Thursday 10 May 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (The Last Day)

The Last Day

This was the day we had all been looking forward to.  Not simply because it was the last day, but because we were going on the Bloomfield Track through the Daintree Rainforest.  All being well we would be in Cairns for the mid to late afternoon.  The end of the ride.  There we would hand over our darling machines to the Rotary Club, who were going to sell them and donate the money to various charities.  It would be like parting from a courtesan.  One or two riders were going to buy their bikes for the second time, and keep them.  For Poms like me, this was impractical.  We’d have to ship them back to the UK at great expense and I’d already spent a great deal on this expedition.  With fares, the cost of the challenge, and various other expenses, it had come to around £5000.  I’d been saving that for my next car, but what the heck, you can’t put a price on the great Outback experience we’d had.
Daintree rainforest is over 135 million years old.  The oldest rainforest on Earth.  Nearly 500 feathered friends live there, including a dozen species that are found nowhere else in the world.  It has the most diverse range of plants and animals on the planet.  It’s 1200 square kilometres of frogs, marsupials, butterflies and birds.  On the human front the Kuku Yalariji people inhabited and lived off the forest for over 9000 years.  The non-aboriginals, who followed in Captain Cook’s footsteps, began logging the area, but were later halted by the Australian Federal Government who made it a World Heritage area.
‘There’s a steep hill on the track,’ Pete warned me, ‘after a sharp bend.  You’ll need to be in first gear.  If you don’t start it in first, you won’t make it to the top and it’s a hell of a job trying to kick-start on a forty-five degree slope.’
‘You slide back down?’
‘If the dirt’s loose enough, yes.’
The moment we entered the Daintree, I knew this was Nirvana.  I love trees, wildlife and flora.  This place had the lot.  
I had to be on the watch for giant tree frogs (14 cms long!), man-eating crocodiles, golden orb spiders and musky rat-kangaroos.  Daintree was also home to that most famous of live bush-tucker meals, the witchetty grub, a fellah I would just as soon not meet if it’s all the same to you.
There were some beautiful trees, of course, as magnificent as cathedrals, others with pretty foliage and blossoms to gladden the heart.  But there were also a few bad guy plants.  We had to watch out for the Stinging Tree, which brings you up in large blisters that are extremely painful.  Next to him in the gang was the Wait-a-while Vine, which apparently rips you to bits with its small spikes. Then there’s the Idiot Fruit, which you mustn’t get mixed up with the Wild Ginger that also grows here. Idiot Fruit will kill you stone dead with its heavy dose of strychnine.  Annette loves ginger and I just hoped she hadn’t gone wandering in the forest and seen something that looked tasty.
The Bloomfield track itself was bumpy dirt and rocks, quite wide in most places, but with not just one steep hill (as my Aussie chum had implied) but dozens of them.  We went up and down a hundred times, my heart stopping on the downstrokes as I hurtled towards a narrow v-shaped dip below before the next steep climb.  The Big One that Pete had mentioned was attacked by a huge crowd of us at once.  I almost made it to the top (in first gear naturally) when someone slewed sideways right in front of me.  I had to brake sharply, which brought me to an immediate stop on a hill which flies had trouble clinging to.  Somehow, I managed to struggle up the last few metres, but it wasn’t fun while all around was the chaos of loud machines battling with the landscape.
The next obstacle was the river at the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Community.  We had three rivers to cross, or possibly the same river three times, with the water up to our wheel hubs.  This was salt water crocodile country, so eyes were skinned.  
In the last few days a Belgium tourist in the region had caused his arm to be chewed by a salt-water croc when he stupidly splashed water on the croc’s face ‘because it wasn’t moving’.  It could move pretty quickly, actually, and clamped its massive jaws on his forearm. He got more than the photograph he was after: teeth marks all along his flesh.  He’d actually been extremely lucky to escape. Most crocs of this huge variety spin over and over once they’ve got a grip on their victim, and the arms are twisted from their sockets.  Either that or the victim is dragged down into the water and becomes a feast for the beast.  Crocs often stash the remains under submerged logs to allow them to rot.  Seemingly humans taste better when the meat tenderises and falls off the bone.  
An Aussie croc has been known to take a victim in three inches of water, so the shallowness of our river, about two feet, was no protection.
