Published on May 13th, 2007 | by Boris
THE WRONG WAY DOWN – DAY 1
I stood on the banks of the Hawkesbury River at Wiseman’s Ferry staring silently into the early morning gloom. I was filled with excitement and foreboding in equal amounts. The gear I was wearing felt strange and alien, as did the DR650 that was to be my companion over the next three days.
I had always wanted to do this trip — Sydney to Melbourne on the dirt — but in one of those “Yeah, it’d be great and I’ll get around to it one day…” and I never actually made any concrete steps to make it so.
Then Ian Buckley came into my life and proceeded to expand my bike-riding horizons by smashing my internal organs. Enduro riding, track days and racing was the only outlet my motorcycling addiction was permitted for 16 months and Ian was instrumental in all of it. My gratitude to him is boundless and my fear of what he’s gonna come up with next is just as vast — or it was until this last adventure.
And it was certainly an adventure in every sense of the word.
But I wasn’t to know that as I stood on the pre-dawn banks of the Hawkesbury and wondered if the rest of the crew would be late. They weren’t and I heard them before I saw them descending the steep switchbacks into the river valley.
In short order, we had assembled at the ferry landing and I could tell the vibe was completely different to our normal road-riding assemblies. There was trepidation in the air, tinged with uncertainty and vague determination.
Some of this could be put down to the presence of Miles Davis and Dave Smith.
Miles, currently the Marketing Manager at BMW and former co-owner and writer for Cycle Torque needs no introduction to people in the industry, or to anyone who’s been lucky enough to attend one of his dirt-riding courses. But for those of you who don’t know him, Miles is a wonderful riding companion and possessed of supernatural bike-riding skills that truly beggar belief. This is probably why he was riding a fully kitted out BMW GS1200 Adventure — a bike almost twice as heavy as my DR and one that no sane man would contemplate taking on a journey of this kind. We didn’t know it at this early stage, but if Miles had not been with us, the whole trip would have ended differently.
Dave Smith was a bird of another hue — and his KTM spoke loudly of his commitment and love for this kind of riding. It was Dave (at Ian’s cajoling) who put together this trip. He’d done the NSW leg of it several times and has guided and chaperoned countless riders on this and similar outings. A faster and smoother dirt rider would be hard to find (though you only had to turn your head to see Miles, but his skills are of another order altogether) and he was an incredibly reassuring, amicable and level-headed riding companion.
Also along for the trip was Dino, Al and Steve — all committed members of the BIKE ME! Supreme Riding Soviet, who were tasked with following in our footsteps with a Land Rover and a three-bike trailer.
They carried no back-up gear and were only on hand to pick up any bike and/or rider unable to continue. One of the requirements we’d made of ourselves was that we would carry everything we needed with us. There would be no truck full of food, tools, spares, doctors, lawyers or whores dogging our trail.
And in practical business terms, we had to have a way to get the bikes back to civilization if it all went pear-shaped (since none of them belonged to us) and I can’t imagine BMW, Honda or Suzuki would smile upon us if at the end of the trip we gave them the co-ordinates of where one of their bikes had been left, rather than the bike itself.
We shot a few poorly-lit pics, wondered where the chopper was (apparently it was awaiting the arrival of our Director of Photography (DOP) who was steeling himself against the rigours of the journey by sleeping through his alarm) and discovering something that would haunt us for the next three days, i.e. our communications set-up was crap.
The chopper crew were the indefatigable Roger (Mick’s brother), his co-pilot, the ever-smiling Alex, and Andrew, the DOP — and as lovely and vital as they all were, we had a long way to go and (as it turned out) very little time to get there, so we made the call, crossed the river and turned left onto the dirt.
Miles was immediately up on his pegs and on the gas. Dave was in front of him leading the way up the rocky, but relatively stress-free track, Mick was making some vain attempt at keeping up and Ian and I brought up the rear.
I knew Ian was watching me as much as he was watching the track, and I was making every effort to look like I knew what I was doing. I didn’t and despite many attempts to imitate Miles’ carefree stand-and-deliver riding style, kept lowering my arse onto the seat each time I was uncertain of the terrain — which was every 10 seconds or so.
Still, that didn’t stop me enjoying the beauty that unfolded around me as we climbed and descended and climbed again through the series of sandstone-hedged valleys that surround the Hawkesbury and Colo River basin northwest of Sydney. This area is one of Sydney’s hidden glories and if you’re careful you can see most of it on a road bike.
We eventually popped out onto the Putty Road, rode down it a kilometer or so, turned left and began our descent to the Colo River and a picturesque wooden bridge.
Ian’s pannier had come off a few klicks back and almost took Mick out, but he’d re-attached it, frowned a little and was still frowning at it while Miles treated us all with a wheelie demonstration across the bridge which forced him to use a three-metre high embankment at the other end for a berm. Have you ever seen a GS being ridden sideways a metre off the level road? Neither had I, and it caused me to suck water from my Camelback like a crazy man. If I rode dirt for 100 years I could never approximate the skill-level Miles has. All I could do was gulp water and stare in respectful admiration.
The helicopter was waiting in a paddock on the other side of the river and Roger was explaining that the radios we had only worked where line-of-sight was available. This was a problem, but since it wasn’t mine and I could do nothing to fix it, I busied myself taking off most of the clothes I’d put on. The jacket Geoff Ballard had so kindly donated to our cause was a marvel of dirt-riding technology. Completely and thoroughly vented, it somehow managed to keep me warm when it was cold (and it was cold later), or when unzipped allowed cooling air to dry my sweat-soaked body with alarming ease. The Fox overpants Geoff also supplied likewise worked a treat worn over my O’Neal enduro strides and gave me a funky homeboy look — until Miles told me to zip up the bottoms so I wouldn’t look like an utter twat. He was also constantly advising me where the strap of my goggles should sit at the back of my helmet — not at the bottom where I was in the habit of putting it, but around the middle just like the pros.
