Down Under, finally
I have finally arrived in Australia. It has become a journey with obstacles. At times much easier than I had expected. But problems arose from unexpected directions: two accidents, one in India, my front suspension still hasn't recovered from that, and one in Thailand, with grave personal consequences. 40.000 miles do take their toll on the bike and its rider. I expected the bike to have less problems than me. But it is reversed: the bike suffers, and I enjoy it. I've had very little difficulties crossing borders, apart from the ones I created myself. And there has been very little theft - I expected to loose a lot more. The people I have met are mostly friendly, except in some areas in India.
I feel a bit let down by the bike and the world-wide BMW organisation. Looking back I conclude I have visited the BMW distributor in almost every country. These visits often ended with a hefty bill, and Kuala Lumpur took the crown. The results are awful: here, in off-road heaven, I have to stay on paved roads until I reach Melbourne. I fear the gear box will break down completely any day now. I'd rather not find myself on a sandy path in the middle of nowhere when this happens. And once I reach Melbourne, all I can hope for is that we can get it fixed again so I can rely on the bike.
It's only 4:30 AM when I arrive at the airport of Darwin. It is still rather dark and cool: about 22 degrees Celsius. After leaving Singapore on the equator I'm now 12 degrees below the equator. It is getting 'winter time' here. The northern part of Australia has two seasons: the Dry and the Wet. The original people of Australia, the Aboriginals, divvy these periods up into three parts each, and one is called the cold period. This one is coming up: temperatures will not reach 30 degrees Celsius again, the nights will be cold at about 15 degrees Celsius. One third of Australia is situated above the tropic of Capricorn - technically this is in the tropics.
The office of the shipping company is closed, naturally. I select a hotel and have myself delivered there. I kill the time with a few hours of sleep. At 10 AM I'm ready to free the bike from the claws of the customs; the bike is secured by the shipping company. I can't take it with me yet, customs must first inspect the bike. The very helpful Michelle of the Perkins company explains what I have to do. "First you go to the customs office downtown. Then you go to Quarantine. With both offices you make an appointment for inspection here." Darn! I thought quarantine was something for imported pets. My bike is officially quarantined until the inspections are finished. In the past many animals have been introduced by men, lots of them have become a problem: rabbits, wasps and camels for instance. That's why they want to make sure no foreign animals enter unnoticed.
The lady at customs is not a workaholic, but she hides this fact behind lots of reasons why it is not possible to perform a check of the bike today. I have returned to the civilized world; officials don't ask for bribes, but work as little as possible. After cornering her verbally she has to admit it is possible, unless... I leave her this space, and hurry to the next office.
"Has your bike been cleaned?", the man at Quarantines asks me. I want to say: "No, of course not, my bikes are never clean". But that doesn't seem prudent. And actually the bike is fairly clean, the men in Kuala Lumpur have busied themselves with the mud and dust. After this I've taken the bike on a spin across some tea fields, but I've seen a fair deal of rain as well. So it probably is not so bad. "The bike was clean in Kuala Lumpur, but on my way to Singapore I've seen quite a lot of rain", my answer is. "We shall see - you know you have to pay for every inspection that is necessary ?" We make an appointment for later in the afternoon, when customs will be present as well.
These inspections turn out to be nothing. The serial numbers of the chassis and the engine match those in my brand new Carnet de Passage. The Quarantines man lets me explain the contents of the luggage rolls and the cases. There is still some mud on the bike. The shipping company has a hose with which I start to clean the bike. "Yes, alright, that'll do", the man says, when I haven't even cleaned half of the bike. Evidently it's almost the end of the day for him...
From the infamous Internet I have learned Harmen and Nathalie are in Darwin as well. Their bike is still in Singapore, it will follow the red BMW shortly. I call them to invite them to liven up my birthday. Enjoying a couple of beers (the wide variety of brands will keep me busy for a while) I learn Harmen and Nathalie are taking things well. The two weeks waiting for their bike are spent on work, recuperation and... looking for a bike. Nathalie has been on the back of the Africa Twin from the Netherlands until Singapore. That amazes me - I could never do that. But now she will ride herself, on her 'own' bike.
The 12th of May I'm in a hurry. In Kuala Lumpur the bike has been standing still for a month, and I have been bike-less for 2 weeks in the Netherlands. I really need to ride my bike again. The bike has to be declared 'road worthy'. This inspection is not very serious either - most of the time is wasted talking about traveling on a bike. The Australian government steals some more money for the right to ride a bike, and for a strange insurance covering only the personal damage inflicted on others. Just to be sure I take another insurance so the material damage is covered as well. I don't receive the written policy, I hope I won't need the help of these insurance people again. Time to get to work on my addiction. I've been smoking cigarettes once, and I know the joy of letting yourself go after a time of abstination. And today I will enter this enormous space. And I'll camp tonight, for the first time in half a year. I am very happy with my birthday present this year.
En route again
Unfortunately Kakadu National Park is not that far off: only a couple of hundreds of miles. During the trip I constantly have the feeling I'm going the wrong way. The GPS is working perfectly, the map is in agreement with the road number sign I see, but still there is something wrong.
