Dog Days of Autumn

I brace myself and walk into the room where Eric Cartman and Winston Churchill have been patiently waiting for my arrival.  They come at me both at once, heads down and aiming for my legs… This is not some weird dream; I’m about to be ‘pugged.’  Cartman (a.k.a Baxter) is the heavyweight senior pup and has first strike, shuffling up to my shin and rubbing his nose right in, snuffling and making little whimpering noises that can be roughly translated as ‘get your bitch-ass into the kitchen and get me some pie!’  Churchill (a.k.a Benny) is not far behind, rounding on my other leg for a good cuddle in what has become our usual morning greeting. It is the end of our days in New Zealand and we are spending them in a newfound vocation as professional pet-minders and house sitters…

It is now more than 1000 days since we left home, fast approaching three years on the road.  Back home folk are looking forward to the arrival of spring but here in New Zealand it is a weird sort of autumn.  While imported deciduous trees play the game, gloriously transforming through their traffic-light green-yellow-red-thru-naked routine, native tree ferns and cycads remain profusely evergreen. The hillsides are festooned with impressive stands of invasive Pampas Grass, looking like quivers of arrows stood ready for some South Seas Agincourt.  An abundance of jelly-tot flowers line the grass verges making it feel more like spring but nighttime temperatures say otherwise.  Luckily in these chillier days we have no more camping for a while in our new occupation.

In a journey of this magnitude, traveling around the world, the journey itself has a certain ‘fixed price’ element.  To see all of the highlights along the way, we need to ride a certain distance through each country, which requires petrol, accommodation and food. There are servicing costs for the bikes to cover consumables such as tyres, oil, chains etc and administration costs to cover visas, health insurance and vehicle insurance (where required).  Finally there are several major sea crossings that require packing, shipment and flights. Add some contingency for emergencies and you can derive a budget for the trip.  Work hard, save your pennies, load-up the bikes and off you go! However the duration of any trip can be greatly extended by ‘punctuating’ the schedule; halts where expenses are reduced to food and accommodation and if you can get free accommodation then these costs become very low indeed.  We already spent four-months in Malaysia and Singapore, waiting for weather to clear up ahead in Indonesia / Northern Australia, doing ‘Workaways’, where we were given a free bed and some free food in return for doing 5-hours work, 5 days a week.  Our personal expenditure over this period was negligible and we obtained a fantastic travel experience living with local people and gaining beautiful insights into their culture, cuisine and way of life.  Another option is ‘House-Sitting’: looking after someone’s home and sometimes their pets while they are off travelling themselves. There are a number of websites marrying hosts and would be house-sitters or, if you are lucky, you might even have some family or friends in far-away places offering the same opportunity. Such was our first experience in New Zealand when fellow travellers, Ruth and Ian who we met in Laos, offered us their home in Wellington for a month while they holidayed in the UK.

‘Windy Welly’ proved to be one of our favourite cities in all of New Zealand.  From our cosy home-sit we spent a couple of weeks mooching the winding, hilly streets that led down to a delightful waterfront area where we visited the spectacular Gallipoli exhibition at the Te Papa Museum.  Having visited the Turkish battlefield earlier in this trip and read quite a few books on the battle, our expectations were no more than a mildly different view of the campaign based on the Kiwi perspective. But ‘Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War’ was quite something else.  Focused on six differing Kiwi stories from the campaign, each participant was represented by a vignette of one or more figurines frozen at a specific moment in the campaign.  Each of the exhibits was exquisitely rendered, fully lifelike in expression and countenance down to hairs and freckles, sweat and grime.  The detail of the uniforms, webbing and brass buttons was outstanding and the environment for each setting, be it mud and dirt, the chaos of action and battle or reflection afterwards at what had just happened fully captured your attention and drew you in to what really happened during those dreadful times.  What was most spectacular of all was that each of the figurines was rendered on a scale of 2.4 : 1 so that they appeared as giants.  It was all executed by the people at Weta Workshops, who specialise in models and effects for films such as ‘Lord of the Rings’.  I will never forget entering the exhibit not knowing any of this and being greeted by the giant representation of Captain Westmacott as he was on the day of the landings… shot in the right arm not long after disembarking, clutching his service Webley revolver in his left hand as he crawled up the track that led to the front, determined to do his duty and take as many enemy soldiers with him to the grave.  His war lasted only one day.  He was evacuated but eventually lost his right arm and spent the rest of his life reflecting on that one day.  He was a watercolour painter and eventually taught himself to paint all over again with his remaining (left) hand.  This and the other images from the exhibit have affected and moved both of us like no other narrative of those dreadful times.  I hope the exhibition will eventually tour, as it is outstanding both in execution and in communicating a message that we really need to pay attention to these days.

The Te Papa Museum is next to Chaffers Marina on the waterfront, which turned out to be the home of Chris and Ina, a couple of fellow round-the-world motorcyclists (Kiwi and German) who we met by pure chance in a gas station in the South Island.  We had exchanged contact details and joined them on their boat for a breezy day sailing around the harbour and chewing the fat about life on the road.  Once again it is amazing, looking back, at how quickly you can make great friendships on the road and we both hope our paths will cross again someday.

Our days in the land of the Kiwi are now numbered and we are indeed in the autumn of our days on the road.  From our cosy home we began to organise the final leg of our trip.  We arranged shipping the bikes on to Canada and tidied them up for departure.  We also booked our final homebound flights to the UK (it is a condition of travel to Canada that tourists must have an onward / return ticket) so we even have an end date now of 10thSeptember.  We also made some of our last motorcycle trips in New Zealand, with a spectacular day ride out and over the Rimutaka Crossing and on to Wairarapa and a short mooch around the little vino-centric town of Martinborough.  Bidding farewell to Wellington we rode to Auckland, decent weather allowing a very scenic ride over the Tongariro Crossing to Lake Taupo.  The town planners of Lake Taupo need a good boot up the backside as they have allowed the foreshore of a pretty lakeside town to be spoiled by a frontage of horrid fast-food joints – Subway, KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut – none of whom strike me as being particularly Kiwi and not what I want to see when I visit a pretty place.  Still it was a good base to hike out to the thunderous chute known as the Huka Falls. And so on to Auckland, where the bikes were crated for shipment to Vancouver, a journey that will take 25 days. Thanks again to everyone at GT Logistics (the shipper we used to bring the bikes over from Australia) for making the process simple and smooth.

We rented a car and explored the delights of the Coromandel peninsular, definitely one of the highlights of the North Island and not to be missed.  Calm autumn days, strolling delectable beaches culminating in a visit to another of New Zealand’s highlights; the beautiful rock formations and islands of Cathedral Cove.  But we needed an additional ‘punctuation’ in our schedule to mark time while the bikes are at sea so we signed up to www.kiwihousesitters.co.nzwhere we were accepted to take care of a 5-bedroom beach house on the Bay of Plenty in the role of house-sitters looking after the pair of aforementioned octogenarian Pugs, not a role either of us ever envisioned as part of a round the world motorcycle ride…

Now I’ll be honest, the notion of looking after a dog in someone’s home while they are away is not a bad one to entertain.  Maybe look after a nice collie dog or a Labrador or even a scruffy mutt that will chase sticks and add delight to any walk… but a pair of Pugs? We called Paora, the homeowner and chatted.  The dogs, Baxter and Benny were both twelve years old, so 84 in human years.  They didn’t need walked as Benny was on heart tablets and also taking antibiotics for a chest infection he’d picked up. Baxter was just horribly overweight and both suffered from poor eyesight.  All we had to do was feed them twice a day, let them out on the lawn to do their business and then clean up after. We didn’t even have to walk them!  We did a little homework… Pugs are a brachycephalicbreed, where the shape of the skull is shorter than typical for other dogs, a feature that has been exaggerated over the years by breeders.  Pugs have some level of elongated palate, which interferes with breathing.  Brachycephalic dogs also have shallow eye sockets and can suffer from proptosis, where their bulging eyes can pop out without much force.  We read with horror that this can even happen during normal play or horsing around. Apparently if you’re quick you can pop the eye back in but… this was starting to sound like an awful lot of responsibility!  In the end we decided that if we just did as Paora asked, we’d probably be safe enough but none of what we read was really doing anything to endear the breed to us.

We turned up at the house on Pukehina Beach to find a gracious home in a beautiful location.  Paora was taking his grandkids to Disneyworld in LA and he quickly showed us the ropes around the house and gave us a run down on the doggy maintenance.  Next morning he was gone and we were home alone with Baxter and Benny for the next two weeks…  Benny looked decidedly under the weather and we were a little concerned that he might fret once Paora had gone but, dogs being dogs, once they realised who was putting the chow down every day they soon warmed to us.  One other thing I knew about Pugs is that they are lap dogs; a small breed suited to plonking themselves on your lap.  What I didn’t appreciate is that they really do love this and the first time I sat on the sofa Benny ran over to me like a small child demanding to be picked up.  I lifted him onto the sofa where he snuggled up on my legs and demanded to be stroked.  This and the early morning greetings soon won our hearts and we’d been well and truly ‘pugged’.

The house faced directly onto the beach and the Pugs were used to being left alone during the day (when Paora went to work) so we had lovely long walks on the golden sands, returning for idyllic dinners in this little corner of paradise.  We visited nearby Taranga and ascended Mount Manganui, a rump of a volcano, while out to sea we could see clouds of steam rise from the very active volcano on nearby White Island.  We made a short hike to visit the waterfalls at Kaiata and in the evening tracked the progress of our bikes online as their ship made its way to Vancouver via Fiji and Honolulu.  All too soon we were tidying up and packing for Paora’s return and our own flights to Canada.  Our first stint at House-Sitting was a grand success.  It was hugely rewarding to leave two very happy little Pugs (breathing normally, with all eyes intact) and a tidy home and our eternal gratitude for this wonderful opportunity to Paora (who also had a great time in LA).

Our final day in New Zealand was a 150-mile drive back to Auckland for the evening flights to Vancouver undertaken in some of the filthiest wet weather of the entire trip to date as it lashed down for most of the journey. The grey dank day reflected our mood a little as we are genuinely sad to be leaving these islands.  We met a lot of great people here and saw a lot of amazing sights but the road must go on and we are also looking forward to that final leg; the ride across Canada and then home.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Dog Days of Autumn

 

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The End of the World

Yellow roundel… Number 35… Red streamliner bodywork like a ‘50’s sci-fi movie prop for some guided missile…  1920 Scout…. The legend ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’writ large across a cabinet full of twisted metal, everything from thrown con-rods to melted pistons… ‘Munro Special’.  We can only be in one place on the planet; Invercargill, home of Burt Munro made famous to the wide world through Anthony Hopkins portrayal of the man in that great movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”.  Not just a movie about motorcycles; it’s the story of a man’s passion to chase his dreams and doing so in his senior years.  Burt hand-built and raced-tuned his old 1920’s Indian motorcycle and took it to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, to attempt a world speed record.  He is seen initially as something of a joke when he unveils his home made contraption and presents it to the race scrutineers for permission to run it through a speed trial.  He is permitted to make one test-run, more out of pity and… well watch it for yourselves and see what happens!  One for all the family that’ll tug on every heartstring!

But today we’re not watching the bike on the big screen but in real life. Burt passed away in 1978 and his workshop and collection of bikes are now on display at E. Hayes Hardware Store in Invercargill.  It’s a hard place to describe… think of a local hardware store selling everything from paint and sealant to nails, nuts and bolts, with a mix of home and kitchenware, gifts and souvenirs and even a camping section. It’s a fairly big old shop but scattered throughout all of the hardware is a somewhat incongruous collection of vintage cars and motorcycles including the Burt Munro bikes; his original Indian, various replicas made for the movie and an old AJS he also used to obtain speed records.  There’s something for everyone in this emporium of delight and we spent hours mooching the aisles, ogling the bikes and chatting to the engaging staff over a complimentary coffee.

