Published on January 5th, 2014 | by Boris
OUT TO THE RIVER
Not all that long ago, I went for a ride to see an old friend.
This is how it went…
There was no way I was not going to my brother Whitey’s 60th birthday party.
Sure, it was a bit outta Sydney. Warren, to be exact. But I’m certainly no stranger to doing miles.
Twenty years ago, when Whitey and I shared colours, I was riding out to Warren to visit him on a regular basis, and thinking not much of it. And that was on a Shovelhead, which would fervently shed bits of itself and spit oil the whole way, while simultaneously powdering my spine and brutalising my internal organs. Which would then force me to ingest various drugs and alcohol until I was crazy enough to carry on.
How much faster, smoother and more efficient would the trip be if I was sober and astride a 2013 FJR1300?
Clearly, I was gonna find out.
Back then, the trip took about six hours, give or take an hour.
Or maybe a bit more, if the Road Gods were feeling playful and the battery/headlight/exhaust system parted company with the bike along the way.
It was about 500-and-a-bit klicks, but it always felt much longer if you went via Bathurst, Orange, Molong, Dubbo and Nevertire. Fear of the Highway Patrol made sure you were never too enthusiastic with the throttle on that route. So I didn’t go that way much.
The enthusiastic always used the Castlereagh Highway via Mudgee, Gulgong, Dunedoo, Mendooran and Gilgandra.
In real terms, the distance was probably a touch further. But what made the difference was the fact that you could speed your fool head off once you got out past Gulgong. The roads were empty of traffic, the towns were small and the sky was big.
I’ve made the run in five-and-a-half hours, including two stops for petrol, so you can certainly get a good roll on if you’ve a mind to.
And I sure had a mind for it this time.
I lost touch with Whitey almost 20 years ago when I left the club, and life moved on for both of us, as it does.
But I thought of him often, and I smiled every time I did.
The Internet and some what you might term ‘challenging’ circumstances had contrived to bring us together again.
The big fellow – and he is a big fellow – found me on Facebook. That was of itself quite a miracle. Whitey is eight years older than me, and given how much I struggle with social media and the ever-accelerating pace of technology, I was astonished to see his name pop up in my Friends Request box.
We quickly exchanged phone numbers and minutes later we were jabbering at each other as if the years that had passed were mere days.
“I’ll be comin’ down to Sydney soon,” he told me.
I was nonplussed.
Whitey is a fourth generation Warren boy.
Fourth generation Warren boys do not just “come to Sydney’ on a whim. In fact, on the very few occasions he had ridden down here, it had been a traumatic experience for both him and the city.
Wanting to show him the sights on his first visit, we saddled up and headed for town. Within a kilometre of my place in Pennant Hills, as I was nonchalantly lane-splitting my way through traffic, Whitey and his handelbars were busily removing the side-mirrors from just about every car he wobbled past in an effort to keep up with me. What made it worse was that he would then stop and apologise to the terrified occupants for doing so.
“Sorry, mate!” he would bark. “I’m from Warren. This traffic’s got me a bit fucked.”
A few times he even got off his bike and handed the drop-jawed driver back the smashed mirror.
“I don’t know how the fuck ya do that!” he said when we stopped at the first servo into town. “I’ve never seen so many cars in me life.”
He was sweating, pulling at his great beard and blinking in consternation.
I laughed. His reaction to Sydney was not much different to my reaction the first time I’d gone out to visit him, and we went out looking for a ‘killer’.
A ‘killer’ is a sheep. It is a sheep that does not belong to you, but that you are nonetheless going to eat. But you first have to catch it.
Which is how it was explained to us by Whitey and a few of the local blokes.
Ever tried to catch a sheep?
It’s quite a chore. Especially when the fucker is in its paddock with all of it mates, you’re wearing Johnny Rebs, have a belly full of beer, a head full of dope and nasal cavity caked with methamphetamine.
Helpfully, Whitey would be at the fence yelling out instructions while a half-dozen of us stumbled and tumbled around in confusion trying to grab a suitable beast.
“Get ’round! Get ’round!” he’d holler at me like I was some kinda two-legged cattle dog..
“Get fucked!” I’d hoot back as I tripped over my own feet and landed on some bleating, lanoline-stinking, burr-impregnated ewe.
