HMAS Courage, the latest addition to the proud Royal Australian Navy, finally cornered the pirate-vessel up the Todd River after a long and harrowing sea-chase. It is amazing we still have piracy in these modern times and every modern navy is pledged to action wherever their presence is discovered. The hunt was on and the modern frigate closed up for action as weapons officers armed guns and missile systems, ready for the final showdown. In comparison, the pirate resembled nothing more than a shoddy collection of lo-tech sticks and string yet they were determined not to give in without a fight. You can imagine the horror onboard Courage as they rounded a bend in the river to confront not one but two adversaries… As weapons trained on the pirate ship a second sail appeared out of the mist; a fully armed Viking longship intent on raising hell with all comers.
No, not a computer game, but the finale of the Henley on Todd Regatta, held every year on the Todd River, Alice Springs, a place about as far as you can get from the sea as anywhere on the planet. Now in its 56th year (same age as me!) the regatta is another of those fine Australian institutions where something fundamental, such as a total lack of water in a river, will not deter the execution of as a fine boating event as ever took place. The Regatta has only ever been cancelled once in 1996 due to water in the river from unseasonal rain. The day started with a splendid street parade – a sort of entry of the gladiators and then with crews and spectators gathered along the river we had a welcome address from the Commodore, fresh from the deck of his moored up HQ, the infamous paddle steamer “Pistil Dawn”. The day was packed with a full programme ranging from yacht racing to rowing fours and there was even a yellow submarine. The races were highly entertaining, the lightweight ‘vessels’ being simply picked up and propelled by leg power along the sandy bed to round the buoy and sail back to the start-line. Other events included sand shoveling, tug-of-war, a ‘budgie smuggler’s’ race for blokes in tight fitting Speedo’s and a series of foot races for the little nippers so everyone could join in. It all culminated in that grand finale; the spectacular shoot out between the three local Rotary Clubs who had constructed splendid motorised battleboats, complete with powder-blasting pyrotechnics and water cannon. The winner was decided by the highest decibel recorded for the loudest applause from the audience: the Vikings carried the day due to a mix of splendid costumery and a slight edge on the level of madness generated compared to the pirate and navy boats.
It was with a degree of sadness that we packed the bikes to leave Dave Wright’s place and Darwin. Staying with Dave had been a superb introduction to Australia but we were fully primed and ready for the road. We started with a short ride to Litchfield National Park and the fabulous Wangi Falls, a huge waterhole fed by twin spouts of the falls, all surrounded by a simple paradise of lush tropical vegetation. It was our first taste of the real Outback; bush country life alternating between dusty danders along winding trails in the heat and delicious dips at the cascades. The area is festooned with termite mounds; everything from spectacular cathedral mounds, built over centuries, to marvelous magnetic termite mounds. These two dimensional structures are built by a translucent species of mite that is sensitive to heat exposure so they build across a north-south axis to minimize the solar heat effects. An info-board told how scientists messed around with the magnetic field to deliberately offset the north-south polarity on one mound; the termites simply adjusted the building to follow what they thought was the correct polarity.
Having spent the last eighteen months riding in Asia, with congested narrow winding roads, sometimes in deplorable condition and where journeys were reckoned in time taken rather than the actual distance to cover, it was something of a relief to find ourselves in wide open spaces barreling down roads straight as a rifle with nothing in sight for miles bar the odd roadhouse. Riding was adjusted to keep an eye on those distances as there isn’t much in between and fuel / water stops have to be given some thought. It is very relaxed riding with few threats; little in the way of traffic, other then the odd road-train nor obstruction or even bends to think about. We turned off the intercom to save battery life and also because, in this environment, there was little to comment on. This condition induces a certain state of meditative nirvana, with the mind just churning along to the tune of the bike in the wind, where thoughts can tumble like weeds and be allowed to drift carelessly off until we no longer had a care in the world. And every night under canvas, skies darkened velvety black by 7pm, brilliantly jeweled by a billion stars and the light dusting trail of the Milky Way. If it’s black by night then the days are an outrage colour from the azure blue of the sky to the ruddy rouge desert as we lunged ever on into the red heart of Oz. Suddenly a city; Alice Springs, something of an oasis after many long days of desert overlanding and hick-town overnight. Even better there’s that Regatta on at the weekend so first class entertainment before we plunge on to see the Red Heart itself; Uluru.
Uluru is, first and foremost, simply and utterly magnificent. Crossing the flat, barren landscapes suddenly these red outcrops spring up on the horizon like surfacing submarines. First Mount Conner on the road into the National Park, then Uluru itself and finally the spectacle of the Olgas. To be honest I was prepared to be underwhelmed as it all just seemed like red rocks in the desert – albeit very big ones; what could be amazing about that? Yet walking the 11km perimeter track around Uluru presented an ever-changing spectacle of light, colour and texture, all radiating redness against that brilliant blue sky. Up close Uluru looks like the shot-peened carapace of an upturned vessel, maybe even one that crashed from another planet, with smooth lines that have melted and flowed straight into the surrounding desert. This up-turned hull even resounded with a hollow metallic ring as we tested its surface with a rap from our knuckles. In other sections the face appeared to have been machined away by Mother Nature to reveal inclusions that resembled cross-sectioned channels of a huge monolithic brain.
