Friday 30 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 6)

Day Six

         Someone told me at breakfast that we had actually lost a rider at Emerald.  One of the blokes had damaged his back kick-starting the bike.  It's easily done.  A back can go just bending over and tying a shoelace.  Poor devil, to have to leave the group after not even experiencing the high-flying excitement of going over the bars of his bike.  That must have been a real bummer.  I'd have been spitting bull dust.
         A few of the lads found some skulls the previous day and had mounted them on their bike bars.  These were the pure white headbones of dead rams, with beautiful curling horns, but they looked kind of sinister and cool as trophies on the front of the bikes.  Big, bad riders and small mean-looking bikes.  One rider had found a set of horns – ox by the look of them - and they too made a statement.  The Wild Ones.
         After a massive breakfast that would have fed an army, we gathered around Dan for the daily briefing.  Today was another loooong ride.  459.5 kms.  I was looking forward to the last .5 kms.  I ached a bit from the previous day's battle with the bull dust.  Perhaps it was my inexperience, gripping the bars too tightly, holding my body rigid instead of loosening up and going with the flow?  Anyway, I was not looking forward to leaving Proa.  We still had a few kilometres of dirt road and loose dust before we hit any solid ground.  However, Dan told us the road out of Proa was better than the road in, so I thought to myself, 'Gotta learn to relax when I'm riding.'
         We went out in our usual stream, 46 bikes now, all in a line, until the overtaking started and the wild ones went flying out in front, leaving their dust to be eaten.  The headwinds were ferocious that day, forcing down the speed.  Temperatures on the other hand, had risen, to around 35 degrees centigrade.  There were kites and hawks feasting on kangaroo carcasses every few hundred metres.  A bike passed me, with SQUIRTER written on the rider's back.  And then TRYPOD, who was another Pom like myself.  TRYPOD owned a good expensive camera and took some great photos with it, including some eagles and hawks which I'd specifically requested him to get for me.  My own little camera was fine for most things, but photographing wildlife is an art and science in itself, and requires something more than a point and shoot.
         YOU'VE BEEN PASSED BY ROGER was the next to throw dirt into my face with his back wheel.  I said to Roger afterwards that a more penetrating statement on the back of his coat would have been YOU'VE JUST BEEN ROGERED, but alas they can't all be literary geniuses like moi.  When I was thinking of writing something on my own back, I eventually put MONKEY CATCHER, the idea being 'Softly, softly catchee monkee', in that I would eventually finish the ride, no matter how slowly I went.  In retrospect, I wish I'd put my other choice, which was MARVEST HOON, a spoonerism of HARVEST MOON.  Australian 'hoons' being wild youths who drive bad boy cars at reckless speeds.  However, this convolution seemed to erudite at the time.
         I decided to ride alone again, given that we did have a good stretch of dirt road, and so let John and Pete shoot off.  They were very competent riders, both of them, though John was ever impetuous and was known to leave the road and hurtle into paddocks to say hello to horses and other livestock.  John is a wonderful talker and when he hasn't got anyone to listen, he probably talks to himself and his attention strays.  There is nothing so cheery as John in the morning and he sort of bucks you up from the moment you rise.  Good lad that he is.
         However, our John is also fastidious.  I'm amazed he was never a regular soldier in the army.  I spent 18 years in the RAF and have some excuse for folding my shirts just so, but alongside John I'm a slob.  Pete and I would stand waiting for John in the morning, as that man spent eons taking down his tent, packing his kit, and polishing the grass afterwards.  Tent pegs would be lined up, poles standing to attention, clothes laid out just so.  We all had to cram our gear in the army style kit bag – there was never enough room for tent, air bed, underwear, spare shirts, camping towel, air pump, and all the personal items – so even if stuff went in neatly, it came out looking like a jumble sale at the village hall.
         Pete on the other hand is one of your taciturn Aussies.  He would stand there watching John pack, shaking his head slowly and thoughtfully.  Sometimes he growled.  Sometimes he cast his eyes to heaven.  We all have our foibles.  I probably exasperated the pair of them, but heck, I'm lucky because I'm the one writing the book, and as far as I'm concerned, Kilworth is the perfect buddy to go on a bike ride with. 
