Before I left Australia I had a weekend to kill in the city of Brisbane, QLD. On the way back from a long night of field testing the city’s bar selection I stumbled across a twenty-four hour church. But it’s not a place to worship jeebus or that elephant with ten hands… it’s been converted to a restaurant. Specifically, a breakfast place called “Pancake Manor.” The proprietors ran with the medieval vibe the structure was naturally disposed to by adding a few knights-in-armor and giant chalices in which they serve coffee.
It’s an interesting take on the classic “all-night diner” for sure, but from what I remember the pancakes actually provided a decent dollar/calorie return. In a country where pretty much nothing is open more than forty hours a week, it was pretty legit that Pancake Manor was open at 3 AM on a Tuesday. Just when I thought I had the Australians figured out, I roll through Brisbane, one of the closest things Australia has to a mid-sized city, to find the only business with it’s lights on in the entire town is a medieval-themed breakfast place the size of a 747 hanger.
Cape York Solo: Part V of VwCaptain Billy’s Landing is a well-known camp spot on the eastern side of Cape York. Many bypass it because it requires a sixty-kilometer detour (thirty in, thirty out) but like much of Far North Queensland it’s something spectacular to behold.
A seemingly infinite beach with soft surf, heaps of tidal caves, and exotic marine life running all over the place. Just don’t stay on the beach too long or you’ll get skin cancer. And don’t go in the caves either, because the fumes emitted by the fungus in there are extremely toxic. And for the love of god don’t go in the water- a crocodile will eat you for sure. Other than that it’s a brilliant spot. Did I mention I’m pretty sure it’s haunted?
So I was holding the place down by myself… not that big of a surprise, since the high season is pretty well over. I turn on my phone to check the time and it rings straight away. Now I know there’s no cell service up there, so I get a bit weirded out. Naturally the Caller ID isn’t helpful, reporting just “Unknown Caller.” I pick up and nobody’s on the line.
A’ight, kinda freaky but at least I know what time it is.
I pick a spot to camp facing the ocean (but not too close) so I’ll wake up to sunrise over the waves. Which was a great plan… until I woke up around midnight to strobe lights blinking every minute or so. Emerging from the tent I solved this mystery pretty quick- the clouds had formed up and were mounting a fierce lighting strike on my location.
The thunder hit hard. I don’t know if Captain Billy was a pirate or just the leader of a baseball team, but it sure did sound like eighteenth-century nautical warfare was taking place on top of my tent.
I scrambled my gear into the shelter of the welcome kiosk, which had just enough roof to cover myself and an informative poster on the area’s birds.
I thought about the road I had taken in here. It was twisty and chock full of loose dirt… dirt that would turn into mud. Mud, which would be impassible. Worse than that I was still north of the mighty Wenlock River- the “Point of No Return” when the wet season beings.
I started to panic a little (just a little) and seriously considered packing up and sprinting south. Was this just a passing storm, or the beginning of the imposing wet season? And if the latter, could I make it south of the Wenlock before it rose too far over the road?
I decided to wait it out. Trying to ride in this dump in the middle of the night would be suicide. Plus, packing up is a real pain in the ass.
So I hunkered down under the tiny roof and finally feel asleep. When I woke up about six hours later, I crept out of my tent into the halcyon slice of paradise I had known before the sun went down complete with gentle breeze, dry ground and not a cloud in the sky. It was as if I had dreamed the evening’s calamity. Hell, I’d been living off beef jerky and instant coffee for the last week… maybe I did.
In any case I was happy to have my fears of becoming stranded allayed, and even happier to crack into a fresh mango for breakfast on the beach.
The fruits were growing in excess at the Archer River fuel depot where I had camped a couple nights prior, and the cute Scottish chick working the till there had been kind enough to pick a few for me. Way better than the pot of plain rice I would have eaten otherwise.
After breakfast I was staring into the sea pondering space and time when I gathered more evidence for the haunting of Captain Billy’s Landing.
Out of the blue and clear as day, I heard the sound of a boatswain’s whistle cut through the wind.
You know, one of those two-tone pipes they blew on old ships to get the attention of the crew?
Yes I’m sure it wasn’t the wind.
It was definitely the ghost of Captain Billy calling his crew of the damned to rise out of Davy Jones’ locker and download a copy of my Jimmy Buffet playlist… or whatever it is tropical ghosts might do.
In any case I wasn’t trying to stick around and find out so I loaded up the bike and burned rubber back to the development road. Southbound on the last couple days of a big solo ride at this point and eager for some greasy urban food… let’s motor!
Cape York Solo: Part IV of V
The Old Telegraph Line (OTL) is the best-known and arguably most exciting run on Cape York. Stretching about a hundred and thirty kilometers from Bramwell Junction to the Jardine River, it’s a rough-and-tumble ride full of unbelievable drops, tight fastblast sections, and enough water crossings to bog an MRAP.
The truly hardcore attempt it in April or May… at the tail-end of the wet season, when most crossings would sink a Land Cruiser to the windscreen and motorcycles have to be carried half the way.
To those who have done this; respect.
Timing was such that my crack at the OTL was in mid-November, at the tail-end of the dry season when the mud is all but gone and many of the river crossings don’t even get the front brake wet.
I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, this is when it’s easiest.
But it’s still a proper challenge and good fun.
I pulled up to the southern start point of Bramwell Junction late at night, having been distracted by the cutie pumping petrol at Archer River all day.
Next day my tent was set up pretty well next to the fuel bowser and I was ready for action at the first crack of sunlight. No coffee needed, I was amped with anticipation for the track to come.
Tank full of petrol and a gut full of mango I powered up and hit it hard. I came to the first obstacle, Palm Creek, in short order. A near-vertical drop followed by a similarly steep exit, I rode around in circles for a few minutes looking for a bypass… surely this wasn’t the way.
And yet, it was. Less than three kilometers into the ride would be the first of many points I would consider turning around.
With a downshift and a shrug I crept into the creek, then powered on hard for a noisy exit.
Ah, that wasn’t so bad.
After Palm Creek I ran through a fastblast that snaked into a few sandy corners. With my loadout more stable than ever thanks to a new cargo setup, I could step out the back wheel like a champ and not loose my sleeping bag. Bloody brilliant.
Next obstacle was Delhunty River, about six meters wide but hardly ten centimeters deep. Before crossing I caught sight of a few Land Cruisers camped up on the south side, so I strode over to have a chat.
I was bloody glad I did, because after a few minutes of talking they insisted on sharing their breakfast- cooked eggs, bacon, potatoes and coffee.
This was going to be a good day.
The track continues somewhat similarly to Frenchman’s… varied terrain, a few fastblasts, the only difference is river crossings. There are a lot of them.
I tried to get out and take video of each, but after dropping my camera on rocks for the fifth time I started thinking the risk outweighed the reward.
I did film two of the more famous crossings, Gunshot Creek:
And a bit further down the track, Cockatoo Creek:
The difference in these obstacles between May and November is absolutely unbelievable. Here I was walking through Cockatoo Creek without getting my shins wet, when six months ago we were belt-deep in fast flowing water at the same exact crossing.
I was told that crocodile metabolism increases in the summer heat, making them hungriest at this time of year. Being too lazy to look it up, I had to defer to my instincts on whether or not I was being marked for a meal. Fortunately/unfortunately I don’t have any drama to report on this; spent a total of almost three months on Cape York now and I still haven’t seen a bloody croc’. Apparently this is a good thing… but as far as I’m concerned I’ve still got a box to tick.
Anyway, after Cockatoo there’s a brief transport section of Development Road you’ve got to take to get to the next intersection of the OTL. Take the right toward Elliot Falls (which is a great place to camp) and then keep left when you get to the camping area.
This is where the track gets seriously hairy.
Deep, deep sand and craggy water crossings wrought with holes, rocks, sand pits and all kinds of nonsense to get hung up on.
I walked every crossing to suss out the danger factor, and as a result was soaked to the bone for the majority of the day. A minor inconvenience, but largely alleviated by the fact that it was around forty degrees Celsius pretty much the whole time I was north of Archer River.
When I was nearly at the end I ran into a couple dudes on DR-Z’s who were southbound. They warned of an exceptionally deep and complicated crossing a few kilometers north, and apprised me of a “bailout track” just before it. Advice that would soon become invaluable.
At first I dismissed the idea of a bypass, and charged ahead toward the Jardine River and northern end of the OTL as planned. The very next crossing was insane; steep, windy and very sandy descent into a deep and extremely boggy creek. I crept down and examined the water hole. The water was right around the front fender’s level… just about as deep as you can go in a DR-Z with anything resembling safety.
With the bike shut down and my gear left on the north side of the water, I made ready to push my rig through the water rather than ride it. This would be safer in terms of keeping water out of the engine (a de-activated engine doesn’t suck anything in) but a lot harder in terms of relying on my physical strength for propulsion.
I got as much of a “running” start as I could wrangle and shoved the bike into the creek. The bottom was like quicksand, forcing me to pull up on the handlebars as I pushed forward.
But with a hearty grunt a desperate push I got the machine through the water and safely on the north side- which was mercifully rock hard.
From this point every meter of the track was extremely difficult. All the obstacles I had been dealing with the whole way up, plus massive ruts that directed my front tire at their will.
Finally I reached the massive crossing my southbound buddies had been on about… and it was nothing short of epic.
Crystal clear water striking a ten meter fissure in the sandy-soft trail that was so deep even the biggest croc-o-dillions could raise a family in there. Gentle wind gave the palm trees a soft but steady bob like they were listening to Why Am I A Rastaman. Water burbled over a few big rocks and the sound reminded me of a faucet in the bathroom of a really nice restaurant. Which made me wish, just for a second, that I was at a really nice restaurant. The rice and water I had been living off the last ten days was making mealtimes… not exactly something I looked forward to.
But I snapped back into adventure mode quickly. There would be plenty of time for fine dining when I got to Los Angeles, this scene was too perfect not to enjoy.
Well, it would have been perfect, if it wasn’t making my route impassible.
I walked in and around it for half an hour trying to see a way through. It was unbelievably deep everywhere, but unlike the last crossing the bottom was just too soft to push through. In an attempt to overcome this, I started laying a path with huge rocks. But as soon as I dropped them in the water, they sunk so deep into the sand that I couldn’t remember where I had dropped ‘em.
If the bottom wouldn’t hold a five pound rock, what would happen to my two hundred pound motorcycle?
With no other option making itself apparent, I had no choice but to turn around and use the exit track the other guys had ridden in on. So I retraced my last couple K’s, including the deep crossing I had negotiated earlier, found the fork in the track and headed for the Development Road. Once there I cut south with most of the OTL completed successfully. Not a perfect run, but one hell of a good time. Anyway… I’ve got to have a reason to come back, don’t I?
Cape York Solo: Part III of V
Not to be confused with the French Line of the Simpson Desert (those frogs must have been all over this island) Frenchman’s Track runs through the Mangkuma Land Trust, from just north of Archer River Roadhouse to just south of Bramwell Junction.
