Saturday 24 February 2018

2nd Section of 'Rookie Biker in the Outback'

2.  Ploughed Fields and Bridleways

With the test now under my belt I had to think about getting some off-road experience on two wheels.  Pete insisted on it: there were copious emails from demanding action.  John, the other Pom joining Pete and I in Australia, proved to be a brilliant ferret.  Or perhaps it was his wife Stephanie?  Anyway either John or Steph found and arranged a one-day motocross course near Ipswich for the both of us, to be followed by a trailbike course at St Albans.  The motocross course was run by a great guy named Geoff Mayes, who turned out to be one of those people gifted with passing on the secret skills of their science.  He was wise in the way of dirt bikes, had the patience of a god, and I am sure could choreograph machines so long as they had two wheels. 
John and I met in the car park for the first time.  At just over 60-years John was a bit younger than me.  We were both grey panthers (a much more acceptable euphemism than old farts).   At our time of life who you are and what you’ve achieved is irrelevant.  Status is totally unimportant.  Age is a great leveller.  It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been a company director or a toilet attendant in your working life, if you end up pompous and high-handed, unable to get on with your fellow men, then you’re going to have a lonely last-quarter of your life. 
Happily for me John was cheerful, open, bright and easy to like.  I hope I came across the same way.  We were going to spend several weeks in each other’s company and it was important that we did not take an instant dislike to each other.
‘Want a salmon sandwich?’ he asked.  ‘I’ve got more in the boot of the car.’
‘Thanks,’ I replied, ‘I will.’
After the sandwich we looked at the blackening sky thoughtfully, then went to meet Geoff Mayes, a greying British motocross champion and an all-round expert on going fast on a dirt bike.  Geoff was remarkably ordinary-looking for such a tough competitor, but then I had never met a champion dirt bike rider before.  I quickly found that men associated with this daredevil sport, along with their fellows the trailbikers, were generally a smiling affable bunch of guys who just love what they do.  They have no need to show off or be anything but themselves.  They are the real stuff when it comes to a dangerous and difficult sport.
Geoff greeted us warmly and kitted us out with plastic greaves, chest and back protectors, elbow guards, gloves, motocross helmets, thick boots, goggles, jackets and jeans.  I could hardly walk, let alone ride a motorcycle.  I felt like one of those knights who had to be winched into the saddle.  Ask me to tie my shoelace and I would have burst into tears.
‘All right?’ asked John, slapping me on the shoulder.  ‘I’m leaving my glasses off.’
‘So am I,’ I said.
The motocross goggles tended to crush glasses against one’s eyes and a blurred vision was better than having to worry about adjusting things on one’s face every five minutes.  It was important that we kept our hands free for steering, breaking and accelerating.  We only had to look a few yards ahead in any case.
I stared at the track.  It was this stony dirt strip that went round and up and down like a switchback for about a kilometre, with hairpin-tight curves and corners, and lonely drops into hidden gorges.  I could see one steep hill that was almost a vertical wall.  I watched 16 and 18-year-olds hammering round this track on their bikes, taking the hills with flying leaps on their growling machines.  My stomach flip-flopped.  Only two weeks before today I had been riding a 125cc scooter with L-plates on it.  Now I was expected to imitate Evel Knievel.  Can I really do this? I thought.  At that moment it started to rain and the track turned to sludge.
John slapped me on the back again.  ‘Here we go,’ he said, and nudged me towards my 250cc Kawasaki motocross bike, which being off-road I was allowed to play with.  One of Geoff Mayes’ assistants went with me.  He was a thick-set, solid older man who appeared to be fashioned from leather.  Fred was as gentle as he was tough-looking, but he was standing no nonsense from this effete writer.  ‘You’ll do a few turns round that little track over there,’ he said, ‘then on the top section of the big track, then finally on the whole track.’
Will I? I thought.  Will I really?  I climbed into the saddle of the bike only to find my short legs could not touch the ground.  Motocross bikes are extremely tall machines, due I guess to the springs, whatever.  My next problem was starting the damn thing.  The kick start handle was halfway up the side of the bike and I could not get my leg high enough to work it.  Fred gave me a helping foot and the bike coughed into action.
Geoff had given us a little lecture before we started.
‘Don’t lean over with the bike on going round a corner, like you would on a road bike.  Push it away from you, keep your body upright.  Sit as far up as near the handlebars as possible - maintain your weight over the front wheel.  When you take a hill, give it the gas going up, but ease off the throttle on going over the top or you’ll find a lot of air between the ground and the back wheel.  Open up the throttle on the straight, but throttle-back on entering a corner.  Halfway round the bend open the throttle again.  Left-hand bends, stick out the left leg.  Right-hand bends, stick out the right leg.  Now, off you go!’
John and I went round the small flat track rather timidly at first, then got braver by the minute.  Soon we were both bored with playing on the roundabout and went onto the top half of the big track.  The mud was slippery but we managed to stay on for several circuits.  Then we got bored with that and it was time for the big track.  John went hurtling off, spraying mud and grit into air. I followed a bit more cautiously.  Those first three times round the big track I almost came off on several corners.  God was gracious and somehow I managed to stay in the saddle.  But I found it exhausting, mentally, probably because I was physically tense.
I halted after three circuits. 
‘I’ll stop now,’ I told Fred, cheerfully, thinking I might as well quit while I was ahead.  ‘I’ve got the hang of it.  I’ve had enough practice.’
‘Oh no you haven’t,’ Fred replied, quietly.
‘Yes, yes, I have,’ I insisted.  ‘I don’t need any more.’
‘Oh yes you do,’ said Fred, firmly.
The rain was belting down.  I was unhappy.  I had mud in every orifice.  My arms and legs ached.  My head hammered.
‘Off you go, then,’ Fred said.  ‘Get a few more under your belt - about twenty or so circuits, eh?’
Miserably, I did as I was told - and of course after a few more circuits began to enjoy it.  I can do this, I thought.  I can do this.  I wasn’t burning up the track like an eighteen-year-old, but I was taking every tight corner at a reasonable speed and getting the hang of handling a bike that like a frisky colt wanted to dance in the slippery mud on its own.  It was trying to throw me off, but I stuck to the saddle with determination, roaring up the hills, leaping over the tops, and charging down the gradients.  Man and machine did not exactly become one, but we certainly came to respect one another as individuals.  At the end of the day I felt charged, exhilarated and a little more macho.
This feeling was soon knocked out of me when John and I went on another course, this time at St Albans.  We booked in for a day with Trailworld who take potential dirt bikers out on a tour of the muddy lanes and green roads, such as the Icknield Way, even across ploughed fields.  Again the bikes were taller than fully-grown race horses.  High, heavy beasts that I had great difficulty in getting my short leg over, let alone doing anything once I was in the saddle.  No one cared.  No one said, ‘Ah, poor short-legged bugger, let’s give the little bastard a hand.’  Once we had all the body armour and battle helmets in place they simply jumped on their machines and roared away down the road. 
I followed tentatively, not having ridden a manual-geared machine for some 50 years.  They had not changed a lot in that time.  I  had trouble finding the right gear, stalled the thing several times, and grew very frustrated with myself.  The problem was with my short legs: every time I stopped I simply fell over to one side.  The bike was extremely heavy and it took all my meagre strength to right it.  My arms grew more and more tired with every halt.  I was holding the others up and that made me and them unhappy.  They wanted to be haring down green lanes chucking up divots of mud.  I wanted to be home in bed.
I did start getting to grips with the demon machine after several miles of tarmac.  Then we turned off onto a bridleway, footpath, or something of that nature.  Very narrow, very muddy (it had of course started to rain) and with a startling number of solid looking trees lining the route.  Everyone else let out a joyous shout (including John) and tore off in a long line spraying the hedgerows with sludge.  I brought up the rear, along with one of the biker-tutors, who kept urging me to ‘Get yer cheeks off the saddle mate and stand up on the pegs’. 
Flying down that lane was like running a gauntlet.  Overhanging branches turned into whips, which lashed my face and body.  The bends were hairpin and I kept expecting to meet terrified old ladies walking their terriers around each corner.  Mud everywhere, sometimes so deep it was up to the wheel hubs.  Water by the gallon, spraying the county of Hertfordshire willy-nilly.  John came off and damaged his chest.  I came off but managed to land in mud, so walked away unhurt.  One of the other riders, an ex-policeman, came off and broke his wrist.  I was amazed that there were no fatalities at the end of the day.  And even more amazing, they all enjoyed it!  For myself, it was the best experience of my life, and the worst.  I had no desire to repeat it.  Seven hours of battling through swamp and bog, hemmed in on all sides by trees, with the occasional rock thrown in, is not really my idea of fun.
I did think, at the end of the day, while I was driving home to Suffolk with my limbs aching and my eyes half-closed, that the Australian Outback would not, could not, be as challenging as that day on the dirt trails of Hertfordshire.  After all, it didn’t rain in the Outback, did it?  No mud then.  And there were only bushes in the bush, weren’t there?  No damn solid-trunked trees to worry about then.  And I would be riding a small machine, one which would allow short-asses like me to touch the ground with their toes on both sides at once.
Little did I know at the time that there would be other obstacles, just as formidable, perhaps even more so, out in Ozzie walkabout country, where the horizons are further away than infinity. 
True, we would get no rain. 
I have known biblical deluges in my time. 
Once, on a backpacking holiday with friends Rob and Sarah, the Malaysian rain came down in barrels.  We were on a windowless bus crossing the central jungle and came to a river where a bridge had been washed away.  Night fell, black as the deepest cave.  With torches we had to cross on bendy planks that threatened to throw us into the swirling torrent below.  Then, having escaped from a watery death we reached the coast to take deck passage on a fishing boat to Tioman Island.  When we arrived at the island’s jetty it was still monsoon rain.  It bleached our skins and clothes.  It washed our flight tickets and passports clean of any ink.  Our backpacks were sodden lumps.  The A-frame huts on the campsite leaked.  It was the Ramadan month, so there was no fishing going on and consequently very little to eat.  Now, my pal Rob is a big guy who likes his steak and ale.  There was none of that.  We stayed four days and then took a small plane back to the mainland, having survived on banana porridge and Fanta drinks.  Only the magnificent Malaysian trees and wildlife saved it from being an absolute disaster.