         I got a bit of stick from John for not shaving and keeping the standard up – in Leicestershire they wear blazer and tie to the pub – but I did that anyway, later, because the bloody beard threatened to stifle me inside the helmet.  It was one of those nightmarish imaginings, the hair growing and growing and filling the helmet until it finally suffocated the wearer.  So I did shave, and I did wash out my underpants once or twice.
         Underpants!  Now there's an interesting subject for a bike riding challenge.  Pete had warned me to get t-shirts and underpants that would dry quickly.  You can get quick-drying clothes, towels, etc at any good camping shop.  I'd got the towel and t-shirts, but not any underpants.  Pete had also told me to bring boxer shorts, rather than briefs.  I didn't know why and ignored the advice, bringing (it has to be said) mostly boxers, but two pairs of briefs also.  I found out why.
         On a bike you wear so much clobber  you feel like a knight in armour.  Once the stuff's on, you can't reach things like underpants without calling for your squire and having him assist you in de-armouring.  I went out from Proa wearing briefs for the first time.  Within two hours, having crossed the dreaded dust and found blessed tarmac again, I was writhing in agony.  The briefs were cutting into the inside leg of my crotch like cheesewire.  It was excruciating.  I knew if I didn't stop soon I would sever both legs at the joints with the pelvis.
         The motion of the bike – not the velocity but shaking and rattling – judders the rider forward all the time, while on the other hand for some inexplicable reason which has puzzled Greek philosophers from the beginning of time, underpant briefs remain static on the saddle.  Rider shuffles forward, pants stay where they are.  Pants then become a cutting instrument, trying to sever limb from torso.
         I stopped to top up the fuel tank, but was exposed to girl bikers and cars going by every few minutes, so I couldn't strip and get rid of the offending item.  There was no real cover off the highway.  The bushes were pathetic little things that wouldn't have hidden a modest elf.  The arboreal landscape was no better.  The trees were stunted eucalypts – known   affectionately as 'gum trees' in Oz – and acacias – known affectionately as 'wattles'. 
         Aussies, as you probably know, like to smooth awkward words – if they can't add an 'ie' to the end – sunnies, Pommies, etc – they give it a nickname.  This has nothing to do with any lack of intellect.  Aussies are at least as bright as any pommy bastard, most of them coming as they do from the same stock.  It's more to do with liquidity of speech, having the words flow off the tongue.  After all 'sunglasses' is not a word that poets instinctively find easy on the ear.  'Sunnies' is much more fluid.  Americans call them ‘shades’ but they go for drama, rather than smoothness of speech.
         I got back on my bike and rode on.  Within the next hour there were genuine tears in my eyes.  I became convinced that the Gestapo must have made their captives wear briefs, forcing them to ride small motorbikes until they burst into tears and spilled everything they knew about troop movements.
         By lunch time I was desperate.  The fuel stop for the day was a patch of stunted gum trees and wattles.  Bugger, I thought.  Not even an old oil drum to hide my white British bum.  Then I had an idea.  In with my compass and map (insurance against getting lost in the bush, like some tourists and even locals, who get out of their car for a toilet stop and end up lost and walkabouting until they die of thirst) I had a Swiss army knife.  I got this weapon, reached down inside my rider's trousers and pulled up the edge of my briefs. 
         I slashed through one flank of the offending undies, then the other, and with great relief pulled the buggers out and threw them into a waste bin.  Job done.  Then I looked up to see I was being observed, with amusement, by one of the Aussie women riders.  I grinned and shrugged.  She laughed and turned away, and I saw WIND on her back.
         I supposed she rode like the wind.
         Going commando for the rest of the day was like having six birthdays all at once.  I couldn't have been happier.  The relief from pain was tremendous.
         Regarding my map and compass.  These were security blankets.  I'm sure if someone gets lost out there, where there is nothing but empty red space, it's better staying where you are and waiting for help.  As mentioned earlier, in my more anxiety-ridden moments I'd thought about bringing a GPS, but the expense did not justify the purchase.  How much is your life worth, I asked myself before leaving England?  Well, at least the cost of a compass, but a GPS?  Not that much mate.