We eventually caught one (it took almost two hours) and Whitey was helpless with laughter as we hauled it over the fence and manhandled it into the back of his ute.
“You city blokes like to run around a paddock, doncha?”
“How else are you supposed to catch one?” I panted at him, red-eyed with madness.
“Ya chuck some feed down near the fence-line and when they come wandering over, you reach over and grab one.”
As the years passed and our friendship grew, Whitey taught me many things about the bush and the people who make it their home. I count my visits to Warren and the surrounding towns of Nyngan, Quambone, Gilgandra and Narromine as some of the best times I have ever had. I’m not sure he found his visits to Sydney as enlightening and instructive, but he was always too polite to say so. And I loved him dearly for it.
Which is why I was gutted to learn that bastard cancer had come to call on him and that was the reason for his visit to Sydney.
Typically, the big fella was altogether dismissive of this when we spoke about it.
“Lots of people worse off than me,” he said. “I’ll be right.”
Having had more than my fill of cancer over the last few years, I knew more than I wanted to about the disease and I knew that he may well be correct. He may well be “right”. Then again, he may well be to Hell and gone the other side of “right”.
I am sure he knew this too, but his natural good humour and immense courage would not permit him any other response.
I hugged him with deep concern when I went to see him at the Royal Prince Alfred cancer facility.
He hadn’t changed all that much. He was still big and bearded and his eyes, behind his glasses, twinkled with vast amusement.
“Good to see you, little brother,” he growled as he hugged me back.
Whitey is one of the few people on this earth who can call me “little” with any conviction.
That evening, as I visited him and as he sat on his hospital bed (“Don’t feel sick. Don’t need to be lying down.”) dressed in one of his old Harley T-shirts looking very out of place in a ward full of cancer patients, we “caught up” on the 20 years that had passed since we last had a yarn.
As with all true friends, it was as if we’d seen each other last week.
Much had changed in our lives, yet much, oddly enough, had not.
We were still the same in many ways. Certainly older and maybe a little wiser, but our blood still seemed to boil with more than its fair share of hell-vinegar.
What had changed, of course, were our personal circumstances. I had an 18-year-old son, and Whitey’s two children, Johnny and Kerry, now had families of their own. The resultant grandchildren clearly filled Whitey with joy and pride.
“Got my sixtieth coming up,” he told me, just after the nurse had given him some pills and me a stern look when I asked her if she had any to spare for visitors.
“You having a do?” I asked.
“Johnny and Kerry want to put on a bit of a party on Johnny’s block. A river party.”
I had been to a few “river parties” up his way in days gone by, and I hold them to be one of life’s great joys. In a country as dry and vast as Australia, access to a river is not something to be sneezed at out west.
“What river?” I asked, already determined to attend this wondrous gathering.
“The Macquarie,” he replied. “Johnny bought 25 acres just outta Warren on the river. I just hope I’m around for it.”
“Shut up, fuck ya,” I grinned. “Of course you’ll be around for it.”
Whitey’s birthday was still four months away in November, and his treatment was yet to start, so both he and I knew his attendance at his birthday was very much up in the air.
His cancer was intriguing – at least to the doctors treating him. To him, it was just a bastard of a thing that had to be dealt with.
Whitey had been born with melanoma, and had been getting lesions cut off himself for his entire life. He had suffered a back injury a few years before he’d been diagnosed, which was the result of many years of driving unsuspended graders and poorly suspended Harleys over all sorts of dire tracks and roads. One of his vertebrae had been turned into powder and he was looking at some spinal surgery when he found a lump under his arm. The subsequent tests revealed that he had cancer in his spine, his lymph glands and a few spots on his lungs. And the break in his vertebra could not be treated until the adjoining tumour had been dealt with.
As it turned out, the doctors did more tests and it was discovered that Whitey was a perfect candidate for a new experimental drug, which had shown itself to be quite efficacious with his type of cancer.
There was hope. No-one was ordering caskets and if the new chemotherapy and subsequent radiotherapy proved to be effective, the prognosis was good.
But…well, the buts are always there with cancer.
I left him that evening feeling a little empty and not a little sad.
A few weeks later he called me and told me that the chemo seemed to be doing what it was meant to do, and the tumours had shrunk away to almost nothing and he was due to start radiotherapy the following week.
“How you feeling?” I asked.