The scenery is very diverse. Kakadu is a very important park, one of the 'world heritage' parks. It is dominated by the elevation of the ground. The lower parts will flood in times of rain. There are lots of grass types. Bridges are only constructed to cross rivers. Along the roads crossing the lower sections there are signs with lines counting from zero to 1.4 meters, indicating the height of the water when flooded. I'm 'out of luck': no flooding for me. The higher grounds are covered with bushes and trees. There are lots of birds - the main event of this park.
There are crocodiles as well. They are not friendly, they eat humans when given a chance. The road I follow is severla miles off the coast. The coast can be reached using sand paths, but there will be no swimming. "When the crocodiles miss you, there will always be the sharks", one person warned me. The sea is pretty evil here. The average difference between low tide and high tide is more than 20 feet, and can be as much as 35 feet. The harbor of Darwin is equipped with lift-locks for this very reason. A paper tells the story of a couple of tourists in a rented Landcruiser crossing a flooded area. The incoming tide washed the car away, they barely managed to escape the crocs.
I settle down on the vast camp site in the park, I'm very pleased. During dinner I talk with Hank. He works for a company servicing fire extinguishers. He is on a nine week trip - inspecting these extinguishers and represurizing them. Where? In the desert there are microwave installations for telephony, spaced 20 miles apart. In every buidling, operated on batteries and solar energy, is a fire extinguisher. Hank owns a serious 4WD car, and is still unable to reach all places. "At the end of the Dry, perhaps", he says. For after these 9 weeks the trip starts all over again. Sometimes Hank is all alone for days at a stretch. I start to get a sense of the size of this country.
I use May 13 to write the story about Maleysia and Singapore, and to do some chores. I'm in the open all day, I try to stay out of the sun most of the time. I shift my set to stay in the shadow of the trees. Suddenly I realize what 'is wrong'. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. That's clear, but in between the sun passes through the north instead of the south... When I ride eastwards, the sun is on the wrong side. Unconsciously I sensed something was wrong in the navigation. For now, this change is convenient, when I ride to the south the sun will be behind me. At the end of the day I get restless: this country works like a powerful magnet. No extensive study of this park, but out into the vast world!
The next stop is Katherine. It is the next to last reasonably sized city before Alice Springs. I stop because I expect to find a cell phone signal. It is not strong, but after a couple of false starts I'm on the Internet. There are four messages waiting for me. The first one is very large: 100 kilobytes. After a lot of troubles I end up with nothing: the other messages are deleted without a chance of reading them, and I've received only half of the large message. For those sending me email: please keep it brief, up to 10 KB a message!
I'm neatly parked in the shadow of a large building. Avoiding direct sun light has become a habit. The building turns out to be some kind of pub and casino. It is around noon; the pub is already in full operation. Some people hang around, many walk in and out. Some of them are visibly drunk. They are all Aboriginals.
Aboriginals are the original occupants of these deserts. Many are chased off their lands by the 'Europeans' (and other white faces). A lot of these lands were returned to them, but the social damage is still visible. Many Aboriginals can't return to their old ways (which was still in the stone age at the start of this century), and they have trouble with our life style. The food we eat is bad for them: many are way too fat. Entering the Western society is very hard - many people are unemployed. A kind of collective Australian guilt ensures the Aboriginals a fair social security payment. Alcohol abuse florishes.
Initially I seek eye contact with the passing people; I am out of the sun light all right, but in the wrong place. I get many hostile looks of the somber black people. This is probably not the way to start up a conversation with the original inhabitants.
Near Katherine is a special valley, about 20 miles from the center of the village. It is too late to reach the next city before it gets dark; I put up my tent near this valley. There are three ways to check out the valley: on foot, with a boat, or from a helicopter. To make a six hour walk is not sensible at this hour (and in this heat); I don't like the helicopter idea, and the boat trip is undoubtedly a tourist trap. Nevertheless, the boat trip it is. It turns out to be OK. The river in the valley is fed by the water that falls on the plains in the Wet season. The differences in the height of the water are huge. Especially in 1998: then in one day they had all the rain that usually falls in all of the Wet season. Katherine was submerged under 6 feet of water, the crocs were swimming through the main street.
It gets dark early and I'm tired - I'm not used to these long days with all those new impressions. Just after sunset I fall asleep, completely content. From Katherine to the central part of Australia is quite a trip: 1200 miles. The long distances are here! I stop at Devil's Marbles after a full day's riding in a scenery which colors more red by the hour. The marbles are rocks, rounded by erosion, scattered around like large marbles. I witness the sun set after putting up my tent. The rocks color from red to deep red. It is a gorgeous sight.
Dry and still surviving
Australia has a shortage of water. This continent is the most dry of all and I'm heading towards the center of it, through a huge desert. It is hot and dry: my body uses up almost 4 liters of water each day, much more than around the equator. I'm not so active: I sit on my bike all day looking around, and still I loose all that water. I don't go fast (I'm afraid the bike will crumble under the stress), but I still cover about 2 kilometers each minute. For many hours the miles roll away under my wheels; the scenery slowly changes. In the north there are a few scattered trees, there simply isn't enough water. In between some grass is growing, all of it is yellow and dry, even though the dry season is just a few weeks old. The farther I get south, the less trees there are. When the terrain dips slightly there are a few bushes. The higher plains are completely barren. Termite hills are literally everywhere. These are very productive animals.
