on. I'll be OK.'
He rode off, leaving me to inspect my bike. One of the mirrors had smashed, my speedo had bent over the front wheel and was pointing away from the rider and there were one or two other dints and scratches. Oh well, I thought, at least I'll get a ride now, from the repair truck. I won't have that last 60 kms to do over those sodding corrugations. It was my only consolation for the tumble and my aches and pains.
The truck arrived not long afterwards.
It was Dan himself. 'Had a fall?'
'Yep, I'm afraid I bent the bike a bit.'
'Let's have a look.'
I said, 'I must have been doing 70.'
Dan replied, 'The damage isn't that bad – your handlebars would have been bent.'
Most writers are prone to hyperboles. It's our stock in trade. We exaggerate. Why spoil a good story with the truth, is what we maintain. My dear wife is always straightening out the truth for me in front of people.
'There were at least a hundred of them,' I say, excitedly.
'Just twenty,' corrects my wife.
Wives do that to you. So do motorcycle challenge organisers. Dan was having none of it. So I guess I was probably doing less that 70, but how much less I don't know. All I maintain now is I was doing 70 at some time, but probably at the time of the crash my speed had fallen to less than that figure. My body felt it was 70, OK?
He took the broken mirror off, then straightened the speedo before testing it by spinning the wheel. Within a few minutes he had the bike in shape again. A horrible feeling was creeping over me. I really wanted that ride to Normanton, yet I knew I would be a failure if I took one. No chance of even having the choice though. Dan saw to that.
'Right, off you go,' he said, holding the bike so that I could climb back into the saddle. 'See you at Normanton.'
'Thanks Dan,' I said, choking back something that was stuck in my throat. 'Yeah, see you.'
Sore in a very many places, I started off again, my teeth rattling, my bones rattling, my liver changing places with my kidneys. It turned out it wasn't so bad. I only had 30 kms before the road conditions change to a hard surface. I cruised into Normanton, missed the sign to the Rodeo grounds (where we were camping for the night) and had to ask two aboriginal young ladies for directions.
‘What?’ one of them asked.
They obviously didn't understand my English accent.
‘The rodeo grounds?’ I tried again, in an Aussie accent, which I’m pretty good at by the way.
They still looked at me as if I'd flown in from Mars.
I mimed an imitation of riding a bucking horse.
Still no comprehension in their eyes.
‘Rodeo grounds. Rodeo,’ I cried, desperately.
‘Oh,’ said the older girl, ‘the Rodeo Grounds.’
To my way of thinking she hadn’t said it any different to my mimicking of an Aussie accent.
They both pointed back the way I’d come.
Once in the camp I was met by Pete.
'I hear you had a tumble.'
'Three,' I admitted, 'but only one really counted – the other two were just falling-over-sideways tumbles.'
'It happens,' he said. 'I had one last year.'
'Hurry up and get your shower, we're going down to the Purple Pub,' he answered.
Sure enough, everyone gathered at the Purple Pub, a local tavern painted – you guessed it – purple.
It was a good evening. Good food, rugby on the television, several drinks to heal the pain in my limbs and body. Josie arrived in an ambulance with her foot in a plastic bag, but able to carry on the ride. Ewan told me how he went over his handlebars after hitting a large polythene water pipe. That must have been when I saw him take his tumble. 'Not necessarily,' he said, 'I took a bigger one later.' Others have parted company with their Hondas today. Victims of combination of corrugations, loose gravel and bull dust. I don't feel too bad, just a little upset with myself that I had actually contemplated a lift in the ute. I wanted to do all the stages with my bum on the saddle.
The best laugh I had that night was when John fell off his chair – I don't think he was even drunk at the time.
At one point in the day, I can't remember when, we had all crowded round an 8.64 metre salt water croc – not a real one, of course, but a statue – for a photo. Of course someone had to crawl into its mouth and have just his head and shoulders protruding. Anyway, this was a crocodile famous for its length, and why shouldn't it be? Over thirty feet of ravenous beast wouldn't be out of place on King Kong’s island.
The meal at the Purple Pub was good, but halfway through I went to the bar to get a drink. One of our guys was telling the barman a long and windy joke. The barman was leaning on his bar with his eyes glazing over when I asked for a drink. He turned round to get me one and the guy telling the joke said, ‘Hang on, I’ve got another one for you. There’s this bloke . . .’
The barman whipped back round and said, ‘Shit man, I nearly went to sleep during the last one.’
Nothing so blunt as an Aussie barman. The joke teller moved away, looking hurt, but at least I didn’t have to wait to get my drink.
Later a local woman sidled up to Pete, saying, ‘You married?’ ‘Yes I am,’ Pete told her. ‘Oh dear. Well never mind then, have you got a few cents you can spare?’ Pete reached into his pocket and produced a coin. She took it and went straight to the bar and asked for a drink, whereupon the barman sighed deeply and told her, ‘Look, Alice, you can’t beg for money in here. You’ll have to leave.’ The woman made a face and went back to Pete and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go to another pub, they won’t serve us in this bloody place.’ Pete of course stayed firmly in his seat, but we had a good laugh at her cheek.