I was standing at the roadhouse bar waiting my turn to get a drink when the girlfriend of the guy in front of me came up behind us, her arrival announced by the sound of her knuckles dragging along the floor. The place was stuffed with Territorians replete with beards and bellies, black singlets and inky tattoos… and that was just the women. God it looked rough! “Giddus a beer ya cant,” she shouted to her beloved. “Comin’n a minute love,” he replied. Another typical Sunday afternoon in the Humpty Doo Hotel, where locals come from far and wide to banter one another and listen to the music laid on by a three piece band knocking out some cracking sounds, little bits of everything from Clapton to Floyd. Out front a line-up of graceful Harleys, old American pick-ups and Australian Utes filled the dusty parking lot.
The use of the ‘C’ world, even in today’s society, is generally quite shocking. At home it is surely the nuclear swearword in our lexicon of profanities; to call someone a c**t is a last resort / ultimate insult before violence erupts, yet here it was being casually used in witty banter, outback style. We’d found swearing in the Northern Territories to be almost endemic; the sign for the loos in another roadhouse literally read ‘Shithouse ->’. But even I took a double take on a bumper sticker that read ‘CU in the NT’ – text write for ‘see you in the Northern Territories’ with ‘in’ written over ‘the’ in a very small font such that from a distance the two words are invisible. A few days later strolling the streets of Darwin there was a shop selling this same logo emblazoned on everything from mugs and mouse-mats to baseball caps and car stickers… It seems they are proud of swearing up here.
Our arrival in Darwin almost ended in disaster. Our short red-eye flight from Bali landed us in Oz at 5:30am to find that the car rental desk was shut until 7:30am. We were both shattered when we wandered off, keys in hand to collect the car at a remote parking lot. The sun was up so I went to grab my sunnies, stashed in my camera bag, when I realised that said bag with my Canon EOS 6D camera and snazzy ‘professional series’ lens was missing. I had plonked it on top of our baggage trolley at the hire desk and now it was gone! I quickly retraced our steps to the desk but there was neither knowledge nor sight of the bag. We were directed to a security desk to see if it had been handed in and our stomachs were writhing pits of dread at the prospect of losing such a fine and expensive camera that, at this point in our travels, would have been simply irreplaceable. Even worse we pondered the notion that it had somehow been stolen; we couldn’t remember being distracted or any contact with persons unknown but we were both gritty-eyed from lack of sleep, so who knows? The security desk hadn’t seen any camera bags handed in and we were arranging contact details in case it turned up when another guy walked in and said “someone here lose a camera?” We could have kissed him! The bag had fallen off the trolley, unnoticed in our knackered state on our way to the carpark and an employee found it minutes later and handed it in at a different location.
Australia as an overlanding travel destination is mega-expensive, especially as a follow on from months of budget travel in SE Asia. The cheapest hotels in Darwin come in at over $100 a night for a minimal standard private room so our first mission was to acquire a set of camping gear. We had soon abandoned our own camping gear back in Europe as we couldn’t see the need for it in Asia, where decent rooms were cheap and bountiful. Luckily Darwin had a couple of really good outdoor stores and we soon had a decent budget tent with sleeping mats and bags. We camped at a beautiful site up at Lee Point and had a few days exploring the coast around Darwin while we waited for the bikes to clear customs. Darwin was an unexpectedly delightful place and the simplicity of communicating with people in our mother tongue once again was a pure joy. An immediate impression of Australia is that it is a delightful explosion of birdlife. All through SE Asia and Indonesia, birds were remarkable mainly by their absence. Even in Komodo we saw but a single seabird perched on an isolated rock and the captain of the boat took a shot at it with an imaginary rifle, suggesting the likely demise of the little birdie’s friends. Now we had the constant companionship of darting little black and white Pee-Wees, scrawny looking Ibis, both white and pink varieties of noisy Cockatoos and beautiful Lemon-Masked Lapwings. Overhead Black Kites graced our campsite dinners with daring swoops and grass-cutter fly-pasts.