And the flies are everywhere as well. When I stop, there are just a few of them. But within minutes I look like one of those small negro kids from some third world country: flies around my mouth, nose and eyes. I'm not used to them and constantly I try to chase them away. It's hard putting up your tent using one hand, the other one is busy keeping the flies at bay. And it is winter: "the flies aren't so bad now", they say, "in the summer you better not open your mouth". Sounds a bit strong, I think. The other guests on this 'self-contained only' camp site near Devil's Marbles wear flies nets over their heads. That sure looks funny, but I bet my swinging arms are hilarious as well.
I know that if I should be on foot, those two kilometers a minute would take me half an hour. There are two water bags on my bike, and I carry a liter tea. If I should get stuck I could hold out a few days. That sounds more dramatic than it is. I travel along the Stuart Highway, and I see about four others each hour. But if this road wasn't here, and I wouldn't have my bike, it would be a matter of life and death. And still there are quite a few animals living here. Unfortunately I only see them in their deceased form: victims of the same road that makes traveling so easy for me.
The most visible ones are the vultures and eagles, battling with the crows over the 'snacks' along the road. They swoop in the air in those well-known circles over the bodies of the kangaroos that didn't make it last night. These animals avoid the hot day, and emerge around sunset. The trucks travel at night as well. These 'road trains' stop for nothing, and crush over everything that stands in their way. Countless kangaroos meet their maker way too early against those huge bull bars fixed on the front of the trucks. There are quite a few parrot species, most of them are small with bright blue and red feathers. And one time I even see a couple of ostriches.
The road trains are a bit big. Verrry big: some are over 150 feet long. BP (British Petrol) has the biggest rigs: four trailers behind a big American truck. The average road train for cattle has one truck, and three trailers. That makes a grand total of 17 axles, with about 66 tyres! There is no speed limit - these giants go fast. In the days I've been here I have overtaken just one of them - they go about as fast as I do. They don't hold up traffic like in Europe. Around most rigs the smell of warm rubber is stronger than that of diesel.
And they get everywhere. I encountered one on a dirt road, and another at a gas station. The driver told me he regularly sleeps in his truck, although he only has to pay one address a visit. He reached this station over a dirt road. That road has been levelled a week ago; in about a month this truck will have to make a detour (about 200 miles) to prevent further damage. These road trains and other traffic quickly change the dirt road back into a bumpy path. The driver shows me the cracks in the first trailer. Every few months the coupling of the trailer has to be welded again. No wonder the gas is so expensive here.
Again this is a long day, from road-house to the next gas station. I rob a teller machine in Alice Springs, and exchange email. My goal is Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock), the gigantic monolith in the desert, a sacres place for the Aboriginals. I stopped for a long time in Alice Springs. I stop at the last road-house before Uluru: Curtin Springs, for I cannot reach Uluru before sunset, and I don't want to have some dead kangaroos on my conscience. This is a typical road house: just like a small village. Several families live there, they are all related; there is a mail box, a generator, and a small restaurant. This all was constructed here once because there was water - now there are large tanks which are filled with ground water. Once a week a road train arrives to supply them. I get to camp for free, in the dust. I've stopped being picky a long time ago.
At the bar I meet a couple of locals, the tourists are having dinner at the tables. I drown the dust with some Victoria Bitter, one of the more prominent brands. Next to me is an old man, he introduces himself as the owner of this all. He arrived here first, aroung 1930. With some 1500 pieces of cattle he was sent here, because there would be water. He was rudely introduced to the reality of the desert: a few years later 1250 of them were dead. The country isn't capable of sustaining more life. A field for the cattle is somewhat bigger than we are used to: with 14 men and horses the cattle was collected from an area of many square miles. They were subsequently shipped in trucks to Adelaide to get slaughtered there.
Like a real old man (he is 71) he hates the modern developments. The cowboys are replaced. By helicopters. Cost a fortune, but is much more efficient. The choppers round up the cattle, and a few men help them get in the trucks. Using the new roads the shipping takes a mere day. His daughter has a computer! He tells me a joke that should show that he doesn't understand a thing about computers. I look around me: an electronic installation for handling the fuels, a teller machine, accepting every credit card, a security installation. Yeah, right. This probably has all been done by his daughter.
Two young women join us at the bar. Debby and Kelly look a bit down. They hand the barman 80 dollars, and talk about the plans for tomorrow. The ladies are stuck. They've bought a VW van in Adelaide, and now they have engine trouble. The people in Curtin Springs have a 'solution': they offer to tow the van to Uluru. This will cost them 250 dollar. The van can be fixed in the garage over there. But the girls have no money, certainly not after spending the 80 dollar for a tow they had this afternoon, traveling 13 miles. I think the price is a bit steep, but I stay clear of this.