3.  Preparations

The official and rather posh title of the 2008 postie bike challenge was:
 Brisbane to Cairns via the Gulf of Carpenteria
Previous years rides:
2002 and 2003 Brisbane to Darwin
2004 and 2005 Brisbane to Adelaide
2006                  Brisbane to Alice Springs
At the time of writing I received an invitation to the newest route:
2009                  Brisbane to Melbourne

What I should have done before jumping at the chance to ride through the Australian Outback was to look up the history of the ride, starting with the 2002 run.  If had done, I would have found out some humbling facts which are only now evident to me while in the process of writing my small account of the 2008 ride.  You will have noticed that this book is dedicated, among others, to the men who acted as volunteer mechanics during our ride.  One of those men is simply referred to as ‘Lang’.  Well Lang Kidby OAM, father of Kylie one of the two organisers of the challenge, just happens to be an Australian hero, though you wouldn’t have known it by the quiet way he went about fixing our bikes when they went wrong, and nudging us on when we got stuck on the trail and the several other duties he carried out.
Lang, along with his wife Bev, are Australian adventurers and have organised and led many expeditions through many countries, including Australian desert crossings, flights in antique planes, reconstructing a replica of a 1919 Vickers Vimy bomber and flying it from Australia to the UK, restoring a 1940 Dodge Army staff car and driving it from Aqaba to Paris and most significant of all, recreating the 1907 Peking to Paris motor race using restored cars from the period, Lang and Bev driving a 1907 ITALA.  This man plotted the centre of Australia and was the recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia.  He has led military and civilian expeditions through jungles and was an army pilot with the Aviation Corps for 14 years.
They don’t come any bigger or more modest than Lang Kidby.
Lang and Hans Tholstrup (another Aussie adventurer - the country is crawling with them) organised the first Postie Bike Challenge in 2002, a job he has since handed over to his daughter and her partner.  He now travels with the team as one of the mechs and helpers.
Looking up that first ride I came up with a news report from ABC News Online, which might have made me wonder if Pete was hauling me into something that was well out of my comfort zone:
Quote: The 2002 Postie Bike Challenge organised by adventurers Hans Tholstrup and Lang Kidby has proven too challenging for some.  The 4000 km charity ride split at Julia Creek yesterday when more than a quarter of the 80 riders decided the dirt roads through the Gulf were too gruelling.  So far 7 participants have withdrawn with head injuries, broken collarbones and broken ankles.  One of the riders says his experience as a (real) postie has helped only slightly. Unquote.
I’m glad I didn’t see this article before my ride, knowing we were also going on the dirt roads through the Gulf.  It probably wouldn’t have stopped me going, but it would have made me that much more nervous.  I’m also glad I didn’t then know Lang’s amazing history.  I would have pestered him like a Melbourne fly and annoyed the hell out of him.  I did manage to annoy his daughter.  I had failed to get two of the ride t-shirts at the outset and Kylie ordered me some more.  I asked her one too many times whether they had arrived.  Kylie had a lot more to worry about than items of clothing for a 67 year old hack.

In August, a month before the ride, Pete sent me a list of the things I would need.  However, everything had to go into a soldier’s kitbag.  It wasn’t a big kitbag and it had to hold a tent, air bed, pump and sleeping bag, as well as the following items:

sunnies (Strine for sunglasses)
bandanna (to prevent choking on red dust)
thongs (Strine for flip-flops)
head torch
2 fibre t-shirts
light shoes
washable long trousers
light socks
swiss army knife
camping towel
camping pillow (mistake, didn’t work)
spare batteries
toothbrush and paste
Vaseline (oh the relief after a day in the saddle!)
camera and spare battery/charger
ear plugs (against snorers, of which there were many)
washing powder and pegs
water camel (threw this away after the first day)
mobile phone (turned out to be useless in the Outback - no coverage)