The first crossing was easy, a shallow ford with a concrete base.  The only hazard there were the 4x4 vehicles that wanted to go faster than we could.  The next crossing was a wide creek with rushing, tumbling water and boulders and smooth stones for its bottom.  Riders went over in swathes and singles, and were thrown this way and that by the uneven surface below, as well as having to contend with cold water over the tops of their boots.  One or two machines bounced wrongly, cut out halfway over and had to be man-handled to the far shore.  
I went across with John, whose bike conked out halfway over.  I had a 4-wheel vehicle right on my tail so I had to bump my way awkwardly past him.  Everyone was yelling at me and pointing to the car behind me, but I knew the blighter was there.  I got a bit hot under the collar with all the shouting and started shouting back.  No one could hear me cursing them of course, because my voice simply reverberated around my helmet and only served to deafen me. It was very frustrating and I rode off in a bit of a temper.  There’s nothing like a bit of a temper to help increase the usual velocity and the next thing I did was go down one of the hills at much too fast a pace, only to meet a truck coming round the bend at the bottom.  It was taking up most of the track width.
Here’s where my inexperience was my downfall, literally.  Instinctively I reached for the rear brake on the right hand side of the handlebars.  It wasn’t there of course, because I wasn’t riding the automatic I rode in England, but a Honda 110 which has a footbrake.  The bike fishtailed and threw me off.  I slammed jaw-first into a boulder on the edge of the track.  The same arm that I’d hurt in the last tumble came between me and a hard place.  I ended up in the dirt in a humiliating bundle of arms and legs and a twisted body.
‘Are you all right?  Can I help?’
It was the driver of the vehicle, looming over me.
I climbed awkwardly to my feet.  I was embarrassed, as one is when one feels stupid.  I wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible.
‘Yes, I’m fine.  Just a spill.’
‘Anyone with you?’
‘My support truck will be along in a minute.’
He stared at me for a while, then went to his own truck.
I gathered myself together, brushed the dust away as best I could, though me and the bike were covered.  Inspecting 21 I noticed the gear lever was bent and the handlebars were twisted.  I was straightening the bars when Andy arrived in the support truck.
‘Come off?’
‘Again,’ I replied.
He sorted out the bike’s bars but told me not to try and straighten the gear lever.
‘It might snap off.  You can still use it, can’t you?’
I tried and found I could.
He looked into my eyes.  ‘Are you hurt?’
‘Not seriously.  There’s a big lump on my arm and my jawbone’s a bit out of kilter, but luckily my motocross helmet stopped me from breaking anything.’
It was fortunate.  If I was wearing the half-face helmet I also owned, I would have had a broken jaw for certain.  Thank you, Pete, for insisting that I buy the motocross helmet.  I had quibbled at the expense of the thing, but it had saved me months of having my face wired up, and having to suck soft food through a tube, not to mention all the associated pain that goes with resetting broken mandibles.
‘All right.  On the bike.’
I got back on and a few minutes later crossed the river again.  It was just as difficult at the last crossing, but this time I did it perfectly.  Of course there were no witnesses present.  Ain’t that just the way of things?  The longest putt of your life at golf is when you’re a single, solitary player going round alone. The loveliest girl you pull is when you’re on holiday without your mates.  The biggest fish you catch is when all the other anglers have packed up and gone home. 
Did you see that?  
No, they didn’t.  Nobody saw it, because no one was there watching.  And you can’t tell them later, because they refuse to believe you, no matter how much sincerity goes into your tone.
I was now switchbacking the hills towards Cape Tribulation, where Captain Cook’s ship came to grief.  On my shoulder was a damn white truck that began to first annoy me, then anger me. Finally I stopped the bike and shouted at the driver.
‘Why the hell don’t you pass me?’
Andy poked his head out the side window and grinned.
‘Sweeper truck, mate.  You’re the last rider.’
The last rider.
I had never been the last rider.  I couldn’t possibly be the lastrider.  I’d promised myself that wouldn’t happen.  Even just on a single short stage.  It wouldn’t matter a great deal to an experienced rider, but I was a beginner and it was really important for me not to look like one.
‘There’s one bloke back there,’ I said, recalling passing a bearded rider savagely kicking the tyre of a prone machine way back on the trail.  He had never passed me.  ‘Someone’s behind me.’
‘His bike broke down,’ replied Andy.  ‘They took him and his machine in the repair truck.’
Shit! I was the last rider.
