The seemingly endless saga of restoring my old GSXR brought my father and I to Drum Hill Cycles in Nashua, New Hampshire- a massive warehouse full old motorcycle parts, basically a Cave of Wonders to a couple retro-moto enthusiasts.
Aside from a small banner on the road-facing wall, there’s not much to tip you off about this treasure-trove unless you already know the address. But if you’re in the neighborhood, the railroad crossing right next to it is a good landmark to defer to.
Say what you will about ours being a “disposable” culture, but from what we saw Drum Hill had plenty of business keeping old bikes alive.
In the thirty or so minutes we were there, at least five other people showed up looking for various miscellanea for their motorcycle projects. It was encouraging to see that the restoration business is still running, and that I’m not the only one with a soft spot for “modern classics.”
Bikes and cars from the 80’s and 90’s used to get written-off by the collector and restoration community for being “too modern” or “bland”. But now that people like myself, who grew up dreaming about the vehicles from that era, are starting their own projects we’re seeing a renaissance of these machines we now call- modern classics.
The nostalgia of riding something I fantasized about while I was supposed to be learning my times-tables is without a doubt part of the appeal of the 80’s/90’s iron, but I also love the blend of modern-ish design with the primitive brutality and rudimentary interface of say, my ’91 GSXR.
While we didn’t end up buying anything this trip, it was a lot of fun to walk through the canyons of fairings, fuel tanks and every other motorcycle accessory you can imagine for bikes from bygone decades.
The proprietor was most agreeable, talking over the issues my bike was having with me and dumping out a few boxes of parts to sift through pounds of plastic to try and find what I was looking for. Unfortunate it appeared that the ignition control box I was seeking had been “sold yesterday”, and so continued my less-than-ideal luck with my project.
Drum Hill isn’t a completely unreasonable drive from Boston, but if you don’t feel like picking parts yourself they’re website has just about everything they stock in their expansive collection.
Be sure to check them out if you’re spinning spanners on a bike from the forgotten era of modern classics, and help them keep the old school spirit alive.
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.
The Simpson Desert. Vast, untamed expanse of sand in the middle of the world’s largest island. Taking three times as long to cross as the Sahara, the French Line across the Simpson is one of the most epic rides to be had in Australia.
It’s the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer of my season with OAT.
And with the floods subsided and my shoulder healed, I was finally getting my shot.
Each morning on the track felt like Christmas… I woke up with a giddy anticipation I hadn’t known since I was a rugrat tearing through wrapping paper. And with each day I got a little bit better at managing the sand, the dunes, the Simpson.
I was determined to finish the track with my body and bike in as good condition as they had been when I began, keen to prove Mags wrong that I could in fact return one of his vehicles in usable condition.
So what’s so great about riding a motorcycle across the desert?
Imagine skiing the best run of your life; lots of speed, deep powder, sweeping turns. Now imagine that never ending until you release the throttle.
Thanks to the miracle of the internal combustion engine, a motorcycle can ski up the hills as well. Each kilometers is more fun than the last and after an hour or two in the saddle the balance, engine control and focus just clicks.
When we pulled up for the night, I collapsed into my chair at the fire with the kind of spent-satisfaction you have after a six-hour shag session.
We passed a few other groups of interest along the way. A group of blokes on Suzuki DR650’s, a big pack of camels, and a team of journalists reviewing 4x4s… including a four wheel drive Mini and a Chinese Great Wall SUV. Our riders reckoned they were wasting their time and ruining the track, but I was glad to see someone try something different.
The west-to-east crossing (which we took) is easier than the other way because the dunes aren’t as steep. Shaped by the prevailing wind, heading eastbound allows you to enjoy a long run-up up the dune, then a steep drop into the next gully. The dunes also get bigger as you head east, giving a nice and linear progression of difficulty.
Right up to the boss: Big Red.
Whether you’re on a motorcycle, 4×4, camel, or unicycle, Big Red is one of those “boxes to tick” if you’re off roading in Australia. Just about thirty kilometers from Birdsville, it’s fairly easy to get to but a proper monolith to behold.
The last time I had seen it was from the passenger seat of the Isuzu, chocking back winces as pain shot through my recently-destroyed AC joint.
Now I was back. On a bike. And I wanted revenge.
By the time we reached Big Red the hour was late, shadows were long, and everyone was dying for a beer.
I sensed that Carl and Bruce, having already surmounted Big Red years before, would be content to bypass it and head straight to the pub. But I knew I’d only be back here once, and I’d be driving the truck. There was no way I was going to get this close without having a go.
