Day 13: Esperance – Australind

Being less than 750 kilometres from home, and knowing that this means the number of riding hours between where we stood and a decent shower and a good night’s sleep was down into single digits, the younger of my compatriots and I had arranged to prep up early and head towards home in a straight and boring direction with the intention of getting back in time for a late lunch. We said goodbye to our two accomplices on the way out of the hotel carpark, and then made a number of directional adjustments trying to get out of Esperance.

Once we were moving, the miles ticked over quickly. We slowed down to have a quick glimpse at the salt lakes, but otherwise we were making good time.

As we popped out the Western side of Collie, we ran into a dense cloud of hanging smoke. Workers were standing around in their high-visibility vests waving their lollipop signs instructing us to slow down, as there were burn-offs going on for most of the way down the hill. This made things more painfully slow than usual, since we were getting so close, and since the road downhill from Collie is such a nice bit of tar to travel along at pace.

As we reached the bottom of the hill and rolled up the highway junction, some manner of airborne carnivore attempted to burrow a hole through my neck with whatever kind of teeth, stingers or pincers these things get around with nowadays, but thankfully it gave up shortly after and left me with a relatively intact upper body and a lop-sidedly swollen neck. But putting aside my being devoured alive, I parted ways with my last remaining buddy as she headed towards her place and I headed towards my parents house to confirm to my Mother that I had indeed survived the trip.

While I was only about 180km from my starting point, I decided to stay the night at my folks’ place to regale them with the more sanitary exploits of the last 2 weeks of my life, shower, eat, and sleep in well after the sun was up. I got a message from my friend shortly after I finished showering to let me know she’d made it home intact, and with my responsibilities complete, I promptly disposed of any conscious thought and made good friends with the nearest mattress.

Day 12: Nullarbor Roadhouse – Esperance

Dawn on the Nullarbor is a special kind of quiet.

This morning is particularly eerie, as without a hint of wind about, stepping outside I become the only moving thing in sight. Of course you could find the same state of things anywhere you were (provided you got up at an unreasonable enough hour) but this is special, because I can stand in the middle of the Eyre Highway, look both ways along the straight, flat bitumen that runs to the East and West horizons, and see nothing. The piece of tar on which I’m standing is the only sealed road from East to West this side of the Tropic of Capricorn, and there’s nothing but a thousand miles of desert between here and the next way across, a long way North. And yet, not a sound.

Most truckers won’t drive between dusk and dawn across spots like this because of the kamikaze wildlife that like to cross the roads at all times of night. I have a play around with my camera while the others get loaded up and we wait for Surly to open the store so we can grab some supplies.

Pickings are slim when it comes to foods fit for human consumption, so I conscript a lamington and a can of Red Bull into something that can masquerade as breakfast, and we get on with the day’s work.

We cross back into Western Australia not long after setting off, and continue the Fuel-Ride-Fuel-Ride-Fuel-Ride cycle pulling in at familiar stops along the way, and spotting occasional signs of life.

The day is mostly uneventful until about 30km out of Norseman I attempt to kick down a gear to overtake an unremarkable sedan in front of me, however when I go to pull in the clutch, the lever swings back to the bar and makes a light tink, before it starts to rattle back and forth, seemingly having been released from its previous arrangement with the rest of the motorcycle, under which it served some mechanical function. I now have no clutch. Deciding that there’s little point stopping in the sun on the side of the road to try and fix it, I coast towards the Norseman roadhouse in 6th, then repeatedly give the throttle a little blip and put some pressure on the gear lever, managing to drop the bike down into neutral in time to roll to a stop under a nice, shady tree outside the BP.

After quickly establishing that the problem doesn’t lie at the lever end, both the bike and I start disrobing, as I ditch my jacket and start unbolting the fairings from the side of the bike so that I can get to the other end of the clutch cable. By now my friends have started arriving with concern on their faces, but there is much joy all ’round when I find that the bolt holding the clutch cable sleeve in place has rattled off, leaving the lever slack. A bit of fiddling later, and having transferred a large amount of interstate dirt and grime from the motor onto my hands, and we’re back in business. The whole mess has only taken 20 minutes or therabouts, so we decide to leg it to Esperance for the night where we book into a hotel and scoot up to a lookout in time to see the sun go down and the clouds roll in.

We grab some dinner around the corner from the hotel, agree on a time to set our alarms for in the morning, and quite happily pass out in our allotted quarters.

Day 11: Renmark – Nullarbor Roadhouse

If yesterday was a long and unenventful haul, today would be even more so. The plan was to get out of bed, get on the bikes and head due West until there was no more sun left to shine.