It’s an awesome run; easy to access from the development road, long enough to engage you for a whole day and short enough to do with a small fuel tank.
But the real pig’s ear of this track is the variability of the terrain. Over just about 120 kilometers you get deep water, deep sand, fast-blast sections, crazy steep climbs and loose rocks. No combing your mustache on this one; surrender attention and you’ll be in the trees in short order.
I made a map but since my handwriting’s atrocious and cartography skills even worse, I figured you’d be better off with a not-to-scale “textual interpretation.” These are my notes of terrain as I found it, so if you’re giving Frenchman’s a crack you can use this as a guide for what to expect.
FRENCHMAN'S TRACK, CAPE YORK
Northern Intersection: S/P "BATAVIA DOWNS"
Easy, Fast Track
Pascoe River/Very Deep*
I Southern Intersection: S/P "QUARANTINE"
*I should articulate just what I mean by “Very Deep” in reference to the Pascoe River. When I did this run, it was the very end of the dry season… when every river in Cape York is at its lowest. Even the mighty Wenlock is but a trickle you could cross in a PowerWheels car.
The Pascoe, however, rescinds its fury for no man. With a fearsomely steep approach and departure angle, a surface littered with massive rocks, and fast-flowing water up to my waistline, I can’t recommend attempting this crossing solo.
I approached from the south. Feathering the brakes in first gear, I crept down the slippery track to the rivers edge. My execution was masterful, right up to the point when I locked up the rear wheel, stalled and landed smack-down in a pile of mud and kangaroo shit.
No worries, because I could already tell I was going to get wet walking this river.
After picking the bike up I ditched my gear and strode into the water. By the time I had slipped and fallen in twice I had no choice but to admit- there was no F’ing way I was going to make it through this. So I sat on a big rock and dried off, which took about five seconds in the blistering FNQ sun.
Looking up at the steep drop-in I had barely made it down to get here I could tell the coming-about process would be almost as hard as continuing north. But with a little Austin Powers/100-point-turn and a whole lot of throttle I was on track long enough to loose traction at the steepest point, spin out, and come off with the bike pointed sideways.
I decided to head back to Archer River- where I had fueled up at the beginning of the day. There I was able to stock up on mangoes and more fully appreciate the hospitality of the backpackers working there. By the next day I was northbound again and tearing up the dirt with a re-activated vigor.
I cut to the Old Telegraph Line (OTL) after Archer, but I did end up completing the rest of Frenchman’s Track a few days later on my southbound trip. And I’m glad I did, because the section north of the Pascoe is not to be missed. I’ve never seen greater variability on a track in my life. The challenge is significant to keep a six-foot smile on your face, but you’re never more than a hundred kilometers from a cattle station and you don’t have to panic every time you slosh your fuel tank.
Even managed to get some video of the Portland Roads region… some high-drama as the bush burns…
…and my pathetic attempt at climbing out of the Pascoe River bed on my DR-Z for your entertainment.
Cape York Solo: Part II of V
The Starcke Track is one of the least-known routes on Cape York, and easily one of the hardest. OAT only takes groups this way when everyone on tour is an expert rider and we’re ahead of schedule.
With over three-hundred kilometers between fuel stops, endless ruts and bulldust that will toss you into the ground like a lineman it’s hard bloody work.
Naturally I had to give it a go, so I left early in the morning from Isabella Falls with a full fuel tank plus a ten-liter jerrycan I had hanging off my rear fender with a belt. I’d be trying it northbound, with hopes to arrive at Lakefield National Park by day’s end.
The first fifty kilometers of the track are easy money- pretty well just gravel roads. The first signs of deterioration come after the first “Y” fork, faintly marked by a discarded PFD with the word “STARCKE” inscribed on it with Sharpie. If you pass a long-dead Nissan Patrol sitting on its roof, you’re going the right way.
Big, rolling rocks start, and shortly after- the sand. Deep grain with pockets of really deep that require a full-commitment fistfull of throttle to make it thorough.
The sand lets up briefly, and the track passes through an abandoned outpost of some kind. A few Land Cruiser components still lying around and remnants of a sat-com setup suggest the place was vacated in a hurry… with a weakly-spinning windmill completing the eeriness.
There’s a short fast blast section out of the ruins, but the high speed action ends there. Pockets of bulldust like I’ve never seen are laying in wait between rough sand patches and tiny trees.
For those that haven’t experienced it- “bulldust” is an extremely soft and fine sand that can grab a tire with a sudden ferocity that’s almost impossible to prepare for… knocking you on your ass like, well, a bull.
It occurs in pockets on sandy trails and gravel roads alike. These pockets are very hard to see, and impossible to know the depth of.
If you don’t see bulldust in time, you’ll be wearing it.
After almost an hour of riding and at ten spills, I was starting to get fatigued and was seriously considering turning around. Finally I got railroaded into a half-meter deep rut and brought to an abrupt stop. The crash was minor… but the extraction process took no less than twenty minutes and I was relieved to calculate I hadn’t yet hit the Point of No Return.
Between all the gear I was carrying and lack of any communicative equipment, I talked myself into turning around and having a go at some of the other tracks further north. So I ripped a half-donut and fought back to the gravel road, turning northbound on Battle Camp Road- a much harder-packed (easier) route.
Like the Nissan and other wrecks I had passed, I had been defeated by the Starcke Track.
But my Cape York ride wasn’t over… and there were still plenty of opportunities to get myself stranded, lost or killed over the next week.
Next night’s camp even had entertainment- bulls, pigs, wallabies, there were creatures all over the place. I finally saw a pair of kangaroos boxing, but they weren’t keen on hosting spectators.
Cape York Solo: Part I of V
With the tour season over I had just one more goal to accomplish before I left Australia for the season: Cape York, solo.
And not just the development road.
Nah, I had done that in the support truck eight times already.
I needed to hit the Old Telegraph Line, Frenchman’s Track, and the little-known but exceptionally hazardous Starcke Track… runs I had been hearing about all year but never had the chance to attack. Finally, Magnus gave me the green-light to commandeer a motorcycle and the cogs were set in motion for a solo, unsupported assault on Cape York.
With the rain season looming ominously ahead, I would have to hustle. Because once the rain starts up there, it doesn’t stop until April. And it’s not just an inconvenient English drizzle; it’s relentlessly torrential and shuts down the road in mere hours.
So the morning after our end-of-season celebration dinner there I was, fitting a brand new billet cargo rack and Giant Loop tool bag to a DR-Z with the worst hangover I’d had since March 18th.
I was dragging my feet around the workshop all morning, but my spirits really sank when I saw the rack installation required drilling.
I looked at the yellow DeWalt on its charger with dread, knowing full well the vociferous screech it would inevitably generate as it tore a hole in the bike’s frame.
But, I manned up and we got it done.
Now it was time to get some K’s on the clock. First objective was to head inland so as to avoid making the entire six hundred kilometer cruise to Cairns on-road, and hopefully recover the swag that had fallen off the roof of the Isuzu two days prior. I rocked up to the Bowen River Hotel and was greeted by the usual crowd of mid-morning drunks I had become all-too-familiar with since making a habit of stopping at pubs for water. Luckily this lot was friendly, and they gave me advice on good places to camp along my northbound route.
As the sun went down the ‘roos came out in force and I cut my speed in half. I’m through messing around with those damn things.
Just around six o’clock I arrived at the Burkedin Dam- a magnificently imposing structure that looks straight out of GoldenEye. This is where I was hoping to camp as per the advice of the happy drinkers at Bowen River. But when I shined my light around, I couldn’t help but glint a large ‘NO CAMPING’ sign next to the shelter I was scouting for my tent.
But I looked at it again. And with a second interpretation it seemed like it actually said ‘nocam… ping’. Like, you know, somebody’s name. Yeah… a Canadian-Chinaman I’d say. This spot must be named after him.
Set up at old Mr. Ping’s place I got a fire going and boiled some pasta while I scribbled pictures of Mercedes W128s in my notebook. The view over the Stalingrad-esque dam wasn’t exactly romantic, but I was happy to be sleeping in the bush once again.
The next day’s ride brought me to the town of Ravenswood. Tucked deep in Queensland mining country, rolling through Ravenswood is like traveling fifty years back in time.
Granted, just using the internet in Australia is like traveling five years back in time so I guess it’s more like… forty-five…
are you following this logic?
Anyway I needed fuel, but with one look at the antique bowser I was sure I would break it if I touched it.
So I just starred at it until the woman working the till came out to render assistance.
Ravenswood was an experience, but the next “town” was even wackier- a place just a hundred or so clicks to the north called Mingela.
There were a few trailers scattered around, but the commercial buildings indicated the place had been abandoned quite some time ago. The fuel station had been partially dismantled, the store was boarded up and the pub was… run by a peacock?
He was a bit camera shy but look closely on the deck. See him?
He was the only resident I could find, and his customer service was shit. The beer I got was full of bird poop and smelled like a barnyard. Needless to say the Mingela Hotel will not be getting a favorable UrbanSpoon review.
I got back on the Bruce Highway briefly to make up some time. Then after a quick sausage roll break and lost key incident in Townsville I was ready to go off piste again.
I saw a sign for the Paluma National Forest and reckoned it was worth a look. I was rewarded with an amazing road up into the hills, wrought with hairpin corners and steep climbs for almost fifteen kilometers. Awesome.
Once the road straightened out it turned to gravel and lead me through some absolutely beautiful country. But when I reached a junction, I became a little confused. There was no such split on my map, and both roads seemed equally well used.
I went to the GPS… which said “right.”
Ok, here we go.
Two hours later I would remember I had left “off-road” mode activated, where it simply gives you a b-line to your destination, but the track I was on was crazy fun. A lot more technical than the previous road (because it wasn’t a road) and smack in the middle of nowhere.
I kept on for over an hour following cow paths before I started to get suspicious. I should have intersected with Mount Fox Road by now… and I was still in the middle of the woods.
I’m not talking a kilometer or two from the highway. I took a look around through the trees from a high point- trees stretched endlessly in all directions. Meanwhile the track I was on had pretty well deteriorated into just one set of bovine hoofprints. But I had been going north pretty much the whole time, I had to be pretty close to the road.
So I pressed on. Right over a giant log, right past a giant “Danger” sign, and right up the kiester of a big-ass bull.
I killed the engine and we stared at each other in silence. The track was only just wide enough for one of us; a vertical drop to the left and impenetrable jungle to the right. If I wanted to pass him I’d have to brush shoulders with the big bastard.
Hoping off the bike I approached the creature slowly. He had a mean expression on his face and a set of hangers the size of my long-range fuel tank.
A bull was the only thing I had ever seen my boss Magnus run from… if the jungle heat wasn’t enough to make me sweat, this beast starring me down was making me drown in my jacket.
I took one step closer and he jumped, with a big snort and a quick stamp.
Hhhoookay I’m outta here!
Backpedaling quickly I hustled to the bike, powered up and left him in a loud of grass clippings and exhaust. Well, looks like I’ll give the other way a go.