When I got to Cape Tribulation, the rest of them were just preparing to leave to catch the ferry across a much wider stretch of river.  I had just enough time to grab a coke and get Lang to straighten my handlebars properly.  Then I was back on the road again, but smooth bitumen this time.  I ached a bit, but not enough to spoil the last day of the ride.  Now the tarmac hummed under my tyres and there were enough bends in the road to make it an interesting ride.  There was more traffic of course, but it was easy enough to let them pass, and usually they gave a friendly wave, which was pleasant.
A beautiful foot-long lizard crossed my path, running on high legs to keep its belly clear of the hot tarmac on the road.  It made me think about the rainforest.  I hadn’t noticed a single bird or animal while I was in there. One of the most populated rainforest parks in the world and I had simply rattled through it on 21 without seeing a thing.  That was upsetting.  I made up my mind that I would come back again, on foot, and look for those creatures and plants that I’d missed this time round.
Finally we were on the Captain Cook Highway, the coastal road from Daintree to Cairns, which was a very pleasant twisty piece of bitumen with lots of sweeping up and down curves: a perfect end to a journey full of grit, dust and surprises. We gathered in a side road just inside the city, to slap each other’s backs.
‘We made it,’ said John.  ‘Well done, Gazzer.  Well done, Pete.’
John looked quite chuffed and I was feeling pretty good too.  It could so easily have ended in disaster.  One guy did not make it past the first day and that could so easily have been John or me.
It was of course Peter’s second time around.  
Pete nodded, saying, ‘I set out with two priorities this year.  Firstly, to stay on my bike, something I failed to do last year.  Secondly, to make sure two you didn’t kill yourselves.’
He had succeeded in both, firstly by using his previous year’s expertise to stay glued to the Honda’s saddle, secondly by passing on lots of good savvy to the green pommies.  ‘When you hit bull dust, drop down a gear and power through it . . .’  Stuff like that which I had only listened to with half an ear, but which, when the bike started to fishtail and my heart rate went shooting off the scale, came back to me vividly.  He had done a good job on both counts.  There weren’t many who hadn’t come off their bikes and tasted the fine Australian dust.
When we were all in, Dan organised us into a long line.  Then we cruised neatly in pairs into the heart of Cairns as if we were a police parade.  Sadly though, only forty-six out of the original fifty.  We entered and clustered together in a small park below the hotel where most of us were staying.  Local press and well-wishers were there to welcome us back into the real world. After the pictures and the interviews, the Cairns’ Rotary Club led us once again through the streets to a warehouse where they wrested our bikes from our firm grips.  21 was going to a new home.  I hoped they’d appreciate her.  She was a beaut.
The residue aches and pains of the ride would be with me for a while.   My fingers would still be in a claw-like grip for many days afterwards.  I had lumps and bruises on my arms and legs from fighting with boulders and dirt roads. Whenever I went to sleep I could see a white line stretching into infinity in my head.  My backside would take a while to get any real feeling back into the buttocks.
The showers in the hotel ran red that afternoon, as riders washed every corner of their bodies, getting rid of the Outback dust.  My riding clothes were put into plastic bags which Annette had brought with her.  They carried half a continent in their seams.  The white rim of my helmet was no longer white and never would be again. My boots, God bless them, could have belonged to one of Wellington’s soldiers.  They were shapeless lumps of leather ingrained with Australia.  I would be going home carrying much of the Outback with me in my suitcase.
That evening we had a dinner to which the riders, organisers and Rotary people were invited.  There we were presented with some treasured certificates and received a talk from a Rotarian.  We learned where the money from the sale of the bikes was eventually going in the countries that needed it most:

+ 30,000 polio vaccinations
+ 200 cleft palate operations
+ 100 wheel chairs

As a side issue there was fund-raising for 11 community groups who assisted us with meals and bedspaces on our journey.
Good on yer, postie bike!
The following morning we shook hands with those who were up and about. Pete, John and I, and our wives, were going to Port Douglas to spend a week in a house with a swimming pool. Others were going home to tell their stories to their families, to their mates in pubs, and perhaps even stopping people on the street and regaling them with adventures tales.  There had been a touch of the Ancient Mariner about this ride. It had been an extraordinary voyage through an immense mysterious land with hazy edges and shimmering shapes.  A forever place where the sky is a huge dome of blue peppered with bits of white.  A timeless dreamscape.  Had it been 11 days and 4000 kilometres?  It was an experience none the riders would ever forget, I’m sure.  Friendships had been forged along with the memories.