Instructions; Killing time in the airport on the way out to Australia, I bought a little Olympus digital dictating machine, which I carried with me everywhere, and used as a sort of audio diary. When I started writing up this account, it occurred to me that it might be a cool idea to embed some of these audio clips into this piece, so wherever you see this icon next to a photograph, it indicates that there is an associated sound clip to go with it. Hitting the icon will download a small MP3 file, which your computer should play by default. (Tip; while listening, start the download of the next item). Rolling you mouse over any of the thumbnails will bring up a title box to describe the picture, and a click will open the picture in a separate window.
I have really no idea how well this will work, so please send me an e-mail at email@example.com if you think it is an idea worth developing. Enjoy.
From Kettle to Wauchope
2001 was the first full year of me being retired, and despite my best efforts to be a layabout, I ended up working, selling Harley Davidsons. This meant I had money burning a hole in my pocket, always a bad idea. I had also joined a web group of fellow ElectraGlide owners, most of them based in Australia, and through the usual e-mail traffic, an idea developed for me to go to Australia as the guest of one Mr John Dickinson, a recently retired guardian of the law in Sydney. Which is how I found myself at Edinburgh airport, with a bag full of bike gear, a sleeping bag and tent, a slip for a hired Harley, and a ticket for Sydney in my hand. The following pictures probably tell the story better than I can, although they don't do justice to the agony of 24 hours on a plane, and the hangover I landed with, thanks to the Aussie farmer I got in tow with on the plane.
So after a couple of days of enjoying the delights of Sydney, with my new found buddy, and collecting my bike, we were ready for the off. John had planned a route of about 6,000 kilometres, and we planned to spend the next three weeks on the road, but not before attending "The AGM". I mentioned that this whole trip had come about as a result of a web group, and the group had decided that this was a fine excuse for a get together, an AGM in fact, to be celebrated by what else but a barbie! Our first stop was therefore the home of "President" Paul Manson, a splendid spread in Wauchope, a days ride north of Sydney. We spent the weekend there; eating, drinking beer, gassing, telling tall tales, drinking beer, grilling steaks, riding bikes, drinking beer, telling more tall tales ... you get the picture.
I just assumed this was a bunch of old buddies, 'cos that's how it seemed when I got there. Turn out of course that hardly any of these guys had ever met before, other than by e-mail, and some of them had ridden thousands of miles to be there, and to meet me. Struth! Not that you would have guessed from the atmosphere which was just fantastic, and this has to go down as one of my best weekends ever. It's safe to say that most of these guys will probably be friends for life.
Hit the Road Jack
So come the Monday morning, JD and I head out on the real start of our outback tour. We take the main inland road, the Oxley Highway, which runs from Port Macquarie to Broken Hill, making overnight camp stops at Gunnedah, Dubbo and then Cobar en route. That's what the following pictures show.
This was my introduction to Australia proper, and with every mile that passed the country got more sparse, more arid, and hotter. We had called for morning coffee with John's dad before we left, and he had made some scurrilous remarks about Dubbo, "the last card in the pack" he called it, clearly it is the butt of Aussie humour. I was all the more surprised then to find Dubbo quite a charming place, but it set a pattern for what I was to find for the rest of the trip until we got back to Sydney. It is almost as if there are two separate Australia's. Sydney, and presumably the other major cities, are lively, modern, cosmopolitan places, and it's not hard to feel pretty much at home straight away. As you venture inland though, it is not only the geography that changes, but it seems like time turns back on you, and there is a feeling like I have walked back into a provincial English town, some time in the late 50's. There are no car parks, as you don't need them, you can park easily on the high street outside the shop you want. Can you remember when the UK was last like that? There are supermarkets, but there are still small shops, and cafes, and all the sort of stuff that has been squeezed out of Britain by the multi nationals. There was a fantastic hardware cum outdoor shop in Dubbo, that sold tents and buckets and new boots and knives and tarpaulins and old army jackets. "Bloke World" said JD. Too right mate! I also discovered the delights of the camp kitchen, which almost every camp site had. A communal room with sinks, fridges and cookers, and usually with a verandah and seating area with coin operated barbies. Magic, we dined on lamb chops and potato salad, and I settled into my normal nightly habit of choking a couple of cold tubes of VB (Victoria Bitter). This was shaping up nicely!