The other route, which I got back to rather quickly, had its own set of dangers. The woods all around the track were ablaze with bush fires, and my cam chain was starting to shake like a belly dancer.
Cruising down the other side of the range I had come up earlier that day, I could really listen to the engine, and it was not happy.
The rattle was reminiscent of the last bike we had to re-assemble deep in the Northern Territory two months earlier… a task I had neither the skills nor tools to accomplish alone.
By the time I made it back to the main road it sounded something fierce. I made camp and made a decision- I’d stop at the Suzuki dealer in the nearby town of Ingham and ask their opinion, then proceed or abort as advised.
The next day the boys at the shop confirmed my suspicions.
“Sounds like a cam chain mate. Or maybe big-end bearing.”
With a sigh, I turned around and limped south. Over three hundred kilometers of backtracking at 70 KPH. It was miserable in every sense of the word.
Pulling into the OAT base camp, I met a most surprised Magnus indeed.
“What are you doing here?”
I explained the situation… and he had a listen to the motor.
“Ah. Noisy, but it woulda made it.”
“Well what are you waiting for? Grab another bike and fuck off! You’re loosing daylight man.”
I could hardly believe my luck… just minutes ago I had rolled in with my tail between my legs, thinking I had forgone the adventure of the season… now I was back in business.
I swapped the cargo racks over to another DR-Z with some fuel in it, had a quick dinner, quick sleep, and kicked off again before the sparrow’s first fart the following day.
This time I made quick work of the journey to Cairns. No more mucking about on the side roads, I wanted two nights in my favorite sleaze bucket city and then a full-scale assault on Cape York.
After warming up on Black Mountain Road (see earlier post) I was officially in Far North Queensland and ready for the real challenges to start.
Our second trip across Australia (eastbound) was unusually slick, easy, and relatively disaster free.
No, I’m serious!
We had a group of six riders from all over the world that all knew how to handle a bike, got on well and loved every minute of the trip.
I cooked up my famous chili twice, and had a few more cracks at damper in the camp oven. Magnus’ signature curry went down brilliantly as well… something I reckon I’ll miss between seasons.
The only major disappointment- and it was a big one- was the fact that one of our DR-Z’s dropped a big end bearing on the first day. That’s one thing we just can’t fix in the bush… so I had to give up the guide bike I was riding and once again was relegated to the passenger seat of the support truck for the entire six thousand kilometer punt across the world’s biggest island.
But…. at least I wasn’t in searing pain this time.
It was Magnus’ turn for that. The poor bastard was still nursing a sore abdomen and hip from his crash at Safari, having broken multiple ribs just ten days before driving over the Simpson desert.
True to his living legend status he toughed it out and muscled the truck, broke chains, and changed tires like an absolute animal without complaining. Too much.
The desert had a much different look to it this time around. More time had passed since the unusually wet rain season, and bush fires had ripped through a lot of the spindly camel grass that had covered nearly all of the Simpson when I rode it in August.
“Now that’s what I expected this place to look like.”
On the second to last day we came to the spot where I hit the kangaroo that put me in the Barcaldine hospital months earlier. Sure enough the carcass was still there, although it had almost completely returned to the Earth. I took a photo with him but resisted the temptation to grab a bike and do a burnout on his body… wouldn’t want the tire to stink for the rest of the ride.
When we arrived at Airlie Beach two days later, we hit the Mexican restaurant for one last team dinner and a celebration- it was the first year in OAT history for a Perfect 100% Season. Every client who started a trip, finished. The only people who bought nights in the hospital all year were Magnus and myself.
You know you’re in an exciting industry when every member of your staff gets hospitalized on the job.
That night we partied hard… apparently, because I have no clue how I got back into my hotel downtown when I woke up there the next day.
It was hard to believe the season was over. With literally tens of thousands of kilometers in trucks, bikes, and ambulances behind me since April, cruising around this giant country seems like just another day in the office.
Which, I guess, it is.
Now I’m off for one more assault on Cape York- hoping to have a go at the Starcke Track, Frenchman’s Track and the Old Telegraph Line…. Solo. Before the rain season starts and the entire region becomes inaccessible.
There are three moments of heartbreak inevitably experienced throughout the lifetime of an adventurer. When he runs out of whiskey, when he gets his hospital bill, and when he has to retire his Action Shorts.
After a month on Cape York, a month an a half in the desert, and years of action before that, the time had finally come to lay my khaki shorts to rest.
When Magnus pulled me aside and said “Mate, I’ve got to have a word with you about your appearance” I figured he was going to hassle me about my hair; steadily crossing the line from socially-acceptable shaggy to “lost at sea” unkempt.
But no, it was my beloved well-used khakis that he described as “knackered” in typical Australian understatement. When I cited my impoverishment as the reason I had resisted buying a new pair, he promised to get me some the next time we were in town.
But they died a warrior’s death. I signed them and nailed them to a tree on the most-badass-indeed “Abandoned Section” of the infamous Gunbarrel Highway… where they will forever demarcate our favorite camp spot out there. Magnus even saved the spot on the truck’s sat nav…. “Camp Shorts” will forever be a waypoint on Team OAT’s pan-Oz route. I wonder if they’ll be there next year…
In any case, the next pair of khaki shorts will have a lot to live up to.
With Safari done and dusted, bossman Magnus and spanner-swinger extraordinaire Rodger hooked the bike trailer up to the Isuzu and prepared to make the commute back to Perth. The following day Rodger would catch a flight home and Magnus would spend some time with his mum.
I opted to stay in Kalgoorlie with one of the Suzukis. Magnus, ever being an enabler of adventure, had suggested I take the week off to hit the John Holland Track (JHT)- a fairly serious run between nearby Coolgardie and a town called Jerramungup. After a week of being around racing I was dead keen to get behind the handlebars, so I was all over it. Plus our friend and repeat-customer Carl lived near the southern end of the run and was willing to show me around, so I’d have a guide in the famous Fitzgerald River region of southern W.A.
Problems started later than usual on this one. About thirty seconds after the Isuzu disappeared down the highway I turned the key and hit the button on the DR-Z… but try as it might to turn over, the fucking thing would not start.
I looked around and tried to work it out. The bike had run like a dream half an hour ago. Hell, the thing had just completed a six-thousand kilometer endurance event. I thought about calling Magnus, but I knew as soon as I did I’d see the problem and look like an idiot. But if I waited too long, and it was something serious, it’d be a huge inconvenience for him to drive all the way back.
Bugger it. I’ll call him, and then I’ll see the problem. Look like an idiot but at least the bike will start.
He didn’t pick up. And thank god, because by the fourth ring I could see I had left the fuel cutoff in the “OFF” position.
The “problem” was rectified and I was on my way. After stocking up on food I headed down the highway for Coolgardie. It was less than two hundred clicks away, but it would be the most miserable stretch of the entire trip.
The rain started as soon as I left town and didn’t stop until I pulled into a fuel station a couple hours later.
Desperate for warmth and shelter I ducked in to the servo as soon as I saw it. I ordered a pizza and put my clothes on the pie warmer to dry them out. The old guy working the till said something like “nice day for a ride,” …typical.
The pizza was actually not bad, for gas station food. Better yet, by the time I was done with it the rain had stopped and I was ready to hit the track.
The north end of the JHT is well marked with Land Cruiser Club stickers and warnings; “Don’t set the forest on fire, don’t poop in the middle of the track,” all the standard stuff. Not planning to do either I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. This track isn’t exceptionally difficult, but it is long and there’s no fuel, water or medical service available at any point along the way.
No worries, I had a satellite phone I didn’t know how to use and a SPOT tracker… I didn’t have batteries for. Huh.
The track took me two days with a few crashes (one blackout) and minor damage to luggage… my sleeping bag became detached over a big bump and rammed itself between my rear wheel and chain. It was left a bit grimy but, miraculously, intact.
The track itself is quite flat. Mostly loose sand with lots of blind corners, a few rocky sections, and even fewer ruts. The sand’s not deep but requires a lot of standing and steering with your feet. It’s hard to get lost- there’s only one road. In the places there are forks, there’s a little “HT” sign with an arrow to guide you. But I do mean little… I came off a few times trying to find it at speed. Make the wise choice and bring your machine to a stop before you try and figure out the way.
‘Roos, weird birds and bobtail rock lizards are over the place… I think I made this one mad when I tried to powerslide around his favorite rock pile.
The JHT dumps you out (at the south end) near a town called Hyden where you can refuel and get kickass pastries.
My course had me heading further south to meet up with Carl later that night… or so I thought. I checked the oil on the DR-Z as the rain had brought a couple substantial water crossings to the track. Did I mention the torrential rain and lightning I slept through the previous night? Ah, you probably know how my luck goes by now.
Anyway the oil looked like a snotty milkshake- telltale sign of water contamination. I was not happy.
I couldn’t ride the machine any further without risking serious internal damage… and I had enough oil for one change. So I flushed the engine and tested it again… but there were still enough bubbles to cause me concern.
Now I could ride back to Hyden to buy more oil, but the shops would be closed by the time I got there. Meanwhile I was too far from phone signal to apprise Carl I’d be a day late… and him knowing my reputation, he’d probably send out a search party by the next morning.
I decided to camp out the night and do another oil change as early as possible the next day.
When I woke up I skipped breakfast and headed straight to the nearest place I thought might sell 4T engine oil… an agricultural supply depot in a place called Newdgate. A South African named Ashton was running the place, who most generously lent me the use of his workshop to perform a proper oil change. He looked for a new filter I might use, but he didn’t have anything for engines under eight liters.
The DR-Z looked pretty diminutive in the workspace usually occupied by Cat D90’s and twelve-wheeled John Deere’s, but I was grateful for the roof.
I tried getting in touch with Carl, his girlfriend Mel, or Magnus as soon as I got to a payphone… only Mags picked up, who had been pretty concerned I had met an ugly fate with a kangaroo the previous night.
Carl, who had indeed been out searching for me, rendezvoused with me in Newdgate and I followed him to his place. He gave me some great food and a place to stay the night, plus tips on where to ride further south the following day.
“There’s a lotta great tracks in the Fitzgerald River park, but if you don’t know you’re way it’s easy to get lost.”
Fitzgerald is an amazing place. Wide dirt roads, tight sand tracks, amazing beaches and salt flats make it a great place to enjoy the southern coast of Western Australia.
But those last five words of Carl’s were ringing true at about five o’clock the next day, by which time I had killed another kangaroo with my front tire, climbed the highest peak in the park (all three hundred meters) and gotten myself completely, utterly, and hopelessly lost.
The tracks in and around the southern end of the park are sandy, windy, and great bloody fun, but they sneak into the forest every-which-way and after tearing through ten intersections at eighty kilometers per hour you start to get… disoriented.
I had a huge crash on a deep-sand fast blast section and stopped to re-evaluate my situation.
I was coming out of another blackout low on fuel, low on water, tired, and very much alone. Summoning otherworldly strength to get the bike back on its wheels without puking I calculated my rough position based on the map, the sun’s position, and the wind turbine I could see a few kilometers away at the town of Bremer Bay.