The old man orders some more Fosters after I ask him about the Aboriginals. "Those Coons are no good!", he says. "And now they want this worthless land back as well! These salon socialists in Canberra keep giving away money to these blacks! Our money!". Oops, wrong subject. He doesn't stop: one degrading remark after another. I can't believe that someone who has lived here for so long thinks so badly about the original people of this country. Ths draws me deeper into the conversation, and after a while the man sees another salon socialist in me. Luckily most of the hairy locals have moved a couple of tables away to eat some steaks. I buy the man another Foster - he cools down a bit. I keep trying but I fail to draw a remark not based on some racial prejudice. I'm relieved when he suddenly announces he's off to bed.
Meanwhile Debby has gone outside in ssearch of another solution for her engine troubles. She has found someone willing to check it out in the morning. I promise not to leave first thing, but stay around to help. The next morning we spend our time under the van, in the company of an increasing number of flies. Everything is old and worn. The distributor, contacts and spark plug cables are unreliable. The engine starts, but only uses three cylinders. The spark plugs are the wrong type. One of the cylinders has valves that won't even open or close. After three hours of work the engine is functioning reasonably, but it barks a lot of smoke from the exhaust. We recommend the ladies to stay on the road and to return to Adelaide as quickly as possible. "I know the sales man for two months now, he is reliable", Debby says. I advise her to return the car to check whether he really is reliable. Or else try and dump the problem on another couple of tourists.
By now I have met the son of the owner. Dirty jeans, a lumberjack shirt with cut-off sleeves, cigarette in the corner of his mouth. "What the fuck are you looking for in me fucking garage!" For a moment I thought he would emphasize his words by a punch on my nose. I was looking for a battery with cables, the VW battery wasn't in tiptop shape as well. This is a well-stocked garage - enough tools to take the van completely apart. He takes his Landcruiser and hooks up the cables. He mellows a bit when I've admitted his garage is somewhat like my living room. "You don't see me sneaking around in there?" I don't quite agree with this, but this isn't worth the hassle.
He is in a rotten mood, yesterday he had to cross the desert looking for some camels. And today he has to do that again. "Have these camels escaped?", I ask him innocently. "Yes, and they keep on breeding like rabbits, these damned animals" (and some more expletives), "they are a real menace." Yep. They are left behind by us, Europeans. "What do you do when you find one?" "Blast it away!" I've heard about rough men in these areas, this must be one of them. The body is cut up into chunk-sized pieces with a chain saw (!). Suddenly I realize why he is covered with brown spots. (And he is wearing these jeans for three days now.) The pieces of meat are then poisoned and buried shallowly. The birds will not touch it then, but the dingo's (a dog-like species, prpbably introduced by the Aboriginals several thousands of years ago) will dig them up. These dingo's form a 'plague' on their own, they sometimes kill a calf, and so they have to fear for their lifes.
The Uluru park is reached quickly, and the sole camp site in all of this space doesn't exploit it's monopoly: without a doubt this is the most beautiful place yet. There is grass! And a kind of a kitchen with a gas cooker, barbeque and fridge, opened for all guests. I sure need a meal healthier than those served in the road houses. One would almost believe the Australians only eat large steaks and fries, without some vegetables. Uluru has a 'resort', where all these facilities are concentrated. There are hotels in all price ranges, shops, banks, postal offices and various restaurants. I have them prepare me a salad made from the ingredients I choose, and a dish of spaghetti with tomatoes, mushrooms and lots of garlic. I'm having a great time already, and I haven't even seen the rock!
Feeling all brave I sign myself up for another tourist trap: a walk led by an Aboriginal who was born here. We will be told the details of living in this desert through an interpretor. This turns out to be an educational morning - I get to unload any question I have. We even get to take a few pictures - most of the Aboriginals won't allow you to. They do want to receive a copy of them later on.
My thoughts about the sheer size of this country made me conclude that surviving isn't easy. When you're sitting in an eight cylinder Toyota Landcruiser with airco it doesn't seem like a big deal, but imagine living here butt naked in the stone ages. Only a hundred years ago, that is. When this 4WD dies on you, and you are stupid enough to go find some help on foot, your chances of survival are slim. Two Germans have proven this very point this summer: they didn't survive...
The Aboriginals have lived here for tens of thousands of years. They had no need for reading or writing, everything you had to know was in the Law. The Law is a part of your education, and deals with collecting food (by women), and hunting for emu's, a species of ostrich and kangaroos (by men). A lot of this wisdom is in the tales, most of them with a strong morale. The guides tell about a man who stole some emu meat and hid in a cave on Uluru. The victim built a fire at the base of the rock, the smoke intoxicated the thief, and he died. The traces of the white smoke are still visible on the side of the rock, as is the cave itself. Of course I recognize these traces as being residual chalk, but I am not an Aboriginal. Every line, every bump, and every cave has its own story from the dream time.