The next leg of the journey from Dubbo to Broken Hill was perhaps the one which most looked and felt like the vision of Australia that most folk have. Vast empty areas, red dirt, roads littered with dead kangaroos, and emus wandering beside the road. Real outback country. The pictures below give you an idea of the terrain, and also of the delights of the Emdale Roadhouse where we dined on the Australian national dish of bacon and eggs, while the proprietor swore at the customers. Helluva place!
We had an overnight stop in Cobar, nothing much to write home about, and then a fuel stop in Wilcannia, which was a real eye opener. There is not space here to go into the whole Aboriginal thing, so permit me to lay aside the political correctness, and just let me tell you what I saw. Wilcannia is an "Abbo Town", where the bulk of the population are Aboriginal, and where the sole form of ingested nourishment seems to come out of a bottle. Everywhere you looked there were people pissed out of their heads, sprawled on the ground, or under trees, or a few staggering around shouting. It was the only time in my trip I felt very ill at ease, and glad to be in the company of an ex policeman. Even the petrol station was in a closed compound, and I was never so happy to be gassed up back on the road.
Broken Hill, the Cowdenbeath of Australia.
Anyone who lives in central Scotland knows what mining does to a place. It's not just the physical stuff like bings and spoil heaps either, it seems to engender a certain look and feel to a place. I recognised it the minute I got to Broken Hill, it was like Cowdenbeath, but with searing sunshine! So hot in fact that at the campsite there was grass at all to pitch on, the camp sites were covered in chipped bark to give you somewhere to put your tent, and I was mighty glad of the camp pool. None the less I liked Broken Hill a lot, a mixture of rough and ready with old colonial grandeur, and even a slightly wonky high street ... just like Cowdenbeath, even if they mined silver here rather than coal. In a gallery in some quiet street in the residential part of town, I bought an opal. The guy who sold me it was some sort of old prospector who had become famous as an artist, and he and his wife were some of the most boorish and objectionable people I met in the whole trip. His art was hideous, expensive claptrap, but when I got home I glued the opal to the dashboard of my own Harley as a reminder of my trip on its rented brother. I very nearly sold my Harley last year, but I'd swear that the sight of that opal glimmering on the dashboard played a part in my decision to keep it.
Those last two pictures above were taken on the Silver City Highway, a road which runs direct south from Broken Hill, and without a doubt the hottest place I saw in my travels. We are talking desert here, and there were flocks of hundreds of emus on either side of the road. Really spectacular road, and I was pleased that even my experienced guide and companion JD had never been down here before. The desert stopped abruptly at Mildura, where you meet up with the mighty Murray River. Or perhaps that should be the formerly mighty Murray river, as climate change and greedy over irrigation is in danger of turning this into a pathetic little stream. I didn't like Mildura. Pretty enough little town, but after the grandeur of the desert, its green lawns and gardens seemed somehow smug. It looked very much how I suspect rural California must have once looked. Nice campsite by the river though, pics below, where we had fish and chips in the camp cafe.
Australia is huge, I mean HUGE, but it was the little things that got to me. The ridiculous and draconian speed limits, their stupid licensing laws, stuff like that. But I was also charmed by the little things, and perhaps none more so than by a milkshake I had in the cafe in Waikerie in the last little thumbnail above. Do you remember what cafes in Britain used to be like before McDonalds invaded and consigned them all to redundancy, and life as a charity shop? They were family run affairs, often by second generation Italian families, and they sold froffy coffee in pyrex cup, and had glass shelves with boxes of chocs on them, and a strong smell of ice cream. But above all they sold milk shakes, real ones made in those noisy machines, and with "Crusha" syrup dispensers on the wall, half a dozen flavours. When did you last see that? Years ago I'll bet. Yet I became more and more conscious of those syrup bottles up-ended on optics in every cafe we went into, and I got into the habit of buying a milkshake after lunch. The best one I had was in that little cafe above, so good it reminded me of being 8 years old again, and Gullianottis cafe on Holburn Street in Aberdeen. It was a moment of pure throwback magic, and I raved about it until JD threatened me with nasty procedures unless I shut up. He's bigger than me so I did, but I can taste it still.
Your Banana or your life!