Invercargill was our base for a ride south to Bluff and the end of the South Island by road in New Zealand.  The wind felt a little blustery that morning, as we left the campsite for the short ride to the end of the world.  Once out of the confines of the city we gained exposure to some vicious, wicked winds, fully intent on knocking us off the bikes. From a crescendo of chop slaps about the head, like a bad-cop interrogation, to full on body blows that slammed broadside into the bikes, pummeling us brutally across the road first one way and then the other.  It was a horrible ride and we arrived at Stirling Point blown red in the cheeks and fully adrenalized by the trial.  Thankfully the wind desisted and the famous signpost proclaimed that the spot we were standing on was exactly 18,958 km from London.  White capped waves crashed on the rocks below and out on the horizon grey sea met bleak sky, smudged in places like an overdone watercolour. We took some photographs to mark the occasion and were in turn photographed by a smiley Korean family who were amazed by our journey to get here.  They left us to contemplate the fact that, right here on this spot, we were probably as far away from our point of origin as it is possible to get on the planet on our bikes. Not only that but from this point on, every mile turned would slowly take us back towards home…

Invercargill presented another link with home in the form of the Bill Richardson Transport Worldand Motorcycle Mecca.  The Richardson family hailed from Drummaul in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and came to the area as farming immigrants in the late 1800’s. With increasing mechanization in the twentieth century the family drifted into the transport business and in later years Bill Richardson began collecting old trucks, cars and motorcycles eventually acquiring an enormous private collection now housed in the aforementioned museums.  If you are thinking by now dreary sheds filled with dusty charabancs and crusty wagons then think again.  Both museums were deserving of the appellation ‘best in class’ with every vehicle beautifully restored and presented. We spent an entire day here and loved the fact that all of the exhibits were freely accessible, relying on trust for you not to touch anything, thus allowing one to peruse the exhibits from every angle and appreciate every line.  Attention to detail was magnificent down to the very toilets and each WC was themed around some aspect of motorized life.

To start the ride back north, we took to some fine motorcycling roads through the Caitlin Hill country.  Along the way we were met and escorted by Wayne Poll, another F650 aficionado, who had kindly offered to host us with his delightful family in Dunedin.  Wayne’s wife Greer and daughter Eden had a roast chicken dinner waiting and after this we settled in to a warm evening of some of the finest Kiwi hospitality.  We spent the following morning repairing the printed circuit board on the instrument cluster of my bike.  There is a known fault whereby a capacitor fails causing the speedo and rev-counter to flicker wildly and the digital odometer display start tumbling madly. Everything eventually settles down once the component warms up but it is annoying and Wayne had offered to fix it for me. In addition to helping wayward travellers, Wayne also organises the annual TT2000 event; a 2000-km, 48-hour motorcycle endurance ride (https://www.tt2000.org).  How would you fancy a weekend riding 2000-km around a series of checkpoints in the South Island on mix of sealed and gravel roads?  Entrants are given a T-Shirt and must photograph their bike with the shirt at each stop.  Points are awarded depending on ease of access in gaining each checkpoint.  It’s not a race and riders are expected to cover the ground while observing the legal speed limits.  You can ride the route anyway you please and select as many of the checkpoints as targets as you like.  The event was started over ten years ago by Kiwi Mike Hyde, author of the Twisted Throttleseries of books on motorcycle overlanding and touring.  Sadly Mike passed away in 2015 and Wayne stepped up to ensure the continuity of the event.  He does an amazing job too by all accounts and it was a privilege to meet him.

From Dunedin we road north on a short days ride to Oamaru, a lovely little coastal town that doesn’t seem to figure much on the tourist itinerary. Our next planned stop had been the mountain town of Twizel, base for exploring Mount Cook, but foul weather was at play making it unwise to continue in that direction for now.  Oamaru still oozed with that ‘end-of-the-world’ feel to it; the town even has it’s own penguin colony and the harbour is where the Terra Novamade landfall on the return from the fatal South Pole expedition, bringing first news to the world that Scott and his entire party had perished in the 1912 attempt on the pole.  There is a splendid Victorian quarter, complete with the outstanding ‘Adventure Book shop’, specialising in polar exploration and mountaineering books. The shop is home to a movie replica of the ‘James Caird’, the lifeboat that Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions used in 1916 in the southern Atlantic Ocean to escape from Elephant Island to reach South Georgia, an epic 800-mile (1,300 km) trip and still regarded as one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken. We mooched the Grainstore Gallery, a wonderful jumble of a place set in a lofty old Victorian grain store.  The place resembled a fateful collision between museum, working art studio and gallery of Victoriana, the cavernous interior festooned with heads, faces and eyes of everything from saints and angels, demons and demi-gods to jokers, jesters and penguins all beautifully executed in a range of styles and fashions.

Final showpiece for Oamaru was ‘Steampunk HQ.’   ‘Steampunk’ is a science-fiction genre, projecting a future in which electricity never fully developed as a technology allowing for a world dominated by extrapolated steam powered mechanical devices and machines. Steampunk HQis a jaw dropping contraptuary; a collection of such relics and artifacts and quite unique and unlike anything else we’ve experienced on our travels. We visited the HQ with fellow overlanders, Martin Strebel and Xenia Sägesser, from Switzerland on their pair of XT660’s.  We spent a pleasant few days dining and chatting together in the campsite as we waited for better weather to move in.  They eventually rode on north to Christchurch while we headed west to Twizel and that appointment with Mount Cook and from museums and fine hosts to more of that spectacular New Zealand outdoor life.

Teal coloured lakeland competed with snow capped mountain in attracting the eye, all of it slightly otherworldly.  It felt remote and inaccessible and vestiges of the recent bad weather made for sci-fi skies filled with lenticular clouds and a highway-to-hell sunrise each and every day.  We tramped up the Hooker Valley to see Mount Cook itself, the weather veiling New Zealand’s highest peak with gossamer wisps of cloud that parted occasionally for tantalising glimpses of lofty granite summit iced with snow.  On the day we left Twizel, bad weather was forecast with heavy rain and high winds so an early alarm had us up, packed and ready to leave for 8am.  It was a day spent riding in escape-and-evasion mode, ever looking over our left shoulders at a huge bruise of a weather-front that seemed to be chasing us and obliterating everything in its path along the way.  The sky dominated the scenery, filled with smoke marbled clouds that seemed to herald the end of the world.   It was dangerous as our eyes kept drifting away from the road, ever drawn upwards to marvel at the Cistine ceiling of clouds above, at once monstrous and magnificent, beautiful and beastly and seemingly in possession of a life of their own. Who knows, maybe it was all camouflage for a Steampunk invasion, the clouds filled with gothic beings from another planet travelling in their zeppelins, aiming vaporizing death-rays at our bikes as we rode along?  I am glad to report that our evasion attempts were successful and we reached our destination warm and dry, once again awed by the beauty of the world in which we live.

We had new tyres fitted (possibly the last of the trip?) by Kiwi Motorcycle Rentals (https://www.citymotorcyclerentals.com), who are the NZ importer for Heidenau tyres.  We spent a morning in the company of Andrea and Alan who really went out of their way to look after us and we left with a very high opinion of their business, especially the attention to detail and customer care. The new tyres were run in on a ride up to Hanmer Springs where we spent Easter doing a spot of gentle hiking in warm settled weather before riding on to Westport back on the stormy west coast. Here we visited the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and spent a day slaloming on the coast road rendered wild and windy by the weather, although it thankfully remained dry.

Our penultimate stop on the South Island was up in Takaka with Joe Hambrook, a Kiwi ‘round-the-wordler’ who we met, on his way home, at Horizons Unlimited in Indonesia.  Takaka is up on Golden Bay in the very northwest corner of the island and is something of a little paradise.  Our initial plan had been to come here first on arrival in the South Island but the weather intervened when Cyclone Gita destroyed the only access road over Takaka Hill, a huge landslide taking out multiple sections of the road and closing it for ten days.  It had only recently re-opened, with traffic escorted at fixed times in each direction by a convoy system, so we had a good look at the clean up operation and could appreciate first-hand the damage done by the foul weather.  Joe was born here and works today as a Park Ranger for the DOC (Dept of Conservation) and he laid on some excellent days out to Wharariki Beach and Abel Tasman National Park. It was an immensely pleasurable experience and indeed a privilege to walk the land with such a local expert.

A final ride took us on a series of twisty roads under luxurious cobalt skies through the Marlborough Sounds area back to Picton, both gateway and now exit to this South Island paradise.  On the ferry back to Wellington we contemplated how we very nearly skipped this ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ due to the difficulties and expenses of getting here.  It has been one of the highlights of our entire trip and a place we will be very sad to leave, as one day soon we surely must…

There are two photogalleries for this post that may be accessed by clicking the following links:

New Zealand, To the End of the World.

Invercargill: The Museums

 

The Beautiful South…

The ferry from Wellington to Picton, gateway to the South Island of New Zealand, was like no other sea crossing in the world.  The boat left early in the afternoon and sailed out from the calm waters afforded by the lee shores of Wellington harbour.  The city shone like a little jewel, stacked buildings lining an amphitheatre of hills as we bade farewell to the North Island. Then out into the Cook Strait, a mere 14-miles (22-km) across, yet considered to be one of the most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of water in the world.  Immediately, deep midnight blue seas began cresting and frothing into a furious spume of whitecaps as the wind escalated into a fury.  We’ve ridden in some wicked crosswinds and felt the effect as the bikes get knocked around; it was something else to stand on the top deck of a 20,000-ton ferry and experience the entire ship getting slapped hither and thither as we crabbed our way across the strait.  We stood in awe as the sheer bluffs of the South Island hove into view, feeling slightly alarmed as the ship seemed to be steered straight for the sheer wall of rock ahead.  And then, as if it were all some colossal moving stage set, the cliffs parted to permit entry to the stupendous sights of Queen Charlotte Sound.  The wind desisted, the engines rumbled at a slow tick-over and we drifted silently up serene waters to reach our destination.

Picton; what a glorious reception to a new island…  Within minutes of parking up at the campsite, Gary and Jane, a pair of retired coppers from Essex thrust a couple of chilled beers into our mitts.  By the time we’d had a natter and got our gear set up it was too late to cook so we implemented our tried and trusted Plan ‘B’, developed with much consideration as a contingency for such emergencies: blow the expenses; wander the streets and find the Irish Bar.  A plethora of gold-on-black Guinness Harps and vivid green shamrocks drew us towards a fine looking place, the signage proclaiming the establishment as “Seumus’s Irish Bar – Purveyors of Fine Beverages – Drinking Consultants.”  Live music on tap too, not the diddly-dee mind, but a young solo guitarist rendering a mix of fine covers amongst a smattering of his own original work.  We ordered beer and food and snared the last free table in the buzzing hostelry.  Moments later a couple approached us and requested in a beautiful Irish lilt, if it was not too much trouble, could they possibly share the last two free seats at our table?

