My plan worked quite well. We were travelling due east from Innot Springs to Cooktown. There was some dirt road, but not a great deal. I was getting used to dust and grit under my wheels. But it was a long hot day ahead. 377 kms, passing through Atherton and Mareeba. Refuel stop today was at Mount Carbine roadhouse. I stayed by myself, sometimes with no other rider in sight, and just banged along the highway thinking about the end of the day. The scenery was quite pretty, with hills to look at and trees in partial bloom. It would have been a pleasant ride, if I wasn’t feeling so sick. However, I was grateful to Dan for getting me back on the bike. I know I would have felt cheated at the end of the ride if I’d missed even one single stage.
Atherton itself was a small pleasant town. Where it was, was more important than what it was. It was the gateway to the Atherton Tablelands, where Annette was staying. The Tablelands is a high cool plateau, rich with wildlife and scenery. There were scores of different birds there, from the Cassowary to the Double-eyed Fig Parrot to the Papuan Frogmouth. Among its animals were dingos, bandicoots and echidnas (those giant hedgehogs of the bush). It also boasted, amongst its reptiles, the second most venomous snake in the world, the Eastern Brown Snake. I thought its name was pretty tame for a such a poisonous fellah. It surely should be called something like, the Deadly Silver Medalist, or the Instant Killer Runner-up.
An Eastern Brown Snake was seen slithering onto a gas station forecourt during the ride.
Not only were there live wonders on the Atherton Tablelands, but natural wonders too, with over 13 waterfalls, including the Dinner Falls and the Zillie Falls. I wondered how many of these beasts and sights Annette had seen, as I rattled through Atherton on my trusty machine, little knowing that she was there on a bus watching me, and a few dozen other pretend posties, beating up the tarmac. She couldn’t recognise me of course, because we all looked more or less alike in our riding gear and on identical bikes. Nevertheless, the whole bus knew about her husband and kept pointing riders out as they shot past, saying, ‘Is that him?’
I trundled out into the bush again, still feeling very weak and wobbly, and managed to shoot past the refuel truck and about thirty bikes and riders, not wanting company at that moment. Luckily I stopped myself just a few hundred yards along the road. One of the trucks came out with Richard the mechanic driving.
‘What’s up, mate?’ he asked me, climbing out of the cab. ‘That’s the refuel stop back there.’
‘Oh,’ I said, desultorily. ‘Sorry - missed it.’
‘Well, get your backside on your bike and find it again, eh?’
I did as I was told and when I got there Richard had a can of gas ready to put in my machine.
‘Go and sit in the shade,’ he said, kindly. ‘I can see you’re still feeling crook.’
He filled my tank and put a full five-litre spare in my milk crate. Good old Richard. He was now due to go in my last will and testament, if I ever saw dear old merry England again.
Pete came to then. ‘I saw you shoot past - still chucking up?’
‘Not so much, but I feel like I’ve been in a washing machine on full cycle for four hours.’
‘Ah, you’ll be fine,’ he said.
The afternoon was incredibly hot. I still stopped every 50 kms and met a wizened Grey Nomad on one of my stops. He was as dried up as an ancient gum tree by the wind and the sun. He had no teeth, but he could talk for both Ireland and Australia. He told me all about the ‘Beezer’ bike he’d owned when he was a young man - back in Captain Cook’s time I guessed by the look of him. I sat there about an hour listening to him. He had the gift all right. Although I hardly understood a word he was saying - it was all biker and bush talk - I found him a really interesting character and would like to have had a pint with him.
‘Tell you what, mate, I miss that Beezer more than I miss a darling wife,’ he told me, chuckling. ‘Bloody hell, she was a goer that bike was. Give few bucks now to get her back.’ And his eyes went all misty as his thoughts disappeared somewhere back in the distant past.
I looked nervously at his RV but no irate lady appeared at the window. I guessed he was on his own, but whether his spouse had passed on, or he was divorced, or indeed he may have been single all his life, I did not know. I left him by the roadside and he promised to look us postie bike challengers up when he got to Cooktown.