Unfortunately, the “straight” route to the turbine and town was impassible, so I had to get creative and skirt the bike-swallowing sand through the trees.
I finally made it to town twenty minutes before the servo was closing. Refueled, and headed back to the main road. The next day I would make Bridgetown, where Magnus and the truck were waiting to reprovision for our next trip across Australia.
Spotted outside The Pier bar in Carins, QLD this late-eighties masterpiece might well be one of the cleanest E30 M3′s I’ve ever seen anywhere.
Completely original (save the RHD conversion) and straight as an arrow, this thing has been very well cared for. And rightfully so. Rare BMW’s like this one are among the few collector cars that actually appreciate in value as they get older.
The E30 M3 has been hailed as one of the greatest cars of all time by pretty well every driving legend, automotive publication and TV show since it was born in 1986. With only about 17,000 built worldwide (and a decent amount of those wrecked by now) seeing a real one is a treat in any country.
But the car was never officially shipped to Australia… automotive collection experts estimate not more than twenty two E30 M3s live here in the Land Down Under. Needless to say, I didn’t care how dorky I looked taking pictures of it in the parking lot.
Throw out the Kelly Blue Book on this one, price on a car this clean would be well over market value because it’s just that iconic- any real automotive collector has to have one, period. And in a country they were never “meant” to live, forget about it.
Best of luck to the owner of this exceptional example of BMW Motorsport history. Enjoy it mate, ya lucky bastard!
A lot of time’s gone by since the Australasian Safari… and a lot has happened since we said goodbye to our fellow racers and friends at the finish line in Kalgoorlie.
But you never trusted this site to be timely, anyway did you?
I could give you a stat sheet on who was there, who was riding what and who won, but if you wanted that information you would have found it somewhere else a long time ago.
So here’s a quick reflection on what transpired in the Team OAT camp.
We picked up our service crew at Perth International on September 20th. Okay, so it was one guy. Fresh off the jet from Albuquerque, New Mexico, our friend Rodger is a beer-swilling, spanner-swinging badass that we were confident could carry the team in the service department.
Magnus ran in to the terminal to find him while I was left in the truck to argue with the TSA officers about whether or not the massive Isuzu would fit in short-term parking.
Later that day we met the three other riders we would be supporting for the week, heavy-set Aussie blokes from Melbourne with enough body armor in their luggage to start a war with Sparta.
Our team assembled, we piled in the Isuzu and motored to the bike/car show and ceremonial start- followed by the KTM Kickoff Party at the Breakwater Club.
Most in attendance were rocking sport coats and heeled shoes… we rolled up covered in grease, but were allowed in with a quick flash of the team logos on our jackets.
While most other teams had spent the day polishing their helmets and signing autographs we had been flat-out for the last three days putting bikes together… and Magnus’ race bike didn’t even have tires on it yet. Rally racing legends Cyril Despres and Ben Grabham were there, among others, and Despres’ race bike was toted out for the admiration of onlookers. When Magnus saw the $130,000 work of art, he got inspired demanded his race bike look at least as cool by the end of the next day… so it was an early night for Rodger and I, leaving before last call for once in the hopes of starting another big day with just a mild hangover.
The actual start of the race was over a hundred kilometers north of where the party had taken place, so the day before the prologue (pre-race race that determines everybody’s starting position) we packed up and boogied to the town of Geraldton with motorcycles in tow. It was the first time I had seen the cab of the Isuzu full… and I hope the last. There may be enough seat belts for six men, but no cab is ventilated enough to support those oxygen consumption/fart expulsion ratios.
Once racing action got underway, Safari truly evolves from just an “event” to an experience. Helicopters sawing the air overhead, power tools wailing all through the night, radios going ballistic and engines roaring like dragons create a sensory-overland that rivals Japanese game shows combined with that first scene in “Saving Private Ryan”.
It’s enough to make any motorhead think he may very well have died and gone to heaven… I’d take a rally-spec Husaberg 570 over seventy two virgins any day.
But desert racing isn’t all money for nothing and chicks for free. This shit’s dangerous… which we learned all too well on Day 2 of the seven day event. While waiting at a checkpoint for our racer to show up, Roger and I heard some chatter on the radio that was most disconcerting indeed.
Bike 22, our rider in the field, had washed out and couldn’t finish the stage. And more, he was being evacuated by helicopter and rushed to Meekathara Hospital- five hundred kilometers away.
I had seen Magnus ride over, around, and through obstacles I couldn’t even look at without falling off. To hear about him coming off was disconcerting to say the least, but nothing could prepare us from what we saw at the hospital. After the six-hour punt across the desert, Rodger and I rocked up on the outpost medical center and rang the doorbell. The nurse knew who we wanted to see as soon as she spotted our truck, and we followed her to the bed our racer was lying on, looking worse than Gary Busey in a mug shot. We could barely hear his voice over the heart monitor, but he was conscious enough to greet us with his typical candor; “You’re a long way from tonight’s rally point.”
Mags told us to carry on supporting the rest of the riders, and to expect him at the event’s closing ceremony and afterparty in just under a week. Orders taken, we headed for the door and prepared for the massive drive ahead. As I hit the threshold Magnus summoned the strength for one more comment;
“Andrew. Be careful. With my truck.”
On the way out I chatted up the nurses a bit. They weren’t sold on the idea of motorcycle racing as a good way to spend your days and dollars…
“So you just, ride around the desert all day?”
“No, I mean, you have to follow a certain route, and go as fast as you can while navigating unknown territory.”
“And then fall off and get sent here?”
“Uh, well, ideally no…”
I could tell the conversation was drying up, and we had a long way to go to the next waypoint; a town called Sandstone.
The ride back was hell. The desert was pitch dark, the road was bumpy, and kangaroos were bouncing off the bumper like popcorn kernels in the microwave. We finally rolled into the bivouac around 9:00PM and recovered the race bike… which we saw Magnus had stubbornly tried to tape back together before calling in an evac. It was a valiant effort… but where there’s a will there ain’t always a way.
The day after the crash brought its own set of disasters. Rodger and I were now in charge of Team OAT, as acting face, hands and brains of the entire operation. We would have to clean up our act and start acting like real professionals and uphold the sterling standard Magnus would set if he were around… by using the Bear Grylls signature knife as much as possible, answering questions with riddles, and being the first team to open beers every day.
But first, we’d have to get out of the parking lot.
Rodger and I had been disagreeing on the necessity of locking the truck when leaving it… which lead to the incident of the doors being secured while the keys were in the ignition.
“No problem, there’s an extra set in the yellow Pelican case.”
“You mean that one on the back seat?”
We had to innovate. We considered picking the lock, removing the windshield, and using the angle-grinder to add a permanent sunroof… but none of those options really seemed viable.
Finally I spotted a crew with the same model of Isuzu. I approached and asked them if they had any insight. Naturally, they began by responding with sarcasm; “Got a brick?” but came over to help when they realized how distraught I was.
The driver of the other NPS showed me a battery access point in the rear of the cab’s underbelly. Too small to crawl through, but maybe big enough to get an arm…
I pushed through the panel and flailed my hand around while Rodger watched from the other side and guided me.
“Not even close.”
We didn’t have it yet… but we were on to something. I grabbed the longest screwdriver we had and made another attempt and knocking the lock mechanism, but the angle still wasn’t quite right.
After three more stages of evolution, genius struck. We could roll down the window much more easily than undo the lock, and so we set to contriving a new tool. We added a few inches to our extra-long screwdriver by taping a handlebar riser on he end, then proceeded to secure a large hose clamp to the end of that.
I wiggled the ridiculous contraption through the panel and moved it toward the window with Rodger’s audible guidance.
The window came down about four inches after forty minutes of laboring, with enough room for me to weasel my scrawny arm in and undo the lock on the left rear door.
Rodger and I cheered, slapped hands and bumped guts in a display worthy of a Superbowl touchtown.
Of course by this point everyone had cleared out… our truck was left alone in the middle of the desert. But it mattered little- we were victorious and would make it to the next bivouac with beers open before the first teams had the carburetors stripped.
If we step on it.
We rolled into the Leonora bivouac and night’s camp early, striding straight through the parking field and into a central location where we flung open the doors and proceeded to unload our cargo. Sun was hot, Jimmy Buffet was pouring out of the stereo and life was good. But it wasn’t long before the Fun Police arrived to curtail our moment of glory;
“Hey guys, did you get a map of tonight’s parking area?”
“Didja look at it?”
I could see where this was going… so I answered honestly.
We had parked in the caterer’s spot- a decision that would be most unpopular indeed when hungry racers showed up in a few hours.
So we piled everything on the trailer and dragged it ten meters forward to satisfy the race official… who threw his hands up in disbelief as another race team proceeded to occupy the space we had just left. I could hear the official repeating his comment as we re-installed our tents and tables.
Later that night we had a run in with the other Fun Police… this time, the guys with blue hats and guns.
Determined to uphold Team OAT’s “reputation”, Rodger and I convinced the mechanics from Team Husqvarna to come to the bar with us for a pint.
But once we got there, we learned we had shown up on a night when the barmaids were working the taps in lingerie. Apparently this is a Western Australia tradition, but in any case I had a hard time convincing the rest of the boys I not been apprised of it beforehand.
Photos were, let’s say “discouraged”, which is a damn shame- because the scene was something to behold.
Imagine a bar full of hard-faced and tattooed miners, being served by women in bikinis who were, let’s say “overweight”, and us standing in the middle wearing race gear and expressions of sheer astonishment. My bright white BMW jacket was pretty tough to miss between coal-stained work jerseys, and I estimated we had six-point-five seconds before I got my ass kicked. But we were determined to stick it out for a round, and whaddaya know, all was forgiven after a couple rounds of Jim Beam.
I folded my arms to avoid brushing the sleeves of my favorite jacket against the walls as my friends tried their hands at hitting on the strippers. Everyone was describing their jobs on the team until the barmaid, Kelisha or Kaylie or whatever, looked my way; “So what’s that make you, the pretty boy who does fuck all?”
At least she said I was pretty… I guess. Damn, are Australian chicks mean. A flood of retorts came to mind at various levels of offensiveness but not wanting spit in my next beverage I decided to take the high road;
“Hardly! I drive the truck.”
“Oh, I thought you were the guy who just stands around and looks good and doesn’t do anything.”
The boys were having a proper laugh at this point, and I had no clue if this chick was trying to flirt with me or make me cry. Rodger came to my rescue; “No, he figured out how to break in to the truck the other day!”
The conversation deteriorated from there as we convinced each other to buy more rounds. Finally a cowbell interrupted our babble and one of the barmaids yelled over the noise; “THAT’S IT BOYS, EVERYBODY GO HOME!”
I stumbled out into the street… I mean the one street in town… and into the arms of the local constable.
“Oy! Good-day, man. Any idea where the camp is?” I burbled in Australian/American hybrid vernacular.
One of the Husky guys helped me articulate; “Yeah, yeah we’re with the race cars! Is there a short cut back to the camp?”
The cops laughed and shook their heads.