I stabbed the throttle ceremonially.
But I resisted a sandy burnout, and walked up to speed.
I heard Magnus’ voice in my head, like Obi-Wan Kenobi guiding Luke Skywalker out of the Hoth;
“…Up straight, steady application of power…”
I was getting closer and Big Red was growing.
It looked far bigger from the saddle of this bike than the cockpit of our truck.
Hands were starting to sweat as I picked up speed.
I strangled the horn to scatter the desert pigeons out of my path, the dune was towering over me like a tidal wave and I was experiencing genuine fear.
The front wheel hit the dune and I powered-on all the way, yelling into my helmet and leaning as hard as I could against the force of acceleration.
“GIVE IT HELL!”
It was all over in seconds… I was standing on the top, heart still racing at full throttle, stomach still at the bottom of the hill, and the bike idling calmly as though nothing had happened.
I allowed myself a fist pump and shut the bike down to avoid overheating.
After some photos it was time to hit the bar. An easy descent and a fun 30 kilometers later we were riding out of the sunset and pulling up once again at the famous Birdsville Pub, where people with names like “Wizard” tell you about the time they crossed the Simpson in a nitrogen-powered rickshaw.
But no matter how tall the tales get in that bar, I knew I had made it across and that’s all I needed.
In a couple months time I’ll be back… on twice as many wheels, which will be ten times as hard. I can only hope for as much success as the desert allows.
With a few days off on my hands after returning from Cape York, I seized the opportunity to get away from the daily grind and load up a motorcycle for a ride.
I wouldn’t have thought there would be much off-roading to be had close to Airlie Beach, but I’m glad to say I was quite mistaken.
Magnus had been kind enough to map out a route for me, so after the arduous process of packing I was northbound on the Bruce Highway, heading for Collinsville.
In an effort to keep weight down, I had a most rudimentary loadout.; tools, tent, food, fuel and water.
I still struggled to comfortably mount cargo on the bike, and encountered my first obstacle at the Bowen petrol station.
Hungry but determined to save my beef jerky stash for later, I braved a sausage roll that looked like it had been tanning on the shelf since 1990.
Like a fine whiskey, meat gets better with age. Right?
Naturally the decision proved regrettable as soon I as I powered up and pushed off. The extra kilo now in my gullet had thrown off the precarious weight balance I was running, and as I tried to bring myself about I slooowly felt the fuel tank give in to gravity and head for the pavement.
I landed with a thud and the engine sputtered to a stop.
After inspecting my bike and ego for damage, I brought the machine back to life and sped off before anyone could comment.
The road toward Collinsville was all paved, but after passing a few dirt roads shooting off towards small mountains I found a premium camp spot and started working on dinner- plain rice mixed with beef jerky.
This would also be my breakfast and lunch for the weekend. At least I can make a decent fire these days.
The next day I passed through Collinsville and felt obligated to have a look in town.
I strode into the “Town & Country” and walked into a sea of Hi-Vis shirts- the apparel of choice for hard-working Australian miners.
Could this be the Town & Country that Slim Dusty sings about?
All eyes were on me before I could finish walking through the door… something I’m still trying to get used to.
I had the feeling I’d get my ass kicked if I ordered the wrong beer so I played it safe and asked to have my water bottle filled. The cute Irish chick behind the bar smiled and obliged me while I tried to think of something clever to say to her.
But when she came back I was still coming up empty on pickup lines. A trend I resolved to buck sooner rather than later.
So I sped off toward the Bowen River and started scanning for dirt roads.
The route Magnus had shown me ran all the way to the south side of the river on bitumen roads, but my impatience got the best of me when I saw a skinny dirt track disappearing into the savannah.
After ten or so kilometers the dirt road devolved into two wheel ruts, which soon became single-track, and finally a southbound cow path.
This was true adventure riding- no destination, no changes of clothes and enough fuel to spend all weekend in the bush. I thought.
The track finally led me to the Bowen river. Wide as four busses are long, surrounded by boggy sand and beastly sinkholes.
The water was flowing quickly but the bridge was miles away… I had to have a go at crossing.
I stripped down to my jocks and waded in. Two meters out the water was still shy of my bollocks and I was starting to feel confident that this crossing was possible. But another step and the river floor disappeared. Tripping on a rock I fell face-first into the water and 500 horsepower of river started carrying me away from my equipment. Clambering through the fallen trees and scrub and lifted myself out of the water and sauntered back to the bike.
Great, now I could go another week without a shower.