I never saw him again.
I did look up ‘Beezer’ on the internet later: the bike he was referring to was the 650cc BSA Thunderbolt of the 1960s.
At the end of the day I was feeling a lot better. My innards were stable, but as always with the tail end of the ride, I was getting very very tired. Eight hours on a blistering highway, following a white line, is sure to make the eyes want to close. I had to fight to keep them open. I’ve always been a power nap man. When I write for hours at a stretch there’s always a point where I can’t keep my eyes open any longer and I simply get off my chair, lay on the floor, and nap for twenty minutes. After which I’m as refreshed as fizzy drink. You can’t do that while you’re riding a bike, so as usual I ended up singing loudly to myself inside my helmet, which is a bit like a bathroom opera. Of course, desperatelytired and you have to pull over and throw water in your face, but when you’re very close to the destination this is a hard thing to do.
I was getting passed by other riders - NZ MALE SERVICE - went shooting past me, showing me his back. But by that time we were sweeping the bends of the hills leading down to Cooktown, which was a great pleasure. The town is of course named after Captain Cook, who is greatly revered on the east coast of Australia, at least by non-aboriginals. (I confess I have no idea what the Aboriginal people think of him.) Cook was the first European in this region, and afterwards came the redoubtable Captain Flinders. Both mapped the area, including the Great Barrier Reef, and their statues and names are found in several Australian cities and towns. Cook’s Cottage, the home of his parents, was dismantled in 1934 and reassembled stone by stone in Melbourne, Victoria.
James Cook was a Scot with a mother who had the unlikely name of Grace Pace. (What were her parents thinking of?) Happily she later became Grace Cook when she married James’ father.
Captain Cook is of course one of Britain’s most distinguished explorers. He made three Pacific voyages and mapped the coastline of New Zealand. He named many places on his journeys throughout the world, including Botany Bay, but my favourite is a small town in Queensland which he called ‘1770’. I met someone from 1770 when on a trip to Karunda. He seemed quite pleased that Cook had run out of names and had fallen back on the year of discovery.
Cooktown is beautiful. Overlooked by Grassy Hill, which sounds as green as it looks, there are gardens and parks blooming everywhere. We set up our tents in a camping park under the shade of a grove of eucalyptus trees. It was paradise after the dust and grit of the Outback. I had a hammering head but a couple of pain killers took care of that. I also started to feel hungry again. The riders were all cheerful, smiling at each other, talking about cool beer. Not that there had been any animosity on the ride that I’d noticed. A couple of irritating moments, but nothing to start a war about. But Cooktown was such a blissful place you couldn’t help but feel like singing and dancing.
I did inspect the gum trees closely. On an earlier trip to Oz I learned of two types of eucalyptus tree: black box and river red. One type, and I couldn’t remember which, was called the ‘widow maker’ because huge branches snapped off without warning and dropped on unwary people below. Which was it? I kept asking myself, nervously, as there was no space to camp which was not below the heavy-looking spreading arms of these beautiful but deadly gum trees.
It was in that Cooktown camping park that I saw my first ‘swag’ - a great Australian invention. A swag is a not much more than a sleeping bag with a cover, but ideal if you want to see the stars as you drop off to sleep. I was determined to get one at some time. You need good weather before you decide to use one of course, but heck, who knows that I won’t be visiting Oz again in the near future. I’m only 68.
Once again, the meal that evening was superb, being provided by the local Little Athletics Club. And as usual, we gave the ladies who cooked it a great round of applause for their brilliant efforts. The whole trip had been like that. I had come on the ride thinking I would shed some pounds, but if anything I put them on. I went to bed as usual, around 8 pm, along with most others. I don’t think anyone stayed awake beyond nine. It had been a long and tiring day. It had been a long and tiring 10 days. One more day and we were back in real life again.
At least I wasn’t chucking out from both ends.