We get out of bed at the same time as the sun, and share the remains of the milk between four coffees in order to warm up for the first leg of the trip, planning to rustle up breakfast 200km down the road in Burra at a point in time where the bakery should be open and rational people should be getting out of bed. After loading up on coffee and baked goods, we gear up and keep hauling until we get to the familair sight of Port Augusta (or Pawdagudda if you’re talking through a neck sock) and we stop for a fuel and toilet break. We’re preparing to head off again when another police car comes to pay us some attention.

Apparently word has come through that there was a large outlaw motorcycle gang meeting happening out West, and the boys in blue were on their guard for packs of bikies. After establishing that we were in fact not Coffin Cheaters, the gents asked about our trip, started talking grand prix racing and realised that the driver and one of our cohort had both worked the grounds at the Phillip Island round some time last milennium. So after a jovial chat, we each went on our merry way. That was the last word we’d have with the law until we hit home.

Back on the Eyre Highway, we chew up the miles, stopping in at Kimba on the way to Ceduna, where, after some convoluted phone calls, we are told by someone who was likely on another continent altogether that there was no room at the inn at Nundroo, where we’d planned to stay the night. Thankfully our next phone call confirmed that the next fuel stop along the route had space to spare, and so we toddled out of Ceduna towards the Nullarbor Roadhouse, doing so at a dawdling pace for several miles before coming to the conclusion that someone has stolen the speed limit signs for the highway, and thus, we hit the gas.

We fuel up briefly at Nundroo, where there appear to be three people staying at the lodgings, and take off again into the setting, and ever-more blinding sun. We reach our destination intact, in time to watch the sun set over the deserted horizon, and to meet the surliest roadhouse worker this side of the equator. He is, however, kindly enough to ferry our orders to the kitchenhand so that we might eat. A burger or so later and we’re all tired enough to pass out in bed, which is convenient, what with the four of our beds all in the one room. Another day, another thousand kilometres.

Day 10: Bright – Renmark

After several trips up and down the stairs, my bike is again laden with the few mortal possessions I have with me. It’s once again early, and most people in their right minds are still asleep, but for some curious reason the troops all drag themselves out of bed (and into pants no less) before coming out to see the Sandgropers head off West again. There is much shaking of hands, and the motel corridors hum with the sound of idling bikes.

We top up with fuel around the corner, then do our best to collect as many species of wildlife as possible on the visors of our helmets, although doing so entirely unconsciously.

In order to try and shave some time from the journey, we decide to head up and overland, which takes us into our fourth state for the trip.

From there on in, the order of the day is mostly munching miles. Robyn and I swap bikes for a strech to ward off some of the boredom of the endless highways through dry, open paddocks.

On the far side of Balranald, we continue cruising along the road, when a strange green sedan begins leapfrogging between us and squeezing into the gaps. I begin to consider what colourful moniker best describes such behaviour, when I notice in my mirrors a familiar number of aerials and attachments clinging to the car. I look over my shoulder to see for certain, and it seems we’re being harassed by a couple of undercover police with not much else to do. They sweep around me and make their way to the foremost of the bikes, where they match speed and continue to drive on the wrong side of the road for some distance, before making a point of shooting off into the distance. I make a note not to drink the local water.

Two border crossings later and finding ourselves back in South Australia, we pull up outside the Renmark pub, which is our destination for the day, and decide after considering the swanky look of the place, that we might check out the caravan park instead, which turns out to be an excellent idea. We rent a cheap 3 bedroom unit for the night, only to pull up and find the site overlooking the Murray river as the sun sets over the treeline. The view is majestic.

After a nice stroll back to the pub for dinner some misunderstood-order antics, we turn in for the night. Tomorrow will be longer.

Day 9: Bright – Bright

Morning comes, and with it the heavenly scent of bacon and egg rolls. While the barbeque is going in the background, some primitive urge sees a number of us huddle around the remains of last nights fire, although any trace of embers has long burnt out. The troops steadily trickle out of motel rooms in various states of disrepair, and we sadly bid goodbye to a few of our number who are bound to return to reality sooner than they would otherwise like.

We flesh out plans for the day over coffee and juice, and the four of us bound for WA the next morning decide to plot a shorter route and save our tender rumps from too much pounding. The gaggle of madmen take off before us, and we make our way out to Mt Beauty, before heading up some beautifully winding mountain roads to Falls Creek, and the snow.

It’s been 20 years since I’d last seen snow, which for a man of 27 years, is an awfully long time. Free of the gloves and loving concern that my parents sheltered me with the last time I saw snow, I get to touch snow with my bare hands for the first time (although it sounds more dramatic and touching than it is in real life).

While I may have all manner of gripes and grimaces for the state of the world, the sight of four fully-grown adults having a snowball fight in a deserted carpark is something that makes it impossible to resist the swell of joy that bubbles up inside me from time to time.