They tell us this story using a drawing in the sand. The drawing is very simple, sketchy, but very accurate: even the orientation (north-south) of the drawing matches the directions the men are pointing. A circle denoting a rock like Uluru, a cross for a water source, and a tri-star for an emu. The traditional art of the Aboriginals often turns out to be a map of the 'territorium' of the artist. An area like that is limited by the distance one can cross without water. The walks always went from one water source to another. Getting lost was equal to going to die. No wonder the drawings are maps - they are essential for surviving.
In the dry seasons the families have to move often to avoid draining the sources to their limits, or killing all the grass. Aboriginals know the importance of preserving their habitat. They truly live in the stone age: every man earns the right to carry a stick as part of his initiation ceremony. At the base of the stick is the sharpest tool: a piece of quartz set in some molted wax from the Spinifex grass. Our female interpretor has to carry the female tools, both Aboriginals are men. The Law is very different for the sexes, and strictly separated. Very impressed by the stories they've told me I visit the cultural center.
In a video presentation they show me the history of Uluru. The arrival of the Europeans with their cattle, upsetting the balance, the distribution of the food packets making the Aboriginals dependent, the first tourists (just after the Second World War), the foundation of a national park with all the rules that accompany this. It all amounts to their inability to live in this country anymore. Their eco systems are out of balance because of the water pumps of the white people. Half of the wild animals around Uluru has become extinct, and the Aboriginals no longer are the owners of the center of their civilization: Uluru. Not until 1985 they get their land back, provided they lease it back to the Australian government for 99 years. The park is run by a majority of Aboriginals, the white people involved are scientists and speak their language.
Just as I was going out to look for some company, a BMW arrives at the camp site. The rider says "Hello" - it must be a German. Thilo and Daniela are in their third week of their month-long trip. Once each year they plan such a trip, trying to visit places in the world they haven't seen yet. They've seen all of the Asian route, in parts. They have been to South America as well - I have them explain to me what the attractions are. Hmm. Sounds pretty good. Daniella and I kill one and a half bottle of wine, because we cannot finish a bottle on our own. Yeah, right. In the end each of us has drunk almost a complete bottle full.
After the spectacular sunset on Uluru I witnessed yesterday evening, I want to see the sun rise over Kata Tjuta (formerly known as 'the Olgas'). This is a collection of monolithes as well, but not as large as Uluru. It is a fair distance away. Fortunately I've put on my jacket - the temperatures are around 12 degrees Celsius. Temperatures quickly rise after the sun is up. But before it is too hot I take a walk between these giant rocks. It is just 8 AM, and I have all of these rocks for myself.
'Everything' is red. The rock, the sand, the air. It is a multitude of shades of the same color, changing every minute. The rocks are intimidating - I don't have any problems imagining how they must have impressed the original inhabitants. The light of the sun around sunrise and sunset has been robbed of most of its blue colors, and the rocks bathe in the soft light. I sure hope the pictures are anywhere near this experience, maybe they tell this story even better. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of my earlier pictures - none of them even comes close to the real thing.
After three nights it's time to move on, and Thilo and Daniela agree. When I'm ready to leave, they are starting with their breakfast. We chat a bit and I delay my departure. I want to go south, to Adelaide. The Germans are on their way to Kings Canyon; we will travel together for 60 miles. After 50 miles I decide I want to see that valley as well. It is just a 200 mile detour, and Adelaide can wait another day for me, I think.
Kings Canyon turns out to be a gem. Much prettier than Katherine, much steeper as well. This time I'll go on foot, with a couple of other walkers with their Meindl shoes. It takes quite some effort to keep up with them, on my ill-fitting Birkenstocks. But it's worth the small wounds on my feet: the valley harbors a river all year long. The temperature is the same as elsewhere, but the water enables palm trees to grow! In the middle of the desert some palm trees in a valley - a tropical surprise. And the canyons are great, too. Here everything is red as well; we leave the valley just in time to witness the sunset. Thanks, Thilo and Daniela, for changing my mind!
The scenery south of Uluru is rapidly becoming boring. The growth is steadily decreasing. The repeater stations for the fibre optic cable (every 40 miles) provide some distraction. The last 60 miles before I reach Coober Pedy they have upturned the landscape as well. They are mining opals here. Big heaps of sand everywhere, dug up from deep holes. Every 'claim' has been fenced off. Not because they are afraid the stones will be stolen, but to prevent people from walking here. The signs warning you for those deep holes are everywhere.
This place is a typical mining village. Like Las Vegas was the place where people squandered their gold profits on the various pleasures (gambling, women), Coober Pedy has many places where you can part with your money very fast. There are many dirty-looking gentlemen driving around in old cars. After some searching I locate a camp site in the unfriendly looking village. The clouds which have been building up, let go of their water load just as I've finished with my tent. It would be the first shower of many. I find a Greek restaurant - the first sign I'm heading for the southern coast. They serve some excellent tzatziki and gyros, I haven't tasted them for a while.
South of Coober Pedy (which is Aboriginal for 'hole of the white man in the ground') there is a 'prohibited area'. Years ago they tested nuclear bombs here in this completely empty desert. Nowadays they experiment with rockets. Stuart's Highway crosses this area. For over 150 miles you're not allowed to leave the road without a permit. I can't imagine why one would want to do that. The landscape is completely empty, apart from the radar and transmission stations. I have to endure several rain showers, and 25 miles before I reach Adelaide I've had enoug, and 25 miles before I reach Adelaide I've had enough for this day.