“Yeah, mate we know yer with the race cars.”
The first officer looked at the second, and motioned to their vehicle- a Police spec Hilux with a big plastic holding cell on the back instead of a cargo tray.
We were all pretty rapt at the idea of getting a free ride home, especially if it was in the back of a paddy wagon.
We piled in the back and laughed like idiots as we got tossed from one side to another when the cop driving jerked the wheel. The cops parked in the middle of the bivouac and we spilled out of their vehicle. We thanked them for the ride and they left with a laugh and something like “good luck tomorrow.”
The boys from Team GHR Honda, hard at work on their CRF 450’s, glanced up and laughed like hyenas when they saw us stumble into our swags from the care of Mr. Plod.
Reputation: intact. If anything, I’d say improved.
A few days later we arrived in Kalgoorlie for the end of the race and the afterparty. Nearly everyone we knew who was competing had dropped out or sustained serious injury, and Magnus had since been transferred from Meekathara to the major hospital in Perth. But so determined was he to show up for the event’s closing ceremony that he hopped a bus from Perth Royal to the train station, and rode the rails for eight hours to meet up with us in Kal.
I parked the Isuzu, extra carefully, at the train station and Rodger and I headed to the platform to await our fearless leader. When his train showed up, they kicked him off about a hundred meters away from us.
For twenty minutes we watched him hobble toward us with broken ribs and a hematoma in his hip the size of a football. But he did look better than the last time we had seen him; prone and hooked up to a heart monitor.
We exchanged salutations and he snatched the keys as we headed for the truck.
“You sure you want to drive, man?” I said hopelessly, knowing full well my truck-commanding privileges had expired with the arrival of the boss.
“Yep. Gotta toughen up some time.”
He winced as he pulled himself into the driver’s seat, but was clearly pleased to be back in his “office”.
We updated him on what had transpired in his absence, and he was especially glad we hadn’t resorted to violence against the truck in our efforts to liberate the key.
Everyone at the bivouac was glad to see Magnus back in action, and congratulations were issued to the finishers over Coronas at the Kalgoorlie country club.
The Australasian Safari was a mind-blowing event that hooked me into racing that much more… if that was possible. I’m dead keen to give it go on two wheels next year, we’ll see if I can work it in to my compensation package next year.
Through some old fashioned research I found the Recreational Trailbike Riders’ Association of WAwebsite, which conveniently publishes locations and reviews of off road vehicle areas in Western Australia. The site has a decent list, but only one spot was less than an hour from Fremantle: Medina ORVA. It was described as “small;” only 20Ha in area. But since I couldn’t be bothered to look up, what an “Ha” was, I had no idea what to expect. I found the entrance after spotting a quad bike being loaded onto a pickup truck. Good thing, because there’s only a sandy parking lot and a well-worn sign demarcating the area as a sanctioned off-road course.
But once I pulled of the highway I could tell I was going to have some fun here. There were trails shooting off in ten directions from a huge sand pit, temperature was perfect, sky clear and somebody was ripping donuts on a quad. Awesome. I headed into the sand and rolled over the first bumps in first gear. Determined to take it slow I picked a trail at random and set off. Through fork after fork I picked arbitrary directions, the place just kept going. Apparently “20 Ha” is pretty big. After more than thirty minutes of exploration I hadn’t made a full 180 or seen anyone since the first sand pit. I had been pretty good about keeping my speed down. But as I made my way through one great turn after another, resisting the urge to power on became harder and harder. And finally, it became impossible. A washboard of whoops (think “wave-shaped” track) was on the horizon… I could feel some MX action coming on. I powered-on and loosened up as the bike charged toward the obstacle. The bike bucked and bounded like a puppy running home for dinner. My arms and legs absorbed what the suspension couldn’t as I vaulted over the bumps, my face full of wind and smile. This place was a bloody gem of a find- I could train in this sand and leave my tent at the hostel. And shit was this fun! Around the next corner was a deep, sandy bank.
I pictured myself throwing a plume of dirt as I kicked the tail of the bike around and went for it. Yeah. That would look awesome. Power on. But I was put in my place before I could master the turn. The sand put a kung-fu grip on my front wheel and threw the bike down on the low side. Luckily it was so thick that I was moving at walking speed before hitting the ground, and no damage was rendered to bike or body. Sand may be one of the most difficult surfaces to ride on but it wasn’t designed without mercy; it’s also one of the most forgiving to crash in. Carrying on thusly for the next few hours, I got some good practice in on deep sand, bumps and hard corners. But that perfect MX turn I was picturing; inside leg out with the rear tire throwing a massive rooster tail of dirt, remained elusive. It was a lot harder than it looked on TV… go figure. I headed home for a late lunch eager to return and get some more training in before going back on tour. If you find yourself around Freo and need a dirt fix, by all means hit up Medina.
It’s got great bumps, lots of challenging sand and more trails than you can do in an afternoon. But before you go there’s one caveat you should be aware of; there is trash. Everywhere. And I’m not just talking a little pile of garbage can overflow. It’s a full on wasteland, and there’s everything from tire shredding glass shards to fridges and engine blocks littering the course.
Unfortunately, this is all too common at off-road courses. People see a place that isn’t visible from the road and assume they can unload their unwanted appliances at will. I mean, a few burned out cars are cool- they make for good photos and add to the atmosphere of adventure. But nobody wants to go home early because a smashed Night Train bottle ripped their tire open and sent them careening into a discarded kitchen sink.
So before you hit the track, be prepared to dodge more than just capstone and dust holes. There are enough banana peels out there to make you think you’re playing Mario Kart.
Other than that, just keep your eyes up and be aware that sand gets deep quick. Don’t venture down the skinny tracks if you’re not willing to hold the power on all the way through, or you’ll be doing a lot of digging.
Braved the cold for a tour of Perth last night. It doesn’t really stray from the urban archetype with a monolithic downtown surrounded by sprawling enclaves, but it made for some nice photos.
Finally got close enough to a kangaroo for a decent look. Luckily, I managed not to run this one over.
Just in case anyone’s planning a camping trip of their own I thought I’d grace the internet with my culinary genius in this semi-instructional video.
Drop me a line if you improve on my recipe, I’ll try anything twice.
Everyone said to go north from Fremantle this time of year. That makes sense, because here in upside-down America north is where the warm this. I know, I still haven’t gotten used to it.
But the 4×4 book I had requisitioned tempted me with a “circuit designed for off-roading and great places to camp” near the town of Waroona, about 150 kilometers south of Perth.
That’s less than 100 miles. How different could the climate be?
If that sounds like another ironically foreshadowing lead-in… it is one.
Waking up at the crack of noon on whatever day it was, I saddled up and headed south. I was no more than five minutes on the road before I started bitching to myself in my head.
My shoulder ached from the Camelbak full of tools I was wearing. My payload of camping gear and food was taking up some prime seat real estate, and consequentially my man gear was being vice-gripped between the fuel tank and myself. Since I couldn’t fit my jeans and MX pants in a bag, I had them both on at once which was not helping the scrotal suffocation situation one bit.
By the time I got over that I had forgotten which highway I was looking for to get to Waroona. Luckily that situation resolved itself when I realized there was indeed only one option, and down it I went.
After about 60 kilometers I had to get off the highway. It was noisy, wobbly and boring. Not to mention the tires I had fitted were heavily off-road biased and did not wear well on pavement.
So I hit an exit and ticked “Avoid Highways” on my GPS, hoping there’d be a more colorful route to this supposed 4×4 circuit I was heading for. I wasn’t disappointed as the bitumen quickly gave way to dirt. Even better, after about 20 minutes I was on a sandy little farm track that was somehow declared a road by my basic Garmin map set.
My first real solo off-roading, how exciting! Where will this track go? What would I find? How long would it be until I did serious damage to my body or equipment?
I came up on a water crossing and stopped the bike for a butcher’s. What I guessed was usually a bee’s dick brook had turned into a full-blown pond on the track due to all the recent rain. I figured it was well worth walking before attempting to cross with the bike.
I took a few steps and sank two feet down into a sticky, poopy, mud pit.
“Godamit,” I grumbled as my boot took on water. I was less than pleased with the additional discomfort.
“Well… that’s why we walk obstacles first,” I said to the cows enjoying the show from behind a fence. I decided to stuff it and find another way around. There was at least another 15 meters of water to negotiate beyond where I walked. Plus the triumph of a successful crossing would pale in insignificance compared to the inconvenience of dumping the bike in the cow poop creek, and with an attitude like that I knew I had better take a step back.
Can always give it a go on the way home if I feel so inclined, I thought as I showering frogs with sand in an aggressive retreat 180.
It wasn’t hard to find a bigger track heading my direction, and I arrived in Waroona mid-afternoon.
Stopped for a fuel up I was approached by an old guy on some massive road-touring bike. The thing was ugly as sin and sounded like it was powered by an electric razor, but I’ll always entertain a yarn with another rider.
“You’ve come a long way, mate,” he said “and on those tires!”
Who was this, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of motorcycling? How did he know where I was coming from? Fortunately my idiocy was trumped by deductive reasoning before I opened my mouth. Of course; the DR-Z was wearing a Queensland license plate which was indeed a very long way away.
I thought about talking about my job and how I had gotten there, but my tank was almost full and I really didn’t feel like yapping.
Nah, let him think I just crossed the country with a 17 liter fuel tank and a gym bag.
“Aye, it’s been a bit of a ride,”
He just shook his head and laughed as he pushed off like a sea barge with the wrenching of his throttle, which caused me to have the same reaction.
I buzzed over to a billboard-sized map of the area that was conveniently located across the street from the Caltex.
There was a maze of turns from “You Are Here” to where the roads became dotted lines, which I interpreted to mean dirt tracks.
Okay take a left there, straight for a bit, a few bends… I am never going to remember this.
From the looks of the map, the dirt roads were as plentiful as promised by the book that had lead me here. Memorizing directions would be boring, and getting my own map out would take time so I decided just to head east, where the dirt roads were, and worry about specific roads or routes later. If at all.
I started looking for a camp spot as soon I was out of shouting distance from Waroona. I knew it would take donkey’s years for me to get set up and I wanted to minimize post-sunset firewood collection- cause we all know dark forests are scary.
I found a nice dry, rocky spot about 50 meters off the road and shut the bike down. Seemed good a place as any. Setting to break out my payload, I discovered my bag had melted where it was resting on the taillight. Guess that little globe retained a bit more heat than I would have expected… and my waterproof bag no longer was.
No matter, I bought a roll of 100 MPH tape just for this purpose.
Zip, rip, slap, done. Sorted.
I unrolled my tent in all its K-Mart blue-and-red glory, had it up and loaded my gear in within seconds. Climbing in, I was dismayed to realize it taken all of 90 seconds for the tent to stink of foot and ass… as if it wasn’t hard enough to bring a chick home when you live in a tent. But, such is life on the road.
Firewood collected, cooking gear splayed out and noodles ready to boil, I had just one last thing on the agenda for the day- lighting a fire.
Which, of course, took hours.