         Two young bushmen who didn't get lost were Duncan and Donald McIntyre, mere youths at the time, who founded the town of Julie Creek in 1862.  They named the town after their aunt after travelling from the south with 10,000 sheep and twenty-five horses.  It's flat country around Julia Creek, once good cattle and sheep land, but now silver, lead and zinc mining has taken over.  The area boasts a local marsupial which I did not see hair or pouch of, perhaps because it's nocturnal.  It's called the dunnart.  I would have liked to have seen a dunnart, simply because I'd never heard of the creature before passing Julia Creek.  Also around the region somewhere is the Combo Waterhole, the billabong in Waltzing Matilda, but I didn't see that either.  They've had fire, flood and drought in Julia Creek, and I wouldn't want to be there in mid-summer, that's for sure, because the temperatures climb to the
         I caught up with Pete and John at Julia Creek, joining them for coffee at the local cafe.  Pete always likes a double-shot long black which takes the roof off your mouth.  I don't like flat white (a sort of latte) but I like my coffee a bit less system-shocking than double-shot long blacks.  In Spain I usually order an 'Americano with milk on the side', so I can mix my own brew and get the strength to my liking.  I tried to do that in Oz, got into all sorts of muddles, gave up and joined Pete.
         'Did you see the road sign about planes landing?' I asked.
         John said, 'You mean the one that said, ROAD MAY BE USED AS AN EMERGENCY RUNWAY?'
         'That's the beggar.  I kept looking over my shoulder for Jumbo jets.'
         'Hercules,' muttered Pete.  'Not Jumbos.'
         'Well they're big enough to knock me off my bike,' I argued, having flown in many a Charlie 130 in my time in the RAF.  'Hercules aircraft are no microlights.'
         One of the lads, Cam, told us the clutch was slipping on his bike.  My 21 still purred along, or rather screeched along, without a sign of a problem.  I felt very privileged to own her.  I loved her as I love my own children.  It troubled me that at the end of the ride I would have to sell her into slavery.
         After Julia Creek I headed for our destination for the night, which was a pub at Gregory Downs.  I'd been told there was a river there, running past the pub, where we could all have a lark about and a swim.  I'd not done any scallywagging up until then and was looking forward to it.  The Gulf of Savannah seemed like a good place for larking around.  The river at this point was supposed to be quiet tranquil water.  I also thought to look out for the unique and spectacular Livistonia palm tree, but I must have missed it, both going and going out.
         On the way to Gregory Downs we passed thousands upon thousands of termite mounds, like traffic cones covering a vast area.  It was an amazing sight for a Pom, though the locals were not that impressed, having seen as much many times before I suppose.  At a ten-minute stop later on, I spoke with a retired couple driving an RV, or campervan.  There are hundreds of them in Oz where they're known as Grey Nomads.  This pair were heading for the camp at Gregory.  I was feeling frivolous and pretended I didn't know about the mounds.
         'All these grave markers,' I said, 'there must have been quite a massacre here at some time.'
         The man frowned.  'Termites,' he said.
         'No,' said I, 'that can't be.  Termites are little creatures, like ants.  You wouldn't have big grave markers like that for termites.'
         He closed one eye and I think he would have thumped me if I hadn't got on my bike and shot off down the road.
         On the subject of termite mounds, we had a lass with us, Josie from the Sunshine Coast I believe.  A schoolteacher. Josie decided to ride by one of the mounds and kick it, presumably to watch it disintegrate into dust particles.  There were two big guys who watched out for others a lot of the time – I believe they too gained helper caps - but they failed to keep Josie out of trouble on this occasion.  Josie found that termite mounds are as hard as concrete and she broke some toes.  One more for the doctor at the next available clinic.
         Gregory Downs pub was pretty good.  There was vegetation down by the Gregory River.  There were birds and signs of other wildlife.  I liked the place.  I tried to reach Annette again, but still no signal on my mobile.  Pete's mobile worked fine, but it seemed that Annette's phone was still not in a state to receive the call.  I knew she would be upset by this, but there was little I could do.
         Since I wasn't going to use the bike again that day I decided to fill out my Running Sheet for the following morning.  This was a horrible mental exercise for someone like me.  I've never been great at arithmatic.  In fact I'm crap.  I'd got it wrong once or twice and had to use the rubber and start again.  It was agony having to do it once, let alone twice over, so I furrowed my brow in concentration and used a piece of scrap paper to write down my calculations.