In the pub next to the hotel I've selected Andrew keeps me company. He suggest to have some dinner with his mates, the team members of the Guy Walsh Pro Honda race team. Tomorrow they join in a race in Mallala, a hamlet about 12 miles back. The weather forecast is bad, and I probably can't get a new set of tyres on Sunday anyway. I don't feel like traveling to Melbourne on these tyres which have seen 13,000 miles (from Mumbai, India). I immediately accept the invitation to be the guest of this team tomorrow.
The national bike races in Australia are professionally set up. Every race will be done twice, in seven classes: 250cc production, 125cc grand prix, Harley-Davidson, Superbike, 250cc grand prix, supersport and side-car. That makes a grand total of 14 races. The championships has 6 rounds, spread out over all of Australia. I thought the teams in Europe had to travel a lot, but in this vast country the trips are much longer. Guy Walsh enters the 125cc grand prix class. He and Mitch (I believe that's his name) have traveled 23 hours to get from Brisbane to Adelaide. Andrew was here within 8 hours, he lives in Melbourne.
It's raining heavily during the short trip to the circuit. That's bad news - all starts will be 'wet races'. The teams have the option of using rain tyres. If they choose not to start on rain tyres, and it starts to rain, the race is a write-off. When the race is declared a 'dry race', and they start on slicks, the race will be paused when the rain starts to fall. Guy has no choice: both races use a soaking wet track. He starts as fifth - his best qualification so far. The last race was held on Philip Island, a wet race as well. Of course the finances are limited; Guy uses the same tyres for both races. He will regret this - he has to throw in the towel both times because the tyres give him insufficient grip.
Guy and I spend the rest of the day watching the other races. One of the 600cc guys has a rather remarkable style of cornering: he puts on the brakes so hard, he enters the bends sideways. It sure looks spectacular, but it's probably not that fast. The others can accelerate, while this bloke tries to corner with a slipping rear wheel. We have an excellent position to watch: we are at the pit wall. The co-driver of the winning side-car team has a comic style of celebrating the victory: instead of raising his arms, two legs styick in the air after passing the finish line.
The first dealer I reach in Adelaide (Pitmans) cannot supply me with tyres. The mechanic knows the problems of the broken supports of the gear box. BMW in Australia has an excellent solution: the GS owner gets a free gear box. I had to pay a lot for my new gear box casing! Oh well, we'll see what BMW Australia can do for me once I've reached Melbourne. After searching for an hour in the pouring rain I spot a couple of Avon tyres. They seem to be made of a soft type of rubber, they'll probably wear quite fast - the worn out Metzelers I currently have are too dangerous in wet weather. I have them put on the Avons. The tyre mechanic discovers what was wrong with the front suspension: the brake disk is a bit loose. They've overlooked that in Kuala Lumpur...
Great Ocean Fog
The southernmost part of Australia is dry and desert-like. "The dryest area on the dryest continent", they call this. This county (South Australia) does have some water, in the famous McLaren Vale valley south of Adelaide, where all the wineries reside. Unfortunately the wine season is over, all the vinificators have started their winter hibernation. My two months holdup is causing me troubles. Today Adelaide itself has plenty of water, it's raining cats and dogs.
I let the wine goods be, and ride along the coast. I don't make much miles because of the many turns in the small roads with many villages. And sometimes it rains, the temperarures don't exceed 16 degrees Celsius. In the rain this drops to 12 degrees. I haven't worn this many clothes in half a year (I was in the tropics only last week), and yet I'm chilled to the bone. Initially the scenery reminds me of the Ardennes. Gentle sloping hills with huge production forrests. For miles the only kind of wood I see is some type of fir tree with only a crown of needles and no branches along its trunk. I know the lumber gatherers adore these trees, you can plant them close together. But they don't appeal to the eye very much.
Then I arrive in an area with more fields. First I see some typical Dutch looking cows, and the a sign "De Bruijn" next to a driveway. Those Dutch people must surely be pleased with all the rain. Even the grass in the fields is green - until now I've only seen yellow ones. I stop earlier than usual, I'm very cold. Initially I just wanted to fill the tank in Kingston - only when I stepped off I noticed how cold I was. I take up residence in the local hotel.
Hotels and motels are not quite what I'm used to. A hotel is mainly a pub, sometimes with a restaurant and/or 'bottle shop'. A bottle shop is actually just a liquor store which is almost never closed. I thought the licenses for serving alcohol were so strict in the north because of the relation Aboriginals have with this 'fire water'. In the south this policy is the same. In Paris you can order a glass of wine to go with your Big Mac, in Adelaide this requires a 'fully licensed' restaurant. But they can't sell you closed bottles, that's only allowed in a bottle shop. Restaurants without a license have a 'BYO (bring your own)' policy: you can dine here, but please bring along your own beer. The closing times are followed on the minute. It's all a bit overdone for me.