It was, as you might imagine, a hellava struggle to get it all in.  I saw guys jumping on their bags to get the stuff to stay put.  Fortunately the zips were strong and once you wrestled the contents to the ground, you zipped up the bag quickly before everything kicked out again and sprayed the campsite with underwear and toothbrushes.
On the first day of September, Annette and I boarded a Royal Brunei flight for Brisbane, Australia.  There were two stop-offs, one of an hour at Dubai where we were supposed to disembark and buy buckets of gold jewellery.  The other was for three hours at Brunei, which had an airport lounge not much bigger than my kitchen.  The economy flight was tedious and uncomfortable.  We have done it several times before and each time it seems longer and more unbearable.  Always, just as I manage to fall asleep in a contorted sideways knot, the guy behind stands using the back of my seat to pull himself upright, thereby joggling me instantly awake.  I usually glare at him, but find he’s lost somewhere in his own head and has no idea that I live on the periphery of his world.  The only thing I can say about modern aeroplane flights to Oz is that they’re probably better than the old three months at sea playing deck quoits and canasta until one is sick of one’s neighbours, sick of the colour green, and sick of being sick during the occasional storm.
Even short voyages by sea are to be avoided.
Annette and I were once on our way to Rhodes, when there was a terrible a storm in the Med.  We were on board a Greek car ferry which had been a French battleship during WW1.  The vessel was still painted navy grey and all the embossed metal signs above doors and gangways were still in French.  Our new Volkswagen beetle was strapped to the deck as the world began to rise and heave all around us. 
The kids were still young then - Chantelle 6, and Richard 8 - and we had a cabin in the depths of the ship adjacent to an empty hold.  Someone had forgotten to batten down a giant crane hook dangling on a chain as thick as my thigh.  The hook itself was the size of a railway truck.  It swung back and forth in the storm clanging monstrously on the side of our cabin, knocking the kids out of their bunks.  We were not en-suite and every time someone wanted to go the toilet (which was fairly often, given the conditions) they had to accurately time their run across the void which was the ship’s hold, or become a fly-smudge on one of the iron walls of the vessel. 
We thought we were going to die during that storm, which lasted for 24 hours.  Every time the ship’s bow went down under the water, we were convinced it would never rise again.  I vowed then that I would only ever get on another boat in a dire emergency.
On arrival at Brisbane, we took a taxi to our accommodation, the local Quaker Meeting House.  Annette and I are Quakers and we are much more comfortable in a bed-and-breakfast environment than in a luxury hotel.  It’s not that we scorn luxury, or consider it decadent, but would much rather be in a room with breathable, unrecycled air.  We both find the atmosphere in modern hotels oppressive and though the breakfasts are enough to feed one for the whole day, there is a kind of suppressed panic in the dining room as people form in small bunches around the multi-slice toaster to anxiously watch their personal bit of bread disappearing inside the machine, terrified they will be unable to identify it when it drops out as toast into the tray beneath.
The Brisbane Quaker Meeting House was on the steepest hill I’ve ever seen covered in tarmac.  Walking down it was a frightening experience.  One felt it would be so easy to lean forward, then topple the rest of the way down that sheer black surface.  The house itself though was in a beautiful forested garden.  It was the Aussie Spring and we woke the next morning to a chorus of bell birds, butcher birds and kookaburras.  The latter of course do not have melodic calls, but certainly the bell bird with its flute-like chimes and the butcher birds with their variety of warbled notes were gentle alarm clocks.
We had a free day so we went into Brisbane proper, walked along Queen Street and Elizabeth Street, and visited the Brisbane’s City Hall, with its wonderful clock tower.  Brisbane is named after Sir Thomas Brisbane, an 18th Century general.  He was one of those rugged soldiers who probably asked for a posting to a rugged land.  His military career is in the Guinness Book Of Records as being the longest.  Our Tom apparently served 70 years in the army and he was famous for having slept six nights in continental winter snows with nothing but his cloak to keep him warm.  Each morning he found himself frozen hard to the ground, while around him in the night many common soldiers had died with the cold.  They don’t make generals like that these days, though when I was in Aden during violent times, I did hear of a general who put up with chilly air-conditioning without a murmur of complaint.
After City Hall, we visited the United Church, just off Albert Street, where a Japanese couple was getting married.  We sat in a pew at the back and watched the ceremony.  The church was empty.  There were no guests, no attendees.  Just the wedding couple.  They went the whole hog with music, a choir singing, she in full white wedding dress, he in tuxedo and top hat.  A photographer, of course.  But no friends or relatives.  When we asked the registrar after it was all over, what was happening, she told us it was a common occurrence.  They married in Japan then came to Australia to have another wedding, simply to gather photographs and videos of the ceremony.  It was then I remembered seeing the same thing in Venice.  There an Asian couple had changed clothes behind a billboard, he had set up a camera on the steps of a church with St Mark’s Square in the background, and they had then posed in their wedding kit for a series of self-taken photos.
How strange this world has become since my grandparents shuffled off their mortal coils.
While in Brisbane we went to stay with Dave and Doreen, great friends of my brother.  They showed us the Glasshouse Mountains, so called because one of the first Poms, Captain Cook, thought they looked like the glass-blowing factories of Northern England.  Dave and Doreen’s house is actually owned by a dog called Chewbacca, a lovely border collie.  Chewbacca lets the couple live there free of rent. Chewbacca actually wanted one of those Queenslander dwellings that look like the southern USA mansion in Gone With The Wind, but he had to settle for a less expensive single-storey ranch-style dwelling.
Next, we went north, to Noosa Heads for the day.  Richard Branson was a frequent visitor at Noosa, where he used to go running early morning.  The story is that he liked a cold fruit juice after his run and finding no juice bar open at that time of the morning he purchased one of his own which he opened at six in the morning.
On the 4th day we went back to Brisbane. I dressed in my biker gear - big boots, armoured jacket, knee guards, motocross jeans, reinforced gloves and big black motocross helmet - and went to find the rallying point for the bikers.  We had been told it was at the Exhibition Grounds.  Annette and I lugged my army-style kitbag through streets broad and narrow, going from one Exhibition site to another.  In Brisbane they cover a vast area and I was looking for a garage or hangar of sorts big enough to house fifty motorbikes and their riders.  Eventually I rang Dan on the mobile and he guided me along a street I had passed twice already.  What hope did I stand in the Outback?