         Gregory Downs to Normanton, past Burketown and over the Leichhardt River.  My speedo read 38, 136 kms at this point in the journey.  I added 93 kms to this figure which was the first stretch in the morning, making 38, 229 kms.  When my speedo registered that figure I would have to Right turn to BURKETOWN according to my sheet.  The next stretch was 119 kms, which again I added to the original 38,136 kms (not to the running total 38,229 as I had done once at the beginning of the ride, an exercise which would eventually result in a journey to the moon and back) making 38,255 before I had to right turn right again, to Normanton.  Then the next stop, 190 kms further on, was the Leichhardt River, an historic crossing point, where we would refuel.
         And so on, a whole sheet of figures which I taped to the bars of my bike each day.  When I wanted to read this sheet, which was extremely difficult since with my glasses on my eyesight is remarkably poor at a distance of two feet, I would have to hold the shuddering, flapping sheet still with my left hand, squint down, glance up at the road, squint down, glance up, squint down, glance up – this series going on long enough for me to eventually read where I'm supposed to be going without leaving the road and hurtling into the bush. 
         Only twice on the whole ride did I take the wrong turning and somehow I instinctively knew I'd gone wrong, backtracked, waited for one of the others to come along.  When I saw a red bike and had made sure it wasn't the local postie trying to fool me, I then took the same direction.  Only twice, which I felt wasn't bad for a stranger in a strange land, and a rookie biker at that.
         At the end of the day we would have done 341.9 kms and would hopefully be in the rodeo grounds of Normanton.  Always the last 50 kms of the day were difficult for me, and I believe for others.  I had to force my eyes to stay open.  My bones and muscles ached with the juddering.  My brain was full of bees.  The bike engine seemed to get noisier and noisier, the mind and spirit got tired, and all I wanted to do was get to the end of the road.  Some of the riders wore ear plugs and some carried ipods to drown out the grinding bike engine with pleasant music.  If I'd thought to bring music of some kind I'd have gone for good Aussie folk. 
         Pete had introduced me to the Bushwackers, whose single favourite of mine is Limejuice Tub.  The Bushwackers, now defunct, sing a great mix of Irish, English and plain old Aussie folk songs.  If not the Bushwackers,  then Midnight Oil, my favourite cd of theirs being Diesel and Dust.  How appropriate would that be?

Sunday 25 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day Five)

Day Five

                                    RUNNING SHEET

2008 Brisbane - Cairns
via the Gulf
The following running sheet has been provided as a guide

Day 5 continued
Straight on past Norollah off to left

Cross two causeways
Take fork to LEFT. CAUTION! Most traffic appears to go right
Windmill and grid
Straight on past Glenlyon off to left
Right at T-intersection
As a check, you should cross a grid shortly with truck tyres.
Keep to Right- Past Colleraine homestead
Wollston off to right
Straight on past Wimmera/Winchester ccrossroads crossroad.
Right Turn
Right Turn (veer right) to JULIA Ck CREEK
Straight on past Belford/Ardbrin cross road
Right turn at Junction (Helen Downs) off to left)
Edith Downs off to Left
Left Turn immediately over 2nd grid to PROA
Turn Left to PROA- about 4k in to homestead

TODAY'S   FUEL   STOP Corfield

            The second column on the running sheet is the one we had to fill in ourselves, working forward from the kilometres on our speedos.  There is no guarantee that my arithmatic is correct here.  I do not have a head for maths and I probably filled it in by torchlight in the early dawn, while sitting with a bunch of noisy eaters at the breakfast table.  This is the sheet we would attach to our handlebars in a plastic envelope, using sticky tape.  It flapped around so hard in the slipstream it was impossible to read without holding it still with the left hand, while glancing up and down at the road.  My running sheet nearly caused the death of me and would have caused the death of several kangaroos if they hadn’t already been run over by monster trucks or four-wheel drives.