Having met the point where the roads are blocked from ice and snow, we turn around and head back downhill to Mt Beauty for lunch, followed by a leisurely trot back to Bright and a well deserved nanna nap. When the remaining nutters make their return, we all descend on the local pub for dinner, drinks, some pool, and the reckless abandon of vocal chords. I decide to call it a night before too late, but the rest of my comrades are not far behind, as the publican closes the bar (which I can only assume was in direct response to an alcohol fuelled rendition of Candy by Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson).

We all ignore the saddening fact that we will have to part ways in the morning, and retire for the night well in excess of any reasonable level of cheer.

Day 8: Cowes – Bright

The fans get up, and they get out of town.

This morning I discovered that I had vastly underestimated two important factors in my travel plans, firstly the amount of time required to get off the island (which takes longer than coming in, due to the mass exodus after race weekend) and the distance between Cowes and Pakenham (where I was supposed to be meeting another group of friends for a ride to Bright). I can only assume that at some point I had looked at a map of the area, felt that the little squiggly lines didn’t look very long, and decided that I could get from the house to the meet point in 15 minutes or so, giving me time to get a coffee and a sit-down before we head off again. As it happens, the squiggly lines in this case were 85 kilometres long.

After riding for 20 minutes and having not yet seen one of my early landmarks, I do a roadside check of directions and discover my whoopsie. I arrived a mere 45 minutes after the planned departure time, where I found to my great surprise (and greater relief), that Dr Jones (who I ride with in WA) was also just arriving, and that Smythie (one of the locals) was hanging around waiting for just such stragglers as ourselves. Hallelujah. We headed further out of town to Healesville where we finally caught up with the rest of the crew. I get to see a few familiar faces, and put a lot of new ones to names that I have been hearing and reading for the past 6 years.

We all make our way off in a group, and head off towards the mountains. We arrive at the base of a road by the name of The Black Spur, and it blows my mind. Never in my life have I been on such a twisty road with such a gloriously smooth surface. I can only describe it as road riding bliss.

With a grin a mile wide, I follow the others through some more twisty roads out to Mansfield, where we stop for lunch and catch up with my three amigos from earler, and a couple of other locals. After I devour a monstrous chicken parmigiana (and the others eat their respective lunches), we head on out through the countryside to Bright. I haul my luggage to my room upstairs, unpack (read: throw the contents of my bags around the room), and we all sit around in the motel garden with plenty of drinks and a huge spread for dinner, then proceed to talk absolute rubbish for many, many hours.

Through the night I find myself, sitting quietly, just smiling.

Day 7: Phillip Island (again)

Alarms go off and bodies roll out of bed at some Godforsaken hour of the cold, Victorian morning and the troops do their best to dress themselves and appear alert. We stop at the corner shop to grab coffee and bacon and egg rolls before once more parking the Camry in a paddock near the track and taking our place in line to wait for the gates to open. Time goes on and the line grows substantially behind us, until the gates eventually burst open and event staff standing on tables wave the mad crowds through without bothering to check for tickets. Once we are into the outfield, we shoulder our folding chairs and make a rush for the fence near MG corner, where our compatriots find us again and we stake out our prime viewing spot. From here we just need to wait another 8 hours for the race to start.

The wind is bitterly cold, and after an hour and a half I join the ridiculous queue for the coffee van. Another hour later, I have two arms full of coffee, and a deep sense of satisfaction.

The races are spectacular and the smiles can’t be kept off our faces, even if this is partly due to being frozen in place.

When all of the festivities that the MotoGP circus has to offer are over, we make our way back to the car, then slowly back to the house, where we bid our friend from Melbourne goodbye, and head into Cowes one last time for some celebrations. We watch a replay of the race on a giant screen in the street before finally catching yesterday’s Birthday Boy for a couple of drinks, where we’re soon joined by other Western Australian misfits and ring-ins. We get home later than I had planned, but in high spirits. I pack my gear up in order to make a hasty exit tomorrow morning, and curl up for a well earned rest.

Day 6: Phillip Island

I end up getting a bit more of a sleep-in than previously planned, due to my new housemates mistakenly interpreting my talking in my sleep as an indication that I’m awake and getting out of bed. Thankfully they cottoned on after not too long, and it was still early in the morning when I rolled out of bed, made short work of a coffee and some Weet-Bix, then piled into the car with the rest of the inhabitants to make our way to the track.

After parking the Camry deep in a muddy paddock at the direction of the marshalls, I’m delightfully surprised at how painless it is to collect my pre-booked tickets, and I stroll into the grounds. Roughly 8 seconds after coming through the gates, I make a beeline for the merchandise stand and lay down 15 bucks for a Grand Prix beanie, which turns out to be one of the finest investments of my adult life.

