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.
Black Mountain Road (BMR) is a great track about twenty clicks north of Cairns, QLD that I had the chance to explore on my last trip to Cape York. Running about forty kilometers between Kuranda and Julatten, it’s a chance to get off the pavement early if you’re heading up north… worth checking out especially when the Bloomfield and C.R.E.B. tracks are closed to the east.
It’s a windy single-laner with a hundred blind turns and kicker jumps the whole way. Yeah, that good.
By “jumps” I mean lips formed by rain runoff… uh, don’t mention that to the Ranger.
Despite being chock-full of whoops and hairpin turns just loose enough to step out the rear wheel, BMR is on National Park land and square in the middle of cassowary* country. So try and behave yourself.
*Cassowaries, for you non-Australian readers, are large (human-sized) land birds with blue feathers, a sharp blade on their head and a nasty attitude. They’re quite rare but extremely dangerous, having been known to slice people up and eat them for dinner. Forget drop-bears, these things are the meanest thing going most people have never seen. I was told they’re especially fond of Americans… better keep that engine running.
My first run up BMR was northbound around mid-morning. It was easy enough to find, with a big yellow sign delineating its location off the Kennedy Highway.
The southern half of the track is somewhat open, but after about ten kilometers the jungle puts the squeeze on and before you know it you’re blasting through a tunnel of trees, leaves and vines.
Some of those vines are as light as they look- others will clothesline you right off your saddle. Naturally, I learned this the hard way when I caught a big spiny fern with my right arm, adding a few more scars to my well-loved ballistic jacket. Other than that I managed to clear the track without incident. BMR is highly recommended if you’re in the Cairns area and need a quick blat down the dirt. I reckon it’s some of the best fun you can have in the jungle without a long-range fuel tank.
Ten days after my first ride up this road I was back at its northern juncture, this time southbound from the Cape. With about six hundred kilometers already on the clock that day and the sun getting low, I figured it would be pretty dangerous and irresponsible to have go in the dark.
Then again, it would also be badass.
By the time I got to the trailhead dusk was coming to an end, and the dirt lane disappeared quickly into blackness. It was so ominous and foreboding I was scared shitless already… and I hadn’t even heard the bats yet. But I knew I had to do it, otherwise I’d be gibing myself for being a pussy all the way back to Cairns.
So down the rabbit hole I went- high beam on, engine wailing and eyes unblinking. I had forgotten to check my odometer when I started… a mistake I sincerely regretted about ten minutes into the trip, when I really wanted to be on the other end of the road and had no clue how far I had left.
With no visibility whatsoever beyond what my headlight could hit, the day’s third Red Bull wearing off and a paralyzing fear of cassowaries in the back of my mind, the danger factor of this ride was increasing quickly.
I really didn’t want to stop, lest the cassowaries would come claw my eyes out, but I had to get some photos otherwise nobody would believe I did this run at night. So I grabbed the brakes and shut down the engine, fumbling for my camera with my clumsy gloves on.
I thought my exhaust was rude… but it didn’t hold a candle to the cacophony brough on by the bats, birds, bugs and whateverthehell else lives out there were making once my engine went quiet.
I snapped a couple pictures and powered back up… quickly. No chance for a shot off the bike, I was way too scared to leave the saddle.
Here’s a clip of the sounds and sights, or lack thereof the latter.
My first tour with OAT kicked off beautifully. Not only was I driving a massive vehicle I could never afford, but I got to dress like Steve Irwin and say cool things into a CB radio like “proceeding to rendezvous point.”
I still couldn’t believe my good fortune for getting this opportunity.
For the first few hundred kilometers I drove like a grandma. Slow, cautious, peering over the moon-sized steering wheel with trepidation.
But as I became comfortable with the truck, as one does, I started getting careless. Slow and controlled was NOT how these trucks looked on those YouTube clips I watched instead of doing my homework in college.
Wasn’t I supposed to be powersliding through sand and throwing up tsunamis of mud by now?