“Yeah, pretty good,” he chortled. “Been a few rough spots, but I’m good.”
Given Whitey’s tendency for understatement, I could only imagine how rough those rough spots had been. And he had yet to experience the crushing after-effects of radiotherapy.
A week later, his daughter Kerry sent me an invite to his birthday. I RSVPd immediately, and Whitey and I exchanged text messages and the odd phone call as the party date approached. Then things went all quiet and I feared the worst.
I was too scared to call in case it wasn’t him who answered the phone.
A week before the party, he called me.
“Howyadoin’, little brother?” he chortled into the phone, sounding quite hale.
“I’m good, mate. How you doin’?”
“That fucken radiotherapy’s a bit of a cunt,” he said. “Had a few bad days. Spent four of them in Dubbo base hospital. Right as rain now, but. Come good in the last week. You comin’ to the party?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.
And the following Friday, I loaded up the FJR and headed west.
The recent bushfires afforded me views off both sides of Bells Line of Road that took my breath away. The scale of destruction was truly vast, and uncountable square kilometres of burnt-out valleys stretched away as far as I could see. There was no more smoke, but the smell of burned bush was still thick.
The other side of Lithgow, the country was untouched by fire and as I rolled into Mudgee, Australia was looking about as green as Australia can look in that part of the country – which is to say it was mostly a nice yellow colour.
I had a bite to eat in Mudgee, and gazed with great love upon the FJR – which had thus far filled me with immense joy. Its credentials as a grand tourer cannot be disputed. It is comfortable, meaningfully fast and handles with divine precision and ease. It makes doing big miles quickly a sheer delight.
That I had yet to see a Highway Patrol car was not at all delightful. I knew they were out there. Mudgee is notorious in that regard. And over the years, the local Highway Patrol and I have had several expensive, terse and stilted conversations on the side of the road.
So I took it easy through the rolling plains out of Mudgee, through Gulgong and into Dunedoo.
The Castlereagh Highway is mostly deserted during the week, so the temptation to open the taps is strong, and I was just about to give into it, when I saw a clot of about ten cars ahead of me. Had the Road Gods not looked upon me with kindness at that instant, I would have put on my blinker, snicked it down a gear (not that you have to on the FJR) and hammered past them with righteousness. And I was just about to do exactly that, when the car at the front of the line suddenly turned on its blue-and-reds, and pulled to the side.
It was a burgundy red Highway Patrol car bristling with antennas and chequered stickers and it had been utterly invisible to me at the front of the line of cars. I would only have noticed it as I was overtaking it on the wrong side of the road at about 180. As it was, I idled past whatever it was he was planning to do, and then over the next rise, I engaged warp and disappeared towards Dunedoo.
Now I’m not a fan of this small, grain-silo-based siding on the Castlereagh Highway. I have stopped there a few times for beer and petrol and even slept on the bottom pub’s verandah one stormy night in 1983. I don’t know what it is, and it’s probably me, but I’ve always found the locals to be rude, simple and altogether nasty. It could well be one of those towns that just doesn’t like people on bikes, or it could be something in their water. Either way, I wasn’t hanging around any longer than it took to snap a selfie.
And now the ride could commence in earnest. Between Dunedoo and Warren there is only the miniscule village of Mendooran, the sizeable town of Gilgandra and the isolated pub-that-is-listed-as-a-town at Collie. In between, the Castlereagh Highway (which becomes the Oxley Highway from Gilgandra to Warren – yes, that Oxley Highway, which actually starts from tiny Nevertire where it right-angles off the Mitchell Highway and eventually ends up in Port Macquarie on the coast) is nothing more or less than a high-speed proving ground.
The surface is great (except in a few places where it’ll juice your kidneys with some strategically-placed bumps), the traffic is sparse and you can see for miles. The only issue you might have is with the flocks of birds that hang by the side of the road. On a loud-piped Harley or a screaming sportsbike, they hear you coming and have a chance of escaping. On something as quiet and laser-fast as the FJR, the feathery fuckers are dead before they’ve flapped their wings a dozen times. I killed three of them between Mendooran and Gilgandra, where I stopped for fuel and picked out bits of galah from the air-vents at the front of the Yamaha. I thanked all that was thankable for the FJR’s electronically adjustable fairing. What a glorious bit of kit. Button it down and it’s all clean air, hot wind and noise. Button it up and your world is a silent cocoon of bird-smashing destruction. The first two times I closed my eyes before impact. The following six times I kept them open and watched how they thuddingly ricocheted off the screen like downy little parcels of death. I smiled each time it happened.