         Climbing out of my tent at 5.30 am I looked up to see a marvellous cloud.  They call it Morning Glory here in Queensland.  It’s a giant rolling wave of white cloud, like a tsunami crossing the sky.  I’ve never seen any other cloud like it in my life.  For serene beauty nothing surpasses it.  For elegant, majestic motion, there is nothing more poetic.  You just have to do what I did - gape at it in wonder.  I wanted to climb up there into the heavens and lay in its path, let it wash over me.
My diary told me it was bull dust day.  Here at last.  No more talk.  The real deal.  Now, you novice, you green Pommy bastard, your lack of experience and biking skills will be tested to the limit.  Oh you idiot, what the hell were you thinking of, biking across the Ozzie Outback with only six weeks on-road biking experience?'
         I have never owned a bike.  This postie bike was my first.  All my 12 one-hour lessons had been on an Italian motor scooter, an automatic with wheels the size of jam jar lids.  Riding that machine prepared me for nothing but a gentle chug along Felixstowe sea front.  Sure, I had had four days on my postie bike now, but very little of that had been on gravel or dirt.  So, with about 40 hours flying time I was about to go solo.  I recalled the hellish day I had spent with John on a dirt bike, ploughing through the thick mud of Essex and Hertfordshire in the rain.  That was supposed to be training for something like this.  Somehow a day in the wetlands, on a bike that was taller than a lamp post, wasn't going to help me much out here in the arid wastelands of Mad Max country.
         I told Pete we would not be riding together.
         'I'll only slow you and John up.  You shoot off and leave me to my battles with the shires of Queensland.'
         Pete tells me, 'Head up, look ahead, keep the revs up when you hit the soft stuff.  If the bike starts to lose it's rear end, drop down a gear and plough through it.  Don't grip the handlebars too tight, stand on the pegs if you need a bit of central weight.  You'll be okay.'
         The destination was Proa Station, a once sheep farm out in the middle of nowhere.  We went out in our usual manner, with the young blades shooting off in front, the older riders not greatly worried about coming in first, second or third, and finally a big bunch whose individuals keep changing places when they get fed up of being near or at the back.  On this day I was somewhere in the middle, but would end up about two thirds down the pack when Proa came into view.
         Clown-suited Scotty, Cam and Murray, three larrikins but good riders, were as usual way out in front.  Scotty had been given a special cap by Dan for spending time helping others on the ride.  I understood he was a rally driver as well as a biker and obviously had good mechanical skills.  I was barely a competent operator of a machine, let alone a diagnostician or surgeon.  I was still learning what things were called – (Er, cut-out switch?) - and although I'd drilled myself to do all the maintenance necessary, if something went wrong inside – like if a thingy got jammed in a thingy – I was stumped.  Scotty was a guy you could call on in such emergencies – if you could catch the bloke.
         We refuelled at Corfield outside a pub and my running sheet told me to look for RICHMOND-SESBANIA after that, apparently written on a big truck tyre.  We were then went onto the dirt.
         At first I was surprised by the track.  It didn't seem too bad.  We had already ridden on hard-surface dirt, with rocks and stones embedded, which was where we lost Jack.  On that surface I managed to keep my speed up in the seventies.  Today I was more cautious, keeping it down in the sixties, but mostly because of the horror stories I'd been fed.  Soon I began to get a bit arrogant.  This is easy, I thought.  What the hell were we worried about?  Even a sign that said, 'TRAFFIC HAZARD AHEAD – WHEEL RUTS, BULL DUST AND CORRUGATED SECTIONS – DRIVE WITH EXTREME CARE' did not faze me at all.  I was cutting a swathe over this red dust without a care in the world.
         I stopped for a drink at one point and Lang pulled up in a truck alongside.
         'You all right?'
         'Yeah,' I said, and going all Aussie, 'no worries.'
         'Better than last year,' he indicated, nodding at the track.  'The bull dust has all but disappeared from this section.'
         'Oh really,' I replied, thinking, thank God for that.
         'Yes,' he said, 'but there'll be some later on, you can bet on that.'
         Oh, great, I thought.