Ann and Liam hailed from Limerick, where Ann was a retired schoolteacher from an all-girls school she referred to as ‘hormone house’ and Liam had also retired from a life as a sales rep for C&C, the Irish lemonade company. On their first visit to New Zealand they attained refugee status, having arrived in Christchurch the day before the big earthquake struck.  They lost everything; luggage, ID, money and were wandering around in the clothes they were wearing.  They forever hold the New Zealand people in high esteem as people took them in and looked after them until they could replace their lost belongings.  Their son subsequently married a Kiwi lass and they were over for a visit.  In all this time chatting, it seemed that our food order had gone astray.  At an interval between songs the singer noticed our plight and left the stage to enquire at the kitchen.  It turned out that the order had been taken at the bar but not sent through to the kitchen.  The staff were mortified and we were immediately plied with a round of free drinks!  The food finally arrived and was just fantastic and well worth the wait. The music continued and the craic was good.  To cap it all Liam disappeared to the bar and returned with a house specialty; a ‘Baileys and Whisky Slushy’ for a final toast to a splendid evening.  And so our trip ends here as we took up residency at this fine establishment, set in such luscious surroundings.  I mean why would you need to go on?  It soooo very nearly came to that I can tell you!

However it was not to be… Two things led to our eviction from paradise in Picton.  Firstly, the gremlins returned to play on my bike.  She had lost coolant over the past few weeks and I couldn’t find the leak. I checked the waterpump, which had proved troublesome in the past on Maggie’s bike, but there was no sign of any seepage around the inspection hole.  I’d checked the oil tank, in case the head gasket had gone, but the oil looked clean every time I looked with no sign of contamination… up until this morning that is. When I checked, it was now topped with a fine head of white mousse suggesting that the gremlins had also visited Seumus’s Irish Bar and the little buggers had been plying the bike with Guinness (or more accurately; the head gasket had indeed blown).  The second and slightly more worrying concern for eviction was that the remnants of cyclone ‘Gita’ were on their way, forecast to howl through the Cook Strait and cause considerable damage to land and property in it’s path.  We ordered a head gasket from Avon City Motorcycles in Christchurch and decided to flee there to sit out the storm and sort out the bike.

The following days felt like we were being stalked by the storm.  It ravaged the west coast and came through the Straits as forecast, blocking the single road to Takaka in the north west of the island and closing the coast road behind us from Picton to Christchurch with massive landslides.  Not only that but the forecast predicted that, having passed through the Cook Strait, the severe weather would run out to sea and then head back to deliver a rabbit punch to the Christchurch area.  A ‘state of emergency’ was formally declared in the city.  All unnecessary travel was advised against. In the event the city was lashed by a bit of rain that would have been unremarkable had we not had all the weather warnings and we sat it out while waiting for the bike to be repaired.  In the event Avon City did a splendid job, replacing the head gasket and also the waterpump, which failed under a pressure test.

With the bike gremlins evicted we set off to ride across the South Island to the stormy west coast, taking advantage of a window of some settled weather. The day’s journey took us on another of motorcyclings greatest rides; Arthurs Pass a rollercoaster of a road that slashed across the midriff of the south island. The road ascended across arable plains into a heartland of fabulous mountains sporting the first snowy peaks of the late summer season.  It then shot through a rapture of river valleys to deposit us on the West Coast and the wreck of a campsite at Rapahoe, just north of Greymouth.  I say ‘wreck’ because Gita had been in to play causing high seas to inundate the camping greens replacing luscious lawns with a scree of grey sand and pebble.  The site had been an old school house and they’d had to excavate the camping areas with a bulldozer.  We felt sorry for the owners who’d run the site for 40-years to see all their effort ruined so badly in a single twenty-four hour period.

From Rapahoe, roads took us south to visit the marvelous Franz Josef Glacier, where a day hike led us up a valley festooned with waterfalls and deposited us at the leading edge of the glacier stub.  The glacier has been in gradual retreat and only a hundred years ago the entire valley where we walked today had been buried in ice.  Normally folk visit the twin glaciers of Franz Josef and the Fox in the adjacent valley, but ‘Gita’ had visited first and closed the access road to the Fox Glacier with another landslide.  We rode on up the vast Haast Valley to escape more rainy forecasts and fled to Wanaka via a pair of sublimely beautiful Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. In Wanaka we caught up for a night in the bar and some dinner with my work colleague, Kevin Blackett and his wife Diane, on holiday to visit their daughter who is a doctor in Christchurch. Over dinner we discussed the lovely peculiarities of Kiwi English and how they love to mangle vowels…  Thus you can have ‘fush and chups’ here for your tea. ‘Tint Pigs’ are not slightly shaded ovines but the things we use to peg our tent down.  Kevin made me spew my beer when he asked had I heard about ‘Dick Oil!’ “It’s advertised on the radio… seriously.  All the men use it here.”  Turns out it is a wonderful Kiwi pronunciation of an oil used to weather proof your ‘deck’and other outdoor carpentry!

One of those useless statistics I remember learning at school is that the population of New Zealand has more sheep than people.  I can confirm that, while this is still true, these days there are more camper-vans than sheep.  From Wanaka down to Queenstown and on to Te Anua, gateway to Milford Sound, we were in ‘NZ tourist central’.  In Queenstown the site was crammed with people to the point where our guy ropes actually crossed with those of the adjacent tents and this all in their shoulder season.  But it is breathtaking country, hence the popularity; high snow-capped mountains draped in those long white clouds that the islands are named for and dreamy lakes offered up glorious vistas as we entered what were perhaps the finest days of all our travels in NZ. Autumn weather stayed kind as we hiked around Wanaka, rode out to Glenorchy and then that road to Milford Sound…

Milford Sound is a proper fjord, a glacial valley that has retreated and been inundated by the sea.  We had booked a lunchtime cruise on the sound itself giving us a lazy morning to slowly head up the 70-miles from our campsite base at Te Anua. The ride itself was spectacular, chasing mercury-silvered lakes up broad valleys and into a fortress vault full of mountains with seemingly no way through. We met a Kea, one of New Zealand’s native parrots.  Having parked at one of the little viewpoints along the way to take some photographs, a large jade-coloured bird came hopping across the carpark, straight to the bikes where he perched on my back seat, presumably scrounging for some grub.  Keas are the world’s largest parrot and are possessed of a base intelligence and curiosity that can make them very destructive with a penchant for shredding windscreen wipers and rubbery bits on parked cars.  Kiwi motorcyclists had warned us to watch them around the bike, as they will investigate everything from exposed wiring looms to seams in seat covers and wreak devastation.  This is achieved by means of one of the wickedest looking beaks I ever saw on a bird. It was massive, shining black like a sacrificial obsidian blade.  Fortunately his curiosity was short lived and he moved on but we decided to try and avoid parking anywhere where they are present.

Our road led us up a blind draw, with only a slab wall of mountain looming ahead and no obvious route to the sea.  The mystery was solved when we arrived at a magical Ali-Baba gateway that cut straight through the mountain; the Homer Tunnel.  The tunnel felt like we’d been blindfolded while someone whispered in our ear, “Big surprise coming up… if you think the ride so far has been amazing then you ain’t seen nothing yet!…. Just a little bit further now… wait for it… wait for it… Tah-Dah!!!”  We exited the tunnel into bright sunshine and dropped down to the sea on a loopy road, surrounded by a majesty of mountains that rendered scenery surely unequalled in few places on this planet.  This was wow-wow-wow stuff that had us jabbering over the intercom like we’d just won the jackpot on the lottery.  At Milford Sound our cruise boat waited to take us up the fjord into a wonderland of cascades and waterfalls and… well, I’ll let the photogallery take over here… As an old comedian once said “and there’s more!” but that will have to wait until next time.  For now just enjoy those photos…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, The Beautiful South.

 

Journey through the North Island

I’m completely blind. I can’t see a thing, stumbling along, my feet shuffling as I take tiny tenuous steps and edge my way forward in the darkness. We take our five senses for granted until deprived of one of them and then it’s a whole new ballgame; mildly terrifying too and all of this over a wee bird. Other senses try to compensate. I listen keenly for other footsteps and I can both smell and taste the mulchy wetness of the rainforest around me. I reach out to touch Maggie for reassurance; she was right there in front of me seconds ago but she’s gone, moved on. I feel like I’m going to fall forwards. To steady myself I crane my neck skywards to glimpse the heavens but primeval rainforest canopy has shredded the velvet cloth only granting bejeweled tatters here and there, none of it enough to make a familiar constellation. I am even abandoned by the moon, although for our purpose tonight that’s supposed to be a good thing. I look to the ground and am astounded to see that parts of the sky have fallen here and there, blue flames of starlight shining out of the murk and then I realise that it’s only glowworms doing their thing. Up ahead a low glimmer of red light and silhouettes suddenly dance out of the darkness. It’s enough to let me follow the path, catch up with the group and continue the hunt for the elusive Kiwi.

We are in the Kauri Rain Forest north of Auckland on a night safari to find the famous bird of New Zealand. Bob, our guide, leads with an infrared lamp, our only hope of illuminating this nocturnal prey. Expectations had been managed beforehand as Bob explained that only 3% of New Zealanders have actually seen one in the wild. At the sight of any white light, they’ll be gone long before we can get anywhere near and likewise with any noise and strong smells. In fact anything unfamiliar will send them on a speedy flight to their burrows. Totally flightless, they forage in the night probing the forest floor with their long proboscis beak for grubs and insects. Unlike normal birds, which are hollow boned to aid flight, Kiwis have weighty marrow in their bones to further bind them to the ground. Their unique skeleton has all of their organs suspended from the backbone in a tummy cavity supported by a diaphragm with no sternum bones so they are easily damaged when roughly handled by predators like dogs and cats. They smell like puppy dogs too, so are easy prey for any hound who can dispatch up to 30 birds in a night. They reached endangered status as they only lay one or two eggs a year in their burrow, which is easily pilfered by foreign predators such as stoats, rats and even hedgehogs for a feast on whopping Kiwi eggs which are about 20% of the size of the adult that laid them. That makes for the biggest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird in the world. For comparison, the kiwi is about the same size as a domestic chicken yet its eggs that are about six times the size of a chicken egg. Baby Kiwis spend only a few days with their parents after hatching, feeding on their egg remnants before being driven off by the adults, who are very territorial. This means that over a range of land the senior birds are at the centre of the colony, with younger birds driven to the outskirts, where they are vulnerable prey. Fortunately all of this has been recognised by conservationists so Kiwi habitat is well protected and numbers are on the increase.

Back on the trail there was no sight of the wee buggers. We heard both males and females calling way off in the dark but it seemed that would be our lot for tonight. Still the sensory deprivation on the 2km trail was a novel experience and we did see those marvelous glowworms and a somewhat incongruous long-tailed eel, another native unique to New Zealand, living in a little brook up in this forest, quite a way from the sea. We wound up back at the carpark resigned to mild disappointment when Bob illuminated a stretch of grass and there on the tree line a little fellow, looking like Captain Caveman with his arms folded behind his back, was probing the leaf mulch with his big nose for dinner. It was an amazing sight, nay a privilege and one that awed every one of us. Even the wildlife in New Zealand was utterly magical.

In the last post I described the wonderful serendipity you get when traveling and things go wrong. It seems our misfortune with the bike was to bring us more delicious encounters. Bypassing Auckland we headed south to Rotorua to visit the thermal features there. When my bike had broken down in the north we had a kind offer of help from Lindsay Goodwin and his son Dave, who live in Taupiri near Hamilton, to check the bike over on their computer with a GS-911 diagnostic tool. Although the bike was now repaired and running well, it seemed like a good idea to perform this simple check in case any sensors or electronics were on the blink so we called by their shop where the bike was efficiently checked and given the all clear. The rest of a sunny afternoon was spent chewing the fat on bikes and travel with Lindsay, Dave and one of their friends, Des O’Sullivan, who regaled us with tales from his time in Mongolia. We learned too that Des had a somewhat strange collection of vehicles and were invited that evening to visit his ‘shed’. Now you might be expecting me to relate next how he had a shed full of old British bikes; Nortons, Matchless, AJS etc or even a shed full of splendid American muscle cars but it was none of the above; Des has a collection of tanks! Next thing we were staring down the business end of a 120mm rifled cannon on the other end of which was a Berlin Brigade Chieftain Tank, resplendent in its blocky urban paint scheme.   In the corner sat a squat, mean looking WW2 era M41 Walker Bulldog. Several eastern-bloc armoured personnel carriers, a few trucks and other light armoured vehicles completed the collection and a great day was topped by a superb evening clambering over these monsters.