But my joy was a little muted because I had suffered a catastrophic photographic equipment failure between Dunedoo and Mendooran.
Thinking that it would be kinda cool to snap some rider’s point-of-view snaps with the speedo sitting at 200km/h and birds bouncing off the screen, I hauled out my camera, looped it around my wrist and set off up the road. At 200km/h I engaged cruise control and started this jerky and bizarre one-handed fiddling with the camera trying to manoeuvre it into position for the money-shot while also paying attention to the fact that I was doing 200km/h. Something was not right and I was struggling to depress the shutter-button, but because I did not dare take my eyes of the road for more than a nano-second, I was forced to pull over. I crunched my way onto the gravel at the side of the road, stopped and immediately saw that the camera’s battery compartment was gaping open and that the battery had parted company with the camera fuck knows where.
Clearly, the evil thoughts I’d been harbouring about Dunedoo were to blame. The bastard town had reached out and plucked the battery from my camera with supernatural malice. Fucken shithole.
Still, I did have a Smartphone, so all was not lost. But there would not be any rider’s point-of-view shots on this trip.
I sailed on and arrived in Gilgandra in very short order.
Speed fever was upon me. The FJR was just too damn good at this kinda riding.
I called Whitey from the small BP in Gilgandra as I wiped the nauseating dead-bird grease from the front of the bike.
“I’m in Gil. I’ll be at your place in twenty minutes.”
“Be fucked, you will,” Whitey said.
“Be fucked if I’m not,” I replied.
It is 86 kilometres from Gilgandra to Warren. Only the Collie pub lies in-between. If you do not stop there for three beers, and the Road Gods smile upon you, and you have an FJR (or an equivalent missile), and you’re not scared, and you pay attention, twenty minutes is a fair call.
“That some kind of rocketship?” Whitey asked as I pulled off my helmet out the front of his house, almost exactly twenty minutes after I’d called him.
“I’m thinking it is,” I smiled and hugged him.
He’d lost a bit of weight, seemed a bit stooped and had aged more than he should have in the three months that had passed since I sat with him in the cancer ward at the hospital. But he moved well, smiled a lot and looked far better than I thought he would.
“I was imagining you tucked up in bed wrapped up in a blanket,” I grinned.
He grinned back. “If you were here last week you wouldn’t have been disappointed. Fucken knocked me around some in the last month, I’ll tell ya. I’ve only now started to come good. Put some weight back on and all.”
All of this was encouraging. When it comes to cancer, any good news beats back the uncertainty, misery and suffering for a while, and is great for morale.
I also find beer is good for morale, so I told Whitey I’d be back after I had checked into my motel and hit the bottleshop.
“Yeah, good,” he said. “Johnny should be here when you get back. He’ll take you up the block and you can have a look around.”
The motel I had booked was on the other side of town, and since Warren is not a big town, it was less than a three-minute ride.
You’ve probably worked out that I very much like Warren and its people. They are not at all like the sour denizens of Dunedoo. And Warren itself is quite an oasis in the middle of vast stretches of dry emptiness. It sits astride the Macquarie River, is famous for its cotton, cattle, horses, pig-hunting, roo-shooting and boasts a beautiful park, a few pubs, two clubs and an altogether magnificent racetrack.
I pulled up at the Warren Motel, and introduced myself to Glyn, the Welsh owner, who was quick to advise me about the local cops.
“They’re not too fussed about speeding out of town, but they are ruthless with DUI. There are no taxis in town, but there are courtesy buses from the RSL and the golf club if you have a few. Or you can walk.”
I took that under advisement and went to my room. I figured on a quick shower to wash off the road-sweat and possible particles of dead bird that afflicted me, then I would head back to Whitey’s.
The room was clean, smelled fine and I was naked and turning on the shower in seconds. Then I was standing back from the cascade of hot water and flashing LED-lighting that filled the small bathroom.
“Wow,” I muttered, staring at the strobing coloured LED lightshow that was coming from the showerhead.
