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

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

CU in the NT!

I was standing at the roadhouse bar waiting my turn to get a drink when the girlfriend of the guy in front of me came up behind us, her arrival announced by the sound of her knuckles dragging along the floor. The place was stuffed with Territorians replete with beards and bellies, black singlets and inky tattoos… and that was just the women. God it looked rough! “Giddus a beer ya cant,” she shouted to her beloved. “Comin’n a minute love,” he replied. Another typical Sunday afternoon in the Humpty Doo Hotel, where locals come from far and wide to banter one another and listen to the music laid on by a three piece band knocking out some cracking sounds, little bits of everything from Clapton to Floyd. Out front a line-up of graceful Harleys, old American pick-ups and Australian Utes filled the dusty parking lot.

The use of the ‘C’ world, even in today’s society, is generally quite shocking. At home it is surely the nuclear swearword in our lexicon of profanities; to call someone a c**t is a last resort / ultimate insult before violence erupts, yet here it was being casually used in witty banter, outback style. We’d found swearing in the Northern Territories to be almost endemic; the sign for the loos in another roadhouse literally read ‘Shithouse ->’. But even I took a double take on a bumper sticker that read ‘CU in the NT’ – text write for ‘see you in the Northern Territories’ with ‘in’ written over ‘the’ in a very small font such that from a distance the two words are invisible. A few days later strolling the streets of Darwin there was a shop selling this same logo emblazoned on everything from mugs and mouse-mats to baseball caps and car stickers… It seems they are proud of swearing up here.

Our arrival in Darwin almost ended in disaster. Our short red-eye flight from Bali landed us in Oz at 5:30am to find that the car rental desk was shut until 7:30am. We were both shattered when we wandered off, keys in hand to collect the car at a remote parking lot. The sun was up so I went to grab my sunnies, stashed in my camera bag, when I realised that said bag with my Canon EOS 6D camera and snazzy ‘professional series’ lens was missing. I had plonked it on top of our baggage trolley at the hire desk and now it was gone! I quickly retraced our steps to the desk but there was neither knowledge nor sight of the bag. We were directed to a security desk to see if it had been handed in and our stomachs were writhing pits of dread at the prospect of losing such a fine and expensive camera that, at this point in our travels, would have been simply irreplaceable. Even worse we pondered the notion that it had somehow been stolen; we couldn’t remember being distracted or any contact with persons unknown but we were both gritty-eyed from lack of sleep, so who knows? The security desk hadn’t seen any camera bags handed in and we were arranging contact details in case it turned up when another guy walked in and said “someone here lose a camera?” We could have kissed him! The bag had fallen off the trolley, unnoticed in our knackered state on our way to the carpark and an employee found it minutes later and handed it in at a different location.

Australia as an overlanding travel destination is mega-expensive, especially as a follow on from months of budget travel in SE Asia.  The cheapest hotels in Darwin come in at over $100 a night for a minimal standard private room so our first mission was to acquire a set of camping gear. We had soon abandoned our own camping gear back in Europe as we couldn’t see the need for it in Asia, where decent rooms were cheap and bountiful. Luckily Darwin had a couple of really good outdoor stores and we soon had a decent budget tent with sleeping mats and bags. We camped at a beautiful site up at Lee Point and had a few days exploring the coast around Darwin while we waited for the bikes to clear customs. Darwin was an unexpectedly delightful place and the simplicity of communicating with people in our mother tongue once again was a pure joy. An immediate impression of Australia is that it is a delightful explosion of birdlife. All through SE Asia and Indonesia, birds were remarkable mainly by their absence. Even in Komodo we saw but a single seabird perched on an isolated rock and the captain of the boat took a shot at it with an imaginary rifle, suggesting the likely demise of the little birdie’s friends. Now we had the constant companionship of darting little black and white Pee-Wees, scrawny looking Ibis, both white and pink varieties of noisy Cockatoos and beautiful Lemon-Masked Lapwings. Overhead Black Kites graced our campsite dinners with daring swoops and grass-cutter fly-pasts.