At the end of the third day there was one last creek crossing I had to negotiate before setting up camp for the night.
I was just four kilometers from the rally point, and I had passed through this creek twice already scouting the road for the bikes.
The previous times I had crossed in first gear, tiptoeing through like Magnus had taught me. But it was getting toward the end of the day and the guys would be wanting their beer. Surely going through in second with just a little more revs would be fine, right?
I came down the gully and dropped from third to second.
“This’ll be slow enough.”
The path I had taken the last two times was looking knackered and the creek was too stirred up to see the bottom. But I saw some rocks off to the side, and decided to use them to gain traction.
I scooted down the gully, into the creek, and started sliding away from the road up the river.
The gully was pretty steep on the other side- I thought I would need some power to climb out. So I squeezed the throttle even harder.
The truck’s momentum carried it a few meters up the hill, but with the tires humming and traction rapidly dwindling the vehicles own weight sucked it back into the creek.
“No no no no no!”
But it was too late, I was bogged and each revolution of the tires sucked them a few millimeters further into the mud. The engine revving/mud squishing sound could have come from a Saw IV soundboard.
In a full-on panic I grabbed the comm. and yelled/stuttered like Andy Kaufmann into the mic;
“Ah, M- Mags I’m, I’m, I’m stuck”
crrrk “Worse than last time?” crrk
Yeah, the day before I had buried the truck up to its axels in mud. Trying to park.
“Um, a lot worse”
The squadron of motorcycles came roaring back, each rider shaking his head with the same expression behind their goggles.
These guys had been searching for a way to give the American a hard time since we left the city, and this little incident opened the floodgates of abrasive Australian humor on me.
Magnus was more understanding than I would have expected anyone to be, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like a proper asshole.
I had overridden my instructions with my own methods and now I was costing everyone time because of it. Thank god the water didn’t make it up to the cargo bay where everyone’s bags, cameras, and iPods were staying dry.
Once we assessed the situation Magnus and I dug the wheels out as best we could and set up the recovery straps. Now we just needed someone to pull us out.
Hours went by and not a single car, truck or horse-&-buggy passed us.
Finally a chick in a Land Cruiser pickup rolled up, crossed the river easily and rolled down her window
“G’day fellas. Why’d ya park there?”
We lashed the straps from her truck to ours but alas, when she hit the accelerator all the Cruiser could do was spin its wheels while both vehicles remained stationary.
She disconnected the cables and started to head off, but not before telling us she worked at the station we had planned on camping at that night.
She promised to return with a machine that could pull us out.
Minutes felt like hours as we waited, and for me those minutes were practically eternities of feeling like the biggest dumbass on the road.
Finally the shelia from the station came back. With a machine.
We heard the rumble of a massive diesel engine and a twinkling orange light was rising over the crest of the gully.
The vehicle slowly revealed itself from the other side of the hill, as she crawled over the rise in a Case 950.
The “machine” she had referred to was a full sized construction loader with tires tall as me and more horsepower than our entire fleet of vehicle combined.
It was like watching the sunrise after ten years in a jail cell. That thing would pull us out.
She hitched a cable to our recovery point, pulled a lever and with a blip of the machine’s throttle we were out in seconds.
Uh, marry me?
The show was over and the boys rode off. I climbed back in the driver seat and headed forward dead slow. There was a puddle up the road Magnus’ voice crackled in over the radio
crkk “You alright on this one mate?”
Christ. This blunder would not be lived down anytime soon.
We finally got to the camp and I parked far away from the bikes. Shut the comm off, took a deep breath, and sauntering over to the team already bellied up at the bar.
In one fell swoop I had completed a trifecta of getting hopelessly stuck, held up the entire expedition and been rescued by a woman.
The Aussies had a good laugh or ten at my idiocy, which I completely deserved, but had the good heart to put a beer in my hand while I was razzed.
An Australian won’t soon let you live down a gaffe, but they insult endearingly and don’t hold a grudge.