Glyn, or someone, had clearly set-up the shower cubicles for disco-lit sessions of funky outback beer-sex. I had no doubt my shower recess had often echoed to the sound of shearers bonking the local female cotton-chippers in its watery depths, their passion lit and possibly fuelled by the chiaroscuro of coloured lights from the gushing showerhead. I manfully resisted the urge to abuse myself, hopped out, toweled off, dressed, and rode to the bottle shop on my way back to Whitey’s.
Once again, Warren delivered up some unexpected chocolates. This time in the very lovely shape of a young lady serving at the bottle-O counter. Her make-up was perfect, her shorts were short, her hair immaculate, her manicure professional, her ear-rings vast and circular, and she would not have been out of place in a trendy Sydney bar.
There was a big Koori in front of me, so I waited with my six-pack while he concluded his business, which was the convoluted purchase of a single long-neck.
“That’ll do me, love,” he said cheerily. “Just the one.”
“No worries, Laurie,” the girl sighed, put the long-neck in a paper bag and gave him some change out of a fiver.
“Hi,” she gleamed at me.
“Hi,” I gleamed back.
“Just this, thanks,” I said, pushing the six-pack across the counter and knowing she’d think I was some kind of city-poof because I’d bought James Squire instead of Four-Ex, but not caring all that much.
Then Laurie walked back in.
“This one’s a bit warm, darlin’,” he said happily, putting the long-neck on the counter.
The girl sighed resignedly, put the bottle under the counter and got Laurie a fresh one out of the fridge.
“Thanks, love,” he grinned and wandered out of the shop.
“Sorry about that,” she smiled as she bagged my six-pack of hoppy poovery. “He’s always doing that.”
I gave her a quizzical look.
“He comes in one or twice a week, buys a bottle, and it’s always cold because I get it out of the fridge, then he goes outside, sits on the post office steps, drinks it, refills it with water from the tap, puts the top back on, then comes in and tells me I sold him a warm beer.”
“And you replace it?”
“Yep,” she sparkled, nodding, and setting her wonderful hoop earrings swaying delightfully. “It’s easier than arguing with him.”
I left the bottle shop smiling. Warren was once again working its unique magic on me.
I rode back to Whitey’s and a house full of people.
I had not seen his son Johnny for almost 20 years. I vaguely remembered him as a quiet child, who watched his father and his father’s rowdy, tattooed mates with a quiet awe and at a respectful distance. I was certainly not prepared for the clean-cut, powerfully-built, grinning bloke who looked like he rode wild bulls to death and ate the flesh of venomous reptiles for breakfast.
“I cannot believe this is Johnny,” I said to Johnny.
He laughed and assured me it was him.
“Johnny’s the local ranger,” Whitey said proudly. “He’s done well for himself.”
“The local ranger?” I blinked, unsure if that was some kinda bush code for practices that involved high-powered firearms and tactical deployments against feral enemies.
“Like a dead-set government national parks ranger ranger?”
“Yep,” Johnny smiled, wider than ever, the moustache he’d grown for Movember and which made him look like a Seventies porn star twitching wider with amusement. “Work ute, badge, the lot.”
“That’s great,” I said with genuine pleasure. Being mates with the local ranger in a district renowned for its hunting richness has benefits I really don’t need to explain to anyone.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you the block where we’re having the party tomorrow.”
“Is it far?” I asked.
“Nah, just out of town.”
Prior experience had shown me that this could mean anything from five kilometres to 150 kilometres. But no-one out this way measures distance in terms of distance, anyway. It’s all measured in terms of time. Gilgandra’s not 90 kays away, it’s an hour away.
What the fuck, I thought, as I climbed into Johnny’s personal ute with a cold beer in my hand. It’s not like I’m on a schedule. I was now on Warren time.
And I was pleasantly surprised by just how close Johnny’s block was to Warren. His 25 acres with 500 metres of tree-lined river frontage is less than five minutes away from the centre of town. Mostly level, perfect for building, and sloping gently to a river filled with fish, there’s even a few gullies tailor-made for smashing a dirt-bike through.
There were already tables and chairs set up near the riverbank and by tomorrow morning, there would be a few tents and canvas shelters erected.
Johnny and I sat down on the river bank and we had ourselves a beer. The serenity was all-encompassing.