         A road train went past us both.  54 metres of it.  Three articulated waggons.  It covered us in a cloud of dust which didn't settle for about five minutes.  As I’ve already said, road trains are the biggest and most dangerous hazard of the Outback.  These huge trucks got up quite a speed and you have to get off the road if you see one coming.  They can't stop suddenly without jack-knifing, so anything in their way just gets mown down.  They carry cattle, goods, fluids.  They’re monsters.  Giants of road and track.  Luckily you can see them coming from miles away by the dust cloud they leave in their wake. 
This one was going in the same direction as me, but when they come towards you their slipstream is like a solid wall of air.  It can knock you out of the saddle.  I was always a bit wobbly on my wheels.  One minute I would be doing 70 kms, then a passing road train slipstream would instantly brake me down to 30.
         Scary things, road trains.  They will henceforth haunt my nightmares.  I wonder Steven Spielberg hasn't made a horror movie of a road train – oh, wait a minute, what about 'Duel'?  That was one of his first movies, wasn't it?  Well believe me, the sinister black truck in 'Duel' is a baby next to those  monsters, the road trains.
         I got back on my bike, toed her up into third gear, and set off once again on the powdery surface.  We had about 200 kms of track to cover to Proa Station and I'd done a good stretch of it.  I was feeling quite merry. Then a real motorcycle came out of the billowing dust and haze and waved me down.  The bloke removed his helmet and bid me a very good day, sitting astride this wonderful BMW, 650 I think, but it could have been more.  If his bike had fallen over as bikes sometimes do, I wouldn't have the strength to get it upright again.  It was huge and the throaty engine growled contentedly like a male lion after a mating session.
         'Nice bike,' I said, wondering if I should have called it a hog, or something street-talky like that.  'Must go over the ruts easier than this one.'
         'Yeah – but, hey look, watch out a bit further on – the road gets worse the nearer you get to Proa.  Good luck.'
         Sure enough, the dust began to thicken under the tyres.  Now we were in bull dust country.  The bike began to slither and slide away from under me every few yards.  My speed got slower and slower, until I was doing 30-40 kms, sometimes less when the ruts threw me into the central bull dust pile, or out on the edge where the build-up was just as bad.  Sometimes it was six inches to a foot deep in places and the back end of the bike was doing a dance all of its own, not paying any attention to my steering at all.
         'Who's the master of this thing?' I yelled at the rear end.  'Me or you?'
         It was definitely, you.  A fly got in my helmet, the bridge of my nose was killing me where my glasses were digging in underneath the pressure of the goggles, and I was sweating and itching from every pore.  I stopped for a moment and watched others.  Some bikers were ice skating just like me, while others seemed to hold a dead straight line.  It looked easy, as the good ones simply cruised past me, not going fast but doing a reasonable speed.  They could have been delivering nitro-glycerine in their milk crates for all anyone would guess.
         Envious of this skill I got back on and falling in behind one of the good guys, tried to emulate his riding.  It did me no credit when my bike continued to swerve and skid.  What was I doing wrong?  Maybe the speed was too slow?  I tried speeding up and nearly came a cropper.  I slowed down again to about 30 kms.  I felt it would be a shame to come off the bike so near to the station.  Others had, I knew.  I could see the skids of those who had gone before, with the occasional hollow mark where someone had taken a fall.  So far my bum had stayed on the saddle, despite several near tumbles.
         When I looked over my shoulder, down that long and dusty road, the heat haze warped the riders coming up behind me.  The drifting clouds of dust mingled with the snaking ribbons of heat thrown up by the earth and created a kind of red-dust fog.  Riders came out of it like dark phantoms rippling into view.  Some of them were wobbling and skidding, others keeping a slow straight path, but all were shimmering, serpentine shapes that appeared as crinkled ghostly shadows and gradually formed into solid human beings on motorbikes.  It was an eerie sight that held my attention for quite a while.  As a writer of speculative fiction this scene was something right out of a fantasy story.
         I shook my head clear and continued on my own unsweet way, ploughing through that same hot dust.
         Here's one of the problems with being a rookie.  The motor scooter on which I had learned my trade and passed my test, was an automatic.  Since there's no clutch, automatics have both brakes on the handlebars.  The left hand lever is the front brake, the right hand lever is the back brake.  On semi-automatics, e.g. the Hondo postie bike, the right hand lever is the front brake, the rear brake being down by the right foot.  So, where I had been trained to apply the back brake was now where the front brake was located.  Thus, in moments of panic I grabbed the right hand lever mistakenly thinking I was applying the back brake.  Once or twice this almost had me flying through the air, over the jolly old handlebars, and into the path of my own machine.