My thumb was getting charred from flicking my lighter so many times when I considered giving up. But I had only brought heat-dependent food on purpose. I was going to cook out here, godamit.
I finally got the right combination of wind, leaves, and noodle packet wrappers going to make a wee blaze.
With my tin billy boiling, I triumphantly wolfed two packets of the hardest-earned $0.69 noodles I’d ever eaten.
I woke up the next day and got a proper fire going much more easily than I had the night before. I relaxed, cooked, ate, cooked some more. I was so pleased with myself that I had slept on rocks and made my own coffee in the bush that I hardly wanted to leave.
I made an early lunch of curried-spam with basmati rice, a recommendation from my boss that went off brilliantly.
But I was there to ride, so after a lengthy re-pack I was on my way down the track again, searching for some engaging off-roading.
A truck-sized path veering away from the main track that engaged my interest, so down it I went.
It got tighter and steeper, as paths do, and soon I was into an easy-but-stimulating ride, perfect start to the day.
As I mentioned earlier, the area is littered with similar trails. I explored the network for hours seeing great climbs, dips, ruts and even a few kangaroos (which I managed not to kill).
Just as I started hunting for the night’s campsite I passed a picture of a tent with an X through it, below the text; “Camp Only In Designated Areas”. Fair enough… I figured I must have been coming up on a campground.
I was, but not before the track opened up to a huge dry riverbed. A “5 Knots” speed limit sign looked strange in the middle of the dirt- the river was a kilometer wide at some points but there was hardly enough water to fill a jerry can.
It was a strange and beautiful sight, and made for an easy crossing. I hardly compressed the suspension as I bumped over the trickle of water flow at the river’s center.
On the other side of the river I found campfire pits, grilles and even a toilet. As far as campsites go, this was as “designated” as it gets. The place was empty as Chernobyl, so I figured I might as well take advantage.
A sign told me I was at Lake Navarino, and that the Waroona Dam was responsible for the lack of water. I didn’t investigate further, but I imagine they re-route the water in summertime for boat use.
There was no firewood to be seen near where I pitched my tent, so I grabbed some from the trail. Riding was sketchy at best holding down a pile of sticks on the back of the seat with a bungee cord and balancing a log on my knee, so I kept it in first gear but managed to retain almost all of the wood I had harvested.
With firewood collected and the tent set up, I took the opportunity to ditch my gear and go for a cruise down the 4×4 tracks unencumbered.
I had almost forgotten how much better the bike was to ride without gear on it. Almost.
I buzzed all over the place with a Joker-sized smile under my helmet, kicking up dirt and chasing kangaroos. The tracks near the camp were the perfect size for the DR-Z and I was really enjoying getting a feel for the dirt again.
In the evening I managed to get another proper fire going, boiled up some soup and went to sleep.
But the night was only just about to get interesting.
The wind, which had been a kitten’s sneeze when I went to bed, started hollowing like an Everglades fan boat.
And then even harder.
The tiny tent quivered, rattled, clung to the Earth for dear life.
I prayed that the slave children who sewed my tent had mastered their craft, because this evening would be a true test of the little nylon dome’s robustness.
I woke up again around six and noticed it was quiet.
Yes, too quiet.
I peered out of tent to look for the motorcycle- thank god, it was still upright.
But overhead thick, dark clouds cloaked the stars I had sought constellations in before bed.
No sooner had I decided that rain was inevitable when a crack of lightening ripped across the sky, followed waaay too closely by a gunshot thunderclap.
Like a thousand ball bearings dropping on an airplane wing, rain came down harder than I thought possible.
Wwwwwwow. That’s loud.
Should I bail now or wait it out?
In a few minutes the decision was made for me- those tent seams I had prayed for just a few hours earlier had had enough, and water was pouring into the tent at an alarming rate. Stay or go, I was going to be soaked in less than ten minutes.
I started packing my gear up as quick as I could. The rain showed no signs of subsiding and I seriously considered ditching the tent and making a run for it.
But leaving equipment behind would be both wasteful and pussyish; neither sort of behavior would be authorized on one of my expeditions.
Using the toilet as a staging-area I sprinted one piece of gear at a time into the handicapped-accessible dunny.
Next I pushed in the bike, tail-first so I could stay dry while loading my gear.
I had originally planned on staying one more night, but I had no way of cooking in this kind of rain and I was getting hungry.
Stuff it, I’ll head back to town.
Blasting out of the bathroom on a motorcycle like some kind of low-budget superhero I braced for wetness and snuck a peek at my GPS… only to be greeted by the “Acquiring Satellites” message.
The river I had crossed to get to the campground would be impassible in this much wet; the whole area would be sloppy and I’d never make it fully laden.
I had to find another way, so I struck into the forest in the direction I thought Waroona and the highway must have been in.
After three turns I started getting nervous. There were so many forks! I had almost forgotten which I had taken since leaving the campground, let alone how to get back. I looked to the GPS again, safely wrapped in a Zip-lock bag.
No go; still “Acquiring Satellites.”
I cursed into my helmet. My outermost level of gear was saturated with water, my fleece jacket was next to go.
Alright, time to relax. I need more experience riding in the rain anyway. This is what adventure riding’s all about, isn’t it?
I decided to turn around and retrace my steps… the trail was getting too skinny to be nearer to town.
I thought about giving the riverbed crossing a go after all. Worst case, I could take off the gear and walk it across. But mercifully, a sign I had missed earlier made itself apparent and I saw my way out on a nice, wide dirt track.
Creeping to the highway I emerged from the forest sopping wet to see my first waypoint; “Perth: 110.”
Alright. Let’s do it.
No cute little dirt roads this time, I just wanted this ride to be over as soon as possible.
Before I even made it to Route 2 my visor lens was impossibly fogged, teeth were chattering and every single article of clothing I had on was waterlogged.
The next 110 kilometers were every kind of miserable. But I’m glad for the experience, at least now I know I can ride in the wet.
It seemed like an eternity before I made it back to the hostel I had left from but make it I did, shaking off like a wet dog as I stormed reception.
“Please god tell me you’ve got a bed open,”
The guy behind the desk laughed; “Ya ya man, go get a shower and warm up I’ll check you in later.” Now that’s customer service.
Back in my room I inspected the gear, discovering the tape I had patched my bag with hadn’t been the most effective repair.
My clothes, x-rays and other documents were soaked. Luckily my computer was wrapped in a case wrapped in a waterproof bag wrapped in another waterproof bag and was okay.
I treated myself to laundry and a $4 coffee, leaving gear strewn all over the hostel to dry.
My next hospital appointment was the day after tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be approved for further riding, in which case the next trip will definitely be north.
With our Pan-Australian riding team disbanded and Magnus heading back to base with most of his motorcycles in tow, I was left in Fremantle with four weeks of vacation in front of me.
Mags left me with one of the DR-Zs, which was ready to ride after a quick sprocket change and fluid top up.
Since my 9 to 5 has me riding motorcycles and camping every day, I thought I’d mix it up and spend the time riding a motorcycle and camping.
But since I had some in-town business to take care of before setting off, I checked in to a hostel and had to share a room with 7 other dudes for the first time since April.
Any cheap traveler will tell you the sub-$30/night accommodation market is pretty hit or miss, but in this case I lucked out. The aptly named “Old Firestation Backpackers” where I stayed was indeed a re-purposed firehouse, although I was disappointed to learn the pole had been removed “to discourage unsafe behavior.” The garage below that once housed the trucks was now a beautiful Indian restaurant, adding an olfactory ambiance of curry to most of the rooms. Upstairs in the common area the faint smell of marijuana mixed nicely with my coffee and reminded me of school. Perfect environment to relax and reset before the next expedition.
With my gear stowed in a locker I forced myself to a mall and bought my entire camping loadout from K-Mart. A $15 tent, tin billy, some 100MPH tape, and few bungee cords looked pretty silly strapped to the brand-new motorcycle I was lucky enough to be riding, but I reckoned I was ready for another assault on the outback.
I checked for three nights to get a proper impression of Fremantle, so when I was done shopping I hit the city for a butcher’s.
I made the most of it and did everything you can’t do in the bush. Almost got run over by a bus, paid $10 for a beer, stared at hot chicks in line for lattes.
What I should have been doing was seeing a doctor about my shoulder, and after saying that to myself enough times I finally sacked up and called a GP. Since I had squandered most of the day birdwatching it was now 3:00 on a Friday, and I would be lucky to get an appointment.
No stranger to relying on luck for most of my endeavors, I rocked up to the medical center I found on my GPS and got a fifteen minutes of the doctor’s attention for $70. That was enough time to get a referral for an x-ray next door, where another $120 bought some polaroids of my skeleton and another referral to a shoulder specialist. Yes, apparently those exist.
I made an appointment for later next week, giving me time to execute a short expedition before returning to the city and learning whether or not I was going to get some bolts in my body.
With a rain pissing down on the streets and my tarp-covered motorcycle I poured over the Western Australia 4WD Atlas I had been lent by a friend of Mags’ and made myself a route that looked safe enough on paper.
How much trouble could I get in anyway?
Completed the another phase of my assimilation into Australian culture by learning how to cook “damper” (bush bread) from an article in a decade-old Caravan magazine.
It’s basically just flour, salt, baking powder and a can of warm beer plus whatever toppings mushed into a big ball of dough then baked on hot coals for three quarters of an hour or so.
On the last night of our Pan-Australian expedition, the traditional campfire was superseded by a righteous conflagration bright enough to signal the International Space Station. Yielding enough coals for a proper camp-oven feast, the trip went out with a bang (or at least a glow).
Magnus dawned his riding helmet as he braved the inferno to retrieve coal.
Good on ya, mate.
By the end of the next day we were sleeping under roofs, and enjoying not have to dig our own toilets in the busy town of Fremantle.
The Gunbarrel Highway is considered one of the great Rites Of Passage for off-roaders Australia-wide.
The “highway” was originally surveyed by Len Beadell to help the Australian military recover weapons tested in center of the nation. Len would drive his Series I Land Rover through the bush, then turn around and flash a mirror at a dude following him in a grader- who simply aimed for the light and floored it.
The 60-year-old grader is still on display in a town called Giles, but hasn’t seen action in some time.
The track may straight enough, but it’s anything but straightforward. Huge ruts, deep sand, blind corners and wild animals scampering all over the place make the Gunbarrel one of the most challenging sections of the Pan-Australian expedition.
Consequentially, that also makes it the most fun.
Magnus came into his element as the track got rougher and rougher, hustling the 8-ton supertanker support truck though holes in the trees and ruts that looked like they could swallow a camel.
The suspension clamored for mercy as we charged and drifted down the track. Magnus offered one of his typically cheeky comments;
“This is a graded highway you know”
“Well, hasn’t been graded since 1950, but… it was graded.”
The road opened up just enough for some serious powersliding and we dropped a gear, threading one corner into another on the edge of control.
Just as the tires started working up some serious heat, the next bend revealed a fat camel parked square in the middle of the track.