On this stretch of the journey we passed through various border crossings as we flitted between New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Funny, I always thought of Australia as just the one big country, but it is very much broken up into states and territories, and the rules and regulations vary between them, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. Do you remember the Golgafrincians? ("Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy") where the populace of Golgafrincia persuaded their most useless citizens that the planet was about to be destroyed, and that they should flee for their lives, which they did and left all the sensible ones behind to enjoy themselves. I kinda think that perhaps Britain pulled a similar stunt on the Australians. God knows, Britain loves it's bureaucracy, but at least most of ours kinda makes sense. I think we must have duped our dumbest politicians and most pernickety civil servants to de-camp to Oz, where they set about inventing a version of British rule, but with even more petty rules. Fact is that in the 80's Britain scrapped a lot of silly rules, which seemed brave at the time, but in retrospect has made life here so much easier. Can you imagine going back to a time when you couldn't buy wine in a supermarket, or could only buy stamps in the Post Office? Just go to Australia, you'll feel right at home!
What really made me snigger were the fruit laws! At several border crossings were endless dire warnings about what they would do to you if you crossed the state line with an apple in your possession, or perhaps a secret banana. There were fruit "honesty bins" to put your illegal fruit in, armed fruit detectives, with fruit sniffer dogs, and heaven knows what else. Drugs, guns ... "no worries mate", but get caught with an illicit bunch of grapes and you were off to the chokey. Now OK, I know there was serious side to all this, as it was to prevent the spread of fruit fly, which is bad news if you are a fruit producing area, but could not help but laugh at the seriousness of it all, especially when I knew how hopelessly out of date their other laws are.
From Nuriootpa, we swung south through the very pretty Adelaide Hills area, which is of course one of Australia's big wine producing areas. Wine making tends to attract tourists, and tourists means that everywhere starts to get cutesy. Hahndorf was quite pretty, if a little dressed up, but of course JD loathed it. Just like here, the name of every little river is marked with a road sign, and it was only after I had ridden over it, I realised I had just ridden over "Jacobs Creek". I thought about turning round to get a picture, but John was way up ahead, and I did not want to lose him, so I passed up this golden photo opportunity. But the next time you pull a cork out of a bottle of Jacobs Creek, just remember I've ridden over it!
We had picked up another traveller, Nigel of Adelaide, as we headed into the Grampian mountain region, very pretty, but like their namesakes back home with a penchant for changeable weather. By the time we got to the campsite at Halls Gap, we were soaking wet, cold and the thought of pitching tents was a no no, so we hired a caravan for the night. As soon as we got in, got our wet riding gear off, we all three instantly dived into our copious booze supplies, and proceeded to get utterly rat arsed. How the hell we cooked dinner in that van without torching it I cannot imagine, and the photos above show the collection of kangaroos that had gathered in the campground when I groggily got up the next day, albeit not as groggy as Mr Dickinson, in the last picture! Bloody good evening though!
The ride that morning out of the Grampians and down to the coast was majestic, but my mind was more on the temperature than the scenery. I had gone to great pains to choose my riding gear for a hot country, and it was working well, but not here as this was more like riding through a chilly spring morning in Scotland. We stopped for a coffee in Dunkeld to allow me to thaw out. Victoria is quite unlike the rest of Australia, and indeed more like middle England in places, with weather to match.
Attack of the Killer Pensioners from Hell
Our next stop was Port Fairy, and probably one of the nicest places we stayed. An old fishing port, slowly turning into an upmarket resort, it had an almost American New England feel to it. I liked it instantly. We found a fisherman's co-operative, and bought a load of fish for the barbie that evening, which would make a nice change from the endless steaks, and retired to our excellent campsite, looking forward to dinner, as it had one of the best camp kitchens I'd seen yet. With a pre-dinner tube of VB (or two) I was thoroughly mellowed, especially as we had lost the cold wet weather, and everything was groovy.