We met up with Gail, who had lingered in Dili and booked to have the dreaded quarantine inspection completed for our three bikes. We also had new tyres ordered from Richard Cross at Alicross, a highly recommended and competent motorcycle repair shop in Darwin, so soon we would be ready for roads south. But first that inspection… Initially we were told we were on a ‘gas’ hold… For a horrible moment I thought that my dodgy fuel pump had started leaking again and the container was contaminated with gasoline but it turned out that we were on a ‘GAS’ hold; actually the acronym for Giant African Snail. In the 19th century, when the Europeans were exploring the islands of the Pacific, they left pigs on each island they visited. The pigs would forage and prosper, thus ensuring a supply of fresh meat for the next ship to arrive. The Japanese did something similar but they left Giant African Snails as their food supply. When the quarantine guy explained this to us we chuckled; seriously? A giant snail? What possible risk could that be? Not exactly hard to see or to catch are they? He disappeared and returned with a plaster model of one (see photogallery)… It was huge! About the size of a shoebox and I reckon there was the equivalent of a large T-bone worth of meat curled up inside! “One of these can eat its way through 29 head of lettuce in a night,” he explained. “But worse than that each one can carry up to 20,000 eggs and once dispersed the eggs lie dormant for two to three years so you see, the risk of an invasion isn’t to be taken that lightly.” It transpired that Timor is a high risk for giant snails so every container is placed in a salt ring and then inspected for snails / eggs before release.
Luckily there was no snail contamination and within a few days the bikes were cleared and ready for inspection. We completed the necessary paperwork and paid the remainder of the shipping fees and then met the inspector at the bonded storage facility. It was great to see our treasured bikes again, released from the container and all gleaming, all ready to go. Then the inspector got to work… A little hmming and haaaing… Front mudguards looked good, engine good too – no oil or grease. “You did a pretty good job cleaning these… looks good,” he went on and our hopes soared. Then the rear mudguard… “Oh, oh what’s this… hmmmm, looks like mud.” I was quickly down under the rear guard and he pointed two miniscule spots of dried earth on some screw recesses, same place on both bikes. I can only imagine that when we’d cleaned the bikes they stayed wet and remained invisible when we checked them in Timor. “Seriously?” I enquired and explained how we’d spent a week cleaning everything in Dili. Same on Gail’s bike… some tar with something organic stuck to it under the front guard… “Can’t let these pass, no way” he said and that was that – we had failed quarantine.
We tried to reason with the inspector; as the amounts were so miniscule couldn’t we simply scrape it off, bag it and then burn the bag? But there was no way; he’d write up the inspection report and the bikes would have to be cleaned by an authorised cleaner. Enter now a nightmare of uncertainty and running costs… It took nearly a week to clear this inspection. The bikes had to be trucked to an approved cleaning agent, where the offending material was removed and bio-disposed of. It cost us $725 (Australian) for both bikes! I know there was a set of requirements and we did fail to meet them, by some meager margin, but what made me really angry was that the same guy then released all of our baggage from the bikes without inspection. It contained camping and hiking gear, tools and riding kit, all of which has had over two years of outdoor exposure and he wasn’t interested in it! It was all there on the same bikes that had just failed his inspection yet he let us unpack it and go. It seems this inspection is a lottery as some Indian friends shipped Bali to Melbourne and inspection consisted of a quick look at the tyres before a pass and release. I’m sure as our inspector drove off I saw a sticker on the back of his car that read ‘CU in the NT’…
It was in the middle of all of this that we met a fairy godfather in the shape of Dave Wright, a local overlander who occasionally hosts fellow travellers at his spread just outside Darwin. Gail had contacted him through an online forum and we were all invited for a superb Aussie Barbeque at his place, which turned into an invite to stay. Dave was a big Koala Bear of a fella (if Koala Bears grow to over 6’ 2’’), a gentle giant with a range of bike experience and stories from riding in the Americas to pit crewing at the Isle of Man TT. With the bikes released and new tyres fitted by Richard, he helped us fettle them for the journey ahead, repositioning handlebars (remedy for some tennis elbow I’d been suffering) and repairing our clutch and brake levers (the lever pins and bushes were badly worn). He also made sure we had adequate capacity for carrying water, which was something we’d not taken too seriously up to now.
Dave took us to some weekend bear racing at the Hidden Valley circuit in Darwin. As with GAS, this was another acronym; BEAR standing for British, European and American (bike) Racing. I’ve not been to a bike race for years and the meet was small and somewhat informal so we could drift in and around the pits and see the teams in action. Stars of the show were a pair of beautifully rebuilt Laverda Jotas from the late 1970’s from Redax Laverda in Brisbane resplendent in their orange race trim with gleaming polished alloy casings. With the racing finished for the day, they were started up and a couple of riders took them on a demo ride around the track proving them to be even more beautiful in sound and motion.
We finished our splendid day out at the Humpty Doo Hotel, foot tapping to the music over a few suds and bantering with the locals. Looking around I thought ‘if you were parachuted straight from home into the middle of this lot, you might find it somewhat a tad intimidating’ but today they were the end of our road to date; another magnificent palace full of lively people, colourful in action, colourful with their language and all having a good time. We looked at each other and thought, ‘at this moment in time there’s nowhere else in the world we’d rather be!’ The bikes are finally released and ready… Australia awaits…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Welcome to Oz!