The exhaust brake exhaled like a dragon as Mags downshifted, scrubbing speed in desperation.
I looked at the piece of meat defrosting on the dash with dread (yes, there almost always was one). Not only was that camel’s body perfectly inline with our windscreen, but 3 kilograms of frozen chicken would be launched at my face if the airbags deployed.
The beast got the message and ran for it, missing our bull bar by a meter.
Returning the truck to a steady canter, Mags asked;
“So. Think you’ll be able to drive this on the next trip?”
“No race car driving.”
A week and day had passed since my crash when we arrived at Ayer’s Rock. You could feel the milieu changing as soon as we got within 100 kilometers of the iconic monolith. The washboard road that claimed one of our rider’s license plates turned into glassy-smooth bitumen. We were passing rental cars and tour buses instead of sand, sand and little specs of camel grass poking through more sand.
But until you get within 30 kilometers of the rock, the new road and signs seem like the result of pork-barrel government spending. “Bridge to nowhere” kind of deal.
Then you round that last dune and boom; it’s just there. Hanging on the horizon like the spaceship in Independence Day.
I had a much better view than the bikers from the cockpit of the Isuzu- one minor advantage to my “benched” status. And what a view it was. Even from miles and miles away I could tell this place was special.
I’ve seen a few of the world’s icons, but for some reason this stands out as one of the most astounding things I’ve ever had my eyes on.
“Fucking Ayer’s Rock, man!”
Magnus looked over from the driver’s seat and cracked a smile- he wouldn’t bother feigning enthusiasm, he had seen the damn thing almost fifty times.
We rolled into Yulara, the miniature city dedicate to serving the hoardes of Germans and Japanese that fly in, take a few peace-sign photos, and make tracks for Sydney to tick the next box on their itinerary. Mags told me it was shaped like a crocodile when viewed from the air, but since I’ve learned to take everything he says with a bowl of salt I’ll have to let you look that one up for yourself.
The team had a day off at the campground, which meant Mags and I would be running around all day provisioning and fixing bikes.
The day drew to a close and I still hadn’t been within 10 kilometers of the rock. “Looks like you’ll have to see it another time, just like my last drivers” Mags said as we spun wrenches into late afternoon.
We finished up as the sun was setting, throwing the most incredible range of colors across the sand and sky. There wasn’t a cloud visible and a full moon was due up.
“I wish there was some way I could get a better look before the sun goes down,” I said, ogling our row of freshly tuned DR-Z 400’s.
“Ehy, take a ticket and ride over!” Mags replied.
“Yeah! Take my helmet. Just, please, don’t hit any roos,”
Saw that one coming.
“I won’t!” I said as I scrambled into the truck cab for Mags’ lid.
Ayer’s Rock. I was going to see it, up close, alone, and on a motorcycle. This is as good as it gets sportsfans; my first ride since the crash would be a triumphant one indeed. I hopped on the first bike in line. Fired it up, mounted and clicked into first. No gloves, thin jacket and work boots. Totally appropriate riding gear for a place that would drop to 0 degrees C in less than an hour.
I poked the throttle.
God is there anything better than that sound?
Before I could take off Mags walked over to offer one last piece of advice.
I really needed to work on my reputation. “Starting tonight” I vowed.
I powered out of the campground and toward the rock. Passing more than a few Watch Out For Wildlife signs, I kept the bike 5 KPH below the speed limit.
I had seen how incredible Ayer’s Rock looked from 30 kilometers away. But as I got closer, the magnitude of the thing completely bent the throttle on “wow” factor.
10 kilometers; “Holy shit.”
5 kilometers; “Ho. Ly. Shit.”
You’ve seen photos of this thing since you were a kid but I promise you it is way, way bigger than it looks on that Qantas ad in the subway.
By the time I got to the last viewing pull-off I had to have a photo. Low light, hand quivering in the cold, and a bee’s dick worth of battery power left… perfect conditions for a photoshoot.
Since I knew I could Google-image way better pictures of the rock than I could ever take, I allocated the last of the electricity to a self-shot of my helmeted-mug with the rock behind.
I squeezed the button to collect a few images and then beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep; the all-too-familiar cry of a stone dead power source.
So all I got was this shithouse picture of myself flouting the “No Stopping” sign, and one DR-Z glamor pose.
Orbiting the most iconic pile of sandstone on Earth with my spare battery in the truck was a minor buzzkill, but being just a kilometer away from this thing was too awesome to have me worried long.
I had to get closer.
I followed the road as it continued on to the rock. Finally I was skirting the base less than 100 meters away, and a wall of sediment occupied the entirety of my view.
Absolutely unlike anything I had ever seen. Old Ayer must have pooped his pants right off when he found this thing on his way to the pub… or wherever he was going in the middle of Australia a hundred years ago.
I had to touch it.
Pulled into the parking lot where two Land Cruisers were sitting, waiting for the Germans who rented them to bring them back to the hotel.
Walked up to, then a few meters up the rock, sat down and surveyed the landscape. Even from just a short distance up I could see the Olgas (another striking landform in the middle of nowhere) a few hotels and a whole lot of desert.
The setting sun threw an intense orange-fading-to-dark-blue light that reminded me of a JIC Magic titanium exhaust pipe.
I had to get a little higher.
I scrambled up the rock to the point where you have to start holding a chain to climb. This thing is steep.
The owners of the two 4WD’s passed me on their way down; both families with tiny kids who could barely walk. Damn those Germans and their fitness.
Looking up the rock was pretty intimidating. It was clearly a long way, and it was getting dark.
On the other hand, there was a full moon out. And if those kïnder-climbers could do it, surely I wouldn’t have a problem.
So I went for it. Charging at first, then slowing down, then stopping, another charge, then a slow and steady trudge.
Man I was getting tired. My shoulder, which had faired well on the motorcycle, was starting to remind me I had torn it in a few pieces as the climb got to hands-and-knees grade.
I thought I would text my team to let them know I’d be a minute, as one of the nearby resorts had a tower and even my Chinatown Special cellphone was working.
That would have been a great idea, if I hadn’t left my phone in the truck.
Hmm, I had kind of been counting on that as my flashlight as well.
But at this point I was so close to the top…
I pressed on. It was a sanctioned park-path for christsake, not Everest.
When I could finally stop climbing, the now-substantial pain in my shoulder and soreness of legs paid for themselves a hundred times over.
I felt the same intense absence of noise I had experienced in the Swedish Arctic as I took in a boundless desertscape frosted in moonlight. The wind breathed all around me and I was sure the ghost of Mustafa would manifest itself any second.
Unfortunately, all that manifested was the realization that I was cold as hell. Time to bounce.
Looking down the path I had just crawled up I was griped by another unpleasant realization; while the moon was beautifully illuminating the desert to the east of the rock, my path forced me down the west side… which was pitch black.
I climbed, slid, and crab-walked the entire face of Ayer’s Rock until I reached the bottom of the chain.
I headed for the parking lot. I could barely make out the glint of my motorcycle’s wheel, but seeing it was reassuring.
As I made my way toward the bike I encountered my next obstacle- a massive gate locking me behind a fence with the rock.
I put my shoulder through one last gauntlet as I scaled the stupid thing. While pain seared through my upper left I read the sign on the gate; “Do Not Enter After Hours. Penalties Apply.”
That wasn’t in place when I started, I swear.
I powered up the bike and headed home, feeling colder every meter. I shook my head at myself- even I’m not usually dumb enough to take off without gloves.
But I had, and now I was paying the price for my haste. I was puttering down the dark road at 40 KPH with my left hand in my pocket, right hand scrunched up in my sleeve, and balls about to solidify and shatter on the pavement behind me.
What felt like hours later I rolled into camp to the expectable comments of “we were about to send the search party” and “we thought the ‘roos had the last laugh after all.” But Magnus had saved some excellent dinner for me, and had even taken care of the dishes in my absence- a true champion move.
I wolfed down my grub, washed down a few painkillers with a finger of scotch and crawled into my swag. Hundreds of kilometers to cover the next day, and we were already halfway to Perth.
The Finke Desert Race is an annual event in the middle of Australia where mechanized maniacs from all over the country (and world) come to put motorcycles, buggies and trophy trucks through their paces.
It’s a two day event- day one has competitors running from Alice Springs to Finke, racing back again on day two. The top ten finish each day in around two hours but hundreds of vehicles come out to give it a go.
We camped out right next to the track, cracked a few beers and had hours of entertainment while getting covered in dirt, exhaust and more dirt.
Add a few helicopters yawning overhead into the mix, and we had ourselves a proper race day atmosphere.
Just for an added bonus, a trophy truck caught fire about a kilometer from our spot. Not one to miss any action, Magnus powered up the Isuzu and I jumped in the passenger seat to investigate the giant plume of smoke we could see over the trees.
A blue race truck with a Dodge Ram façade was steaming like an over boiled bowl of Ramen, driver and co-driver shaking empty fire extinguishers in panic.
We pulled up with a big snort of exhaust brake and flung the doors open.
“Got an extinguisher mate!?” the co-driver yelled.
I dropped my camera (already rolling before we stopped) and unbelted the red bottle from our cab.
An R22 appeared and began orbiting low overhead, buzzing like a lion roaring through a fan.
The fire, later determined to be caused by oil dripping on a red-hot turbocharger, was arrested as the rest of our team rolled up.
With race trucks blazing by, the helicopter passing low and our motorbikes coming in hot the resulting video clip would be hard to top.
Miraculously enough of the Ram survived to complete the race, although I doubt the drivers were too pleased with the time after a 20 minute “fire break.”
Action continued for the rest of the day until the race was over, when the hoards of racers and spectators vanished as quickly as they had descended and left the town of Finke to its ten or twenty residents.
We carried on to Lambert Center (geographical center of Australia) for a camp.
The night before the Finke Desert Race we had our first major vehicle problem since my kangaroo collision. The remaining TTR had had a rough go of the last stretch of trail, limping into camp with no license plate and a nearly flat front tire. With the help of two of our riders, a new tire was in place after about an hour’s struggle. Afterwards I was promised the job “didn’t usually take that long” and that it would become easier once I had the use of both my arms. Just another reason to hope for a speedy recovery.
The tire took donkey’s years to change, but at least I got the bike back together before dark. When the sun went down so did the temperature, and fast. Gathering some coals to put under my cot, I climbed into my swag wearing everything but my boots. A decision I would later regret as I fell asleep to the scent of oil for the next week and a half.
June 9th had us at the famous Birdsville Pub, were the boys swapped stories with other adventurers and I got some tips on how to make my shoulder heal faster. After a few beers we stopped to see Chris Barnes, the man in charge of vehicle rescues in the Simpson Desert, which starts just a few kilometers down the road.
Many who attempt to cross the Simpson do so under skilled, under equipped, or both. That’s why Barnes owns a ten-ton M•A•N ex-military wrecker, designed to rescue tanks from battlefields. It makes quick work of recovering even the most bogged caravans, and makes our truck look like Matchbox toy. Finished in mean matte black paint, it’s just about the coolest vehicle you’ll find in the Simpson.
