Rides hitched since Sydney - 15
Kms off course - 2,893
Longest Road Train ridden in - 56m
Note: Some names and minor details have been changed to protect the privacy of people in this post.
In Croydon, Darwin had felt so very close, right up until I realised that I had a hole in my piston. Arriving in Croydon I really didn't comprehend just how remote some of these small towns are. I certainly didn't think it would take me over two weeks to get myself and the bike to Darwin. Further than that, I know that without the immense help of complete strangers it would have been impossible for me to get the bike to Darwin.
I still had some hope that my lack of compression might have been a minor issue; that it might have just been loose valve or something minor. There was nothing for it but to strip the bike down to the cylinder and have a look.
I didn't have any shade where I could work and the ground was red dust that was being blown about constantly. My tools were always covered in grit and dust. As the heat came down on me I realised that this would have to be one the worst possible places to strip a bike down. With no other option though, I opened the poorly scanned and re-printed workshop manual, weighted the pages down with a torque wrench and started the engine strip. To avoid the dust getting into all of the parts, Dad would collect the pieces and place them into marked zip locked bags. This made the whole process far easier than it would have been if I was just doing this solo. I could focus on the bike and Dad who always borderline OCD could do his organisation thing. Dad looked on with a mixture of concern, worry and the occasional smirk which I think was a glimmer of pride. When I was growing up he had tried so very hard to get me to learn how to work on cars. He had a 1978 V8 Triumph Stag convertible which he was forever wrenching on (I guess our family has a soft spot for temperamental British engines). Repeatedly I know he tried to get me involved with his cars but I was never interested in learning - at age 13 I was too busy being a youthful delinquent and trying to look at boobs on the internet to be concerned with the likes of oil changes and car wirings. Here we were though many years later, passing tools, parts, bolts and nuts between us. Neither of us are great mechanically but by utilising our strengths we were able to strip the bike down much faster than I thought possible.
Pulling the head off the bike I found that not only had I killed the rings, the piston but worst of all, the bore had been very badly damaged. My bike was going to need some major work. It was much more than what I would be able to do in Croydon without access to specialist tools, machining and the ability to google the huge gaps in my mechanical knowledge.
I felt devastated.
Not just for me but also for Dad. I always had a vision of us riding into Darwin, engines only half running as we come to the end of the Stuart highway and leaning over and fist bumping as we stopped outside a pub in town, dusty, tired but alive with the sense of having done something great together.
With my bike like this and Dad’s limited leave… I realised there was no way that we would get the chance to finish the ride together.
I sighed, cursed, placed the head back on the bike and Dad passed me a beer. Filthy from grease and dust, the ice cold clean can was a stark contrast to my mood and everything around me.
The lovely couple that had helped us out getting the bike into town very, very kindly offered to get us to the next town over with their Ford f250. At Normanton there were a number of transport stations that might be able to get us to Mount Isa.
I decided to move on from the foul mood that I was in the day before and as if the universe decided to positively reinforce my decision - my Ray Bans were returned to me. They had fallen into the back of the pickup when I was riding the motorcycle off the f250. He handed them back to me, and apologised that they looked scratched. I didn’t care, I threw them straight back onto my head and suddenly life just seemed that much manageable through the polarised lenses.
Dad was going to sit in the passenger seat with my bike in the truck and I was going to follow behind on his bike. It was a 150km, mostly sealed, narrow road. I would stay in the right hand tyre track so I could to see what was coming up ahead and when a car would pass the other way, I would switch over to the left tyre track to avoid some of the stones thrown by the passing car.
It felt amazing to be riding again. I had forgotten what it was like to ride a bike that you could just ride. On my old Enfield, it felt like I was steering an old junk ship in treacherous waters that needed constant attention. You could never give it a direct input - just nudge it in the right direction and hope luck would take care of the rest. I was forever checking things while I was riding my bike and you never really knew if it was going to make it over the next hill or not. If you opened up the throttle, would it go forward or if you told it to stop would the old drum brakes be enough to pull it up? You never knew how long it would take or if it would even be able to make the planned destination. Instead I just kinda willed my bike in the right direction and made adjustments on the fly to both the bike and riding style as required. With Dad’s new Enfield, you just rode it. It took corners well; it stopped well. With this new confidence I blasted music and smiled underneath my dust stained face cover.
I was looking at my bike on the back of this truck thinking just how different the two bikes were when a road train started to appear in the distance. I started to shift across to the left tyre track.
Suddenly the f250 moved hard to the left. I didn't think too much of it as I figured it was just to give the road train more room. It wasn't - the car had shifted so it didn't drive over the corpse of a huge kangaroo. I was too close to the car to see it and before I knew it my front wheel was aimed directly at the centre mass of this corpse. A solid, once living 90 kg, seventy centimetre high speed bump that if I hit directly would likely write off the bike and me, if it didn't throw me into the path of the oncoming road train in the other direction.