That's when they started arriving. Like the birds gathering in Hitchcock's film, they seemed harmless enough at first, just one or two pensioners coming into the kitchen where we were about to start dinner. Then a few more, with chairs and cakes, and then more with food to cook, and bottles, and cool boxes, until the whole bloody place was crammed with laughing happy pensioners. Like those crows that settle on the house in menacing numbers, they were now intimidating, and had blagged every inch of work space, every cooker and coin operated barbie, and by now they were getting noisier and more raucous as their tubes and bottles of red wine took hold. John and Nigel seemed resigned, like they had seen this before, and were prepared to wait it out to get hold of a cooker and start dinner. I on the other hand was incensed, indeed verging on incandescent. If any one of this lot had been in a situation like this, when a group of teenagers invaded their space, they would have called the police, and demanded that they be ejected, and they no doubt would have been. But because they were senior citizens, enjoying what was apparently their regular Tuesday get-together, they assumed that the world would laugh along with them, no matter how bloody rude or inconsiderate they were being. Inevitably some old geezer, flushed with too much booze and having established that I was Scottish, started making jovial cracks about my flowing ginger hair, and how I must be some sort of Viking. I'll give him some feckin' Viking I thought. I pulled him to one side and made some vaguely threatening noises in a decidedly exaggerated Scottish accent, and his bravado evaporated. He went pale, slunk back into the crowd, and within minutes the atmosphere changed. Suddenly they couldn't wait to get out, and within 10 minutes the place had emptied. We got our dinner in peace.
Guns and Cheese
Having said goodbye to Nigel, we stopped for eats in Warnambool, and for me to find yet another internet cafe to I could stay in touch. Wonderful thing e-mail. We rode down to the seafront, where there was an impressive display of ex World War 2 hardware, slowly rusting away, and which JD could not resist having a go on. I was very conscious that all of this sort of stuff has been swept away in Britain, and memories of the war are now pretty distant, yet they seem much more prevalent here in Australia. JD, as was his wont, explained all this to me in great detail, why the Australians feel the need to remember the war, and all about whatever it was that happened here in Warnambool. Sorry to say big fella, but it went in one ear, and straight out of the other, cos I now can't remember a damned thing of it. To the rest of you Aussies, I say, get over it mates, it was half a century ago. Forget it and move on.
The next stretch of country took us through an intensive diary farming area. Where you have cows, you have milk, and that means cheese, and down here they have the biggest cheese making facility in Australia. Forget couthy dairy maids though, this looked more like a petrochemical plant, all stainless steel tanks and belching steam. And across the road from this monster complex, they have perhaps the worst tourist attraction I have ever seen anywhere. Welcome to Cheeseworld, I kid you not, and a place so cheesy it makes Disneyworld look like a Cartier store. Inside they had all manner of cheese related memorabilia, including fleecy black and white toy cows in various sizes, and bizarrely, a stall selling white wellington boots. Duh? JD bought a spectacularly cheesy black and white cow motif tea towel, as a gift for some seriously trendy lady friends in one of the chic quarters of Sydney. The fact that they loved it, and laughed hysterically at it cheered me up no end, as clearly irony is still alive and well in Australia after all, something you would well doubt while at Cheeseworld. We rode off with JD hollering some ludicrous ditty about a "Cheese Train". Strange chap, my travelling companion!
The Great Ocean Washout
This was to have been one of the highlights of the trip. The great ocean road runs round the southern coast of Victoria, and is in every guide book as one of the greatest roads in the world, up there with California's Highway One at Big Sur. Moreover, it has a reputation as one of the all time great motorcycling roads, and our journey had been carefully planned so as to include it. Ominously though, John told me he had made three or four pilgrimages down here to ride the road, but had only every completed it once, a record that was to remain unchallenged. There was a eerie bluish-grey flat calm about the weather, but we started well enough, the road snaking through the scrub land near the cliffs, the sea on one side, and often stretches of open water inland full of black swans. Very groovy, even if my karma got spooked now and again as some clown would go screamin' past on a plastic rocket. We got as far as the famous Twelve Apostles, stacks of eroded rock, where we took the pictures below, while I contemplated doing some damage to my credit card by going up in one of the helicopters that offer rides over this amazing stretch of coast line. As it happened, my MasterCard stayed intact.
The weather changed like a switch, and all of a sudden all the helicopters came fluttering back, like clattering dragonflies escaping from something big and nasty. The temperature fell like a stone, the sky blackened, and it didn't so much rain as just the whole atmosphere seemed to be charged with solid water. We climbed into our waterproofs and continued on our way, but it was sheer hell. You couldn't see where you were going, let alone admire the view, you couldn't feel the road through the tyres, and it was just plain dangerous. We simultaneously decided to abandon the great ocean road and head inland, and as we got further away from the coast, the weather picked up again and our spirits rose over coffee and cakes at a cafe. It would be nice to have added the GOR to my motorcycling CV, but I was happier just to get out of that evil fog, before I dropped the bike.