I met Pete and John just entering the building.
‘You found it then?’ said Pete.  ‘Didn’t get lost?’
‘What, me?’ I laughed gaily.  ‘I’m a walking compass.’
We entered a warehouse humming with people, some in motorcycle gear, others in street clothes.  There were lots of beards about, several of them quite long, mostly grey and grizzly.  Most of the people in the room were men between the ages of 25 and 75, but I was surprised by the number of them in their 40’s and 50’s.  They were all roaming around identical bright red motorcycles, which peppered the floor looking clean and shiny.  These roadsters were being inspected and appraised by their new owners.  To some of those owners these small postie bikes were tiddlers, but to me they were mean machines.
The dominant accent that echoed around this hollow room was naturally Australian.  Some people knew each other, but most did not, and the beginnings of camaraderie were emerging as strangers spoke to each other about the coming enterprise:
‘Hi, I’m Dave.  Up from Sydney.  You?’
‘Bill - you up for this?’
‘Hope so.  Been looking forward to it.’
‘Me too.’
All very gentle and tentative.  Later they would be greeting each other in the mornings with a slap on the shoulder and something like:
‘Bill, you crusty old bastard.  There’s a rumour you came in last yesterday.’
‘Not a chance, mate.  The day you don’t cough on my dust ain’t arrived yet.’
‘Yeah, right.’
I went to meet the organiser, Dan Gridley.
Dan was a man of good build, neat of dress, and you could tell he had an underlying seam of toughness.  Kylie, his partner and helper, was pretty and a very good organiser.  Dan showed me my bike, Number 21 in red figures on the headlamp, and left me to learn from others how to pack the milk crate which would carry essentials like petrol, water, food and other bits and pieces.  The crate fitted on the back of the bike and Pete had made covers for all three crates.  He had also brought elastic ties to keep the lid down on rough ground.  In fact, I was being babied quite a lot: something that would soon change.
Dan gave us our briefing for Sunday’s departure. 
‘I want you here, ready to leave at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning.  We’ll all leave the city together.  There was going to be a police escort, but they’re busy with road runs and other events . . .’  He then told us how a normal day would go once we were out of the city.  ‘We usually rise about 5.30 am, pack up our tents and then have breakfast.  The night before you will have checked your bike for any problems, filled your spare gas tank with fuel, lubricated your chains and made sure there’s no slack there, and checked your oil levels. 
‘Departure is around seven every morning, after a daily briefing.  The first to leave will be the marker truck, which will tie coloured tape to key points along the route, so you’ll know where and when to make a turn.  Your bags will be carried by the repair truck, and a sweeper truck will follow behind all the riders, helping those in trouble.  You’ll be expected to do your own repairs where possible.  Tools can be borrowed from the repair truck.  If you can’t do it, because it’s too technical or you need muscle assistance, Richard, Lang, Andy or Mick will be there to help or take over.  When you arrive at the campsite in the evening - usually a town showground or rodeo ground - the first thing you’ll do is check your bike for potential problems, oil and lube, and refuel.  Then put up your one-man tents and finally, get a beer.
‘Any questions?’
I had no idea what to ask, so I said nothing.
My bike looked young and fresh, despite having 30-odd thousand kilometres on the clock.  As postie bikes they all looked exactly alike of course.  Little robust-looking Honda 110s, designed for ‘commercial and agricultural use’.  The ‘X’ model, which we were using, had a reliable four-stroke engine and was simple and undemanding.  Although it had 4-speed gearbox, it was what we call in England a ‘semi-automatic’.  There was no clutch.  You crunched through the gears from neutral upwards, 1 through to 4, and so on, down again.  We were given a lesson in first-line maintenance by Richard, Mick and Andy, three of the mechanics who were to accompany us.  Checking the oil level and tyre pressures every day was a must.  Watching for looseness of chain and any nuts and bolts was also important.  Pretty trivial stuff, I thought. 
(That was until we were hammering along the wild trails of untamed Northern Queensland.  Two-hundred or so kilometres of brick-hard corrugated track, rugged enough to shake loose the teeth of saltwater croc, soon changed my mind about ‘trivialities’.)
‘These’ll save you some cramped fingers,’ Pete said, giving me some soft grips for the handlebars.  ‘After steering for seven hours, your fingers will be like claws on those hard grips.’
I duly cut away the hard grips and replaced them with soft spongy ones that did indeed make my life a lot easier on the trail.
Kick-starting my lovely 21 for the first time, she sounded, as another rider remarked, like a cross between a lawn mower and portable generator.  The sort of noise that causes the dead to spin in their graves.  Spanish youths use similar machines to ride up and down the same stretch of road carrying half-a-dozen of their mates on the frame and mudguards, while holiday-makers vainly attempt to rest.
On the back of the bike was a plastic milk crate.  Pete had made me a cover for it and had provided some elastic retainers to keep it on.  In our milk crates we would carry 5 litres of fuel, 2 litres of water, sandwiches, a thick book of maps covering the vast and seemingly empty interior of a continent (most of the pages looked blank to me) and ‘personal materials’.
My personal items consisted of two toilet rolls, a packet of cleansing wipes, imodium tablets, and dehydration powders (blackcurrant flavour).  Add to these essentials a brass naval compass and it can be seen that my major fears were divided equally between loose bowels and getting lost in the wilderness. 
As it happened the former was to become reality and the latter was to remain a harrowing nightmare.
When I was 12 years of age I got lost, with another boy scout, for two days in a South Arabian desert.  The maps given to us were later proved to be faulty.  Such experiences don’t leave your mind, even after 55 years.  Horrific tales, which we have all heard, of people wandering away from their car to take a pee in the Outback, never to be seen again, haunted my early thoughts on the trip.  I was almost persuaded into purchasing a hand-gps system.  I had visions of myself drinking the petrol out of my fuel tank while the mystical landscape of the Aborigines swam around me distorted by heatwaves.  In the end cost got the better of my fears.  I settled for a good compass.  I figured a gps would only tell me where I was, i.e. lost in the Outback.
By the end of the day, armed with information and items to stay alive and moving on two wheels, I went back to my Quaker accommodation somewhat uneasy with my inexperience.  Would I manage to ride this sturdy little machine without falling off?  Would I manage to travel the hinterland of Australia without getting lost?  Would I manage to complete the trip without getting ‘crook’?
The answer to all these questions was actually, ‘No’.