But I digress. A hotel involves a counter and the people I meet in front of the counter. The same people which delay these journals, it's very nice here. These hotels usually have a few rooms with an old bed, which they rent for a rock bottom price. You have to share a shower and toilet. This hotel has a matchbox-sized room for me, and the oldest bed I've ever used. As always, the sheets and towels are very clean. But I'll always remember the shower. The head has the diameter of my speedometer, and it poors out an amount of water which defies the notion that I'm in 'the dryest province of Australia'... Great!
After a shower which has used enough water to keep a man in India alive for the duration of the dry season, I report to the counter. They sell Glenlivet, I order one of those. Then I switch over to the 'light' beers, the conversation with the others is progressing. These Australians sure know their way with beer: here they keep filling your glass until you put it down on its side. Fortunately for my liver, they also serve 'light' beer, which contains less alcohol than 'heavy' beer.
During the night the showers turn into a steady rainfall. The morning greets me with another shower, some sunshine, and again a shower. It's not that bad, I think. Today it's the 'Great Ocean Road': a coastal road all the way to Geelong, through my favourite landscape. The first few hunderds of miles are OK - between the water curtains I see the pelicans fly to the warmer north in huge V-shaped formations, and I se lots of typical coastal birds on the beach, although the season is well on its way. Leaf trees have already let go of the leaves, and many birds have migrated. This is for real: it's autumn here - my year-long summer has ended.
The coast is made out of rocks and cliffs. Once, many centuries ago, this area was flooded. I ride over the compressed slick bottom of the former ocean. The rocks aren't very solid, and they crumble easy under erosion. The present sea does its share: at one point called 'the twelve apostles' there are a couple of large lumps of rock in the water, they will fall over in a few centuries when the ocean has done its destructive work, like it already has done with a couple of the apostles. These coastal lines are a real battlefield for the former naultical captains: the sea bottom is riddled with ship wrecks, caused by the spiky undeep sea floor.
After passing the southernmost point I get the wind head-on, coming in from the sea. And the coast is rising, I'm now at 1400 feet. The temperature and visibility are dropping. In a dense fog, at 8 degrees Celsius, I give up. The Princes Highway is very clouded, but dry. I've left the province of Southg Australia, and entered Victoria. The first sign I see: 'Speed & Red light camera's operate throughout Victoria'. Welcome! I'm not only in the civilized, but also in the inhabited world again. And there is a lot of traffic, they adhere to the traffic rules quite well. In the Northern Territories there is no speed limit, here they drive with one eye on the speedometer.
They're driving me nuts with all these signs. 'Beware of the kangaroos', 'Crossing koalas', 'Reduce speed', 'Concealed exit', 'Sharp turn', and 'Drowsy drivers die'. The last one is the first of a complete range. Never before have I seen such rude warnings on traffic signs. After spending some time in Switzerland, where they check your speed as well, you get the feel of what speed is desirable. Outside towns the limit is 100 kph, but near villages it's utter chaos. Sometimes it's 60 kph, in the next village it's 80 on the same road. Most of the time it's 100, 80, 60 (village), 80, 100. But the local authorities seem to have the liberty of changing this to 100, 90, 80, 70, and back up again. Everybody brakes at the sight of these signs, and I have to be careful not to bump into one of them.
And of course the inevitable happens. On the Princes Highway the speed limit is 110 kph, except... I see a police car parked on the other side of the road. They are checking the oncoming traffic, they are hidden from their view by the bushes. I pass, and I see the car emerge from its hiding place. "That's for me", I think, while they approach with flashing lights. "What do you think is the reason I stopped you?", the officer asks me. What a stupid question - I'll answer this one equally dumb. "I don't know." The question was just an introduction: "You were doing 124, that's 24 kph too fast." Darn, I've overlooked one of the signs in this sign forrest. "Do you have a driver's license?" With some effort I retrieve the waterproof documents bag from my jacket. My fingers are too cold to open it. The officer takes out my license - the first time he holds one of those large, pink things. "I'm going to give you a ticket", he says, now somewhat friendlier to this foreign guest. "Do you really have to?", I ask. "Yes, but you don't have to pay it", he says, while walking back to the car. "Well", he syas upon return, "it's not worth it to try and collect the fines from overseas. Just don't pay - you won't hear a thing again."
After one night in Geelong I reach BMW Australia in Melbourne just before noon. Steve Adcock listens patiently to my sad story. He cannot give me a new gear box or a financial compensation. He can help me with fixing the gear box itself: not long ago a gear box has been changed, the cog wheels are still at BTX, a dealer. I can have the cogs, no charge. We talk about the problems and production errors known with the GS. I have seen them all: the broken support on my way to Martin, the broken frame, the broken support of the gear box, and now the gear box itself. After 100,000 kilometers it is also time for a few other repairs: the brake disks and the clutch are considered 'normal maintenance'.