This was Australia at its very best. A slow moving-river, a gentle breeze cooled by the water, tiny willy wagtails darting through the overhanging branches of ancient gums that lined the river, eddies in the water promising fish…hell, even the ice-cold Four-Ex Johnny had given me tasted fabulous. Maybe the air out here changes its molecular structure and makes it palatable, even to a palate as citified as mine.
Johnny showed me where his house would be built, where his dirt-bike gullies were, where the fish liked to hide and where there’s an overhanging tree-limb that needed to be chainsawed off lest one of tomorrow’s taller guests inadvertently caved his skull in upon it.
Then we agreed to adjourn to the RSL club for a feed and some serious beer-drinking.
The sun was going down, the air was sweet and warm, the bloke I’d come to visit was looking good, and I was bathed in a serene and genuine hospitality unique to this part of the world. I was so pleased with myself I almost took another sex-shower.
At the RSL, I was introduced to a bunch of Whitey’s local mates, and to Johnny’s father-in-law, Gary – whose picture should be in the dictionary next to the term: “Australian bloke.”
Gary owns 25,000 hectares not far out of Warren and manages an adjoining 250,000. He was polite enough not to laugh when I told him about my mate Daz’s recently acquired 3000 acres near Coolah. A softly-spoken, powerfully-built man, Gary, like many of the blokes out that way, looks as if he’s been carved from hardwood, leather and vast quantities of good humour, kindness and generosity.
That evening, I probably drank more beer than I should have, ate a beaut Chinese meal, and met a man who’d ridden the Wall of Death on a BSA 250 in a travelling carnival back on the Sixties. He too looked like he’d been hewn from a prehistoric river gum and animated by roll-your-own tobacco and schooners of beer.
As midnight approached, I made my soft city excuses and staggered back to my motel.
The streets of Warren were empty but not lifeless. They are quiet but not silent, and the night was a weightless velvet blanket around me. Uncountable stars were strewn above, and I had to be careful not to fall over my own beery feet as I gazed upwards and tried to walk down the road at the same time. The air was clean and untainted, but flavoured with the occasional whiff of barbecued lamb, wet grass from the people watering their lawns, and…well, vastness, I suppose. In a place like Warren, you can never forget that you’re in an oasis; a small island of light and sound and humanity in an immense, timeless and unbounded country that seems to almost echo inside a city-bloke’s head when he tries to think about it too hard.
I got back to my motel, cracked a beer open from the bar-fridge in my room, and sat down in my underpants on the thoughtfully-provided wooden bench outside my door. I sipped my beer and watched the fruit-bats arc and flap through the trees by the road.
“How ya goin?” a voice asked me.
It came from behind the glow of a cigarette two rooms away. I had seen an ubiquitous white ute parked there when I wobbled my way home, but there are so many white utes out this way, they tend to blend into the scenery.
“I’m good,” I told the voice.
There was a short silence, then the voice started talking.
“Ya fucken wouldn’t believe it,” it said. “I only live three doors away from this place.”
I sipped my beer and kept my mouth shut. Whatever I needed to know would doubtlessly be told to me in the fullness of time.
“I had a fight with me missus tonight,’ the voice continued. “Fucken bitch. I’ve lived with her for 22 years and she can get fucked.”
“Would you like a beer?” I asked the voice. There was no other possible statement I could make at that point in time.
“Nah,” it said, and I saw the cigarette fly off into the motel car-park and another one quickly replace it. When the lighter flashed, I saw the face behind the voice. Middle-aged bloke, dark hair, dark clothes…then it was dark again. I sipped my beer.
“I’ve had enough to drink this evening,” the voice continued. “The kids just brought my tea up (“tea” is what the evening meal is called in this part of the world), and then she came along and told me I should come home.”
“What did you say?” I asked, already kinda knowing the answer.
“I told her to get fucked,” the voice replied. “I’ve had enough of her shit. I’ll stay here tonight and then head out to Carinda tomorrow to see about some work.”
The voice and I sat in companionable silence after that, then I could feel sleep calling me.
“Good luck to you, mate,” I said, levering myself upright.
I went to bed with the room’s air-conditioner whooshing at me. I did briefly contemplate a sexy shower, but felt I might perform better in the morning.
The morning was as bright and clear as a teenager’s promise.
I had my shower, which was nowhere near as sexy as it would have been last night, and set off to find coffee.