Here’s a few statistics for the bike nerds amongst you, on the Honda CT-110 Postie Bike, so that you are fully aware of what our multi-national bums were about to sit astride.

Dry Weight:             89.5 kg (197 lb)
Engine Oil:              1.1 L (1.2 US qt)
Fuel Tank:               5.5 L (1.4 US gal)
Fuel Reserve:          0.8 L  (0.2 US gal)
Forks:                      140 ml (4.7 oz)
Bore & Stroke:        53 mm x49.5 mm (2.047 x 1.948 in)
Compression Ratio  8.5:1
Displacement:         105.1 cm3 (6.39
Spark Plug:             D8EA (NGK)
Spark Plug Gap:     0.6 - 0.7 mm (0.024-0.028 in)
Ignition:                  CDI
Points Gap:             0.3-0.4 mm (0.012-0.016 in)
Valve Clearance:    0.05 mm (0.002 in) both
Idle Speed:              1,500 + or - 100 rpm
Output Power          7.5 HP(DIN) @ 7,500 rpm
Clutch:                     Wet plate (semi-automatic or crunch gear)
Gear Box:                4-speed
Stroke:                     4-stroke
Top Speed               85 kph

Soichiro Honda set up the Honda company in October 1945.  The war had not long been over and he used military 2-stroke motors that he purchase cheap.  When they ran out he designed his own 50cc engine.  In 1958 he released the C100 Super Cub, a 4-stroke, overhead valve motor, with a centrifugal clutch and 3-speed gearbox.  70cc and 90cc versions followed a bit later.  Honda has since sold close to 40 million of these bikes, which includes the Postie Bike, one of the toughest machines on the road.  I was soon to learn that the CT-110 needed to be a robust worker, to deal with conditions out in the wilds of Australia.  Corrugated roads, thick bull dust, heat, up to 8 continual hours a day at almost top speed, rocks, gravel, sand and a novice rider - all these my little bike took in its stride - and never once did it falter or even look like giving up.
So, there were 50 of these magnificent little colts with a rider on each one of them, but the organisers were carrying 6 spare bikes on one of the three trucks, just in case.  It turned out they knew what they were doing, naturally, because I think they eventually used all six.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Biking through the Aussie Outback

I've been doodling with my blog for several years now, not with a great deal of enthusiasm since it seemed to me that getting people to read it was far harder than actually writing it. I have only recently looked at the stats and while I only have a handful of 'followers' almost 16 thousand people have 'viewed' the blog since its inception. That figure gives me heart to try an experiment. In 2008 I did a motorcycle ride of 4000 kilometres in the Australian Outback, along with a bunch of others. I wrote a book about it, which I hope has its humorous bits and a little drama now and then. I'm going to post it chapter by chapter, one a week, to see if I can build up a few more followers. I'm not looking for an army, a horde would do. So here goes nothing.