The next day was easy driving to each rally point. I was firmly locked back in caution mode and determined to remain that way for the rest of my time behind this wheel.
At the last rendezvous with the bikes, I was to follow Magnus just four kilometers north to the camp site.
But the sandy, deserty track I had been driving on all day became increasingly difficult to negotiate as ruts sprang up and trees closed in.
This day’s drive would end up consisting of 300 trouble-free kilometers sand followed by four kilometers of the swampiest, tightest, most technical off-roading I had done in years. And I was in a godam 5-ton cargo truck.
Off-roading from the luxury box perspective is awkward and cumbersome. Where a Land Rover or Jeep keeps you near the center of the truck with a little slit of a windshield, the Isuzu placed you square on top of the front bumper with a movie-theatre sized windshield 20 centimeters from your nose.
At the point where the ruts on the track became craters I caught up to Magnus, perched on the BMW X-Challenge with his hand on his comm.
I had already learned that this was rarely a good sign.
crrk “Just keep it slow and take this bypass”crrk
He gestured to a pathetic turkey path not fit for a PowerWheels car.
I squeezed the mic on my comm; “Through there?”
I put the truck in first, leaned over the steering wheel and dropped a feather on the throttle, creeping around trees and onto the bypass.
Right turn, ok, straight, left tu-
ck “STOP!” ck
Mags was waving furiously.
“You’ve got to wait until the rear wheels are completely passed an obstacle before you turn”
What the hell was he talking about?
A quick glance in the mirror revealed that I had planted a sapling squarely into the side of the cargo bay.
I shook my head, backed up and tried it again.
This time I made it through, suspension creaking and tires making cacophonous love to the wheel wells- an annoying side effect of hard cornering with oversized tires under factory ride-height shocks.
I negotiated the next few turns trouble free and thought I was getting the hang of it. Then, Scrrrunnnch
Mag’s voice reverberated the comm; “You’ve GOT to stop doing that, man. WATCH those back wheels!”
Sorry, sorry! Jeezus this is a steep learning curve.
I executed about a 30-point turn and had myself on track again- pointed at a long, deep, soggy, bumpy, all-kinds-of-shitty stretch of swamp.
“All right mate, this is pretty soft stuff. You’ve got to power on, keep momentum and push through this”
I could not. Would not. Get stuck again. I had already whiffed two strikes and another pathetic display of dumbness would get me fired for sure.
Clutch in. Engage low range, engage 4WD, lock differential.
I pulled into first gear and hammered it.
The comm crackled “Go Go Go!” and Magnus jumped clear of the trucks path.
I was a wild rhino of half-controlled fury. Ruts tossing tires in the air, axels plowing through mud and my ass getting a brutal birthday spanking from the truck’s seat.
One more splash- and-
I was through. Praise the mud gods, I was hitting the long track to redemption. Couldn’t help but crack a smile; that was some Land Rover promotional DVD-style stuntin’.
ck “Nice. Don’t hit so many trees next time. Haha just kidding, nice work. But seriously watch my paint. See you at camp.” ck
I came up on the Suzukis next to Cockatoo Creek and parked to make camp. The riders even took a short pause from reminding me of yesterday’s rescue to congratulate me on bringing their beer in a timely fashion for once.
But before I had time to feel any shred of self-satisfaction I was overcome with by the repugnant smell of wet dog ass.
Now if you’re off-roading and you didn’t bring Fido, that can only mean one terrible thing.
I dared a glance under the truck’s engine and my fears were confirmed: a steady piss of coolant was erupting from a badly scarred radiator.
The drip eclipsed Magnus’ shaking head, already on the other side of the engine bay… the outback veteran had recognized the smell as well. In seconds one of our riders, a mechanic by trade, appeared also.
We looked at the drip, each other, back at the drip… and collectively uttered a four-letter assertion.
“It’s gonna be a long night,” Mags added despondently.
The fan was fractured, shroud was in tatters, and the radiator had received American History X treatment. We were 50 kilometers from anything resembling a road and there ain’t no OnStar service on Cape York.