That wasn’t hard. There is only one coffee shop in Warren and it doubles as a bakery. I ordered a bacon-and-egg roll, a mug of caffeine and amused myself by reading the local notices stuck in the window. I noted that I had not yet got my grainbags for the coming harvest, the going price for chooks was $20 each, Thomas was hiring himself out as a helping hand, contract harvesting was available, and an intriguing group known as the Macquarie Mummies gathered on the first Wednesday of each month.
Then Johnny pulled up in front of the bakery in his ute.
“I’m going to go and get some more tables and chairs,” he told me. “Wanna come along?”
“Can I leave the bike at the block?”
Johnny nodded, I fired up the FJR and a few minutes later had it parked under a tree on his land. Whitey was already there wandering around on the riverbank, arranging chairs and tightening tent ropes. His wife Marlene and his daughter Kerry were also fussing around inside one of the tents.
“How’d ya sleep, mate?” Whitey asked, a broad grin splitting open his beard. “Pull up alright this mornin’?”
I had actually. There were no traces of any hangover.
“I’m good, brother,” I told him. “I pulled the pin early. I think the other blokes kicked on a bit.”
“We ended up at the pub when the RSL closed,” Johnny chimed in. “Lisa (Johnny’s wife) called me; pretty late it was and said if I wanted her to pick me up, she would come out right then, otherwise I could walk home.”
“Where do you live?” I asked him.
“Up near the weir,” Johnny said, pointing off to the west. “It’s a bit of a walk from town.”
About eight kilometres, I later discovered.
“You don’t want to be doing it drunk,” Whitey observed. “Lisa’s good to you.”
Johnny nodded. “She’s the best. I’m just gonna take Boris for a bit of tour around the town and get some more tables and chairs.”
And off we went.
I discovered many things as Johnny drove me around Warren, not the least of which was that as the local ranger, Johnny spent a lot of his time catching snakes that wandered into people’s homes. I was also introduced to an enormous herd of cattle, but only a small portion of the 80,000 head that were being driven down from Queensland in chunks of 10,000, and that was currently being grazed on the edge of the town.
“He’s gonna make some good money on them,” Johnny observed. “He bought them for two dollars a head, and he’ll end up selling them for about $50 each.”
The logistics of moving 80,000 cows 2000km overland defied my comprehensive abilities in this day and age. But the profit margins appeared sound.
After a lap of the town and the amazing world-class racetrack (known as the “Randwick of the West”) where Johnny had his 21st and where Whitey used to hold and run the local bike show, we pulled up at the modern and well-equipped community hall. Johnny had the keys, opened up the back door and we loaded a few dozen chairs and a couple of fold-up tables onto his trailer.
We offloaded the lot on the banks of the river and Johnny said he had to take his wife, Lisa, somewhere to drop off a cake she had baked for some children’s party. Lisa, apart from her superb taxi-skills, also bakes impossibly beautiful cakes for every occasion.
“Mate, could I just stay here for a bit?” I asked him.
“Will you be alright?” Johnny asked.
I looked up and down the river, noted the soft chairs, the eskies full of ice and beer and the complete absence of any other people (Whitey, his wife and daughter had gone off to get ready for the party which was to kick off after lunch and it was now around 10am), and smiled like an elderly crocodile.
“I shall be fine,” I stated.
Johnny was gone in a cloud of dust, and I sat back in a padded outdoor chair, put my feet up on a stump, cracked open a morning Four-Ex and just stared at the slow-moving water.
And not for the last time did I tell myself that I should do this more often.
Here was peace. Here was serenity. Here was an ice-cold beer and the sound of cicadas and birds and a breeze, combined into a single soundtrack of tranquillity.
It was very warm where I was seated in the shade, and out in the sun it was trending to hot, but the river cooled the moving air, and a generous application of Aeroguard kept the flies at a respectful distance.
I finished my beer and opened another. I was smiling. An observer might have thought I was mildly retarded and grinning at the voices chattering in my head. He would be wrong. There were no voices in my head at that moment. Normally, the voices in my head are not the kind of voices one smiles at. But they were quiet. And I was smiling because I was happy. Not for any particular reason. But just on general principles. And what a rare thing that is these days, huh?
I sat there smiling until people began to arrive.