An Australian Motorcycle Challenge

(My thanks to Ewan Grenenger and Murray Nettheim
for their notes on the ride.  Also to Ross Buxton and Geoff Vautier,
cousins, who kindly loaned me their prepared presentation.  And finally
thanks to John Hales who dragged me along to training on dirt
bikes with him over several counties.)

This book is for Dan, Kylie, Lang, Andy, Mick and Richard,
the team who got us from B to C.

And of course, not forgetting my mentor Pete Worth, without whom
I would never have been daft enough
to take part. Pete is also responsible for
the cover photo.

The Riders

Vaughan Adams       Lee Bolding      Brian Bosch      Ross Buxton
Frank Cogan      Bill Cooney      Tony Davis      David Davidson
Debra Drummond      Peter Drummond      Andrew Ebert      Bill Edgar
Dave Engstrom      Bill Fee      David Folpp      Ewan Grenengar
John Hales      Peter Hickie      Doug Hogg      Louisa Jade
Garry Kilworth      Neville Lewis      Jim Lightfoot      Warren Limpus
Geoff Madder      Bob Mathieson      Cameron McCarthy      Scott McMullen
Chris Mercer      Graham Meyers      Klaus Misins      Gary Moss
Murray Nettheim      George Pender      Vanessa Priest      Anna Renolds
Frank Smith      Bill Stevenson      Dave Thompson      Andrew Thompson
Michael Tulk      Geoff Vautier      Jack Walker      Josie Watts
Jenny Whitlock      Peter Williamson      Geoff Wilson     
Alan Worsfeld      Peter Worth      Roger Zwierlain