With a farewell to the guys who also kindly hosted us for the evening we had a pleasant days ride on to Rotorua, one of New Zealand’s top attractions with its famous fields of geysers, hot springs and other geothermal features. We visited the thermal park at Te Puia and I have to say we both found it a little underwhelming; perhaps we had been spoiled by having previously visited the insuperable thermals at Yellowstone. The hefty $69 per person admission fee made it a pricey excursion; at roughly $2 NZD to the pound that cost around seventy quid for both of us to enter. We had a grey day for our visit, which rendered a dullish tint of gloom to the setting of boiling grey mudflats. A horrid looking hotel spa had been built as a blot on the skyline giving the park the air of a back lot in Chernobyl. The saving grace was the Maori cultural experience, where we were entreated to a Haka welcoming ceremony followed by a splendid song and dance performance.

From Rotorua we took a short ride into the mountains to visit Waimangu volcanic rift valley, one of the youngest geothermal features in the world. On 10th June 1886 the Tarawera Volcano erupted, blowing the side off the mountain and opening a huge valley, which quickly filled to form several lakes and geothermal features including the largest hot spring in the world. Prior to the eruption, the area was already a tourist beauty spot and hosted a series of famous pink and white terraces, hailed in their day as the eighth wonder of the world as well as the world’s largest geyser. All of this was destroyed during the eruption, which killed 153 people and buried three nearby villages along with the famous terraces. It was quite a beautiful walk but again there was a hefty admission fee of $38 per head just to walk some tracks (this does include a bus ride back from the end of the trail but it would have been nice to decline this for a cheaper admission as we didn’t use it).

We decided against any further expensive excursions from Rotorua, a decision aided by the fact that the weather was now seriously impacting our activities. The remnants of a tropical storm washed in and we encountered heavy rain that drenched our little campsite over the next three days. We ensconced ourselves in the camp kitchen to utilize the time to write and edit photographs but the forecast showed no change to the wet weather and in the end we abandoned the central highlands and plans to walk to Tongariro Gap near Lake Taupo. We managed to pack the contents of our little tent and keep them dry but the outer skin was a soggy mess and we just rolled it into a bin bag and strapped it to the back of the bike. In over two and a half years on the road this was the first day we have had to set out to ride in seriously wet weather, in high country too. We had 150 miles to cover to get down to the east coast and the little town of Hastings and a promise of shelter in the form of a cheap motel.

The ride was anything but dreary in spite of a day so dreich and drizzled. The roads were pretty good allowing us to maintain a decent speed as we passed through miles of mountainous pine forest and dropped into a fantastic twisting descent that gradually lost the rain with the altitude. By the time we reached Hastings the sun was out and about. We unpacked the soggy luggage off the bikes and watched the steam rise as it warmed in the afternoon sun. We poured the tent outer from its bin bag and I swore there were actual fish in the deluge. We draped it over a hedge and within an hour or so it was dry.

Hastings was a little gem and it sparkled justly in the sun next day. It was largely destroyed in the 1930’s by an earthquake and was rebuilt in an art-deco style that was all the rage at that time. It made for a quaint and curious little town to while away a morning and plan our next steps. We already had a kindly offer to house-sit for some friends in Wellington for a month from the middle of April so that, plus the poor weather, decided us to abandon all further travels in the North Island and head south. Another splendid day’s ride took us to the beautiful city of Wellington, where our friends Ruth and Ian took us out for a somewhat unusual and brilliant St. Valentines Day evening at the local zoo. There we had a romantic picnic and a mooch around the animal enclosures. In the morning we bade our farewells and rode to the inter-island ferry that would take us on to Picton, the South Island and a whole new chapter of astounding places and what would prove to be some of the highlights of the entire trip.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, Journey through the North Island.

 

South Seas Serendipity…

The bus dropped us off with our bags at the downtown stop at 7am on a Saturday morning. We’d flown in on a very cramped Jetstar flight from Melbourne for a visa run, planning to spend four nights in the city. Once off the bus, the piquant smell of stale piss assailed our nostrils as Friday-night partygoers had evidently relieved themselves en masse on the streets. Our initial impressions were further dented at the sight of an inebriated man actually pissing in the street, urinating at a tree rather than up against it, wobbling around with his penis in his hand spaying the pavement and doing that weird ‘dance of the drunks’ with one foot firmly planted, the other stomping on invisible frogs that were scattered all around and only he could see. We moved on to quickly find our shoebox hotel and were relieved when the friendly receptionist informed us we could have the room immediately and not have to wait until 2pm, the official check-in time. Not exactly the kind of image you’d conjure up at the mention of ‘New Zealand’ as a travel destination. You tend to think more of snowy peaks and pinnacles rather than pissheads and pricks but thankfully it was not an image that would endure and was quickly replaced by more pleasant associations with these islands. Welcome to Auckland! Our four days flew by and, in spite of the odd blustery shower, we had a good look around exploring the quaint harbour area and taking a ferry trip over to Devonport.

Still, it was not certain that we would make it to New Zealand with the bikes. Fast approaching two and a half years on the road, our finances we starting to feel the strain. We had some alarming quotes to ship the bikes there from Oz and also had to consider onward shipment to the Americas to get home… Finally a more sensible quote arrived from specialist vehicle shipper GT Logistics, recommended by our buddy Tom Curtis from HU Indonesia. In fact they proved to be the best shipper we have used to date, responding promptly and efficiently to all our communications and everything happened like they said it would with no nasty surprises. New Zealand was back on the Itinerary!

Our third Christmas on the road was spent in the fold of our lovely family in Melbourne. Having returned from Tasmania, the plan was to have a lazy, relaxing run up to Christmas and then have a leisurely time preparing the bikes for shipping sometime in January. This was quickly turned on its head when GT requested we deliver the bikes to the Port of Melbourne before 30th December. A frantic week ensued, dismantling and cleaning the bikes, wary lest we fail another quarantine inspection. The bikes travelled to Auckland by RoRo ferry (so no expensive crating) and the only fly in the ointment was that we couldn’t send any luggage with them, only empty unlocked panniers. However we managed to secure some cheap flights with Air New Zealand that came with a generous baggage allowance and a couple of cheap kit bags from K-Mart sorted that problem.   Suddenly, amid a frantic rush to say goodbyes to family and friends in Melbourne, our time in Australia was all over. We had good news before we left too… GT are an accredited MPI Inspection facility (NZ Quarantine) and they had inspected and cleared the bikes so they would be ready for collection when we arrived.

Our cheap tent that we’d paid $70 AUD, from the Australian outdoor chain Anaconda, was a slight concern, as you must declare all camping and outdoor equipment for inspection on arrival in NZ. We cleaned the tent and had another look at the poles, which were bent causing the tent to lose shape. We called in to see Anaconda, thinking we could at least replace the poles but they gave us a new tent, an upgraded model for a few extra dollars. This was great news as we could present NZ Quarantine with a brand new, unused tent. In the end the arrivals procedure in Auckland was all very straightforward and we were out of the airport in about half an hour and off to the nearby Ramarama campsite.

With the bikes released we had to do a ‘Warranty of Fitness’ check and pay for road registration. This was again straightforward but the check found a dodgy wheel bearing on my front wheel. Given that we’d just replaced Maggie’s in Tasmania, we had the bearing changed by MR Motorcycles in Pukehohe, another great bike shop that gave us fantastic service. When we went back to Vehicle Inspection to get the work checked, we met a fellow overlander Kerry Davison who kindly treated us to a delicious and memorable lamb shank dinner and would prove a useful contact in the land of the Kiwi. From our base at Ramarama we planned our route to explore the northerly extremes of the north island. Question was did we go Waimauku, Waipu, Whangarai, Waitangi, Whangaroa to reach Whatuwhiwhi or should we go via Kawakawa, Kaikohe, Kerikeri and Kaitaia? Yes, we were in for a shower of fun with vowels here, which, coming from ‘Norn Iron’ where we flatten the things, didn’t bode well when asking for directions or telling people where we’d been.

Aside from unpronounceable place names the ride north was simply beautiful on roads lined with millions of little yellow flowers through rolling hill country, real ‘shire’ land and it’s no surprise that the Hobbiton movie set is based on the North Island. New Zealand is another motorcyclist’s paradise. About the same size as the UK, where we share our living space with a whopping 65 million people, the population here is a tiny 4.5 million, with 1.5 million living around Auckland, the biggest city, so once free of the metropolis we reached another new nirvana on this trip. We spent a few days at Paihai and Russell on the beautiful Bay of Islands, enjoying a spot of ‘Tramping’ (as Kiwi’s call hiking) along the coast. Then more idyllic roads deposited us in Whatuwhiwhi (the ‘Wh’ sound is pronounced ‘f’ so it’s ‘Fatufifi’, which makes it less of a mouthful) our base for a ride up to Cape Reinga, the extreme tip of the North Island reached by a winding causeway route and the ride to the tip punctuated by blustery winds that gave the bikes a good slapping but kept us on our toes. The Cape itself was very beautiful, the place where the Tasman Sea meets the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of eddies and currents. We also visited the immense sand dunes at Te Paki and had a tramp in the soft stuff with views over nearby 90-Mile Beach.

We were all set for a leisurely ride down the west coast to visit the thermal features in Rotorua and possibly tramp the Tongariro Crossing near Lake Taupo. From there we planned to abandon the rest of the North Island and go directly for the south to see the wonders there before the summer ran out. We’d do the rest of the North Island on our way back to Auckland, our point of final departure from NZ. But the fates had other things in store for us… Some of the best times in our travels have been born out of apparent catastrophe, when the wheels came off the wagon and we were pitched headlong into an unanticipated bout of problem solving, nearly always laced with rich encounters with wonderful strangers and with some utterly unexpected but delicious outcomes. Looking back afterwards you can see a sort of lovely serendipity in it all, where the series of unplanned and apparently unconnected events string together to ultimately enrich the overall travel experience in ways you couldn’t possibly plan or foresee.

We packed up and parted the great little campsite at Whatuwhiwhi, where we’d made friends with staff, neighbours and local residents. They’re a friendly lot the Kiwis and, as we were soon to find, a rather caring lot too. With a short backwards wave, we set out on the day’s ride climbing up the steep hill from the campsite. About 2km down the road, I opened the throttle and my bike suddenly died with a bubba-bubba-bubba-pop! I pulled in the clutch and freewheeled to a halt at the bottom of a dip in the road. She refused to restart to the point where I gave up lest I flatten the battery. It felt like she was being starved of fuel so I unpacked the bike and set to performing a roadside investigation that revealed I had a spark, a working fuel pump that was delivering petrol but somehow no go in the bike. We ferried all the kit back to the campsite and then pushed the bike out of the dip to freewheel down the hill, where again she refused to even bump start. We spent an afternoon swapping components with Maggie’s bike but couldn’t find the problem.