I jumped on the brakes, shifted my weight to the rear of the bike and tried to swerve to the left, I clipped the tail of the roo which knocked the bike into a speed wobble. I jumped off the brakes and rolled off the throttle to try and smooth it. The road train passed, the f250 was powering ahead. I was alive and ok.
It was the closest call I had on the trip so far. Luckily I wasn’t on my bike and the improved suspension and handling of the new bike managed it well. I looked around with my heart and head still pumping. It’s been a while since I have had an adrenaline rush like that. The music was still playing but it suddenly seemed very inappropriate for the situation. The car ahead had no idea just how close I came to being completely undone. Visions splashed through my head. Dad wouldn’t have seen the crash but the driver of the truck might have seen it in her review mirror. The truckie going in the other direction… would he feel guilty if he cleaned me up or would he rightly assume that I was just a fool making a stupid mistake? Dad had warned me not to follow too close. It was decent advice and if I wasn’t such an idiot who backed my riding ability on someone’s else bike I would have followed it. Lesson learned.
What a strange place. Normanton was the kind of town that had an air of danger about it. It felt like those small Bolivian border towns, dusty and with low quality housing stock. Perhaps I just felt the same way in Bolivia as I did now and that gave me that same edgy feeling - slightly lost with an unknown destination and a feeling of helplessness. I was unnecessarily checking my wallet and throwing nervous glances at my bike whenever someone walked past. A few drunks yelled at us as we pulled in. I rotated the bike in the tray of the truck and rode it down the two small planks of wood we had been using as a ramp.
Dad and I both said goodbye to the kind woman who had helped us not just once but twice. I am not sure she ever really knew just how grateful we were. It was unquestionable kindness that I will never be able repay. How often on my trip would I have to rely on the kindness of people?. So far I have never been disappointed in people but is it unfair and selfish of me to continue if I know I cannot do it without their support?
Dad went and found accommodation at the local caravan park while I started to poke around and seek out some transport options.
The local store, as is so often the case in these small towns, acted as a transport depot, postal centre, travel centre and covered just about all the local needs.
I explained my situation to the shop owner and she couldn’t be more helpful. She gave me the number of a truck that would be running through town that day. I jumped on the phone to the driver. He said he had no issue with it but I needed to check with the boss back in Brisbane. The shop owner was determined to help me and mentioned that the boss owed her a favour. She grabbed my mobile from me, winked and explained the situation. She smiled and passed the phone back to me. With that smile I knew everything was going to be ok.
The owner told me that they would be able to sort something out and I would just have to get myself and the bike to the depot which was about 4kms out of town.
I pushed the bike back to where Dad was unloading his gear into a donga (temporary accommodation which resembles a shipping container). We came up with a plan. Dad was to ride in the road train with my bike and I was to ride his bike down to Mt Isa. The caravan park would only charge us a few dollars cleaning fee if we left in the next hour.
The only issue was how to get the bike to the depot when it was at least 4kms out of town and at 40 degrees outside.
We towed the bike of course. I had tried this before but Dad was deadset against the idea. We only had a rather short strap and I knew it would be difficult but it was a better option than pushing the bike. I rolled the bike out of the park and after 50 meters of pushing the loaded bike my shirt was already soaked through and sticking between me and the jacket. I am not made for this kind of heat and humidity.
Dad stated he thought it was a bad idea for the 30th time but begrudgingly allowed me to tie the strap onto the back of his luggage rack. He took off and then slowed down. The slack in the strap caught under my front wheel and pulled the bike from under me. We had gone less than 10 meters and I was sprawled on the highway with the bike on top of me.
I asked Dad again to go at a steady pace, not slow and if he was concerned about going steady that he should go faster. I held the strap firm and he took off again.
We rode the rest of the 4kms without any incidents but by the end my arm and hand was aching from the strain of pulling a 250 kilo load with one hand and a short strap.
We rolled into the depot and started explaining the situation. No one there knew about the arrangement so I waited for the truckie that I had spoken with to arrive.
Then a familiar face walked into the smoking area. A truckie who I had met in a pub in Croydon recognised me. Back in Croydon we had a bit of chat over a beer as you do in small pubs, but seeing him here and not in such a relaxed environment I felt uneasy. At the time we had talked about depression, the issues associated with anxiety and why I was doing this trip. How would he react now? Did he regret the things he said at the pub now that we stood in his place of work?
His eyes were darting everywhere, he had heavy bags under his eyes and his hands where constituently fidgeting and whenever he passed something he had to touch it. Having worked in nightclubs for years while balancing full time Uni and a 9-5 job I recognised the symptoms of someone who had not slept for a long time and while very energetic was clearly very, very sleep deprived - this man was in need of a solid feed and a good 12 hours rest.
“Fuck me, you didn’t get very far!” he broke out with a wide smile and said this like he knew something I didn’t.
“Well, further than yesterday which I guess is the main thing.” I replied, not sure what else to say to this.
He was on a forced 24 hour “rest day” having driven too far and for too many days in a row. He clearly wanted to be back in his truck but he made it his mission that while he was not able to drive his truck, he would anything and everything possible to help us.
