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

 

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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