Enter ‘Blackie’; a weather-scorched, wiry Kiwi retiree sporting a drover’s hat, who lives here permanently in an old bus that proudly sports the route destination ‘DILIGAF.’ Turns out he’s a fellow motorcyclist too and wandered over to see if he could help. He advised that the nearest support would be in Kaitaia and recommended ‘Kaitaia Auto Electrics’ to get the wiring and components checked out. We called in to see the owner, Chris Broughton, who explained he was up to his neck in work but agreed to let us use a corner of his workshop to strip the bike and then he’d be on call to check out various items on request. Getting the bike there was no problem as Blackie had already organised a trailer to take us over the following morning.

Leaving Whatuwhiwhi for the second time was really sad as the staff and fellow campers had all been over to see if they could help to the point where it felt a little like home. Blackie trailered the bike to the shop and then took Maggie on to nearby Ahipura with our luggage to the campsite there, as it was closer to the shop. We spent the rest of the day running diagnostics and it wasn’t until the afternoon that we found a dodgy relay in the electrics. With a new relay fitted, the bike started but was running rough, which we attributed to a low-charged battery. After an overnight charge she started up but was surging and stalling at any sort of high revs and we now decided that it was a possible fuel contamination issue. We said farewell to Chris and his crew at the Auto Electrics shop, a real gentleman who had helped us get back on the road.

At the new campsite, we dismantled the fuel delivery system and cleaned a lot of dirt in the throttle body assembly, which probably wasn’t helping things and settled down for the night in our tent. We awoke in the early hours to the pitter-patter of raindrops that soon escalated into a heavy downpour. Morning came with no respite to the wet weather other than the fact that our little emplacement was slowly filling into a nice pond. We’d also left some little ventilation flaps open allowing our new tent to leak somewhat! We ran to the camp kitchen and, over a late breakfast, decided things were getting too soggy for further camping so we booked into a little cabin on site. We worriedly observed our new tents performance in the bad weather as the wind administered a good slapping while it floated in its little pond, moored there seemingly by the tent pegs. It didn’t seem any more robust than the old tent we’d used in Australia. While these tents were fine in calm / dry weather it was clear that we would suffer badly in this tent in any kind of wind / wet weather, which New Zealand would most certainly have on tap for the future…

That evening we met our cabin neighbours, two lovely English roses, Em & Em (Emily and Emma) from Nottingham and shared a wine or two on the porch while we chatted about our respective travels. They were on an eleven-month trip through Asia, Australia, NZ and their next stop was South America. Like us the girls had declined camping in the foul weather. We told them the story of our cheapo Australian tent, its bendy tent-poles and the likelihood of it surviving any bad weather in NZ. “Why don’t you take ours?” said Em… “Yes!” agreed Em, “We leave New Zealand next week and aren’t planning on camping in South America. We need to dump the tent anyway so it would be great to see it go to a good home.” And so we acquired a rather splendid Vango Pulsar 300 tent thanks to this lovely act of charity from Em2.

Sitting now writing this up in the camp kitchen at another site further south, it is lashing outside as I ponder these twists of fate. When the bike stalled and refused to restart it seemed such a catastrophe as a pleasant day of riding and sightseeing turned into a dismal retreat and what proved to be a fruitless effort to find any fault. But then meeting delightful new friends in Blackie and Chris, the move to Ahipura, meeting a pair of angels in Em and Em and acquiring our new canvas; none of that would have happened had the day gone to plan. I look across to see our new home, a little green tent, a magnificent outpost standing there stalwart against the rain and it raises a smile that everything inside is safe and dry as this story comes to an end for now.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, the Far North.

 

Tales from Tasmania

The huge slab of a ship glided up to the pier as if guided on mystic rails the name ‘Spirit of Tasmania’ writ large along the hull, white on orange, sliding across our field of view like a giant autocue. Just when it looked like a massive collision was imminent the ship magically stopped dead and berthed against the dock with the slightest of bumps. We waited patiently with a couple of Harley dudes for the bow to open, the returning traffic to disgorge and then we entered the bowels of the leviathan. We were finally on our way to Tasmania…

The ferry took all night to plow across the thankfully calm Bass Straits towards our island destination. For those of us affected by Brexit, Tasmania is about the same size as Ireland. If you’re not affected by Brexit, then it’s about the same size as Switzerland or for our American buddies, it’s about the size of West Virginia. ‘Tassie’ has a relatively miniscule population (half a million compared with nearly four million in Ireland for example). Throw in a myriad of small and winding roads, some marvelous mountain scenery with even more of those stunning Aussie beaches and it is a right little paradise. The first chink of light was shed on all of this when we met three Tassie blokes Shorty, Brian and Brad on their motorcycle tour of Flores, Indonesia who implored us to come see them on the island. That plus numerous ‘must-see’ recommendations as we travelled through mainland Oz made it a hard one to pass.

The ‘Spirit’ glided into Devonport at 7am on a Sunday morning and our first views were a beach of creamy sand backing onto a verdant slash of isle that sloped upwards to some far-away lofty peaks that disappeared into a low slung ceiling of dank grey cloud, promising paradise with a puddle or two in the coming weeks. We were quickly on the road following GPS directions to Brian’s house where a welcoming breakfast had been arranged. The roads were deserted on the somewhat chill morning and the rain from the previous night was drying out leaving the place feeling fresh like it had just been spring-cleaned for our arrival. We were whizzing along a dual carriageway, waving to one or two bikes that were headed for the ferry back to the mainland, when Mags came over the intercom… “There’s a really friendly biker just rode up alongside me with a big friendly grin. He’s waving like mad!” I looked in the rear view mirror to see the scene just as she described it and then the penny dropped for both of us… It was Shorty, out to meet and greet!

Shorty Halfacre stands about 5’ 2”, is slightly ruddy-faced, bald with a big bushy white beard. When travelling in India, the kids called him ‘Ali Baba’ and now, as Christmas approached, I reckon he would have made a good, if somewhat diminutive, Father Christmas. It was the smile you see, a clear and broad beacon that you just met a kindly soul. He caught up with me and beckoned that we follow him home. Now following my description above, you’re probably holding an image of a friendly mountain dwarf so it will come as no surprise to learn that Shorty worked all his life as a mining engineer and is an explosives expert to boot. He still holds all the relevant pyro licenses to conduct firework displays at events like the Hobart Speedway. We arrived at a small cottage nestled in the woods not far from the coast and what proved to be the most beautiful place we have stayed at yet in this round the world journey. We dismounted the bikes and approached a hidden garden half expecting to see six other ‘Shortys’ and a Snow White who looks after them. If this fairytale setting lacked all seven dwarves, it certainly had a lovely lady waiting at the garden gate with a smile to match her partners; and so we met Maureen who bade us a warm welcome and showed us around their little paradise…

The house graced a small headland overlooking the Blythe River on the north coast of the island. Shorty dabbled in metal sculptures and these together with an assortment of Buddhas scattered amongst the greenery to give the place the air of a most serene retreat. There was a smaller dwelling set to one side, a little self-contained bungalow that was our home for the next week.   We quickly unpacked and drove on for a reunion with Brian and his wife Karen, who had that massive breakfast on the go. They’d had friends staying for the weekend and set a few extra places at the table, thus continuing the warmest welcome we’ve had in any place. Tasmania may be a small island but its inhabitants surely possess some big hearts.

With fine hospitality on tap for the next week we set out to explore the Northern parts of the island with a ride out to Stanley to see the ‘Nut’, the sheer-sided remains of an ancient volcanic plug whose summit was accessed by a chairlift to reveal spectacular views over the town and beyond. Fine weather ensured that our visit to Cradle Mountain returned a splendid all day hike around Dove Lake with wow-wow-wow views across the mountainous hinterlands.   We rode out with Shorty, Brian and Maureen to visit Sheffield a small town famous for its wonderful gable-end murals depicting aspects of Tasman life. Should you ever find yourself in these parts, I’d recommend a visit to ‘World of Marbles’. What looks like an emporium selling small glass balls for kiddies to play with, is also host to a fine ‘contraptuary.’ What a lovely word to describe a collection of amazing contraptions and machines; everything from mechanical toys to elaborate and sometimes huge, stainless steel ball-race machines festooned with pendulums, seesaws and other mechanical devices. Please check out their website at www.worldofmarbles.com.au and, trust me, it’s not to be missed!

Aside from these destinations, the rides were spectacular in their own right down narrow lanes that chased creeks and brooks through forest clad mountains, the dark recesses sometimes illuminated by flak-bursts of Foxglove. Suddenly the trees disappear and you burst onto a hillside covered in fields of bright pink poppies grown for the pharmaceutical trade. The poppies alternated with fields of tiny white daisy-like Pyrethrum, a natural insecticide, that also make a useful companion plant as they naturally repel insects from any veggie or ornamental flower garden. I could draw a line under Tasmania here and say we scrapped our plans to ride around the island and instead stayed put to relish the hospitality heaped upon us by Shorty and Maureen, Brian and Karen. Garden BBQ’s with game on every menu; Brian is a keen hunter and chef to boot and he kept us supplied with succulent venison steaks and delicious kangaroo burgers and meatballs. Great company and lots of laughs all lubricated by local beer and a drop or two of the red stuff. But the island beckoned and we prised ourselves away from paradise to explore this latest two wheeled wonderland.

The weather is Tassie is dominated by its location, set square in the path of the ‘Roaring Forties’. These strong westerly winds are found between the latitudes of 40° and 50° South and are generated by the combined effects of hot air being displaced from the Equator towards the cold Antarctic, the rotation of the planet and the scarcity of landmasses to serve as windbreaks with only the southern tip of South America and the islands of New Zealand and Tasmania in their path. Consequently the wind can rip along at quite a pace and the westerly shores of Tasmania get quite a battering with a reputation for some grim weather. Consequently this side of the island remains wild, remote and sparsely populated.

The weather lived up to its reputation as we rode towards Strahan (pronounced ‘strawn’). The road was deserted as we left the north coast and crossed a mountain-wilderness-hinterland that took us around Plimsoll Lake and dropped out of the skies into Queenstown, a quaint little town set against the maw of an ugly opencast mine. We stopped several times to don extra layers and ended up in waterproofs as rain arrived, blown in sideways by the aforementioned wind. Thankfully it eased, allowing us to get the tent up but later we looked on in horror to see the tent almost double over when the wind returned, learning in the process that the fibreglass tent poles in our cheapo $70 tent were deformed.   From Strahan we rode across the Central Highlands, stopping off to look at Lake St Clair and to visit ‘The Wall’ – a wilderness art installation of huge Huon pine panels, intricately carved to depict aspects of life in these Highland parts. Sculptor Greg Duncan estimates it will take him around ten years to complete. In a quote from his website: “The idea for The Wall is quite a simple one. I’m carving a series of 100 panels. Each panel is one metre wide and three metres high. The panels will be placed back-to-back. So, by the time I finish, I’ll have created a wall 50 metres long with carvings on both sides – 100 metres all up.” Photography was not permitted so I have included a link here to the website as the work in progress is simply outstanding and something we’ve never seen equaled anywhere else in the world. Have a look at www.thewalltasmania.com.au

Our days ride ended at a delightful riverside campsite at New Norfolk just outside the island capital of Hobart. Campsites in Oz are full of ‘grey-nomads’, a bunch of retirees who have taken to the road in campervans and trailer-tents to explore their delightful homeland. With few responsibilities (no mortgage, kids are grown up and left the coop, etc) they have the time to take in the country at their leisure and are consequently a great source when it comes to gleaning what to see and do in an area. A typical example was a lady called Anne, who Maggie met while clearing up some dinner dishes… “You the loons on the motorcycles?” she asked and then went on to run down motorcycling in general… how two wheels are inherently unstable and only a crazy idiot would venture forth on such a contraption and so on. But then she enquired into what we’d been up to in Tassie and started a flood of recommendations of things to do and see, including one that we took up; an excursion out to look at the Russell Falls. Our ride out ran through some breathtaking rolling countryside on a sinuous road that wound up into some serious rain forest. Then a short hike through an emerald Jurassic world of palm, fern and cycad, which parted to reveal curtain upon curtain of little jewel-screen cascades descending from on high. Quite possibly the most beautiful little waterfall we’ve come across yet in all our travels.