White ute after white ute rolled in and disgorged men, women and eskies, some of whom had driven many miles to help Whitey celebrate his milestone birthday (not the eskies – the men and women). Everyone seemed to know everyone else, but I was made to feel incredibly welcome, despite the fact that I was clearly from the city. And an interesting question emerged in my head as I shook hands and exchanged introductions. Would a party in the city be as genuinely welcoming to country folks as this one was to a city bloke? It was doubtful.
But thus has it always been. A very different kind of Australia exists outside of the big cities. It is an Australia, not so much of a bygone era, but of a different frequency. You have to tune into it to hear it, but it’s certainly there, and its signal is strong and clear.
I met the best roo-shooter for a hundred miles in any direction. We had a heart attack in common (except he’d had three and still managed to chop a tonne of firewood and cull 120 roos the night he’d had his first one); I met Red Mick, a member of the local Comanchero chapter, and one of the happiest and most easy-going blokes I’ve ever encountered. Johnny and I chased his tent across the paddock when the wind blew it away before he’d secured it properly, and we were rewarded with beer. I met Big Stu from the Rebels in Brisbane, who’d come down from the Newman’s Fascist State Of Queensland to celebrate with Whitey. Stu, who is one of the largest human beings I have ever seen, used to live in Warren and I’m told he was once the local cop, but quickly moved on from that dark time and joined the Rebels. We talked about the FJR and its inherent glory as a touring bike, and Stu told me he once got drunk and bought a Hayabusa on eBay. We both agreed that blokes like us have no business riding anything that goes that stupidly fast so stupidly fast. He sold it the following afternoon. I also met an impossibly cute police officer from Sydney, who was good friends with Whitey’s daughter Kerry, and who asked me to sign a copy of my book for her. I still don’t quite believe she was a cop, but then she probably struggled with the fact that I’m an author.
The afternoon wore on, the beer and laughter was unremitting, the kids caught a fish in the river, and then it was time to cut the cake and open the presents.
The highlight here was the mix-master Whitey’s wife, Marlene, had bought for him. It seems she waited a few years to get him back for the lawn-mower he’d bought her for her birthday, or it could have been payback for the WLA he’d brought home instead of the washing machine she was expecting him to return from Dubbo with.
The food was great, ranging from fresh lamb on the barbecue to spit-roasted pork, salads, cakes and some home-cured bacon one of Whitey’s mates made in his caravan annexe back in town.
Whitey was all smiles all day, and it warmed me to see him that way after all that he had been through.
I stood with him under one of the impossibly old and twisted river gums and he clapped me on the shoulder.
“Look at this,” he said, his gaze sweeping the 50-odd people standing and sitting in the riverbank’s shade, exchanging yarns and laughter. “There are people here from every period in my life. I used to break horses for that old bloke there when I was a kid, and now my grandkids are splashing in the river.”
“If you tear up, I’m gonna throw you into that fucken river,” I said, blinking some dust from my own sunglass-hidden eyes.
As the sun went down, I was also in danger of going down. So I made my excuses and rode back to my motel room and its erotic shower. Once again, I manfully resisted the urge to get my sex on, and very quickly passed out from all the beer I’d drunk.
My phone rang at about 11pm. It was Whitey.
“You OK, little brother?”
“Um, yeah.” I mumbled. “I think I must have passed out.”
“Yeah, I was a bit tired too after the food. Had to go home and take some tablets and I’m still here.”
“They all still kicking on at the block?”
“Yeah, they’ll go all night.”
“Good luck to them,” I sighed, wishing I was 20 or even 10 years younger.
“Young bloke’s game, that,” Whitey laughed. “What time you headin’ off in the mornin’?”
“I reckon I’ll be on the road by six.”
“Call by the block and say goodbye. Marlene and I will be out there cleanin’ up.”
I went back to sleep and the next morning I rode back to the river.
Only Whitey and Marlene were stirring. What was left of the guests was engaged in peaceful slumber.
“It was great to see you again,” Whitey said, hugging me into his beard.
“I’m just so sorry it was this bullshit disease of yours that brought us back together,” I replied.
And I genuinely was. That it took him getting cancer before we hooked back up was a matter of great shame to me.
“I’ll make sure it’s not so long between drinks ever again.”
“You ride safe,” he replied. “Send me a message when you get home so I know you got there alright.”
Just under six hours later I sent him that message.
Then I went back outside to clean more of that that horrible bird grease from the front of the FJR.
And to plan my next run to Warren.