         The last thirty kilometres were agony.  Finally the driveway into the farm came into view.  I tootled along this track and found John and Pete sitting in the sun gulping down beers.  I felt a little triumphant, I had to admit.  I certainly wasn't the last bike in by a long shot and I had stayed in the saddle.  Pete congratulated me.  So did John.  It was all, all so premature.  I thought Proa would be the worst day.  It wasn't.  The worst was yet to come.  I would indeed part company with my beloved machine, several times, but for now I was happy.
         However, both my hands ached from gripping the bars, even though Pete had given both John and me a little gadget – a sort of cruise control clip-on plastic spur – which required very little pressure to keep the revs up.  I could not open my fingers for a while and walked about with hawk's talons.  My shoulders, my back, and my neck also ached like mad.  In fact the only part that didn't hurt, the part which I had expected to hurt, was my bottom.  I had spent so much time up on the pegs, my backside had hardly touched the saddle that day.
         Two people had to be medivaced.  Anna, who had already hurt her ankle, damaged herself further on the ride to Proa and was whisked away from us by men in green. 
         Also one of the guys had dislocated his shoulder.  He walked about for a while, bearing the pain stoically, but in the end had to give in to his fate and was out of the challenge. 
Among the other guys thrown off that that day, was one a mechanic told us who was, ‘ . . . motionless, face down in the bull dust, slowly suffocating . . .’  That treacherous red powder.  It bucked you off your bike and then did its best to drown you. 
A brave guy with a brave face.  But you can't have a dislocation like that and carry on riding a motorcycle.  The greenies took him off that evening. 
         Proa Station no longer seemed interested in sheep.  There were a few emus about, and a nuisance of a gobbling male turkey who tried to flirt with everything that moved on two legs.  I kept my legs out of the way.  Dogs are always trying to hump my legs.  I wanted no bloody Outback turkey trying it on, even with shin-guard protection.
         Duncan, the owner, took us on a tour and explained what the sheep ranch did now.
         'We farm red claw crayfish in ponds now,' he said, 'ponds fed by fresh water from down below, which comes up through a bore hole.  The red claws grow to about 14 or 15 centimetres long and make a good meal.'
         I can't remember how deep the artesian well was, but I remember being very impressed.  When harvesting time comes they drain the ponds to about two-feet deep then set up a large vat in the middle.  The vat is located up stream of the flow and the natural instinct of the crayfish is to walk against the current, perhaps to find the source.  This leads them up a ramp and into the barrel, so to speak, harvesting themselves.
         Over a drink Pete told me that the local fauna included the Green Tree Frog.  Since this particular Ozzie frog is normally found in damp rainforest conditions, and the Outback at Proa is dry and dusty with hardly a tree to be seen, I found this a bit hard to believe and said so.
         ‘Ah,’ said Pete, supping his ale, ‘you have to take into account flush toilets.’
         It seems the Green Tree Frog has chosen another environment to live out his life cycle.  This fellah is now found in cisterns all over the Outback and where the cisterns are of the overhead variety he makes his home in the ceramic bowl itself, gripping under the rim with tenacious feet when some thoughtless user flushes the toilet.
         Duncan had a story of a Green Tree Frog which caused a disturbance in the shearers’ quarters one night.  The building had been cleaned up for some city visitors and Duncan had particularly checked the toilet for stray frogs before allowing his guests inside.  Not well enough, apparently.  A middle-aged woman went into the toilet but within seconds screamed and took the dunny door off its hinges in her rush to escape.  When calmed she told how she had just sat down when ‘something cold and slimy’ leapt at her from within the bowl.
         That evening we were fed by the Country Women's Association.  Someone left in a light plane while we were eating, which seemed a good way to get out of the dust bowl we were in.  The man with the big shiny BMW bike arrived back at the farm and stayed for the evening, before setting off in the dark – oh what fools these mortals be – back to someplace about sixty miles away.  We had corned beef hash that night, which was wonderful cuisine.  There was other fare, dishes too numerous to mention, including wonderful afters. 