So we set to removing the crippled components. We took the radiator to the creek and washed it like a couple Laura Ingals Wilder characters, ignoring the “No Swimming: Crocodiles” sign for the sake of the Isuzu.
We marked off the leaks (where it bubbled when held under water) and Mags patched it with QuickSteel after setting it by the fire to dry.
Drying precision engine components with a campfire- now we were on an adventure.
We crawled all over pulling, patching, and twisting to set things right by headlamp light. By the time we got to bed we had about three hours of sleep to enjoy until the next morning when we re-installed our bush-patched radiator, the trashed fan and what was left of the housing.
Poured in some water, said a few prayers, aaand fired it up.
But it was still leaking like Polish submarine.
That is, until we got some insight from another rider on the trip.
“Crack a few eggs in there,”
At this point we had nothing to lose, and plenty of eggs in the food storage cases.
Mags got a couple and cracked them into the radiator, hoping to give it some Sylvester Stallone strength.
We waited, the truck ran, and the drip… actually slowed down.
There was no time to argue with this coup of logic. We had to get the truck on the main road before it burned off the Rocky sprit now frying in its cooling system.
Mags took the helm of the truck and I followed on the BMW.
Truck roared out of the campsite… and got bogged.
Despite the situation being decidedly shitty, I couldn’t help but feel just a touch better about my own crashes after seeing the Master of All Things Off-Road stuck 50 meters into his drive.
We threw rocks under the wheels and shoveled dirt away as I lost about 10 pounds from doing all this in full motocross gear.
The truck got free, powered through the swamp and got bogged again. This time I stripped down but still managed to work up a solid tropical sweat fighting the death-grip of mud on the Isuzu’s massive tires.
Once the wheels stop moving forward, the start moving down. Quickly. It’s scary stuff when you’ve got a quarter-million dollar truck sitting on them.
After the second recovery it was smooth sailing, apart from having to stop the truck every ten minutes to add water to the radiator.
The egg trick had reduced the bleeding, but we were off-roading in the jungle for christsake- the only way to make the engine hotter would be to drive back to Boston through the center of the Earth.
The jungle track gave way to sand again, and Mags and I could pick up some more speed.
I was getting comfortable with the Bimmer and sprinted ahead of the truck. As we got further from the tree the sand got deeper. I had negotiated it easily in the then-undamaged Isuzu the previous day, but on a two-wheeler it was a whole different ballgame.
I was sliding all over the place, anxiously resisting the urge to tense up. A X-Challenge 650 is not a light motorcycle, and with the boss man right behind me I was NOT keen on making an ass of myself by putting the handlebars in the sand.
The lack of a rear-view mirror meant I had to turn my head around every minute or so to make sure I hadn’t left the truck in the dust.
After a nice long turn I slowed down and glanced back, expecting to see the truck a kilometer or so behind me. But instead of a sandy vista I saw the Isuzu’s chrome bullbar about a meter off my taillight, ripped fan roaring and driver laughing manically (I think).
I panicked and wrenched the throttle. The torquey Bimmer rewarded me with a satisfied grunt and surge of power, pulling my wheels straight and frame upright as if to say “Why didn’t you do this five kilometers ago?”
Indeed. The note from the Remus exhaust was so intoxicating I found myself forgetting that Magnus had mentioned the bike’s rear wheel bearing was near the end of it’s life. High speed is the secret to stability in the sand, and I allowed myself to indulge in this concept for a few hundred meters.
Still hoping to stay in visual range of the truck, I backed off the throttle to enjoy the sounds of the wind, birds …and my rear wheel bearing about to frag itself.
Like, any second.
I reeled the bike in and pulled over. A few minutes later Mags stopped and hopped out, concerned look on his face and WD-40 in hand. He already knew what was up.
I held up the rear wheel and gave it a boot- it was about as stable as one of those wagon-wheel chandeliers in a wild-west saloon fight.