Run to the Sun
We abandoned all our previous plans, and just headed north, to get out of the foul coastal weather, and after a fairly long and tiring day in the saddle we got as far as Geelong, a big nothing of a place, where we happily rented a cabin for the night, and crashed out. The following day was a huge improvement, and our first stop for breakfast was somewhere pretty, but I forget the name, and then a browse round Daylesford which I really liked, before we arrived at Maldon for a superb lunch. Maldon is pretty much owned by whatever is the Australian equivalent of our National Trust, and they have managed to preserve the whole centre of this little town pretty much as was a century ago. It is still a vibrant place though, with lots of cafes and bookshops and butchers shop and stuff. It's a truly unforgettable place, and I wish the photos below did it better justice.
This part of Victoria is both pretty and changeable, we passed thro' Bendigo, and for some reason it looked to me more like a Portuguese town than somewhere in the middle of Australia. Our destination for the night was Echuca, another place on the Murray River with a camp site beside the river too, and apparently once a hugely important port for the river paddle steamer, but these too seem to be in the same decline as the once mighty river they used to sail on . Sad. I liked Echuca though, it had something of the same air about it as Broken Hill, and it also boasted perhaps the best hardware shop I've ever seen in my life ... bloke world heaven! Although we were travelling by bike, JD was towing a pretty substantial trailer, so there was room to carry stuff, so in Echuca's bloke world I treated myself to three pairs of Blundstone boots, one for me, the other two as presents, and I can still visualise that shop, with it's oil lamps and billy cans and sleeping swags every time I pull them on. My little piece of Australia, to tromp around the garden in Kettle with.
Bill and Ned
I'm surprised that I've got so far through this story with out mentioning Bill. The writer Bill Bryson that is and his excellent book "Down Under". If you haven't read it, I suggest you do so, as it is one of his better travelogues, and he really gives you a feel for Australia as he saw it. If you have read it, and think that my opinions seem very similar to his, I make no apology. I am not trying to copy him, but it is almost impossible to follow the same sort of route he did and not come to largely the same conclusions. One acid test of a good travelogue is whether the citizens of the host country like it, and most Australians seemed to love the book, and JD was no exception. Indeed Mr Bryson led us directly to Glenrowan, where the outlaw Ned Kelly famously met his maker in a hail of police bullets, wearing his home made suit of armour, and in particular to "Ned Kelly's Last Stand".
Imagine a low rent, animated version of Madame Tussauds, operated in the middle of nowhere by one single, slightly unhinged bloke, and you begin to get the idea. It is about 4 or 5 rooms built around a courtyard, and you progress from room to room where a sort of animated tableau is performed, lasting maybe six or seven minutes in each room. The scenes are made up of life-size figures, inexpertly made, and operated by a system of motors, wires, pulleys and god knows what else, from a control room using old computers, tape machines, timers, film projectors, video machines, bells, whistles, chewing gum and string. It makes very little sense, the synchronisation is ropey, all the voices and faces on the screens are by the same chap (the unhinged owner), and it is unashamed amateur enthusiasm run riot. It manages to be simultaneously awful, wonderful, dire and charming, and is both a staggering waste of money and a bargain. The owner lives in an apartment in the middle of the whole shebang, which he happily showed us round, and which only added to the surrealism of it all. Outside is the inevitable "Big Ned" where I posed for this pictures with my fancy new hat.
By pure chance, my wife brought home a DVD of the latest film about Ned Kelly, the one with Orlando Bloom in it (which is probably why she bought it) and adventurously titled "Ned Kelly". I watched it last night, and while it hardly an epic film, it did transport me right back to that silly animated museum. This leads me to the conclusion that either the producer of the film has also been round the remarkable affair described above, or perhaps the madman in the outback has done a better job of depicting old Australia than I realised at the time. The film added nothing to the final truth though. I have now read several accounts of the life and times of Mr Kelly, and there is barely a scrap of agreement between them about the full details of his life, and this film adds yet another version. Ah well ... "Such is life" (Ned's last words)
Weekend in Paradise
Not far from Glenrowan is the Brown Brothers winery, which we toured, and where I discovered that they do not send all of their best stuff to Blighty, as there were few sweet wines on offer for tasting which I had never heard of before, and were delicious. Equally toothsome is this part of Victoria, where there is a much more green and lush feel to things. We rode happily through rolling farmland, and then into foothills, until finally we were up in the mountains again and going through the Tawonga Gap and down into the breath-takingly beautiful Kiewa valley and to our destination, Mount Beauty. This is a land of contrasts for sure, as suddenly it was like Switzerland, perhaps not surprising really as we were now in Australia's skiing area. So far we had not spent two consecutive nights in one place since we left Wauchope, and had promised ourselves that we would settle for a couple of days once we found somewhere to our liking. Mount Beauty, was very much to my liking, so I insisted we spend the weekend there. It turned out to be a good call.