Lose weight?  What a laugh!  I have never eaten so well as on that ride, not in Hong Kong, not in London, not in any city restaurant or hotel anywhere.  Ladies of the Outback, gentlemen of the Outback, I salute you - you are chefs extraordinary!
         I put up my tent in the yard, along with John and Pete, while many others slept in the shearers' huts.  That night the heavens were encrusted with stars.  I never felt so good as I lay there on my airbed looking through the open flap at the trillions of bright chips of light embedded in the darkness.  One of nature’s great shows.  And yes, the Southern Cross was still there.  From the backyards of Oz they can see all five stars of the Southern Cross, and naturally that’s how the constellation appears on the Australian flag.  New Zealand also has the same constellation on its flag, but with only four of its stars since the Kiwis live around the corner of the world and are denied sight of the smaller fifth star.
         The sixth star on the Australian flag, is the Federation star.
         Since my trip people at home have asked me whether I was worried about snakes or spiders, with leaving the flap wide open all night.  It never crossed my mind.  Such creatures have never really bothered me.  I was raised in Aden and camped in the Hadramaut Desert as a boy. I’ve lived in tropical lands most of my days.  Snakes and spiders worry those who live in temperate lands.  When you've been used to the wilderness on your doorstep, such creatures are commonplace.  All right, I wouldn't want a coral snake or camel spider in my bed with me: they're both bloody poisonous bastards.  But they don't want to be there either, so the feeling's mutual.  I don't love 'em, but they don’t worry me.
         Earlier it had been another beautiful sundown which crept gently over the broad long plain.  If I had lived in central Queensland all my life, I would probably belong to the Flat Earth Society.  Much of it is as flat as paper, mostly dust, with the occasional pink grasslands.  A spiritual land, without question, so no wonder its first inhabitants are a spiritual people with a deep belief in the mystical offerings of the landscape.
         As I lay there that night, I got to thinking about the previous day's surreal experience with Christmas Creek and the black riders.  I have had one or two 'surreal' happenings at Christmas, the weirdest being in Sumatra while I was waiting with Annette on the shores of a lake called Toba, in an area of volcanoes.  It was Christmas day and we had walked down through the market to the water's edge, one of those markets where the locals spread blankets and sell a small pile of beans, nuts or fruit.  One of those markets where you want to buy something from everyone, so they don't go home disappointed to their families.
         We were just in the process of buying tickets for a ferry to an island on the lake when a four-wheel-drive vehicle skidded to a halt on the far side of the market.  A Caucasian man got out dressed in a red suit trimmed with white, a black belt, big black boots, a false white beard, and a belly as big as a bass drum.  He ran down to the edge of the shoreline and with arms akimbo, stared out over the waters of the lake.  Then he let out an expletive, a nice rich juicy swearword in English, then marched back to his vehicle and drove off at high speed.
         Not only were the market sellers agog, so were Annette and I, and also the ferry ticket seller.  We all stood there with our eyes out on stalks.  The event had been so abrupt and sudden it had knocked all the wind out of everyone's sails.  Previous to this the only European faces we had seen was at local Methodist church when some tourists had gathered to sing carols with Christian Indonesians.
         Then to cap the strangeness of the event, the ticket seller said with awe in his voice, 'Who was that?  Moses?'
         'No,' Annette replied, 'Santa Claus!'
         For some inexplicable reason this knowledge caused the ticket seller to let out a sigh of disgust.
         'Oh, him,' he said.
         Who the ex-pat guy was, what he was doing in the middle of the Sumatran countryside dressed as Father Christmas, and why he was so angry, we never discovered.  Nor did we find out why Moses was so revered and Santa Claus so despised by the Indonesian ticket seller.  The whole scene took on a dream-like effect which faded into oblivion – until Christmas Creek reminded me of it, on the previous day's ride.
         As with previous nights, someone at Proa was snoring very loudly.  Several people, actually.  It could have been the zoo, not a sheep station.  We had been warned about this before coming on the challenge and I'd brought some earplugs with me.  However, earplugs only work to a degree.  They don't block out the noise completely.  So I lay there sort of dozing and waking, the whole night, but feeling happy at having reached day five of the trip without injury.