Maggie’s bike was now approaching the 100k-mile marker and decided to make the occasion memorable by scrunching the front wheel bearing. We phoned BMW in Hobart who informed us replacement bearings were available on overnight order from Melbourne, so initially all seemed well. I asked if there were any additional parts required, seals etc, which proved to be the case. However the seals were not in stock and would have to be ordered from Europe with a 4 to 5 week delivery estimate! We called in person to the dealer, a large ‘white-tile and stainless-steel’ clinical showroom that sold both cars and bikes. We asked the spares manager if there was any way they could help, maybe sourcing the bearings and seals locally? Would it be possible to speak to one of the mechanics for help or an idea as to what was involved in their replacement? It was a brick wall… we’d have to wait however long for the parts, it was not permitted to talk to any of the mechanics and if we wanted BMW to do the work, we’d have to wait until the New Year, which was about a month away! We felt pretty appalled and badly let down to think that we had ridden two of BMW’s products for over 100,000 miles and halfway round the world only to be turned away when we needed help. Luckily better service was on tap at ‘Motorworks’, a local KTM & Triumph dealer who ordered a replacement bearing kit overnight and replaced the defective items in ten minutes the next morning.

Up next, two of Tassie’s top tourist attractions; an avant-garde art collection and a prison museum. One would be absolutely fascinating and the other, one of the most miserable and depressing places we’ve been on our travels. First up MONA; the Museum of Old and New Art, the largest privately funded museum in Australia. Founder David Walsh was a professional gambler who turned his winnings into an extensive art gallery set in a beautiful modern building sited on an old winery just outside Hobart. The car park was packed and we rode around for about ten minutes until we eventually found a small slot to leave the bikes. The place is a bit of an iceberg in that very little of it is visible from the entrance, where non-Tasmanians are fleeced to the tune of $20 a head to enter a series of subterranean vaults that house the exhibits. Your $20 also rents you an ‘O’ device; a snazzy interactive ‘I-pod’ that contains descriptions of all the exhibits and even records your visit so you can download and revisit later on your computer at home.

All good so far and we entered the crypt full of enthusiasm, descending a spiral staircase to the lowest of the three levels and then working our way back to the surface. We wandered the galleries in silence, navigating through our little ’O’s. A few exhibits caught our eye; 365 weather drawings by Russian artist Viktor Kulikov. Every day at 9am on the dot, Viktor take his coloured pencils and draws the view outside his apartment in Nizhny Novgorod. Perhaps the concept was more catching than the execution but the idea was novel. Ditto a collection of dinosaurs made from cable ties but then it all went downhill from there. Dark and dreary rooms full of depictions of war, chaos and moral bankruptcy. Walsh himself describes the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Take an exhibit like the Victorian Kitten’s tea party, by Walter Potter, a diorama of a long table set in garden, where about thirty kittens are having a picnic. They are all dressed in little suits and riding bicycles, having tea, etc and it’s all very good until the macabre realisation hits you that real stuffed kittens were used to make the work at which point it becomes a little sickening… or how about the long-wall collection of 77 individual porcelain casts of women’s vaginas, entitled C***ts…and other Conversations? It was all very dark and the few acoustic exhibitions added a monotonic dirge to the background. I looked at Mags and said, “Are you getting any of this?” She shook her head but we agreed to persevere to see it all. It was all so dreary and depressing, vulgar and crude; even the ‘O’ had a button on it called ‘Art W**k’ with a little pink ‘spitting penis’ icon that led into a discussion on each particular piece. In a so-called leading art gallery… really? Emerging into the light we both felt awful, really sad and depressed, like our trip to the pointless vaults had sucked the very life out of us.

You might think a trip to see some old prison relics would hardly offer an antidote to such misery but our day at Port Arthur was just that. First some great riding as we left Hobart behind and took to the lanes once again down onto the Tasman peninsular. We visited some spectacular coast along here at the Devil’s Kitchen and the Tasman Arch. Port Arthur campsite was a wildlife wonderland full of wallabies and parrots that animated every evening. As to the prison itself, we expected to spend an hour or so padding around some old brick ruins. We wound up spending an entire day at the complex, learning about penal systems and reform back in the days when the UK shipped its undesirables ‘down under’. Back in the 1800’s the law deemed seven-year old children to be old enough to be tried for their crimes as a man. At eight they could be hung and at nine they could be deported to the colonies, thus removing the bad apples from society. On arrival in Australia convicts were mostly put to work clearing the land, building the early settlements, the hard labour deemed an appropriate remedy for their misdemeanors. Hardened cases who reoffended in Oz were then sent on to Port Arthur, a prison with no walls at the extremity of the Tasman Peninsular. Access in those days was by boat only; the surrounding bush was all but impenetrable so there was nowhere to run. Even if you made it through the dense bush up the peninsular, the narrow stretch of land at Eaglehawk Neck was guarded by a dog-line of ferocious mastiffs with no way past.

By the mid-1800’s prison reform was high on the agenda. Quakers in the US had reckoned that hard labour alone was an insufficient deterrent and an alternative system was proposed; solitary confinement where the offender would contemplate his wrongdoings in silence and isolation, denied access to all reading material bar the word of god. A ‘Separate Prison’, based on Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Pentonville in London, was built at Port Arthur in 1853. Inmates were issued on arrival with a prison uniform, had their name taken from them and were allocated a number by which they would thereafter be known. A list of several hundred rules was read out, the gist of which was that they would serve their term in a solitary cell, where they would spend 23-hours a day contemplating their lot in life. For one-hour they were led to an exercise yard, when they had to wear a hood for the duration of the exercise period and were not permitted to talk to any other prisoners or guards. Even in the prison church the pews had little flap doors so that you could see neither the person to your left nor right, only the preacher out front in his pulpit. Today this whole regime of silence and isolation seems utterly barbaric. Mental cruelty has much more lasting effects than physical punishment and it simply turned most of those processed into lunatics. In fact a lunatic asylum was eventually built at Port Arthur to treat the wreckage of those who had passed through the system.

The prison site provided a fascinating window into those hard times. Undoubtedly many of those incarcerated deserved to be there, murderers, serial thieves, rapists and the like. But the museum detailed some of the other inmates sentenced to transportation for stealing a spoon, or in one case a child who stole a toy. Australians used to be understandably ashamed if they had convict ancestors but today many are proud as these were the men who, through their hard labour, cleared the land allowing the early settlements to take root and thrive. There is a certain kudos to having jail-mate roots, however one Tasmanian confessed to have been shocked to learn on checking into his own genealogy that an ancestor had been sentenced to ‘transportation to the colonies’ for the crime of ‘having carnal knowledge of a horse that was not a mare.’ So, had it been a stallion, that would have been perfectly permissible then?

The curtains to this stage that had been Tasmania were drawing to a close and what a splendid performance it had all been. The encore was a trip to Coles Bay and a hike to the overview above to drop-dead gorgeous sands of Wineglass Bay. Once again I’ll let the photos do the talking on that one. We rode back for a final evening in the good company of our Tassie friends saddened by the fact that we were leaving these fine people, Shorty and Maureen, Brian and Karen and just wishing this wonderful place was just a little closer to home…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Tasmania

 

 

Victoria!

Victoria in the springtime… To use the Australian vernacular “it’s bladdy beautiful!” All the plants were flowering and the birds were even more magnificent than usual, positively exploding in mating colours and filling the air with their song. The weather in these parts can be somewhat topsy-turvy; when the wind blows from the north it comes from the hot dry centre of Oz bringing temperatures of 40°C+. But if the wind shifts to the south then Antarctic howlers can drop this to a few degrees within hours and it all makes for some ‘interesting’ weather. Having finally arrived in Melbourne our first action was to promptly leave Australia…

On entry to Oz, we were granted a free 12-month visa, conditional that we leave and return every three months, so we flew to Auckland for a long weekend as our first three-month stint was almost over. The bikes were safe and sound in John’s garage having been cleaned, serviced and had new rear tyres fitted. With the visa reset for another three months and after over two years on the road, it was great to spend some time with family and we were positively spoiled at each of the three stops we made with my cousins John, Ann and Denise, offering us three very different insights into life in and around Melbourne. John and Diane first with their grand place on Brighton seafront; a chance to catch up on family histories over some fine wine and food and take in the sea air from walks along the bay. Then on to Ann and Richard in their splendid town house and a lively traipse around the city itself to explore markets and riverwalks with our engaging hosts. And last but not least, Denise and Trevor and their idyllic location out on the Mornington Peninsular at Mount Martha where we toured the wineries, took in the gorgeous beach there and drove up to see Arthur’s Seat and the breathtaking views over Port Phillip Bay.

Our stay with Denise coincided happily with the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious annual thoroughbred horse race. The two-mile handicap, billed as “the race that stops a nation”, is one of the richest turf races on the planet with total prize money for the 2017 race of $6.2 million AUD plus trophies valued at a further $175,000. The winner of the first race way back in 1861 received a gold watch; today the winning horse will net a cool $3.6 million. We can vouch that the nation does indeed stop and embroils in a 24-hour party, an excuse to sink a few ‘stubbies’ and have a flutter on the gee-gees. The newspapers reported that in the previous year Australians bet $657 million over the course of the four-day Melbourne Cup event with about $350 million of that placed on Cup day itself. Australians drink the equivalent of 25 million swimming pools of alcohol between breakfast and dinner on Cup day, which is a public holiday across Melbourne and most of Victoria. The event itself is attended by crowds in excess of 100,000 people and just about everyone else will stop whatever they are doing to watch or listen to the great race.

The city turns into a ghost town as everyone heads to the nearest television to watch the race. Every taproom and tavern, lounge and saloon was kitted out to take bets as folk quaffed the afternoon away to a soundtrack of race commentary, news and latest form from the multiple TV sets stacked around the bar. Denise and Trevor took us to a local establishment where we settled in for the day’s entertainment. There was a tremendous buzz to the afternoon as we contributed about a washbasin full of alcohol to the fore-mentioned national ‘swimming-pool’ statistic. I’d like to say now that we stacked a hundred on the outside winner and formally announce my intention to retire and stay on the road forever on the proceeds of this staggeringly lucky bet. However, true to form, we somehow managed to pick a fine selection of mule-eared also-rans from this field of fine stallions, our gambling contribution to the day merely further enriching the bookmakers. Still, fine company… a wee drink or two… a bit of starters orders and then a wallop down the track… it all made for a truly memorable day.

An easy ride from Melbourne took us to Foster, an old mining town and access to some fine hiking at Wilsons Promontory. We spent a pleasant afternoon hiking up Mount Oberon for some wonderful views of the coastline in these parts and then down for a paddle at the aptly named Squeaky Beach, so called because the fine white silica sand chirps and squeaks as you walk across it. On our way back to Foster we had our first Echidna encounter. The Echidna could be loosely described as an Aussie hedgehog and is one of only four remaining species of ‘monotremes’ in the world (mammals that lay eggs). We were riding along the road when we spotted this fuzzy football object crossing our path ahead. We dismounted and caught up with the cute little fellow on the grass verge just as he curled up into a ball, dug into the ground with his feet, flexing his thick spines for protection. Echidnas are remarkable in that they have no nipples (their young, known as ‘Puggles’, are reared in a pouch and suckle milk from the pores of a pair of milk patches that secrete milk onto specialized hair follicles). Males have a four-headed penis of which only two heads are used during mating, releasing semen into the female’s double-branched reproductive tract with head sets alternating each time the Echidna mates. However before he gets that far the male has to compete with other males to win his mate and females are often seen with a train of up to ten eager males all trying to hit ‘home base’.

