It wasn’t just a ride but it mostly was
People do ask “why did you want to do this? ” And I respond that it is to see parts of Australia that I have not seen, to wonder at what life must be like in difficult terrain or where most of your companions are flies. This is 60% true and I don’t tire them with the remaining 40% . I don’t think they would understand and this is mostly because I’m not certain that I can make it understood.
“Why do you want to do this?” The “this” of the question is to travel 4600 kilometres on a motorbike from Melbourne to Perth over ten days starting March 5, 2014. I was not alone. Richard had a large BMW 1200RT with another capitalised letter that came before 1200, but I have forgotten what that letter was and don’t think I ever knew it. Nick had a GS 700 ( Also from the German stable) which in celebration of teutonic understatement has an 800 cc engine. I had, and have, a Yamaha XJ900. I refer to my bike as honest and Richard translates this as old. It is true. If I take the age of Richards bike and add the age of Nicks bike and multiply the result by two, then I add very little to that total to reach an honest age for a bike.
I worked with Richard and Nick is his son. Nick flew into Melbourne from the UK the day plus one before we launched and he will fly out of Perth the day plus one after we touch down.
Its lovely to be riding with two other people. I like to have people to socialise with at the end of the day, otherwise I would feel a need to make new friends at each evening meal and this would entail Groundhog Day Q and A . I like to reflect that if I fall off in the middle of nowhere, within two hours somebody(specifically Richard or Nick) will notice my absence and organise for me to be found. This improves my chances of full recovery and represents a reciprocal benefit to the others. I like it that Richard and Nick have ideas about what is a good thing to do the next day.Without hearing those good ideas my good ideas would have prevailed and been less good. All of these things are part of the 60% reason for doing this.
The 40% reason for doing this is about being alone. Being quite alone on the bike without any conversation. I wear earplugs and at the speed limit I can hear only the wind noise, muffled, but still loud enough to be further damaging my hearing. I can reflect on whatever I choose knowing that for the next hour or two nothing at all will disturb me. I don’t have piped music, I don’t have a headset to talk to others and I don’t want these things. I want to reflect on whatever I choose to reflect upon.
40% is feeling closer to the world you are passing through.I can smell things that I don’t smell when I am in a car, train or automobile. And when I list them you may say that many are bad smells, and so they are. But, part of the experience on the bike is to have all of the experience. Recently fertilised fields that remind you clearly of the source of the fertiliser, sewerage farms that remind you of recently fertilised fields, wet eucalypts that are so strong you are certain they are clearing the nasal passages, a rotting wombat, fresh mown grass, smoke, fermentation, baking bread, rotting seaweed, petrol that has not been fully combusted by the car in front, dust that doesn’t really have an odour, but you can taste its grittiness as you drive through its cloud. I enjoyed all of these on the trip.
When it rains , you pull on protective gear that stops you getting wet , but bits of you get wet. When its hot you are hot. When its cold, its a bit miserable really and extra layers never really compensate sufficiently. All these variables make it a more intense and certainly a more varied experience. Climate control and windscreen wipers are fabulous inventions as they insulate the driver but most certainly isolate the driver. All these features that I am projecting as virtues would apply equally to being on horseback or bicycle or walking. And would I wish to do this trip in that manner? Don’t be ridiculous, cue two more paragraphs.
40% is about the exhilaration of the bike. Sometimes this is accelerating and benefitting from the relatively high power to weight ratio, sometimes its manoeuvring the bike through corners, but generally its about creating an understanding of what the bike will do for you and what it won’t do for you. Mine dives when I brake hard on the front, the front forks are too soft, I don’t like it but I have had to get used to it. Loaded with panniers and with a full top box part of the discovery on this trip was what this did to braking distance and the flexibility of the bike . Of course they weren’t very positive things.
40% is about self determination. If I fall off or hit something then the results are likely to not be so good for me. I do wear the finest of leathers and helmet and spine protectors and gloves as advised by the sages of Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. But there are not crumple zones or seat belts or fast inflating pillows that will reduce potential trauma. So I have to concentrate harder than I would in a car. I watch the other road users closely, I anticipate the worst from them in order to preserve myself. I watch the road surface and look for holes or rocks or debris that might upset me in a car, but would really upset me on a bike. I am conscious of the position of the sun, can I see them with it setting or rising in my eyes? Or can they see me at the same time of day with it at my back? Strong winds can suddenly push me across the road when I reach the gap in the hedge/ trees. It is this vulnerability that forces much closer attention to weather, animals, roads, other road users. This makes the trip more intense and more exhausting, because I did find it exhausting. We travelled at a relatively leisurely pace, covering a modest 460 kilometres a day and 750 k’s on the largest day. But some nights I was in bed by 8:30 pm and immediately asleep.
