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

 

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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