We met up with Gail, who had lingered in Dili and booked to have the dreaded quarantine inspection completed for our three bikes. We also had new tyres ordered from Richard Cross at Alicross, a highly recommended and competent motorcycle repair shop in Darwin, so soon we would be ready for roads south. But first that inspection… Initially we were told we were on a ‘gas’ hold… For a horrible moment I thought that my dodgy fuel pump had started leaking again and the container was contaminated with gasoline but it turned out that we were on a ‘GAS’ hold; actually the acronym for Giant African Snail. In the 19th century, when the Europeans were exploring the islands of the Pacific, they left pigs on each island they visited. The pigs would forage and prosper, thus ensuring a supply of fresh meat for the next ship to arrive. The Japanese did something similar but they left Giant African Snails as their food supply. When the quarantine guy explained this to us we chuckled; seriously? A giant snail? What possible risk could that be? Not exactly hard to see or to catch are they? He disappeared and returned with a plaster model of one (see photogallery)… It was huge! About the size of a shoebox and I reckon there was the equivalent of a large T-bone worth of meat curled up inside! “One of these can eat its way through 29 head of lettuce in a night,” he explained. “But worse than that each one can carry up to 20,000 eggs and once dispersed the eggs lie dormant for two to three years so you see, the risk of an invasion isn’t to be taken that lightly.” It transpired that Timor is a high risk for giant snails so every container is placed in a salt ring and then inspected for snails / eggs before release.

Luckily there was no snail contamination and within a few days the bikes were cleared and ready for inspection. We completed the necessary paperwork and paid the remainder of the shipping fees and then met the inspector at the bonded storage facility. It was great to see our treasured bikes again, released from the container and all gleaming, all ready to go. Then the inspector got to work… A little hmming and haaaing… Front mudguards looked good, engine good too – no oil or grease. “You did a pretty good job cleaning these… looks good,” he went on and our hopes soared. Then the rear mudguard… “Oh, oh what’s this… hmmmm, looks like mud.” I was quickly down under the rear guard and he pointed two miniscule spots of dried earth on some screw recesses, same place on both bikes. I can only imagine that when we’d cleaned the bikes they stayed wet and remained invisible when we checked them in Timor. “Seriously?” I enquired and explained how we’d spent a week cleaning everything in Dili. Same on Gail’s bike… some tar with something organic stuck to it under the front guard… “Can’t let these pass, no way” he said and that was that – we had failed quarantine.

We tried to reason with the inspector; as the amounts were so miniscule couldn’t we simply scrape it off, bag it and then burn the bag? But there was no way; he’d write up the inspection report and the bikes would have to be cleaned by an authorised cleaner.   Enter now a nightmare of uncertainty and running costs… It took nearly a week to clear this inspection. The bikes had to be trucked to an approved cleaning agent, where the offending material was removed and bio-disposed of. It cost us $725 (Australian) for both bikes! I know there was a set of requirements and we did fail to meet them, by some meager margin, but what made me really angry was that the same guy then released all of our baggage from the bikes without inspection. It contained camping and hiking gear, tools and riding kit, all of which has had over two years of outdoor exposure and he wasn’t interested in it! It was all there on the same bikes that had just failed his inspection yet he let us unpack it and go. It seems this inspection is a lottery as some Indian friends shipped Bali to Melbourne and inspection consisted of a quick look at the tyres before a pass and release. I’m sure as our inspector drove off I saw a sticker on the back of his car that read ‘CU in the NT’…

It was in the middle of all of this that we met a fairy godfather in the shape of Dave Wright, a local overlander who occasionally hosts fellow travellers at his spread just outside Darwin. Gail had contacted him through an online forum and we were all invited for a superb Aussie Barbeque at his place, which turned into an invite to stay. Dave was a big Koala Bear of a fella (if Koala Bears grow to over 6’ 2’’), a gentle giant with a range of bike experience and stories from riding in the Americas to pit crewing at the Isle of Man TT. With the bikes released and new tyres fitted by Richard, he helped us fettle them for the journey ahead, repositioning handlebars (remedy for some tennis elbow I’d been suffering) and repairing our clutch and brake levers (the lever pins and bushes were badly worn). He also made sure we had adequate capacity for carrying water, which was something we’d not taken too seriously up to now.

Dave took us to some weekend bear racing at the Hidden Valley circuit in Darwin. As with GAS, this was another acronym; BEAR standing for British, European and American (bike) Racing. I’ve not been to a bike race for years and the meet was small and somewhat informal so we could drift in and around the pits and see the teams in action. Stars of the show were a pair of beautifully rebuilt Laverda Jotas from the late 1970’s from Redax Laverda in Brisbane resplendent in their orange race trim with gleaming polished alloy casings. With the racing finished for the day, they were started up and a couple of riders took them on a demo ride around the track proving them to be even more beautiful in sound and motion.

We finished our splendid day out at the Humpty Doo Hotel, foot tapping to the music over a few suds and bantering with the locals. Looking around I thought ‘if you were parachuted straight from home into the middle of this lot, you might find it somewhat a tad intimidating’ but today they were the end of our road to date; another magnificent palace full of lively people, colourful in action, colourful with their language and all having a good time. We looked at each other and thought, ‘at this moment in time there’s nowhere else in the world we’d rather be!’ The bikes are finally released and ready…  Australia awaits…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link:  Welcome to Oz!