Our travels took us next along one of the worlds great motorcycling rides; the Great Ocean Road that runs west for around 150-miles along the coast from just outside Melbourne. Similar to some of the classic American routes like ‘The Going to the Sun Highway’ and the ‘Blue-Ridge Parkway’ it was built as a public works / job creation scheme in the days after the First World War to open the area to tourism and further settlement. On completion it was dedicated to the fallen from WW1 and as such it is the world’s largest war memorial.  In the early days it was a single-track gravel road and had tolls levied on it but these were lifted once the original costs had been recouped and today it is a splendid modern road that winds along some fine breathtaking ocean terrain.

We explored the road from a couple of delightful camping stops at Anglesea and Apollo Bay and spent our days undertaking a few invigorating cliff-top walks and visiting the magnificent Twelve Apostles rock formations. At the western end we made another halt at the beautiful little town of Port Fairy, formerly known as Belfast. A lovely volunteer lady at the local Tourist Information office gave us a potted history of the town. The port was originally discovered when some whalers sailed up the Moyne River in search of fresh water. They named the area after their cutter ‘The Fairy’ and the nearby ocean would be a rich hunting ground for whales. A whaling station was established in 1835 but the whalers were so successful that within only a decade, the supply of whales was exhausted and the whaling station closed. By now some of the seamen began to settle the land, realising the potential of its rich and fertile soil. In 1843, James Atkinson, a Sydney solicitor, obtained land in the town by ‘Special Survey’ from the Crown in 1843. He drained the swamps, subdivided and leased the land, and built a harbour on the Moyne River. He named the resulting town “Belfast” after his hometown in Northern Ireland. Within a few years Belfast was one of the largest ports in Australia. Atkinson seems to have been an absentee landlord but another gentleman, one William Rutledge, also purchased a swathe of land under the Survey system and, at his own cost, arranged for several families to come from Ireland to work the new holding. The area attracted settlers from Ireland, both North and South, Protestant and Catholic and also a few Scots, who seemed happy to live side by side in this new life on the other side of the world. Their efforts evolved into a great potato and onion industry that would soon feed most of the city folk elsewhere in Australia. In 1887 the town’s name reverted back to Port Fairy but wandering around its quaint little streets lined with whalers cottages, old hotels and shopfronts there are plenty of reminders of its past. It felt pleasantly strange to saunter small town Oz and be confronted with shop names like ‘the Belfast Emporium’, “Belfast Ice and Cold Storage’ or the ‘Crepe Man of Belfast.’ We passed the ‘Caledonian Hotel’ (oldest licensed hotel in Victoria – 1844) and sauntered by ‘Dublin House’. Down at the small harbour there was even a boat named the ‘Jasus’, which gave us a chuckle.

A cool morning ride out took us to nearby Tower Hill, a small wildlife reserve and a place of stunning beauty. Set in the lake filled caldera of an ancient volcano, the reserve is a great place to see wild Koala and Emu. We found the Koalas almost immediately on setting off for one of the short hiking trails round the park. There they were, slouched up in the trees like a bunch of little old drunks sleeping off a bad one. Much more lively were the Emus, engaged in a spot of picnic robbery, ready to snatch a morsel or two from rug or table. Signs at the picnic area advised that the best way to drive off a persistent raider is to stand tall with your arms stretched high above your head and hands formed to make a beak. Emus are incredibly dumb and think you look like a taller Emu so will back off. We can attest that this does in fact work although at times you needed to have eyes in the back of your head. We watched one stalk an unwary lady at another table, creeping up silently behind and then precision snatching a sandwich out of her hand from over her shoulder, scaring the bejasus out of her in the process.

We rode north and east through rolling potato fields, legacy of the original settlers of Port Fairy, on superb empty roads that led us through the Grampian Mountains to the delightful city of Bendigo where we had been invited to stay with Steve and Serah Campbell, some friends from HU Indonesia. We spent a relaxing day out with Steve visiting the surrounding area and mooching Maldon, another old mining town whose population once grew to over 18,000 miners keen to exploit the Victorian gold rush back in the 1850’s. The mines were already exhausted by the turn of the century and nowadays Maldon is something of a sleepy little backwater of a thousand souls but it oozes with atmosphere and we spent an hour or two clumping along the boardwalks and soaking it all in with yet another great Australian host. Our time with Steve and Serah was all too short as we had a boat to catch that would take us to our next destination; Tasmania.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Victoria

 

Making Melbourne

In the early sixties my uncle Jackie and aunt Betty immigrated to Australia. Back then Australia had launched a major drive to expand its population, offering ‘Assisted Passages’ to UK nationals for only £10 spawning an influx of ‘ten quid tourists’. My uncle served in the Royal Navy during WW2, winning a DSM at Normandy. After the war he returned to Belfast and found employment at Shorts Brothers aircraft factory. He raised a young family but found life unsettling especially against a constant threat of lay-offs and factory closures so decided to move to Australia. In those days such migrations were like a death in the family and wakes were often held for the departing. While the ‘Assisted Passage’ made immigration affordable, a return was prohibitively expensive in both time and money, so there was a silent understanding that when people left they would probably be gone for good so in many ways it felt like a funeral event.

I was around three years old when they left so I have no memories of my Aunt and Uncle or of my three cousins John, Anne and Denise. Yet their memory lived on and I grew up having this war-hero uncle who had travelled to the other side of the world, a powerful image for any child’s imagination. I loved maps and often finger-traced the lines their voyage would have taken around the world in my atlas. I pondered their route; did they go through the Suez Canal or round Cape Horn? Did they see the pyramids, ride on a camel? Did they stop off at exotic islands like Madagascar and Zanzibar or did they go straight to India and sample the crowded markets in Bombay. Then sailing on through the spice islands of Indonesia, braving earthquakes and volcanoes to reach the Land of Oz… and here I believe are the incipient seeds of my own wanderlust. As I grew older I vowed that one day I should undertake the same journey only I planned to do it by land. The family settled in Melbourne where they did very well indeed. Sadly Uncle Jackie has since passed, as has Aunt Betty earlier this year, but my cousins are all still there. All roads now led south to Melbourne and ‘Making Melbourne’ would be a dream come true.

For the most part we followed the coast, spending a few days at Noosa Heads National Park. It was a school holiday period and Noosa itself was somewhat overcrowded and touristy but the hike out to Hell’s Gate and views along the expanse of Sunshine Beach stretching forever off over the horizon made it worthwhile putting up with the crowds. From Noosa we rode south towards Brisbane, where we would be meeting some more recent immigrants from home; my mate Stevie Anderson, who left Belfast over twenty years ago, and his wife Ruth with their two kids Ewan and Charlie. We approached Brisbane late on a Friday afternoon and were horrified when the GPS took us off the highway and into the city centre before we realised what was happening… We girded our loins for a nightmare pell-mell of big-city traffic, the Friday rush hour just getting going, to make our way through and south of the city to reach Ruth and Stevie. It came as a pleasant surprise to find we’d chosen a public holiday so the city was eerily deserted and we rode straight through the ghostly streets with minimal delay. This was but a prelude to a lovely weekend, meeting Ruth and the kids for the first time and the twenty years since we’d last seen Stevie were reduced to what seemed like a short moment in time, surely the sign of a special and lasting friendship.

Goodbye Brisbane, farewell Queensland, hello New South Wales as we journeyed on down the Sunshine Coast, where we found some of the traffic we’d missed in Brisbane. Our beautiful beaches described in the last post were still there but now they were horribly obscured by mile after mile of high-rise concrete and steel, casino and resort, that seemed to run forever and all progress was wracked painful by endless traffic lights that promised nothing but tedium all the way to Sydney. Fortunately help was at hand from some Facebook friends, Jules and Andy Buckland, who have been following our progress and recommended some timely diversions that led us away from the coast and on to some of the finest motorcycling roads on the planet…

Our first stop was Walcha, reached via a cracking road called Thunderbolt’s Way that led us up into the Northern Tablelands region of New South Wales. Thunderbolt’s Way is named after a local 19th century bushranger-cum-folk legend, Frederick Ward, who went by the moniker Captain Thunderbolt in his career as a notorious highwayman and outlaw. Frederick was born in 1835, the youngest of ten children to a convict father and grew up around Windsor, where he started work at eleven years of age and gained a reputation as a useful horse breaker. After a few years, he expanded his career into rustling but the gang he was involved with was busted when they tried to sell some stolen horses at auction. Ward received a ten-year sentence of hard labour and was sent to the Cockatoo Island penal establishment. After four-years he was released under a ‘Ticket of Leave’, a government system whereby a convict could be released on a sort of bail provided he behaved himself.

He found employment as a horse wrangler at another station but misfortune seemed to dog his life.   He had a relationship with a lady called Mary Ann Bugg, who was then living with another ex-convict and she found herself pregnant with his child. The couple travelled to her father’s farm to have the baby but unfortunately this was in breach of his ‘Ticket of Leave’ conditions, an event further compounded by the fact that he was found riding a stolen horse. So Ward was sent back to Cockatoo Island to serve the remaining six-years of his original sentence, with an additional three-years added for the stolen horse.

After a short time he managed to escape from the island, swimming across to the mainland whereupon he set off on a trail of highway hold-ups and it was in this period that he bestowed the title “Captain Thunderbolt” on himself. One can only imagine the hardships endured in that life as he joined with other felons to prey on the innocent. He was shot in the back of his left knee in a shootout with troopers during one robbery in 1863 and various accomplices were gunned down as the authorities tried to hunt them down. Eventually he was cornered, shot and killed after robbing a band of travellers, at an untimely 35 years of age, at a place called Kentucky Creek near Uralla. Still he has a highway named after him today…

Leaving the coast near Grafton, at first we climbed a long twisty treat through dense forest mountain that was a joy to ride given we were the sole occupants of the road. The road led us to the tablelands where we travelled through the small town of Armidale, a sign at the entrance proclaiming it as ‘Australia’s Highest City’ at 1050m. By afternoon we were speeding on across flat undulating farmland that ran off to a dreamy campsite in Walcha. The only downside was that with this slight elevation we were starting to experience cooler evenings in the tent. On from Walcha, the Thunderbolt left the tablelands to spiral along the Hunter Valley and drop us into Gloucester and on via the Putty Road (another iconic motorcycling road in these parts named after a river this time) into pretty Windsor, where we found another idyllic campsite called Percy’s Place, set inside a huge U-Bend of the Hawkesbury River. Had this been England, I’m sure there would have been a stately home atop the slight rise above the river. In fact with all the English place names and rolling rural landscapes you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually back in England; that is until you suddenly come upon an incongruous prehistoric Cycad in a hedgerow or a dead kangaroo that instantly kills the illusion.

From Windsor we rode on to Sydney to stay with Jules and Andy, who proved to be impeccable hosts. More fine motorcycling followed as we took a Saturday ride out to Berowra Waters, catching the ferry there and riding a stunning series of S-bends that slalomed to a lofty café called Pie in the Sky for lunch. The afternoons ride continued on to the coast at Brooklyn, a picturesque little harbour-town and then back home via another snake of a road that ran through Galston Gorge. Once again the road has led us to another fine doorstep and underlines the old chestnut that there is no such thing as strangers, only friends you have yet to meet.