1. Beginnings

         You know you’re getting on a bit when you’re told that the next dog you get will probably outlive you. ‘We’d be better to get one from the rescue centre,’ said my wife Annette, ‘they’re often older dogs.’  It was reflecting on this very stark and sobering news that made me think, ‘I need a challenge.  Something that will test me before my bones grow brittle and my mind wanders off to the far side of the moon.’
         Have you seen the film ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ starring Anthony Hopkins?  It’s a true story about a New Zealander with a passion for motorbikes, who takes his Indian motorcycle to the Salt Lakes in America at the age of 60-something in order to break the world speed record.  Well I’m also 60-odd and the movie impressed me.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something like that before I keel over.’  The Australian Postie Bike Challenge is not as magnificent as a world speed attempt, but it did look more my mark.  Since I was in Melbourne at the time, it also seemed more appropriate.
         It’s true about the flies in Australia, they cluster around you like . . . well, like flies.  They’re not particularly large, like the British cattle-bothering clegs, but they are very, very persistent.  They hop around your face like fleas and crawl into all your orifices - up your nose, in the corners of your eyes, in your ears - seeking moisture, and boy are they determined to get it.  When I spent six months in Melbourne in 2007 I carried switches broken from a garden hedges and got carpal tunnel from constantly flicking it across my face to clear the ground.
         ‘You should see the flies up in Queensland,’ Peter, my Ozzie host told me.  ‘Big as bloody hippos.’
         He was exaggerating of course  It’s an Ozzie prerogative.  But Pete went on to talking about an expedition they do in that state every year, a thing he called the ‘Postie Bike Challenge’.  ‘I’m going to do it one year,’ he told me, ‘before the bones seize up.’
         I met Pete in 1971 on a camp site outside Athens.  He was newly married to Carolyn and I was driving home to UK from a 3-year RAF posting in Cyprus.  Besides Annette and myself, I had two kids in the VW Beetle, the camping gear, and everything else I owned in the world.  Pete and I played table tennis in a Corfu barn where the rain came down in torrents.  We kept in touch and visited from time to time.
Peter has done some wild things in his time.  He’s a competent yachtsman, holds a pilot’s licence and has had some adventures in the Australian way that would satisfy Odysseus.  His back yard is made for adventures and hearing him talk made me wish I’d emigrated to that land when I was younger.  I almost went as an older man.  My daughter’s family lived there for a few years and Annette and I would have joined them if they’d stayed.  Now that Pete has more time on his hands he seeks more adventures and I watch him closely to try to hang on to his coat tails when he finds a good one.  I’m not a sailor, but am up for almost anything else.  Pete is younger than me by about five years, but we’re both in our sixties.  Both fairly fit and healthy, me mostly from walking and dashing about a tennis court, but who knows when ill-health will strike a nasty blow, or the years become too heavy.
         ‘That sounds like good fun,’ I said.   ‘Tell me about it.’
         I thought he was going to extol the virtues of  bicycles.  A nice gentle pedal through the rainforests of Northern Queensland.  He wasn’t.  Australian postie bikes are not of the push variety.  They are full-blooded pedigree motorcycles.  Not big ones, admittedly.  110cc Hondas.  But they’re still quite fast.  I’d seen the local postman zipping about the streets of Melbourne on these machines and presumably they used them in the more remote areas of the land down-under too.
         Every year an organisation called Gridley Enterprises buys a batch of old postie bikes from the post office.  Gridley is not a charitable organisation in itself but it facilitates donations to Rotary.  A participant in the ‘challenge’ buys his second-hand Honda, flogs it over tarmac, dust road and gravel track, then gives it to Rotary at the end of the rally to dispose of as they will, either passing the bike on to a needy country or selling it and doing the something worthy with the cash.  Dan Gridley and Kylie Kidby plot a course, put it on the internet, and wait for would-be riders to contact them.  I make light of the organisation it must take: the hard work and logistics must be a nightmare.  Apparently they’ve never lost a rider in the wilderness, though they’ve had one or two fall by the wayside through injury or illness.
Pete said, ‘We should do the ride together.  The next one is from Brisbane to Cairns - B to C if you like.  It’s around 4000 kms, some of it through the Outback, some of it through rainforest.’
         We were drinking beers on the veranda of his house on the outskirts of Melbourne, contemplating the antics of a dozen noisy rainbow lorakeets in the branches of a massive tree above our heads.
‘I haven’t got a licence,’ I said at last
         Pete blinked.  ‘What?’
         ‘I haven’t got a motorbike licence.’
         The grizzled grey beard on his chin twitched.
         ‘Why?’  I began to get annoyed, more with my inadequacy than Pete’s incredulity.  ‘Because I never took the test.  I rode a bike, once, for a couple of weeks - a 250 Ariel Arrow - but I never got around to passing the test.  That was, oh, several hundred years ago, when-I-were-a-lad.’
         ‘Well bloody-well get one then.’
         And that was that.
         Actually, we were in March at the time.  The Postie Bike Challenge took place around September/October.  I wasn’t going home to UK for a while, so I knew 2007 was out.  I’d never get my test and organise another trip out to Oz in three months, not to mention the cost of the enterprise, which was over $4000, excluding air fares and other expenses.  It would have to be 2008.  Pete however was impatient.  He put in for the 2007 run, did it, and then wrote to me in UK and said he would also do the 2008 run, with me and a guy I hadn’t yet met, another Pommie friend of Pete’s who lived in Leicestershire.  John.
         As soon as I got home I rang an establishment called the Ipswich Rider School.  A pleasant young woman called Sue answered the phone.  ‘You come along here, darlin’,’ she said.  ‘We’ll soon have you riding around the Suffolk countryside.’  I went along there, and met Claire, Andy, Rob, and my instructor to be, the ever-patient Charlie.  Naturally they were all a bit puzzled as to why an ancient old scribe like me suddenly wanted to belt along the A14 on a 650cc Kawasaki Ninja.  (I wasn’t exactly a born-again biker: this being my initial birth.)  I explained it was all a bit tamer than that.  I needed to get a licence for a 125cc bike in order to tootle along the Bruce Highway in far-off Oz. 
They were all very polite.  Not one of them sniggered and they all patted me on the head and said they would do their very best to turn the raw material, this 5 feet 7 inches of effete writer, into a trail-blazing John Surtees - or they might have done, if they weren’t half my age and had actually heard of John Surtees.  I could see they weren’t optimistic.
I wondered who would take on the task of moulding this lump of clay into a mean-machine rider.  Claire, dark-haired and attractive, with a lovely smile, also took out riders, but I guessed most of her students were women who wanted to be taught by another female. Andy was tall, lean and rangy, a bit like Clint Eastwood.  He had tough-looking features that belied the guy underneath.  Andy was actually, like Rob and Charlie, a serious biker who strove to get the best out of young lads who were desperate to get out on the road on two wheels.  Rob was shorter, but more solid and tightly packed.  He looked like a martial arts instructor.  Charlie was something between the two.  Like me he wore glasses and had been a military man at one time.  It was Charlie who took me on. 
Good old patient Charlie.
‘I’ll get you up to speed,’ said Charlie.  ‘You buy yourself a helmet, jacket and boots, and a develop a good positive attitude.’
First, before I could even plant my bottom on a bike that touched the Queen’s highways, I would have to pass the government Compulsory Basic Training test.  I felt I was back in the R.A.F. again with TLAs (Three-Letter Abbreviations).  Charlie and some others took us in a truck to the site of a disused sugar factory on the edge of Ipswich.  I had three fellow students, all very much closer to kindergarten than me.  We were each given a motor scooter.  There followed an eyesight test (I just squeezed through by squinting in a semblance of Jack Palance playing Ghengis Khan) and a talk on safety.  Then we went outside and received instructions on the bikes’ controls. 