One feature of the Eyre Highway that I had not previously encountered was road trains. They are up to 36.5 metres in length and come with a tractor unit and three trailers. We didn’t see very many of them. On the entire trip I only overtook two. I did travel more quickly than they, its just that there were not many to chase down. As they approach you they are quite large. On occasions the wind movement created a “bang” on the chest as they went past. On other occasions I braced and…….nothing happened. After a while I got to recognise that there are different shaped road trains. The big rectangular things coming towards me were generally fine. The edges of the rectangle seemed to be engineered to curve backwards towards the trailers and maybe for this reason the air slipped around the sides. The road trains that had cylindrical trailers like fuel carriers or those that had lozenge shaped trailers were the problematic ones. They displaced the air that connected with rider with a shock wave. It felt like a gladiator providing a single pound of the chest in a salute to the multitude of axles heading in the opposite direction.
Passing the road train was a nervous matter on the first occasion. My concern was the air movement between the trailers and the narrowness of the road should I be knocked sideways by the draft. But it was fine and the second time it was fine again. In the rain, I was considering passing my third but the spray in the air was too thick for me to see a safe distance ahead. And while I was thinking about it, suddenly out of the mist, towards me, came a two storey block of apartments. It was a road train heading in the opposite direction. I eased off and sat back 100 metres for half an hour until I reached the next road house and went for a coffee.
The roads from Melbourne to Perth are of fabulous quality. We stayed on the main highways which were all sealed, two lanes, and the surface was generally perfect. The highways were also very clean.In many countries the highway is seen as an open tip and the sides fill with unsightly bags and cans and bottles. Not here, Very few signs exhorted people to be considerate. But people were considerate which helped others also be considerate. I was impressed.
Camels, wombats and kangaroos are the hazards of the Eyre Highway . The road signs that warn motorists of their presence are photo opportunities and the bright yellow images adorns stubby holders and fridge magnets and embroidered patches and many more things from the road house gift shop. Total quantity of camels seen by three riders 0, total quantity of wombats seen by three riders , nil, total quantity of kangaroos seen by….I think you’re getting this now, none. But we did see some emus, two or three bunches of them if bunch is an appropriate term to use. They ran away when they heard us and ran away from the noise. We decided before we left Melbourne that we would not be riding at dawn or dusk and we did see some dead kangaroos along the way. But far fewer than we had expected.
We also did not see police. We were told that they greet you from hidden locations close to the WA border on the WA side, with cameras at the ready, to capture your likeness and number plate and speed. They were either very well hidden or occupied on more important matters.
Petrol. Its expensive. $2.12 was the most I paid for a litre of 98 octane. In Melbourne today its about $1.52. It was easy enough to get diesel or 91,95 or 98 along the way. At one fuel stop the generator was broken and while there was fuel there was no method of pumping it into the vehicles. We had enough in the tanks to reach the next fuel stop and so that is what we did. I watched some people decant from a jerry can and I saw some people park in the shade to wait for the generator to be fixed. The capacity of my tank is about 400k’s, the light comes on at about 335 and I have never wanted to test that the bike would get to 400. So I could afford to skip any fuel stop on the trip and would have sufficient left in the tank to get to the next fuel stop. Of course I didn’t. There was one exception to that comment and that was the fuel stop at Nullabor. Penong to Nullabor is 222k’s, Nullabor to Eucla 196k’s, so we had to stop at Nullabor.
Around Victoria my bike does about 17k’s to the litre , from Ceduna to Norseman this fell to between 15 and 17. I attribute this to the prevailing winds that blow from the west, I think technically its from the south west. But practically its not helpful. So why didn’t we do the trip from Perth to Melbourne? Because we live in Melbourne and if the bikes had arrived in Perth late or damaged that would have made us very sad. We passed a number of brave individuals on bicycles making the crossing. They were all travelling west to east…..wimps !!!
We chose March because we thought the weather would be ideal. Our research showed March average daily highs to be between about 23 and 31 for the route we were taking. The reality was that we had one day that reached 40 degrees and the coldest morning start was 11 degrees. It rained twice, on the day we left Melbourne quite lightly for a couple of hours and after Eucla moderately heavily for a couple of hours. That was it. On a couple of the cool mornings I wore my ski leggings and ski vest with shirt and leathers. In the rain I put my Aldi plastic bike suit over my leathers. On the hot days I wore all my protective gear and relied upon the air speed in conjunction with the bodies natural evaporative conditioning to moderate my temperature. All of this worked well, I was uncomfortably cold for a total of maybe 2 hours and uncomfortably hot for maybe the same.
The roads were in great condition and the traffic tended to be light. Few road trains but few of all types of vehicles and the majority of people were travelling at leisure . The ninety mile straight is unusual for the use of the imperial measurement in its name which has historically locked around it. No amount of metrication has caused its popular reference to have become 144.84k straight (translated as 145.6 on the road sign, revealing undisclosed approximations in the 90 miles ). The empire referred to in imperial was the British Empire whose Weights and Measures Act of 1824 brought consistency to the colonies. But the mile referred was itself based upon an older Empire. The Romans who every 1000 paces marked a mille passus and a pace was two steps. Clearly, I have access to Wikipedia and a little too much time on my hands. So lets move on from the Romans who were obliged to pace because they did not have motorbikes.