They don't have time at BTX this week, Andrew says. He mans the desk. We try to find a way around this: the problem lies in removing the gear box. "If you manage to hand us just the box, we can squeeze this in somewhere." I tell him I can do this, but not in the parking lot of the motel. The owner of BTX Service, Michael Bubb, is an ex-superbike racer and former Australian champion in this class. Andrew, also called 'Angel', is into racing as well. "Last week I was in Mallala", he tells me. "Me too!" - the ice has been broken. Angel is a member of the sidecar team of Vincent Messina and Alison Scoullar. I tell him I have supported Benny Jansen and Frans Geurts Van Kessel for a while. "We will find a solution!", Angel calls out. "You can use the shop of the race team, I think, and we will find you a place to sleep."
After a few phone calls we decide I'll return on Saturday to meet Vince and Alison. They will come to BTX (the sponsor of their team) to show their sidecar to the customers. Michael explains to me in detail what is wrong with the bike. It will not lock up or die on me altogether - I can still use it. When he has opened up the gear box he will be able to tell me the costs of the repairs. Probably they'll have to make some modifications to my cogs or those spare ones, the problem will then be solved permanently. The new six-speed gear box in the K1200 has a similar improvement. Relieved I go - I have two days before Saturday.
I go straight into the mountains, north-east of Melbourne. I cross an area which constantly reminds me of California. There are lots of bends in the roads, they take me through a dense forrest. The trees are all Eucalyptus types. Some parts of the Santa Cruz mountains are full of them. The fields are dry and yellow, that's normal at the end of the summer. There are no leaf trees like in Europe, it's probably too hot in the summer. I find a hotel where I can warm my bones again in a generous shower. At the altitude I am now it is not chilly, it is downright cold.
I meet a couple which lives down the road; they arrive in a very old car. They have to get back, else the wood fires that warm their home will die out. I try out some political subjects, I've got the feeling these people have at least some opinion. They turn out to be those salon socialists the people in Curtin Springs hate so much. "The USA has no business being in Kosovo. They think they can play the world's police force, that's why we oppose to that." Recently I have a strong opinion about the Serves and their genocide behaviour, but my partners in this conversation stick to some general lefty remarks. Too bad, I would have enjoyed a good conversation.
The next day starts off with fog and temperatures around 5 degrees Celsius. I remain in bed for a while, until the wide open world calls me. At 10 AM it is no warmer, but at least I can see something. The route, described to me by some other visitor yesterday evening, uses a path of gravel. Finally I can do the thing I like best: riding along a deserted path, through a dense forrest, on my way to... My destinantion changes almost every minute, I intentionally take turns off the path to extend my trip. At moments I regret this, the path is sometimes very muddy. I can hear the frozen mud crack under my front wheel, while sliding in all directions.
I drop anchor in Kevington, the center of the universe, or so the sign above the fire place tells me. This shop is run by Josh and Tracey, they've escaped the city, and have settled on a beautiful spot along a small stream. You can camp here (there is one tent), and the usual hotel facilities are here. I'm being greeted warmly with a lunch of hot soup and a dish with clams and cheese - a combination new to me. I get the full tour around the place (with apologies for the state of things, with the bare trees and no flowers). I have to return sometime. After the lunch Tracey takes an atlas, the five people present (the sign along the road told me there are 20 residents in Kevington - 25% of the population is gathered around me) won't let me go until I'm thoroughly warmed up by the large fire and have told them a lot about the countries between Turkey and Singapore.
After a night in a very sagged-through bed in Myrtleford I ascend Mount Buffalo. I am deep enough into the country to have left behind the bad weather. The sun is shining, the low temperatures aren't important anymore. The cold bones probably find their cause in between my ears. I'm in the middle of the ski area of Victoria - there is no snow yet. The sky is clear after all the rain, it is as bright as autumn skies in the mountains can be. I feel all giddy, I climb the last kilometers of Mount Buffalo in my bike boots. The view is gorgeous, I can see for some 60 miles! I have a chat with two chaps who are expecting snow: they are checking out the caterpillar tracks of a snow plough. If I return in a few weeks, I must bring along my skies, they promise me.
The next one from the 'great ... Roads' is called 'Great Alpine Road'. First I cross Mount Hotham (lots of ski motels and typical winter sport signs) through dense forrests. Still I see mainly Eucalyptus trees - the Koala's food. I miss the gravel path to the coast, and stay on the asphalt of the Great Alpine Road. A new plan in forming: I go to the coast, to Wilson's Promontory. This is a nature park, devoted to the meeting place between the sea and the land. This turns out to be a bad idea - it's raining there. Luckily I find a motel room with a wood fire, I almost crawl into that fire place while enjoying a glass of wine.
Saturday morning it's raining, and I leave Wilson's Prom for what it is. I arrive at BTX's at 1 PM. I tell Alison about the sidecar winners waiving with their legs where others use their arms. "That was me!", she says. "We won the race - great, what?" Vince and Alison are race partners: Vincent builds the bike and steers it, Alison is passenger and does the PR and sponsors. Andrew, Vincent and Alison have already set everything up: my bike can be taken apart in the shop. The place to sleep is a two-second subject - Vince and Alison assume I'll stay over. We didn't know this would take a bit longer than expected.... (but more on that next time)