If that wasn’t rowdy enough, Barnes was preparing a lightweight buggy for the upcoming Finke Desert Race. A sub-1,000 kilogram death sled with massive V6 sourced from a 350Z strapped to the back.
Naturally, he and Magnus were already acquainted.
The wettest wet season in Australian history meant the Simpson Desert was impassibly flooded, but we made a plan to have a look at the region’s most famous dune “Big Red” which was near the beginning of the desert from this side. After that we would bypass the desert via the Birdsville Track and Oodnadatta Track- a lengthy by necessary detour of five hundred kilometers.
Big Red is a major box to tick for adventurers. Deep sand, a steep climb and rewarding view give it all the necessary elements of great objective to tackle. The Birdsville Pub was full of photos of people scaling it in wild vehicles like Porsches, Ford sedans, and whatever else.
After breakfast on the 10th our team stormed through the dunes toward Big Red with Magnus and myself following in the Isuzu. The truck bounded over dunes like a puppy running for a bowl of Purina with tries flat as pancakes, engine guzzling air and fuel. I tried to conceal my wincing as my shoulder stung something fierce with each compression of the suspension.
I mattered little anyway, I was having the time of my life and wasn’t about to let a few scratches ruin this experience.
We dusted big red and headed for the bypass track. Magnus put on a clinic about sand driving for me, negotiating the dunes with ease. “A good charging run up, use the momentum, then crest the dune at walking speed.”
After leaving the sand we were back on hardpacked dirt roads, where we spent the next few days tearing across massive open spaces, most notably passing the world’s largest lake (that’s right), Lake Eyre. Nine times out of ten the lake is dry. In fact, in the last century it’s only had water in it for four months. But once again the unprecedented rainy season gave us a unique opportunity to see the desert at its most lush- the lake was chock full of water and gleaming.
I had been looking forward to my first pan-Australian expedition since hearing about it three months prior. 6,000 kilometers of off-roading punctuated by dingy pubs, raging campfires and Magnus’ crowd-pleasing cooking. Bring it on.
It took a full week of wrench-turning and three cases of Oettinger to get our equipment in order for the trip, but we made the deadline and had a row of bikes gleaming at “Point A” on departure day. The team would be seven guys plus Mags and myself. 5 DR-Z 400s, 2 TTR 250′s and a DR 650 would make up the fleet.
After a safety briefing we headed down to the ocean for the obligatory “boots in the Pacific” photo, with hopes of re-creating it two weeks later at the Indian Ocean.
It only took a few hours of riding away from the coast to feel like we had landed on another planet. Bitumen gave way to gravel, which turned into dirt, which deteriorated into sandy track.
I was getting comfortable with the Yamaha TTR 250 I was riding, managing to stay ahead of the team following me on much larger motorcycles with a kung-fu grip on the throttle.
Just after lunch on the second day I came up on a long straight of hard-packed track. Seeing a few headlights growing larger in my mirror I dropped a gear and powered on, guzzling wind throwing dust all over the place. About a kilometer up I could see a pair of dead kangaroos strewn on the track.
I released the throttle and tried to focus at the obstruction through the vibrations in my goggles.
Wait, was that dead kangaroo’s ear moving?
At this point I was 100 meters away and both animals weren’t dead at all- they were leaping to life and straight into my path.
I braked hard but the dirt surface wouldn’t be forgiving to a hard swerve, so I kept the wheel pointed forward and prayed.
I was decelerating rapidly, heart racing and hands shaking but still upright. I came to a stop and shut the bike down. Checked myself over, checked the bike; no damage. Front tire wasn’t even flat. But had I seriously just hit a kangaroo?
I started running back toward the team, looking for the animal I had hit and signaling the first rider behind me to stop.
The DR-Z stopped and the rider flipped up his helmet.
“I think I just ran down your national symbol.”
“Hit a roo?”
I found the wallaby… stone dead with a compound fracture in each leg.
The rest of the team pulled up followed by Mags in the Isuzu.
“Killed a roo didja?” he said, jumping down from the cab to inspect the bike.
“Er, I’m afraid so.” I was getting worried the Australian government would have my visa for this. But Mags just smiled and gave me a high-five.
“Let’s get going then!”
Despite the kangaroo’s cuddly image overseas, it’s pretty well hated by outback Australians. Regarded as overpopulated vermin that inconvenience motorists roos are shot, run down, and otherwise slain whenever possible and wherever legal.
So on we pressed.
I resolved to keep my eyes sharp and hover the brakes, I had seen emus running around and I didn’t fancy plowing through one of those feathery wrecking balls.
At a quarter passed four we were 100 kilometers from camp. The team regrouped and I lead through a few turns to climb the gears into a straight.
Less than half a kilometer on, without prompt or warning, my front fender was less than a meter away from another pair of kangaroos, bounding haplessly across the track.
No time to brake.
No time to steer.
Didn’t even have the opportunity yell some creative Will Ferrel-esque profanity into my helmet.
To be honest, I can’t even recount the impact. By the time I regained consciousness I was ass-to-gravel, trying to see through static unable to move, think, or speak.
My brain synapses came back like an 3rd generation Camaro trying to start.
First I figured out what had happened and desperately hoped I was dreaming.
I heard voices a hundred miles away… and could make out seven black circles floating around my face.
“He’s awake! He’s awake!”
Nope, not dreaming. As I realized I still couldn’t get anything to move a dram of panic was percolating. Was I going to walk away from this?
I fought through the fog of a concussion and the black circles became helmets- the team had encircled me and someone was snapping their fingers in my face.
The next thing to return was my voice. I found myself answering the typical post-trauma questions; what’s the date, where am I, what’s my name. Hell I’m not guaranteed to have a grip those things on a good day, but I tried hard in hopes that we could get on with it and make it to camp before dark.
And then came the pain.
The adrenaline was wearing off and I felt like I was being tucked in bed with a brick blanket wrapped in barbed wire.
I tried to stand up.
“Dooon’t try and stand up mate, just relax.”
Forget that, I was planning on throwing a leg over my saddle as soon as I could see properly. But I hardly got further than an upright sitting position before I collapsed and the pain quadruplicated. We were less than one tenth of the way across Australia… this was going to be inconvenient indeed.
Magnus walked around the road to reenact the incident for me.
“You crashed here,” he said, and walked 10 meters closer “Then slid to here.”
Walking to the other side of the road; “We found the motorcycle over here.”
The team was decidedly less worried now that it had been established I was alive, and expressed there sympathy.
“How you feeling mate?”
“Two roos in one day mate, that’s a fair effort.”
“We’ve sent for an ambulance, mate.”
But all I wanted to know was how much this was going to cost me and when I’d be ready to ride again… I was well aware that my value as an expedition guide had diminished significantly after loosing the ability to ride and quite nervous that my season was over.
Rescue showed up in a Toyota Troop Carrier off-road ambulance, which was cool enough to ease my pain a bit and I hopped I’d at least get some good pictures tagged out of this.
I was helped out of my armor and shirt.
My pants were sliced up, jacket full of rocks and my helmet looked like it had been used as a tether ball by two grizzly bears.
The paramedic took a look at my left arm; “Oh, my.” I was still feeling pretty fuzzy, but I was functional enough to realize that was not a reaction I was hoping for.
My left shoulder blade was about an inch higher than the right and the joint between arm and shoulder felt like it had a railroad spike in it.
I was helped to my feet and felt sick immediately. Thinking clearly, but trapped in a rag doll body was not a good place to be. I collapsed onto a stretcher and was pricked with IVs, pumped full of whatever and fought hard to stay awake.
I heard Mags say “I’ll meet you at the hospital tomorrow” and the rear door on the Troopy slammed.
“Now, mate, we’ve got a bit of a ride. It’s a bit over two hours to the hospital. Try and relax.”
Relaxing was just about all I could do with military-grade painkillers coursing through my veins.
I fell in and out of consciousness on the way to the hospital. Heard mutterings about my blood pressure over the relentless beeping of my pulse monitor.
We came to a stop and the the paramedic said something about a doctor.
The door opened and a woman climbed in with a clipboard. Asked the ambulance staff a few questions and shines some lights in my face.
Whether or not she was attractive I’ll never know, but at the time I thought if I worked my charm I could check off that sexy-nurse fantasy and this whole fiasco would end up being awesome.
I focused all three of my remaining braincells on coming up with a good line, but when I opened my mouth all that came out was drool that tasted like blood. Sadly, probably not my worse pass but I don’t think she was impressed.
The door shut and thirty minutes later we were at the hospital, with two nurses and a doctor waiting for my stretcher. I was carted to a room and bombarded with questions again, answering every third or fourth.
The next challenge was to get from the stretcher to the bed. I got up, collapsed. Tried again, and with two nurses supporting me made it to the most comfortable thing I had laid on since April.
One of them started unbuckling my boots and the other pulled the belts off my MX pants.
Hold up, was this about to get awesome after all?
No. No it wasn’t.
Just when I thought I was going to get another chance at hitting on a nurse, the last buckle on my boot popped open and a green cloud of stank rolled off my socks.
I had rooted my shoulder, ravaged a motorcycle and now I was learning that an overnight at the hospital was absolutely nothing like the pornographic fantasy I had expected. Massively shit night.
After a series of x-rays I was shone pictures of my skeleton, re-arranged by the impact but nothing had broken. I was told the ligaments or tendons or whatever they’re called between my arm and shoulder had torn/stretched/got f*ed up.
“Sooo, how long until I can ride?”
The nurse sighed.
I was left alone and told to get some rest, nurses coming in every two hours to shine lights in my face and test my blood pressure.
I laid in bed and thought about what else I could have done, how I could have avoided the animal. I had been zipping along at speed for most of the day, but unluckily enough I didn’t think I was even in fifth gear when I hit that furry bastard. I tried not feeling sorry for myself but I was fairly confident my season was over. The team would leave me at the hospital and press on, like so many riders had been left on previous expeditions. I thought of the events I would miss and prayed once again that I’d wake up and be in my swag…
Morning came and Magnus walked in.
“How ya going mate?”
I hung my head in shame. He had put up with the bogging of the truck, but surely this incident would exceed his patience.
We had a word with the doctor. They wanted to keep me for a few more hours, but would discharge me at noon. Most encouragingly, the doc added; “Between you and me, you’ll be fine in a few weeks.”
Mags paused as he headed for the door; “I’ll be back in a couple hours to pick you up, then we’ll meet up with the boys just past Longreach. Now I have to ask. Would you like me to fly you to Brisbane to go to the bigger hospital?”
I couldn’t believe it- he was actually going to let me stay with the team.
“Um, absofuckinglutely not?”
“Good. I can’t be making sandwiches AND cooking breakfast the next two weeks.” With that, he left to attend to the team.
The relief I was feeling was almost powerful enough to bring that adrenaline back and boost my natural painkillers. I put my arms in handlebar holding position and mocked pulling the clutch…
I may have relegated myself to the passenger seat of the Isuzu for the next two weeks but I was still going across Australia, godamn it. Fifteen days to go.