“You had maybe… another kilometer before this wheel seized and threw you into the scrub.”
Great. I had incapacitated our first and second most expensive vehicles on my first tour.
We weren’t carrying any BMW wheel bearings and the truck wasn’t set up to carry another bike at the time.
The only option was to hide the bike in the bushes, mark down the GPS coordinates and recover it on another trip up here. Next month.
I started to protest… were we seriously going to leave this sweet BMW in the weeds? What if it got cold? Or lonely?
But Mags knew what he was doing and said reassuringly, “Happened to me a couple years ago, had to leave a Honda XR in the bush”
“Came back to get it a week later, fire had gone through and melted everything by the frame. Let’s hope for better luck this time, eh?”
With some time to kill I shopped around for a rental car. I thought it might be a good way to see the area on my own time before going on-duty for the desert crossings. But of course, all the rental cars are shitty and there are a hundred stipulations to keep you from having fun; no dirt roads, no more than 100 kilometers per day, no running over hookers and absolutely no parking in front of Chuck E. Cheese.
Besides I think I’d rather drown myself in the kiddie pool than put up a $1,000 bond to be seen in a Ford Ka.
But before I completely wrote off the idea, one of the agents suggested I check out “standbycars.com” and “standbyrelocs.com“… which apparently set people up with ridiculously cheap rates on rental cars that need to be moved from one city to another.
There are a few other outfits that do the same thing (transfercar.com.au, drivenow.com.au), and the sites pretty much all have a big Excel sheet with a start point, end point, vehicle types, and then some dumb cost like “$5/Day”.
Since things that sound too good to be true always are, I’m pretty skeptical about this arrangement.
My internet connection crapped out (because, you know, it started raining) before I could get too deep into it and I’m too lazy to follow up now, but a friend of mine called one of these companies and told me there’s some insurance fee stipulation that increases the price dramatically.
But since that’s about as vague as it gets in terms of research on my part, so I’d say these operations are still worth a look (and a call) if you’re open-minded about where to go and are in need of some cheap wheels.
Just make sure you read the shit out of the fine print and try and ask somebody who’s done it what the deal is.
Here are a few resources if you’re interested:
Last night I (literally) bumped into a portly gentleman on the steps at my hostel. I apologized and started to pass him when he got my attention again and asked if I knew any “fit guys looking for some cash work tonight.”
“Uh, do I have to get naked?”
He replied with a hearty Santa Claus laugh. Thank god he had a sense of humor, as I realized later that was a pretty inappropriate comment to make to a total stranger.
“Nothing like that mate, got a couple trucks full of prawns that need unloading and we’re a few guys short. Usually stop by the backpackers when that happens cause you lads are always looking for cash work.”
I asked what he was paying, and he gave me a reasonable figure so I told him I was in.
Two hours later I was wearing a reflective orange coat and helping three salty Australian guys throw boxes of frozen prawns from a truck to a conveyor belt.
Certainly one way to get some local flavor.
Turns out the dudes who work at the prawn factory are actually pretty cool… they gave me a beer from their stash in the Home Depot-sized freezer in and let me drive the forklift.
Some hours later the big guy drove me home and slapped two $50’s in my hand. Solid night, and Domino’s wasn’t even closed yet.
Took advantage of a free trip into the (outskirts of) the Northern Queensland jungle, courtesy of the hostel I’m currently based at.
A short trek through the mud brought us to a waterfall, but being Australia you couldn’t touch anything without risking paralysis. Including the mysterious blonde chick I came across on the rocks.
The plants on the path to this place are lined with needles containing a paralyzing neurotoxin… I’m not even sure she was real.
One brush with this leaf and you’ll have to be carried out of the forest. You’ll also win a free wax at the hospital… the needles are so fine they can’t be removed individually. Better armor up when we ride through here next month.
Carins, Queensland is another Australian city with a teaser oceanfront location- the asshole jellyfish won’t let anybody in the ocean without a goofy skin-tight Star Trek outfit on.