My definition of a good campsite is simple. I like it quiet, I like to be camped beside water, and I like to be within staggering distance of licensed premises. Mount Beauty had it all and more. It was out of season for a ski place, and not yet high summer, so we had the place to ourselves. We had a brilliant location on the bank of a cold fast flowing mountain river, the sun shone by day and the stars came out at night, and best of all there was pub on one side and a pizza place on the other. Frankly I could have stayed there for a month, and been blissfully happy, but the weekend was all we had, but it was a good 'un. The following day we rode up to the ski village at Falls Creek, and had a fantastic lunch in an incongruously hippy-ish mountain chalet restaurant at Bogong. After pounding out the miles for the last two weeks, it was a delight to just chill out in this little corner of paradise, Australian style.
An Epic Ride
The next section was a long one, but a truly fantastic day's motorcycling. From Mt Beauty we went north up the Keiwa valley, then east along the Murray valley to Corryong where we had the slowest lunch on record (play the clip below!) and then up into the mountains of the Kosciusko National Park, until we arrived and camped at Jindabyne. The audio clips below will tell you more about that, so I'm going to reflect on the motorcycling aspect for a moment.
It would be easy just to say that Australia is a motorcyclists paradise, but the truth is a bit more complex than that. To those sports bike hero's who think biking is all about getting your knee down for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, Australia would come as a bit of a shock. The distances are so huge, that you would need to be a pretty committed sports rider to get the best from the place. Sure there are some classic sports roads, like the Oxley Highway and the Great Ocean Road and some of the hill passes, but you have to go a long, long way in between to find them. Australia also has a blanket 110 km/h speed limit (a ludicrous 69 mph), which JD assured me is rigorously enforced, although I saw precious few police cars, and there are no cameras. Some of these places are also pretty remote, so come unstuck riding solo, and you could be in big trouble. Don't underestimate the weather either. The heat in the interior is cruel, yet it can be very different near the coast.
However ... equip yourself with a comfortable touring bike, get your choice of gear right, and better yet have an expert guide like I had, and Australia offers a truly fantastic place to go bike touring. Once out of the cities, and bar a few of the main highways, the roads are simply deserted. Choose your route carefully and you can go from desert to mountains, bare scorched earth to lush forests and farmlands. Every town has cheap, good cafes and servos (petrol stations to you, usually with a cafe), and camp sites are plentiful, well run and cheap. The distances are huge, so chasing along at full tilt is a waste of time, better to ease off the throttle and just cruise. The Harley ElectraGlide was originally designed for just these sort of conditions, middle America decades ago, and it suits Australia to a T. I rode every day for three weeks doing over 6,000 kilometres in the process, often spending all day in the saddle, yet I never had an ache or pain the whole trip. I can honestly say that when we got back to Sydney, I could happily have had a good nights kip, and set out to do it all again. If the chance ever comes your way to ride through Australia, especially on a Harley, jump at it. You only live once!
The Last Lap
From Jindabyne we rode to Narooma, back on the coast where we camped by the sea, very pleasant, and the audio clip below will tell you more. The highlight though was the next day, when riding up the coast and heading for Canberra, we pulled into a little town for petrol and a bite to eat, and by pure chance I discovered the nicest place in all of Australia ... Nelligan. Just a smattering of houses, basking in the warmth, leading up from the river to a church at the top of the hill, which had been converted into a sleepy little gallery. By the river, a few folk pottering in boats, and a cute little gas servo, and clean cafe who served us the best bacon and eggs in the whole southern hemisphere. There was little or nothing of note about Nelligan, but I absolutely fell in love with the place. If the clouds had parted, and the voice of God had instructed me to stay there for the rest of my days, I would not have argued. I'm afraid the pics below don't really do it justice, but play the clips and you'll see what I mean.