The river proving impassible, I had no choice but to follow it west toward the bridge.
The terrain options were deep sand, loamy dirt, or hard packed savannah based on how far I wanted to get from the river.
Naturally I reckoned I was man enough to ride the sand all the way, so I tightened my cargo straps and grabbed a fistful of throttle for a running charge into the grains.
Half an hour later I was knackered.
The sand was much deeper than I had anticipated, and I was much suckier at riding in it than I had hoped.
Worst of all, I could still see the point I had left from thirty minutes ago.
I reluctantly conceded and gave the dirt a shot. I labored to get the bike up to the next level, but after another hour’s work of lifting, pushing and digging I was heartbroken to discover the sinkholes in the dirt were so deep and numerous that I could barely walk between them, let alone ride.
At this point I was famished and there wasn’t much sunlight left. I had no choice but to make camp and give it another go in the morning.
Waking up early the next day to a clamoring of gossiping birds, I packed up quickly and slowly picked my way toward the savannah.
I finally reached it, only to have my hopes of escape sliced in two by a razor wire cattle fence between my objective and me.
I threw my head back and allowed myself a dramatic howl.
The task ahead of me now was getting back through the holes, the dirt, the sand, the spot I tried to cross the river, and back to the cow path so I could run on the savannah side of the fence.
It was lunchtime before I made it, but I was pleased to be making progress again. Now I was running fast and furious over the open savannah land, throwing dirt and cow shit all over the place with the closest thing to a powerslide that an overladen TTR will allow.
I blew past the spot I stopped yesterday within seconds and charged west like a man on a mission.
After a few kilometers I came to a fork in the path I was following- left back into the sandy riverbed or right into the open plains. Based on my poor effort the day before, I had no choice but to head away from the river into open country.
Now I was heading into wildlands with no sense of direction and no clue how far I was from the road.
The odometer on the bike was broken and when stopping to check my GPS for an idea of how much fuel I had left, I was disappointed to learn I had left it on last night and depleted the battery.
I nervously shook the fuel tank and was answered with a frighteningly faint slosh. All that open-throttle sand riding, backtracking and bushwacking had devoured most of the TTR’s diminutive eight-point-five liter petrol capacity. And of course I had used my five liter emergency tank yesterday when I was too cheap to fill the main tank in Collinsville.
I looked around at the vast expanse of nothingness I was square in the middle of and half expected a vulture to land on my shoulder.
I had to make Collinsville my next objective- it was the only option for a refuel I’d have a prayer of making it to. But as a silver lining, I’d have the entire ride over there to think of something to say to that bartender chick when I got my water filled again.
Now the only question was; do I head back the way I came on the path, or keep heading north through the bush?
I decided to roll the dice- I saw some power lines in the distance and I was confident I could follow them back toward the main road.
The telegraph track was tough, but negotiable. I passed through a few gates I reckoned the power company wouldn’t want me opening, but it was piss off Queensland Telecom or die of thirst.
It was late afternoon when I heard a sound I never thought I’d enjoy- the unmistakable drone of tires on a paved bitumen road. Safety was close.
In and out of one last gully had me back in civilization and spared from a lonely evening of asking cows for directions.
I rode northbound to Collinsville with just enough weight on the throttle to propel myself forward.
Very, very slowly.
After a long day of nerve-wracking bush bashing I was elated to roll into sleepy Collinsville. Forget fuel, I was parched of thirst and busting for a poop from wolfing three bags of beef jerky the night before.
I marched back into the Town & Country with water bottle in hand, ready to drop some game on the backpacker bartender.
But there was no way I could have anything resembling a conversation with this kind of dump on deck. I had to hit the bathroom and lose some weight immediately.
I kicked the stall door down like a SWAT officer and let loose, reverberating the walls with a 5 megaton fart.
Ah, sweet relief.
But when the dust settled I had a most awkward realization- I could hear the television and conversations from the bar. In fact, quite clearly.
I peered out of the Men’s and met the same greeting of astonishment from the other patrons that I had experienced walking through the front door the previous day.
Don’t think James Bond could have pulled after a performance like that… let alone my unshaved and unshowered self.
I with a double headshake I got the hell out of there, fueled up and headed back to base.
While I’m sure Magnus would have wanted a few more riders on our third and fourth Cape York expeditions, I was pretty pleased with the idea of a two-man team. All my duties would be so much easier- from the inglorious making of sandwiches to the really inglorious washing of dishes. While the glorious part, the driving, would be the same.
On top of that I was starting to get a good handle the Isuzu.