Before quitting Sydney we met up with another motorcycle hero, at least for those of us riding F650’s; Wayne Carruthers. Wayne is the author of the website www.crossroadz.com.au a resource for all things technical relating to the bikes and he first contacted me way back in 2007 after our Pan-American trip with a query regarding a nasty number of instances of fork failures on the pre-03 model F650GS (for full story see www.panamericanadventure.com/reference/bmw-f650gs-bikes/). Although our meeting was brief it was still great to catch up face-to-face with Wayne and thank him for the tireless effort he has put into his website.

From Sydney, more spectacular motorcycling roads beckoned back on the coast through the very beautiful Royal National Park. This took us down to Berry, a quaint little town full of ‘I saw you coming’ gift-shops and on to Eden, a former whaling station. At the local museum we learned how the whalers had a special relationship with the local Orcas, demonstrating once again how clever and cunning these killers can be. When a pod of big whales (Blue or Right whales) appeared in the vicinity, on their annual migration path, the Orcas would come close to the harbour and cry out an alarm. The whalers would scramble their boats, rowing out to where the rest of the Orca pack had rounded up the big whales. There were tales of Orcas actually towing whaler boats out to the hunt. The large whales were too big for the Orcas to successfully attack alone so they used the whalers to do it for them. As their reward, once the whales had been harpooned and dissected, the Orcas would be fed the tongues and brains of the kill. It seems this relationship had lasted for hundreds of years, the new colonists apparently picking it up from Aborigines in the area.

And so on to making it to Melbourne and that family reunion. The last miles towards that dream come true were slowly turning under our wheels made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that our rear tyres, replaced in Darwin, were now well and truly squared off by all that long distance highway riding making for some awkward squirming in the bends. Added to that, the thermometer was plunging as we travelled further south with several nights under canvas at a shivering 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. And then the final ride, a short day of only 160 miles but what a lovely feeling as I input my cousin John’s address into the GPS! The day was pleasant with blue skies spotted with white cotton-ball clouds. We seemed to fly across the East Gippsland plains and on into rolling hill country, the road positively frolicking through lush landscapes of green grass and cereal crops. Then a descent down to the coast and another red-letter occasion to mark this special day.

My bike, KP52 VTO, finally racked up 100,000 miles, the first bike I’ve owned to do this. I know it’s only a number but symbolically as a traveller to take your bike around the clock is a significant achievement and to do it on today of all days made it doubly delicious. I thought back over the fifteen years I’ve owned this bike and all the magnificent places we’ve been. I pulled over to take some photographs of the clock at 99,999 miles and then another mile up the road and…’0’. Mags pulled over and dismounted to give me a big celebratory hug and KP a wee pet on the tank. An hour later we stopped again outside the gates of John’s house…

It is essential in life to have dreams, big and small, important never to give up on them and one of the most rewarding experiences is to one day pursue them such that they become reality (make this promise to yourself every day). They give life so much form and direction and one of the most glorious occasions imaginable is the day when dreams come true… Today was that day as our trusty little steeds carried us across the finish line and the realisation dawned that there was an end to this particular dreamtime; we’d finally made it to Melbourne.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Making Melbourne

 

Life’s a Beach…

Back on the water, having exchanged bike for boat, the 62-foot, gaff-rigged schooner Providence V wallows under motor, sails flapping lazily in the wind as she hauls us out on a day-trip to the Whitsunday Islands. We’ve been on many boat trips and usually relish such excursions, but at the moment this one is not quite living up to expectations as scrub-cloaked shorelines drift past to the putt-putt soundtrack of our boat crabbing across the sea. Our co-passengers seem mostly content to sit and simply soak up the rays as we plod on to reach our anchorage. A rubber inflatable drops us on the beach on Hill Inlet from where we trek up through a scrubby scraggly wood to reach an over view of the other side of the island and then… Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!

The outline of the Australian coast stretches for more than 30,000 km (18,500 miles) and that makes for a fair number of beaches. In fact the ‘Coastal Studies Unit’ at the University of Sydney has counted 10,685 beaches in Australia, based on the definition of a beach as a stretch of sand longer than 20 metres that remains dry at high tide, which means that Australia has more beaches than any other country on the planet. To put this in perspective, if you were to visit just one beach every day, it would take over 29 years to visit every single beach in Oz and that’s just on the mainland. Given the harsh climate and environments of the interior it is estimated that around 85% of Australia’s population live no more than 50km (30-miles) from the sea and the next leg of our trip would expose us to a number of these superb locations as we ran along the East Coast. Often the access to the beach was via some great hikes through spectacular rain forest.

We dragged ourselves away from the lovely folk at Townsville with a somewhat heavy heart but were soon soothed by spectacular coast roads as we headed north through Cardwell and on to Mission Beach, each mile candidating for the perfect paradise postcard view of palm-lined beach. After a few laid-back days relaxing at Mission Beach we were pondered the point of riding any further as the place was simply divine and one of the most stunning strands we ever set foot on.   Deserted palm-fronded golden sands stretching as far as the eye could see, lapped by lush blue oceans, the horizon dotted with pleasant little islands and all of it so very easy on the eye.

Making headway north, chasing these wondrous beaches all the way, we rode on to Daintree Village and from there explored the road up to Cape Tribulation before making our way to the end of the paved road up the East Coast at Cooktown. At Cape Tribulation, early in the evening of 10 June 1770, Cook ran the good ship Endeavour onto a reef and holed the side of it so badly that it was thought they might founder. A technique called ‘fothering’, whereby a sail was prepared with caulking material and hauled under the ship with ropes, effected a temporary repair. It was a grim time for the crew who, had they had they been shipwrecked, would have been marooned on these distant shores with no hope of rescue. Having covering the hole, they furiously manned the pumps and cast heavy items like cannons overboard to keep the ship afloat. The mood is captured in the place names noted in Cook’s logbook as they sailed on looking for a site to make a permanent repair. The cape he could see was named Cape Tribulation, the logbook noting “this is where our troubles began”. The reef the ship had struck was aptly named Endeavour Reef and a bay to the north where the crew rested from towing the ship up the coast with rowing boats was named Weary Bay. Luckily the repair lasted sufficiently to allow the ship to make way on up the coast to the site of modern Cooktown where Cook was able to beach the ship in a river estuary to effect a full repair.

During the repair work Cook and his crew met local Aborigines, who assisted with the repairs. In his observations on the Aborigines he noted ”From what I have said of the natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility, which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life.” They tried to give the Aborigines clothes and material but observed that these items were soon discarded along the beach and in the bush, as they had no use for such things. Shortly after this the Endeavour headed further north where the Union Jack was planted to officially take possession of Australia in the name of the British Crown.

It was at Cooktown that Cook’s men also sighted their first kangaroo, which was duly hunted down and eaten. What’s not to love about a country that has lots of cutesy animals with ‘oo’ in their name? Kangaroo, Cockatoo, Kookaburra to name but a few… The coast in these parts of North Queensland is also the abode of the Cassowary a huge, flightless, emu-like bird and road-signs warn of the danger of hitting one as they seem to be as clueless as ‘roos when it comes to roads safety. But for all that these coasts sport such magnificent sandy coves they are mostly deemed too dangerous for swimming. This was brought home on the road to Cape Tribulation when we stopped for lunch at the beautiful sandy bay at Thornton Beach. We left our jackets and helmets on a conveniently placed aluminium bench while we took a short walk. It was only when we were recovering our gear that we noticed a memorial plaque on the bench noting that a Cindy Waldron had been killed near this spot in 2016. It was a heartbreaking story. Cindy, a New Zealander in her mid-forties, was holidaying here with a friend who had just concluded a successful cancer treatment when they decided to go for a late evening swim. They made their way out into the water around 10:30pm when Cindy felt something brush against her leg, her preliminary contact with the crocodile who then dragged her off into the dark. A few days later rangers ‘euthanised’ a 4.5m croc and found the poor lady’s remains inside.

From Cooktown the road took us south to the delightful resort town of Port Douglas and then on to Airlie Beach via Cairns. Our couple of days at Cairns were notable for (1) failing to get an extension to our Australian visa and (2) the first heavy rain we have experienced for a long time. The standard entry visa for Australia is now 12 months with a proviso that you must leave every three months and it is free. You can apply for a 6 or 12-month visitor visa but there is a requirement that you have not visited any high risk TB areas in the last few years made this untenable for us as it now requires an extensive medical which is both expensive and can take up to 12-weeks to process. We were well into our first three months and had hoped to be able to talk to someone at immigration to see if there was any way to extend our current visa but it seems everything is handled electronically so this was not possible. Having clarified this point we settled into our tent that evening to the soporific pitter-patter of a light shower on canvas. A few hours later and the light shower was now persistent rain and the flysheet on our little tent began to sag miserably. We met this threat by ignoring it and snuggling down deeper into our sleeping bags, which enabled said flysheet to contact the mesh inner and seep into all our belongings, which duly got soaked necessitating a few hours the next day utilizing the dryers in the laundry room.

We have been camping all the way since leaving Darwin, which in Australia is generally a rather pleasant experience, with the exception of that one day of rain, given that most campgrounds have camp kitchens (complete with fridges, kettles, toasters and microwaves) and laundry facilities so I am pleased to report that we are travelling well fed and with the cleanest of socks and undies. Camping has been made even more delightful by the contact with other campers who are keen to offer advice on everything from where to go next to an invite to drop by for a home-cooked meal. The first of these invites came from the Cole family, Steve and Rebecca with their three charming kids, Hudson, Olivia and Ben. The Coles have been travelling around Eastern Australia for the past few months and we first met at Port Douglas where were invited over for a roast pork dinner (with all the trappings) and again at Airlie Beach for home-made hamburgers, the best we’ve had in a long time. The dinners are spontaneous episodes of kindness and have been happy exchanges and insights into our different ways of life that last long into the evening. They are simply one of the spices that make us relish our travels so dearly.

Airlie Beach was notable for a not so pleasant encounter with another of Australia’s voracious predators. The climate is superb so on setting up camp the first night, we frolicked around in shorts and flip-flops preparing dinner. The location came with a picnic table, soon laden with a tasty repast and a cask of fine wine all of this quaffed to a backdrop of a glorious sunset. Going to bed that night I began scratching at my legs; this beautiful location was also home to midges or sand flies and I’d been eaten alive. Locals will tell you that they don’t actually bite but urinate on you causing a skin irritation that gets worse with scratching but this seems to be an urban legend and they actually are bites. The problem is that the little flies are so small (another name for them is no-see-ums) that their presence goes unnoticed until it is too late.

And so to that island cruise to the Whitsundays and the drop off at Hill Inlet. Then that climb, wondering what all the fuss was about, until we spilled out onto the overview of Whitehaven Sands and what has got to be the most beautiful beach on the world. Stark white sands spiraled around and into an inlet with waters a swirl of blues of every shade from deep ultramarines and indigos through lighter teals and turquoise like a vast cappuccino in blue. Down on the sand the super fine grains squeaked as we walked barefoot. The sands also felt cool to the touch as they are almost unique on the planet possessing a silica content of 98%. The guides claimed it to be of such high purity that it was used as the base material to make the mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope, a fact I have been unable to confirm. So I will leave you for now holding that vision of a world in ethereal blue and a recommendation to go see it for yourself. It is surely a worthy inclusion on anyone’s bucket list. Or for a sneaky peak, just click on the link below to visit our photogallery for this post.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Life’s a Beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Heart

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