Spiritually fuelled up with my idyllic few hours in Nelligan, we rode the Kings Highway to Canberra. This part of Australia is supposed to be quite green at this time of year, but they were in the grip of a drought, and what should have been prize cattle country was beginning to look like desert. We stopped at a truly wonderful leather shop in Bungendore, where I bought three kangaroo hides. Back home I gave one to my brother, and the other two are draped over the chair backs in my study, as a permanent reminder of my trip. We hit Canberra, and did the sights, and contrary to all expectation, I liked it a lot. Hell, it's a New Town, so of course it looks like one, and anyone from Scotland should have a damned good look at East Kilbride or Cumbernauld before they say anything critical. And yes, that does mean you Billy Connelly! Play the clips for my thoughts
We left Canberra after a downpour of red rain, red earth carried on winds from the outback, and deposited on my tent, where the marks still linger. We travelled through the Illawarra valley, where I saw something I had not really noticed before ... affluence. This is big money country, with flash cars and big houses and all the trimmings, which after the roadhouses and dunnies of the New South Wales bush seemed somehow out of place. A land of contrast and no mistake. Our next stop was another famous biker hangout, the Robertson pie shop, where I committed my last thoughts of the journey thoughts to tape, before we hit the motorway back to Sydney, and home.
Some Bike Thoughts
Back home again in Sydney and my first task was to return the bike to the hire company and get my deposit back, and by the way I can certainly recommend the hire company in Toongabbie to you, if you ever need to hire a bike in Australia, they get top marks. I gave it a thorough wash and clean up first, not so much because I had to, but more as a thank you to the bike which had been such a brilliant, comfortable and reliable companion for the last 3 weeks and 6,000 kilometres.
Back home in Scotland, I own a plain black ElectraGlide Standard just like the bike I'd hired, which I bought new back in 1996, and which has now covered about 20,000 miles. The hire bike of course was much younger than mine, but had done at least twice as many miles, and bore a few battle scars from it's life as a hard working tour hack. I'd worked the previous year in a Harley dealership, and was forming a theory about Harleys, and this hired bike was the final proof that I needed. Let me explain.
Every bearded Neanderthal that rides a Harley will tell you that Harley don't know how to make a decent bike, but of course he does. Yes Sir, him and his mates have fettled their Harleys so that they go ten times better than those dumb ass factory guys know how to do it. Likewise, every customer in the shop, especially the ones that had read all the magazines, could not wait to order up as much tuning gear as they could possibly afford. Carburettor kits, loud pipes, hot cams, fancy heads and so on. Dammit, they just knew that you had to have all this kit to have a credible bike, oh and a shed full of chrome plated rubbish to nail to it as well. And of course Harley do their level best to sell as much of this kit as humanly possible, and if you knew the profit margin on it, you'd understand why. Yes Sirree Bob, even Harley know that they make a lousy bike, but goddam it they'll happily sell you the bits to cure it, and after all I was only there to take the punter's money. Funnily enough, this is not how it seemed in the workshop, as the bikes that gave all the trouble were inevitably the ones which had been improved. I often had to ride customer's bikes to deliver them, and I became convinced that the more the customer improved them, the worse they were to ride. Mostly the improvements made ferocious quantities of noise, and every customer knows that a noisy bike is a fast bike. Hmmn.
My own bike is pretty much standard, and I have noticed that as it has racked up the miles, it seems to get sweeter and indeed faster. This hire bike was very possibly the sweetest and nicest running HD I'd every ridden, and surprisingly quick too. So what miracles of tuning had been wrought on it to bring about this improvement? NONE, nada, nothing, zilch, plain old bugger all. The only difference was it had covered a huge mileage, and had been properly serviced and maintained. Harley owners the world over, sit down shut up and listen. The Harley Davidson factory makes a perfectly good product straight out of the box, and the best improvement you can make to it ... is to ride it! Put some mileage on the damned thing. I'm horrified at how many folk buy an HD, do a thousand miles, and then trade it for another one. They never actually know what it is they've bought! These are old fashioned engines, and they are designed for long, long lives, and to give their best they need at least 10k miles, more like 20k before they run properly. Don't just take my word for it, ask any seasoned mechanic, or better yet go and hire that bike in Toongabbie for a couple of days ... you'll be amazed!