Hell, I might hardly cause any calamity at all in the next two weeks.
Of course I was put into check within ten minutes of my first drive as I eased into an intersection against a red arrow with Magnus in the passenger seat.
“Mate it’s- red,”
“Ah, right. Thought that was- different in Australia.”
The boss was not amused with that asinine excuse, but once we were stocked up on fuel and liquor we were on our way without incident.
Aside from the minor mistakes of briefly getting lost and nearly running someone over at a fuel station, I was doing as well as I could have hoped by the end of Day 1.
Next day I decided to forgo my morning coffee in lieu of a cappuccino at the Lakeland fuel station- man’s last hope for a proper coffee before the jungle begins. But much to my dismay, a forty-foot Mercedes had just unloaded as many old people- there was a line curly white hair and fedoras out the door.
So I dropped the clutch and laid a power-over drift across the parking lot, staining forty polo shirts with red dirt and diesel soot.
Juuust kidding, I could never be that much of a dick. But I did scoot outta there before anyone could ask me what size my tires were.
Why do old people always ask about the tires?
Later on I was pleased to learn we were taking a different route than we had a few months ago, and I’d get to see some new scenery.
We crossed Nifold Plains on Day 3, and if I ignored the kangaroos bouncing off the bumper every few minutes I could have sworn I was in Africa. It’s amazing how just a few hundred kilometers of driving brings you from jungle to savanna and back again.
After the plains I was hailed by a Land Cruiser on the UHF.
“Ehiateowzetrek?” crackled the radio.
While I was trying to work out what language I had just heard, Magnus’ familiar voice chimed in- “You’ll have to speak slower, he’s American.”
Ah, so somebody was talking to me.
The voice came back, this time dialed a few notches back from True Australian; “Ehi mate, eis is the Land Crusza. Ow’s e tryck goin?”
I wasn’t sure if that last word had been ‘truck’ or ‘track,’ so I went for a vauge response and hoped he would drop out of comm range before I made myself look like a complete idiot.
“Uh, it’s going good man!”
Another batch of incomprehensible words flew from the radio like socks in a dryer opened mid-cycle. Unfortunately this conversation would remain lost in translation.
By the end of the week I was setting up camp at Loyalty Beach and cracking a victory beer. While I was still famous in the neighborhood for my blunders of previous expeditions (I was addressed with; “last time I saw you here, those wheels were about ‘alf a meter in the mud” more than a few times) I had in fact driven all the way up the Cape without breaking anything, and without engaging 4WD.
Of course, that would be more impressive if all the water crossings hadn’t dried up, but I was still pleased with the result.
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.
Race Day One
Day one of the actual “race” a fellow adventure rider named Martin rides shotgun and navigates while another riding enthusiast we picked up named Big Joe sits in the back and adds color to the conversation.
Racing atmosphere is full-on. This ain’t no Friday Night Thunder at the New England Dragway… there are straight-pipe exhausts cracking, million-dollar support trucks stumbling around and helicopters blazing overhead.
It’s loud, crazy, and awesome.
The support trucks are allowed to meet the racers a few times per race. We get to the first station and lay out tools, put a pot of coffee on and tune up the CB to get word of any crashes.
Most riders make it to the first stop. A quad gets a round of applause for limping in on three wheels.
Our boy makes it in one piece needing just a splash of tea and a cup of fuel. Or was it the other way around?
Either way Team OAT finished the first day in good nick, so Big Joe convinced me to join him in a bit of a celebration.
After cleaning out the truck’s cache of beers we headed into town, and after picking up a few bridge-playing ladies from the RSL (Australian American Legion) we stole some street signs and lit fires all the way home.
Race Day Two
I fought my way out of my swag late in the morning, shoving myself into my boots hoping desperately that my truck hadn’t left without me.
“There he is. Thought you had a sheep in there, mate,”
Looks like the team was yet to mobilize, but only just- there was no time for coffee and since my BAC was still a few clicks above racing standard, Martin took the help of the Isuzu for the day.
The bikes seemed a lot louder today… and the road bumpier. But after putting on a kettle of coffee at the first service stop, things were coming back into focus.
Because we had a lot less ground to cover between service stops than the racers, the second day of the Condo involved a lot of waiting around. Luckily we had a good view of the helicopter landing area, where an R24 Raven was busily going to and from with photographers and injured racers.
At the end of the day, our racer had earned himself a medal for completing the event without breaking of self or steed.
We hit the pub and were serenaded by a drunk local… who refused to play Jimmy Buffett despite our repeated requests.
Baaack to the camp.