After the guys I’m with finish having their bags inspected and get into the track, we park ourselves on the fence at the end of the main straight just in time for the ear-splitting roar of the MotoGP bikes tearing past at an obscene rate. It is bliss. Shortly after that, it begins to rain, and I sucker myself into buying a poncho, having earlier talked myself into believing the weather forecast and leaving my waterproof jacket at home. As the day went on, I managed to run into more and more friends from back home and this side of the country, every one full of smiles. By the time we leave the track in the late afternoon, I’ve seen the track from every angle and am thankful to have avoided the fate of several other punters I have seen, who have going face first into one of the wide selection of available mud pits. Unwillingly I’m assuming.

Another one of my friends from Melbourne turns up to the house after finishing work, and after making plans to meet a good friend of ours in town for his birthday, we all pile back into the Toyota and head into Cowes, which is still overflowing with bike riders, motorcycles and street-going folks enjoying themselves. We grab a bite to eat and have a couple of drinks and a yarn with some of the racers from WA before we find out via text message that the birthday boy has softed out on us and gone home to bed without even making it into town.

It’s only a short ride home, and after a brief discussion on what constitutes a sane time to get to the track in the morning, I go to bed in the same place as last night for the first time this week.

Day 5: Camperdown – Cowes

We wake up to the sound of gentle rain outside, which is quite pleasant as long as I don’t have to go out there. I dismantle and reassemble the poorly constructed coffee plunger while my room-mate starts whipping up a (very appreciated) storm across the rest of the kitchenette, resulting in eggs, toast and proper coffee for breakfast, without us having to gear up and ride somewhere to get it. It’s a nice refrain, brief as it may be.

It’s still drizzling steadily when we have finished packing up and getting ready, so we set out anyhow, hoping for the best. A short while later, the steady rain softens to occasional sprinkles and gusts of wind as we head towards to coast.

Cruising down to catch sight of the water at Port Campbell, we meet the Great Ocean road, and it is an epic piece of work. The weather isn’t particularly happy-snap friendly, so we just tootle past the seven remaining Twelve Apostles, and roll on to enjoy the black stuff. The first leg of the road is wet all through, and while parts were wide and sweepy, there was an absolutely gorgeous section of 30-70kmh corners that reminded me of the hills surrounding Adelaide (although these were not quite as smooth). The roads duck and weave around the edges of hills just hidden from the ocean breeze, and we are lucky enough to be almost completely alone on the road. Every sane person is waiting for the weather to clear up, and all the other loons are already at Phillip Island.

We stop in Apollo Bay (which is just beautiful by the way) for fantastic coffee and a brilliant muffin (actually, to clarify, I had a brilliant muffin. Too brilliant to go sharing about), and after filling up and chatting with a couple of other riders we meet at the servo, we work our way up the second half of the Great Ocean Road, which is even more fantastic than the first, and the weather became clearer and clearer as we went on. The Eastern leg of the road snakes along the ocean side of the ranges, and the view is just phenomenal. Occasionally we find outselves behind a truck or bus for a while, as the road is frequently too tight and twisting to pass safely, but the beauty of the coast makes up for any bother with the delay.

We eventually make it into Queenscliff and catch the ferry over to Sorrento, which was a kind of fun first for me, and another chance to stretch my legs and get a coffee. I have not been over water with my motorcycle before, and it was interesting looking at my friend’s GPS with its little motorcycle avatar travelling over a large blue ocean. The landing at the other side of the bay was interesting though, as they conduct it using a number of rubber-covered pillars in a kind of bumpy, touch-parking pinball sort of way, which is fine… unless you leave your top-heavy 1200cc BMW motorcycle on its centrestand like the fellow behind me did. The first bump was not an insignificant one, but the second was larger, and managed to topple the bike onto the floor without too much trouble. Thankfully the owner had ticked all of the accessory option boxes on his order form and the crash protection gear worked wonders.

We take a few back roads to dodge suburbia and the freeways as much as possible, and I part ways with my friends at the turnoff to Phillip Island as we’ve arranged separate lodgings, and a short time later I arrive in one relatively intact piece.

After unloading my gear from the bike, I scoot into Cowes to grab some milk, juice and cereal, and the town is overflowing with motorcyclists. They fill any nook, cranny or gap from one end of town to the other, as helpless cars try to find a place to park when the highway patrol turns them around, instructing them that the main road is motorcycle-only from this point on.

My house-mates for the weekend get back from the racetrack where they’ve spent the afternoon, and we head back into town for dinner at the Isle of Wight Hotel, where I run into some of the racers from back at home and devour a large and thoroughly satisfying bowl of pasta. A short while later, I hit the shower at the house and pass out on the top bunk with little trouble around 11pm, to sleep soundly and dream about motorbikes.