If you've read this far, you'll not need reminding that this had been a real bloke's holiday, but John's partner Liela had other ideas for one of my last days in Sydney, which turned out to be wonderful. I was going to have a girl's day out. Some explanation first. John and Leila are actually divorced, but still live together (well, most of the time) and have a relationship which I reckon most married couples would die for. Don't ask me to explain, it just works for them. Anyway, Lelia also shares a flat part time with a some sisters in the trendy part of Sydney, Leichardt, so first order of the day was to meet up with "the ugly sisters" for a girls breakfast in a pavement side cafe in Leichardt. An old friend Alison was also staying, so the three of us set off in Liela's smart new BMW, but with Alison driving. Within a few blocks it was apparent to me that Alison couldn't drive the BMW. She was nervous, unfamiliar with the car, she was lost in Sydney, and to be brutal, was making me worried. Did Liela care? Not a fig. Her attitude was that it was just a car, and if Alison bashed it, it would get fixed. But hell, if she touched her lipstick she'd murder her. Girls? ... I ask you?
We were joined for breakfast first by Kylie (yes it's a real name here) a woman who puts new meaning into the term effervescent, and by her sister Ann and her new lesbian lover. It was going to be one of those days! (play the sound clip) Then we went shopping for shoes, and by now I was beginning to feel like the minority in this group of strident females, but it was an amazing insight into an alien world that we blokes are rarely privileged to see. This was followed by Leila and Alison taking me on a reminiscing tour of the Sydney harbour area which they used to frequent as students, ending up with coffee and cakes at Coogee beach. We did visit Bondi, which I was keen to see, but frankly it's a dump, and Coogee is much nicer. All told, a fantastic day out, and thank you ladies.
Time To Go Home
John had another treat in store before it was time to leave, and that was a trip to the Sydney Motor Show with his old police mate Moose, and a better way to spend a Sunday morning I have yet to find. The show was great, again somehow more accessible than the ones in the UK, but so was the Darling Harbour area where it was held, an old waterfront area of town that has been revived and is a must to visit if you are there. I loved it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly my last day in Australia was a mite low key. After all it was a Monday, I was about to face 24 hours locked in a steel tube at 35,000 feet, and besides, how do you top the 4 weeks fun and excitement that we had just had. We went for a wander in the car, and John decided to take me round Botany Bay, the place of course where it all started with Captain Cook landing. Botany Bay is another of those iconic names like Bondi Beach that sound so romantic, but just like Bondi turn out to be a disappointment. Botany Bay is just a straggle of industry, and nothing much to get excited about, until that is we got to the landing rock. On a fairly innocuous little beach, is a small rock poking out of the water, where apparently the very first Europeans set foot on antipodean soil. I'm not sure why, but I found it surprisingly moving.
John and I said our goodbyes over a coffee in the airport, being jovially rude to one another which had become our accepted way of communicating, and I stumped off to get on the plane, and for whatever reason I can remember almost nothing about the journey home, other than that it was uneventful.
So just how do I finish this story? For someone who had got to the ripe old age of 50, and never managed to get further than Europe, this was to be my big adventure, my holiday of a lifetime. And indeed it was, it is something I shall never forget, and just writing this story alone has brought back so many great memories. It was also a remarkable testament to the power of the internet. I had travelled to the other side of the globe to be offered hospitality by a chap I had only met by e-mail, and together the two of us set off on a months adventure as if we had known each other all our lives. Likewise the gathering at Wauchope, where I partied for a weekend with a gang of fellow bikers, again who I felt I already knew, simply because we had been chatting together on a web group. Amazing.
Or is it amazing? Perhaps it wasn't such a big deal after all. If I had ridden for an afternoon to a bike rally somewhere in Scotland, met up with some mates, sunk a few beers and had a good time, and then gone off on a bike run together, I wouldn't give it a second thought. It is after all the sort of thing I'm likely to do any summer weekend. Subtract from this story the distance to Australia, and lets face it, it's only 24 hours in a plane, and perhaps I should be no more surprised at the outcome than I would from that local bike rally. The real lesson here is that I should not have left it so long to find out just how easy it is to do stuff like this. Like all us mortals, I only have a finite number of years available to me, and the world is a big place.