The 90 mille passus straight was not the dull ride I was expecting, because it undulates. It may be straight but it isn’t straight and flat, its straight and undulating, not just because I quite like the word undulating but because it does . And the vegetation that I had anticipated to be non existent due to absence of water was in fact quite lush. Small shrubs all around with attractive grey blue foliage. All this combined to make the rides more visually interesting than expected and having prepared myself for dull, the quantity of dull was teeny tiny.
The Road Traffic Authority of South Australia contributed this sign that I have not seen in any other State. And it was not a one off, created by a bored signwriter with mischief on his mind one saturday night. No. We saw this sign about every two hours over hundreds of kilometres. This was a fully fledged campaign.
It was a debating point between us and became a more than adequate replacement for a pack of cards. Firstly, I whole heartedly agree with the sentiment. It begins at school with the red apple for the teacher and then unchecked it moves into the workplace and I have no time for it. So good on you SA for your observation on this much ignored insidious trend of creeping in our society. it must be recognised , removed and replaced by directness and honesty.
But could it have a relevance to road safety asked Nick? A sort of allegorical signage? Good thought Nick, this could be so and so we muse ……what road safety message could possibly be hidden in here?
Perhaps it is about the pests that creep slowly from one place to another, expanding their geographical footprint and wreaking havoc to local economies and fauna. As it were, following in the unlucky rabbits footprint and webbed hops of the cane toads. So, it is possibly there to remind people not to allow fungal spores and striped flies across borders, particularly hidden in fruit, which accounts for the the appley/grapey background. It was asking us to align for the sake of bio security and support the croppers of SA.
Or was it suggesting that without paying due attention you could be getting uncomfortably close to the vehicle in front ? A message with a tomato background suggesting you keep your distance or risk being squashed like a tomato ?
Or was it suggesting we pay careful attention to our speed and not allow it to creep up too high and certainly not beyond the 110k that is the specified limit?
We spent much of the trip debating this sign. Thank you SA RTA for your contribution to the insufficiently supported art of debate, you got us talking. The lack of directness in the billboard heralds a new age for advertising. In this instance, we viewers, passive no more, engaged fully with the billboard. We took home four messages and shared these with at least four friends……..who in turn……, which I think is now called “going viral”. SA I think your strategy is confusingly brilliant.
I dropped the bike once at Mannum. First thing in the morning , distance travelled 2 metres. That was a bit embarrassing. But only scratched the panniers which took the weight, scratched the engine casing and cracked an indicator. Richard did something similar at a petrol station, with similar damage. Because Richards bike is a vision splendid of colour coordination he has a $250 repair. My honest bike requires only a rub over with a damp cloth to be declared completely healed.
All the bikes ran well. Mine ran perfectly, it always started and always stopped and behaved well in between. We had taken a rudimentary tool kit, although I am not sure that any of us was skilled in spannermanship or the other oily arts. I had a view that if something broke , it was going to be impossible for me to fix it quickly, hard to get a person and parts to fix it quickly and consequently a breakdown would translate into an early conclusion to the trip. My bike was serviced very shortly before leaving and the practice trips in Victoria and to Wollongong gave me the confidence that the distances were totally untroubling to the XJ900.
We met a lady riding a Harley Davidson and had spoken briefly to her. We were expecting that our paths would be crossing a few times at fuel stops over the next few days as we headed to the same destination. But they crossed only once more and she was too busy to talk. She was totally occupied arranging to transport her Harley Davidson. Its oil leak had become become excessive and she had called it a day. No such issues for we riders of bikes fabricated by the Japanese and Germans.
The practice trips also left me with the type of responses taught to soldiers who can dismember their rifles and reconstitute them while blindfolded,hanging upside down in a shower cubicle. I acquired a fixed routine around packing and unpacking the bike. This routine meant that everything was in the same place in the panniers and I had forgotten no tasks to be performed before setting off. This gave me comfort and was flawless in execution except that I kept forgetting to put in my ear plugs and would stop a few kilometres down the road and take off my helmet.
Its now four weeks after we completed our trip and my right shoulder still give me twinges of pain. This is a result of holding the throttle open for such long periods of time. My legs complained about being held in the same position for too long by aching after about 90 minutes; an ache which got progressively more painful. The remedy was simply to stop and stretch or walk around, all cleared and as good as new. I did get very tired at the end of the day and cumulatively so. It wasn’t so noticeable until a glass of red wine had been consumed and all I wanted to do was go to bed.
We dropped the bikes off at a logistics warehouse in Perth and they came home to Melbourne in a crate by train. That worked quite well. I say that because they were undamaged , but I use the word “quite” because they took two weeks to return which seemed like a long time. Well it seemed like a long time because two of the bikes took two weeks and one took one week. All were waiting in a neat line in the same warehouse when we waved them farewell.
Richard destroyed a set of tyres and replaced them when he got home. My tyres have enough tread left to pass a roadworthy, but its not a kind trip for tyres. In tribute to the great performance of my bike I have removed all the dead desiccated flies from the fairing and mirrors. It took three washes and application of Windex, but after the great service the bike had done me I felt that some reciprocation was deserved. The bike which was clean at the start of the trip is now the cleanest it has ever been.