Despite being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, Cairns has a pretty impressive nightlife and tourist infrastructure.
That might be because it’s just a 90 minute boat ride to the Great Barrier Reef, where some of the world’s best SCUBA diving is to be had in shower-warm water.
Luckily for me, an unusually long “natural disaster” season has kept many tourists away for the moment, making tour operators desperate and trips/hotels real cheap. I’m spending $20 a night to sleep in one of the nicest places I’ve bunked yet, and I’m getting my PADI Open Water diving certification for a week’s salary. That credential will give me the power to rent gear and harass aquatic creatures all over the world, and according to my instructor, get me laid.
After I saw him fondling that sea cucumber I wasn’t too sure I should be taking his advice in that department, but I had so much fun on the 20-minute intro dive I decided it was a worthwhile pursuit.
Between dives and Chinese buffets I met some Brits with uncharacteristically straight teeth. They had the unique privilege of being the first people I spent more than two consecutive days with since January, so I temporarily had some semblance of a normal social life for the weekend.
But they crusaded back to Brittania on Monday so I guess I’ll head back to the bar. Beer prices, unfortunately, have not been affected by two cyclones and an earthquake. I think I know what business I’m going into when I get home.
When some dude I barely know asked if I wanted to go help his friend I’ve never met renovate his house I figured I’d be crazy not to.
So I ended up in Mackay, Queensland for the weekend… a lovely town with cranes for a skyline and money lenders advertising “$200 Cash Loans Now!”
Yikes, if you need a loan for $200 you better stop reading signs and start selling drugs.
Nevertheless, the trip was a good chance to make some cash and meet more locals. We already knew shirtlessness and a massive collection of metal things in your yard were Queensland staples, and Mackay didn’t disappoint in that department.
But the neighbor took it to another level, with two full-on 30-foot boat skeletons sitting in the grass and three sheds devoted to storage.
Needless to say, I got along with these guys great.
I actually lived better than I had since I arrived in Australia- my host was kind enough to lend me an entire room and bathroom, not to mention whip up great food and lattes all day. On the last night I caught my first “New” episode of Top Gear… the only TV I’ve seen in months. I can’t believe they still don’t show this in the U.S. yet we were subjected to another season of Jersey Shore.
Living in a rented jungle hut at Airlie Beach, Queensland with three Swedes, three aussie football (soccer) players and some chick from New Zealand.
With the word “Beach” in the town’s name you would think there’d be one, but alas the coast is rocky and swimming is forbidden due to a high concentration of deadly jellyfish.
Hell of a marina though, if you can afford to play there.
At least I have a few part-time jobs going at the moment, so I’m able to do something productive with the downtime.
Outback Adventure Treks, the motorcycle tour company I’m hoping to work for, is planning on giving me a “try out” run to Cape York at month’s end… which I’m fearing may be canceled if the rain doesn’t subside.
The company’s proprietor told me we were all good as he had developed a method to transport bikes over water, and sent me this video to allay my fears:
Looks like I better start working on a contingency plan… just in case their inner tubes aren’t up to the 2,000 Km trip up the coast.
Had a chance to join Dave of P7 Offroad a few days ago as he taught one of his 4WD courses. We made a 4AM journey to the famous “Landcruiser Park” in Kilcoy, Queensland- and with an address of “MS526, Diaper Road”, you know this place is out there.
We spent about six hours climbing, winching, crossing rivers and generally wasting diesel.
I was excited for the chance to spend some time in the redesigned Ford Ranger, which oddly enough isn’t for sale in the United States.
Out of four trucks only one had to ride home on a flatbed- the Nissan Patrol belonging to the driving instructor. Guess he should have bought a Land Rover.
By the time the tow truck showed up it was 9 o’clock at night and Dave was insistent on getting towed to his house- four hours north in Hervey Bay. The first half of which was on dirt roads.
Luckily the tow truck cab was comfortable enough for about 3 minutes of sleep between jolts through ancient suspension.
Why don’t breakdowns ever happen closer to home?