Finally we got to sit on one and tootle around some spaced-out traffic cones, getting the feel of the machine, learning some choreographed handling skills and feeling like Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’.  After which we had a ‘long but important talk’ - I forget what it was about, but amongst it was probably a warning about the dangers of forming our own biker gang and challenging the local chapter of Hells Angels.  (Adversity had brought us all quite close).  Later on in the day we at last burned up the highways and byways of Suffolk for two hours, which I found exhilarating and heady, even though we probably didn’t go above 25mph.  At the end of the day, having all passed, we relaxed with tea, while the youngest of our group shot away.
‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’ asked Charlie.
The youth grinned.  I’m 17 today - I’m off to pick up my the new Suzuki bike my mum and dad have bought me.’
He could ride it on the roads now his CBT was under his belt, so long as he wore his L-plates.
For me it was the beginning of on-road lessons, with Charlie riding patiently behind me, the voice over his radio mike gently steering me clear of killing either myself or any unwary pedestrians.  I had one nasty moment when I failed to see a car coming (my view was blocked by a parked van) when doing a U-turn.  Charlie stepped out into the road and held up his hand traffic-cop-like, to halt the vehicle speeding towards me.  I then got a strong lecture on lack of observation.
‘Don’t follow orders like an automaton,’ he chastised me, ‘you’re riding for yourself, not for me.’
I was to hear that phrase many times, even from the examiner on taking my test - Ride for yourself.  You were supposed to forget someone was tracking your every move from a few yards behind you.  You were supposed to be riding oblivious of that fact.  However, when someone’s murmuring instructions constantly in your left ear, it’s very difficult to imagine you’re on your sweet lonesome.  It’s easy to relinquish responsibility for yourself.  Fatal, but very, very easy.
I found the hardest things to do on the bike were the little manoeuvres like U-turns.  The bike wasn’t as sensitive to the touch as I’d have liked and it wasn’t difficult to under or oversteer when trying to U-turn on a narrow council estate road.  Touch either curb and you failed.  Put your foot down during the exercise, and you failed.  Whistle ‘Dixie’ and you failed.  It was very easy to fail the U-turn.
The thing to do was ‘look long’.  It was deadly to stare at the opposite curb as you turned - because that’s where you’d steer the bike.  You have to sit up straight and whip your head round halfway through, stare over your shoulder down the long road where you eventually want to be heading.  Right up to the test I was never sure I was going to get round without a foot going down.  On my first test try I did a perfect U-turn - I failed on something else.
Before I could take the practical test of course, I had to do the theory tests.  It’s fifty-seven years since I took my first driving test in a 20-year-old Austin 7.  That little Austin was a 747cc ‘Box Saloon’ motorcar which weighed less than its four passengers.  Based on the Ford Model T it had all the appearance of an 18th Century black carriage that had lost its horse.  A flimsy little vehicle - you could poke your finger through the upholstery - everything connected by wires.  Sometimes one of the wires snapped and you would lose the brakes, acceleration or steering: usually something fairly important to a long life. 
In those days there was no such thing as theory tests and if there had been, it wouldn’t have been taken on a computer.  The first part of the exam was the Hazard Test, where I had to play a game as the driver of a car indicating road hazards where they seemed likely to develop.  I’ve never been good with uncontrollable movements on screens and by the fifth hazard I felt desperately motion sick.  I did make it through to the fourteenth hazard, then belted for the toilet bowl.  When I came out, wiping my mouth, the examiner said wryly, ‘Mr Kilworth, the good news is, you don’t have to take it again.’  I’d passed.  And I also passed the multi-choice questions.  I’d taken that as a given anyway: I’ve always been good with ticks and crosses on paper.  It was the practical exam that I was concerned with, and I was right to be so.
Charlie took me over all the routes the examiner was likely to take me, pointing out the awkward places where I might meet a bus coming towards me, or junctions with strange angles.  In the main these did not bother me, nor the emergency stop or anything except the blasted U-turn of course.  What did bother me was the fact that I could be on a 40 MPH road without knowing it and could be failed for ‘not progressing’ or in layman’s language, going too slow.  Since I was new to the area and was being guided by a bodiless voice all the time I never quite knew where I was most of the time.  And some nice local kids had stolen a lot of the 40 MPH repeater signs: those little reminders normally fixed to lamp posts.  I often found myself doing 30 MPH on a 40 MPH road. 
Andy provided a good solution to this problem.
‘If you think you’re on a faster road,’ he said, ‘look down the sideroads.  If you see a thirty sign, you know the road you’re on must be forty.  You might pick up a minor for not progressing for a short distance, but if you do the whole length of the road without speeding up, it’ll be a major fault and he’s bound to fail you.’
I took my first test in May 2008.  I thought I’d done all right.
‘I’m afraid on this occasion you haven’t passed,’ said the examiner.  ‘Lack of observation.’
‘What?’ I asked.  ‘How? Where?’
‘On one stretch of the road there were vehicles parked down both sides and a bus coming down the middle.’
‘I saw that,’ I replied.  ‘I observed that, all right.  I slowed down and changed direction to avoid the bus.’
‘True, but you didn’t look in your mirror first.’
‘I did.’
‘Did . . .’ but of course,  I wasn’t going to win a playground battle of dids and didn’ts with an omnipotent examiner.  I had failed.  I felt devastated.  He asked me when I wanted to retest and I told him, ‘Never.’  Of course when I’d cooled down, Charlie and Andy persuaded me to take the thing again, which I did at the end of June.  Meanwhile from the far side of the planet Earth Pete was sending gently-encouraging emails like, ‘Pass your test you pommy girl’s blouse!  What’s the matter with you?  You’ve got two arms and two legs like everyone else.  Don’t think with your arse, think with your head.  You have got a brain somewhere in there, I suppose . . .’ and other such helpful rosy phrases.
I did take the test again, of course.  I was still totally obsessed with the U-turn, but again it went like a dream.  About halfway through the test disaster struck.  The examiner had managed to get himself a hundred yards or so behind me, back in traffic.  This is not unusual.  It’s always difficult for someone following behind to keep in touch with the man ahead.  I came to a roundabout and, since Charlie had always taken me a certain way, I turned right.  Even as I began my majestic sweep around the roundabout, having done my lifesaver - a brief glance over the right shoulder - I heard a voice in my ear saying, ‘Turn left at the roundabout.  Take the left turn.’  But I was already committed to turning right, and instead of continuing right round the bloody circuit, I panicked and took my usual exit.  It was a fast road.  I went quarter-of-a-mile before I was able to turn round and begin searching for my lost examiner.  The first person I saw was Charlie, who had been following both of us.
‘Where is he?’ I yelled, panic-stricken.  ‘Do you know?’
‘Somewhere on that housing estate,’ replied Charlie in a cool voice.  ‘Come on, we’ll find him . . .’
I followed faithful Charlie, who then left me parked by a curb while he did a square search of the region.  He found the examiner and brought him to me.  The first thing I asked the examiner, as he removed his helmet, was naturally, ‘Have I failed?’
His face was deadpan.  He replied quietly and calmly, ‘Unfortunately I can’t fail you for not following my instructions - only for making an error on the road.’  There was a moment’s silence while I digested this wonderful, unexpected piece of news, then he added, ‘But you’d better be very good after this, Garry,’ we were on first name terms now, ‘because you’ve just cost me most of my lunch hour.’
I did pass that day, by the skin of my teeth, and went home to find a short cheerful message on my phone from downunder Pete.  ‘Well done, Garry’ he said, ‘congratulations on passing your motorcycle test.’ I thought, how the hell does he know?  He was in Oz.  But of course Pete didn’t know.  He was guessing.  I like to think he had a little faith in this Pom.  I was like a two-year-old, full of jumping joy.  I was going to Oz to take part in the Postie Bike Challenge!  I had passed my bike test and was on my way.  It’s true to say I was as happy as Larry, which on reflection seems appropriate, since the expression is an Australian one and refers to Australian scallywags, which the Aussies call ‘larrikins’.  A larrikin is worse than a bloke, but not as bad as a hoon.  Hoons drive too fast and drive dangerously, I didn’t want to be one of them.  No-sir.  I just wanted to ride my bike and I wanted to ride it where I liked.
Pete said on the phone, ‘Once we start the ride though, you’re on your own!’
‘Fine,’ I replied, ‘but don’t expect me to share my jolly jumbuck with you when you run out of bread-and-jam.’