There is a long list of things that he did to help and while we waited for our ride out he not only managed to find us transport to Isa, weld a patch over a hole in Dad’s exhaust pipe, explain to the depot boss the purpose of our trip, and he made us feel welcome in a town that I had struggled with upon first entering.
Soon the rest of the truckies knew about the trip and were keen to help. Once again, we heard stories of hardship, learned about the realities of trying to make a living in rural Queensland and the levels of bureaucracy they had to deal with when all they wanted to do was drive trucks.
Here a few examples. When they drive through a town they have to record the name. It seems straight forward enough but then you consider that they may cover the length of Queensland in 24 hours and every single town they pass through has to be spelled absolutely correctly. With names like Boulia, Thargomindah and Kaimkillenbun – that’s a big ask. One driver mentioned that once he abbreviated “Queensland” to “QLD” and for this he copped a fine and loss of points. The best part he said, when he got his ticket, was that the person who had written it out also abbreviated “Queensland" to "QLD".
Soon the bike was loaded. It was pointed out that if they planned to take one bike, they may as well take two to Isa. This would save me riding the bike 600kms in the dark on rather awful roads full of roos, birds and other things that would win in a collision with the bike.
Ready to go, I climbed up the ladder to the cab of our 56 meter long road train. I have never been in a truck this size before but there were dozens of lights, gauges, dials and rows and rows of flip switches. The interior was red padded studded leather. I was incredibly disappointed that there was not a nudie picture anywhere to be seen in the cab.
The lack of nudie pictures was not the only assumption that was shattered that night while riding South.
I don’t know why I thought this but I always assumed that with modern technology, cameras and reverse parking sensors that driving a truck would be pretty simple and straight forward. How wrong I was. As we rode along the driver was never not adjusting something, switching engine fans, adjusting headlights, or stating the location of his rig before crossing single lane bridges on the CB radio. Then there was just the physical mongering (wrangling) of this rig. The road was straight but the driver was forever rotating the wheel a full 180 degrees left, then right. The entire rig would also violently bounce up and down. His seat which had his own suspension would move a foot or so every time he went over a bump. Meanwhile, sitting on his bed, every time he hit a bump I would be thrown several feet into the air.
It was a rough 6 hours.
At the end of the ride, we unloaded and Dad and I tried to slip him some cash to thank him for helping us out. He didn't have to help us and cash seemed a poor way to thank him but we wanted to show our gratitude somehow. It felt cheap and wrong. He wouldn't take it however, wished us the best and sent us on our way.
We got to Mt Isa and I called every bike shop in town. No one wanted to even entertain looking at the bike. I called the last shop but I already knew the answer. These guys are not interested in working on bikes. They will sell bikes to the cashed up miners who come in looking for the latest highpowered toys every so often. I get that they need to make money but it pretty disappointing that I would have to go all the way to Darwin before finding someone who was willing to wrench on my bike.
The bike was going to have to go to Darwin. Dad’s bike was going to have to go home to Brisbane. This meant that we would have to find a way to crate Dad’s bike to be loaded onto a truck. You can’t just load a bike into a truck – at the very least it needs a frame to keep it stable.
I called the last bike shop to see if they has a spare crate from any bikes they might have just got in.
He mentioned the scrap guy was coming in an hour to collect the spent frames. Dad and I raced there and grabbed the largest, most sturdy looking disposable frame we could find.
It was designed for a dirt bike and would need some changes to make it suitable for the Enfield.
We found a welder that would have a look at the job for us.
We were then stuck with this large frame and no way to move it.
My grandfather grew up in Mt Isa, and it was there that he had the Enfield that he used to race in the scrambles. During his youth he rode with a few guys who would put on stunt shows for the locals. My grandfather never liked to talk about these shows too much. We knew he raced; we also knew that he lost a few friends in riding accidents at the time. One of his close friends and cousin was Len, an old riding pal now in his eighties. We hadn’t planned to come to Mt Isa originally, but now we had Len’s number, and we called it.
Len came through and picked us and the frame up in a ‘66 land cruiser. It was a monster of a machine and made more strange sounds than my Enfield.
He didn’t say much but he was very switched on. He talked about times when stuck out bush he made a bearing out of timber survey post soaked in oil and how to best tow a bike with another bike. Dad gave me a sideways glance… he was positive that before our tow effort, no one else in the entire world had ever tried something so stupid.
We found a welder willing to reinforce the frame to take a larger bike; a quick easy cash job which would hopefully support the bike in transit.
Both bikes were loaded, one was to go to Darwin, the other to Brisbane. This was to be the end of the road trip for Dad and I. We had ridden over 3,500 kms together and learned more about each other over the past three weeks than we had in the past three years. It was time for us to part ways though.
Now I am in Darwin. The motorcycle is still broken but no matter what happens, moving forward as I try to make it to London, I know that I will be able to look back on my time riding with my Dad and know we had both given it everything we could. We didn't make it the entire way… but then we did have three unforgettable weeks riding together and in the end the trip was about the journey. Darwin was just the destination.