Another day, another hike: Kata Tjuta or the Olgas – a nearby collection of red rocks appearing as a series of huge but distinct boulders on the horizon accessible via the Valley of the Winds hiking trail that reduced us to a pair of leprechauns treading some fantastic sci-fi kingdom. The entrance to the trail was guarded by a huge formation that looked like a beached and ossified Russian submarine. The 7.4 km path then meandered through and amongst the big rocks and again that natural display of sol et lumiere had necks craning in every direction to take it all in. There is something of a sense of enrichment or even empowerment to be gained from wandering in wondrous terrain. It blanches both soul and spirit and leaves one feeling incredibly humble and uplifted.
The Red Heart had one more thrill in store as we mounted up to head back north and east towards the coast; Kings Canyon. A 100-mile spur road took us to a splendid little campground, our base for a few days exploring an entirely different take on the red-rock of these heartlands. Here a river had made some impressive cuttings into blushed salmon terrain that, from the air, resembled a huge tray-bake, where wind and water had invaded the cross-cuts to erode the ‘bakes’ into a fantastic series of beehive-shaped monticules. The rim-trail was one of the best day hikes of the entire trip starting with a steep and torturous ascent up a series of natural stairs, softly coloured like honeycomb, to attain the rim and then a couple of hours meandering through a landscape of pure wonder. At the far end a man-made stairway descended back to the canyon for a side trip to visit the aptly named Garden of Eden, ending in a watering hole lined with splendid tropical plants and feathered with yet more examples of bewildering Australian birdlife.
Our visit to the Australian heartland was marred, if only slightly, by two incidents of thievery, one a mindless act of theft, the second an attempted theft that resulted in a beautiful wildlife encounter. The first was at Uluru resort campground where some scumbag stole our lightweight travel towels from the laundry lines. These items were 15-years old and had given faithful service through all of our big trips. Even although they were a little faded and washed-out we were saddened that someone had decided to appropriate them for their own use and it has made us watchful over the rest of our gear, something we’ve not really had to do for a long time. The second incident was at Kings Canyon, where we left a bag of rubbish in the porch of our tent after lunch. We were lying reading with the tent doors open when a little doggy head reached round and attempted to snatch the rubbish bag. It was our first encounter up close with an Australian dingo.
The heartlands proved to be extremely cold at night as the desert readily yielded up the heat of the day. Add to that 500 metres of altitude and nighttime temperatures dropped to just above freezing. Our summer tent and sleeping bags were barely adequate and we found ourselves rummaging in amongst thermal kit for the first time in ages. Days to get in and now days to get out as we retraced the ride back to Alice Springs and on up to Tennant Creek, where the road ran east to Townsville on the coast. This took us through hundreds of miles of empty flat landscape to the mining town of Mount Isa, which proved to be more of a ‘mine and a town’; with the town but a slight appendage to the huge ‘Mount Isa Mines’, one of the most productive single mines in the world for lead, silver, copper and zinc extraction. Then on through a surrogate Surrey of places with names like Richmond, Croydon and Hughenden.
The chain and sprocket kits on the bikes were now showing signs of terminal decline. We managed to find one replacement kit in Alice Springs and fitted it to Maggie’s bike (thanks to the fantastic help from all the folks at Desert Edge Motorcycles) but now, nearing the coast, the chain on my bike was on really on its last legs. We finally made it to Townsville and the delightful Rowes Bay Beachfront campsite, a much-needed stop to sort out that chain and plan our tour of Australia’s East Coast. In the site we met two local retirees, Terry and Kay, who had travelled all of ten minutes from home in their camper van after winning a two-night stay in the park in a local raffle. They immediately took us under their wing, inviting us to spend a night at their beautiful homestay and directing us to R.H.D. Classic Supplies and Services to get that chain sorted.
Pulling in to the little industrial unit we found ourselves in a yard full of Harleys and wondering had we come to the wrong place. We’d just taken our helmets off when we were greeted by a lovely lady with a ready smile who instantly bade us a hearty welcome… “Wow you guys have come a long way! What can we do for you?” …and so we met Spanner, proprietress of RHD. We explained that we needed a chain and sprocket kit for my bike. She apologised that the best she could do was tomorrow after getting the kit by express airmail… and me thinking we could be stuck here for a week or so ordering parts in. Next day the parts were there as promised and a little corner was cleared for us in the busy workshop, so the chain could be fitted to the bike. I can think of no better way to wind up this post than with expressing a hearty thanks to mechanics Lance and Bruce and of course Spanner for the sterling service, help and welcome we received at RHD. Now I wish I could be treated like this in more bike shops back home, no longer feeling like a walking wallet just in for an extraction. We left Townsville once again under smooth transmission, ready now for that coast!
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Red Heart