The chopper took off, communications problems unsolved and we set off via the climb to Mountain Lagoon and finally the Bell’s Line of Road (where were to meet up at the Bilpin BP) before plunging back onto the dirt and the back way to Mt White.
It was warming up and the climb was not difficult, though it was no longer very friendly to anything but a road-trail outfit. Lots of loose large rocks and some tight stuff which was corrugated enough to give your fillings a bit of a shake up, but other than Ian’s pannier coming off again, I was left to enjoy the scenery and wonder if my crap dirt-riding skills were up to the challenge.
If it was all like this, I thought, I should be okay provided I don’t get cocky and start pretending I’m a Dakar racer.
We met up at Bilpin, shimmed Ian’s rattling panniers up with pieces of a plastic iced coffee bottle and hit the spectacularly scenic Bowen Creek track that would take us to Mt White. I also picked up Miles’ mobile phone from the forecourt of the servo, and briefly considered transferring all of his girlfriends’ numbers into mine, but the technology defeated me and I tucked in behind the pack as it turned left and just tried to keep up.
The chopper picked us up as we hugged the sandstone cliff, but lost us as we got into the thicker scrub on the other side of the valley and began the gentle ascent to the Mt White picnic area.
We stopped there, all smiles, and ate lollies like little kids while Dave advised me that this was thus far only a gentle introduction to the challenges that lay ahead.
Our path now lay along the Bell’s Line again, as far as the little track that leads to the bucolic Hartley Vale (which I’d visited a week before on AMCN’s 1000 comparo), then briefly out onto the blacktop of the Great Western Highway and a hot pie at the Little Hartley roadhouse.
My hunger was that great I inhaled the pie. In fact, I was to get into the habit of inhaling all of my food over the subsequent days. I learned to eat for nourishment rather than taste and our schedule didn’t allow for leisurely lunches in comfortable restaurants.
The Land Rover crew caught up with us, but we left them eating, and under the admiring glances of two hefty German backpacking frauleins who described us as “Sehr shön” set off for Jenolan Caves via the Cox’s River Road.
This also proved to be easy and undemanding dirt, but I was still unable to spend much time standing up and wondered if Miles was wearing some form of leg-bracing shit under his gear. The only time his arse touched the seat was when he rolled to a stop to gently tell me to fix my goggles or to giggle at Ian and his rattling panniers.
We hit the bitumen again about 40 klicks before Jenolan Caves and wound our way down the amazing limestone cave entrance that spits you out at Caves House. Evidence of the drought was everywhere and the stunning turquoise stream that flows beside the tunnel was dry and there was only a little water upstream.
Ian’s petrol tank was also kinda dry and we adjourned to the car-park above Caves House so he could siphon some out of the seemingly bottomless tank of my DR — something he was to do with some regularity as the trip progressed.
While Ian refuelled, the rest of gazed at the 30-odd Ferraris that had parked themselves across the car-park from where we were. What I noticed was the distinct lack of hot, high-bottomed blonde babes among the passengers. It would seem that another one of my cherished beliefs was to be smashed upon the rocky foreshore or reality. Blokes who own Ferraris are apparently quite grospy old farts with correspondingly blowsy fat hags for wives — which is probably God’s way of making us all feel better about ourselves.
The next bit was the Kanangra Walls Road to the Kowmung River crossing.
We were now into relatively more serious dirt, complete with metre-high spoon drains, but did that slow Miles and Dave down? Did it shit. I grew quite used to Miles appearing a metre above me with both wheels of the huge GS over my head, as he passed me in mid-air and told me to turn my blinker off. The ease with which he rode the big bike astonishes me to this day.
The ease with which I subsequently crashed, doesn’t surprise me at all. I was simply going too fast, had a bad moment on a bend which I managed to somehow save. I got straight back on the gas lest I be deemed insurmountably gay by my riding companions, and towelled it three corners later.
There’s a lot to be said for full body armour. Just ask me. I’ll talk your fucking ear off about its protecting beautness.
I’d torn a hole in my Fox pants at the knee, but was otherwise unscathed apart from a slight twinge in my back. Suitably chastened, I rolled down a very steep spoon-drained bastard of a hill and up to the first river crossing.
Dave had already scouted it and advised us that the best path was between two big rocks in the middle of the 10-metre wide stream, which had to be exited at something near full noise ‘cos of the steep bank on the other side.
Mick, who was polluted with a big dose of giardia that gave him the runs, went to spray some rocks as I gazed at the stream and told myself that it really didn’t look very deep at all. There was drought on and the rocky bottom was clearly visible, so how bad could it be?
It was in fact about four times as deep as it appeared, as I watched Miles power through and stop at the foot of the opposite bank.
“I think it may have sucked some water in through the airbox,” he yelled, half at the GS and half at us. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
Having apprised us all and blazed the trail, he fired up the big Bimmer and flung it up the bank to drip and tick on the opposite side.
I went next and bounced and lurched my way across and up the other side — simultaneously marvelling at my apparent water-crossing skill and my waterproof Sealskin socks. I parked and watched as Ian got halfway across and stalled with water up to his petrol tank. He instantly fired it up again and came heaving out of the water — a testament to both Honda’s engineering skill in building waterproof bikes and his own determination not to drown like dog in front of his mates.
By this stage, the Land Rover had caught up, and Steve and Al deployed for filming as Mick demonstrated a violent and altogether more splashy way to cross a river, rode through a tree on the other side and emerged dripping water from everywhere like a breaching whale. Dave was last and crossed with the dignity and panache only a man of his dirt-riding skill could.
As Ian wrung out his socks and we prepared to move on, Dino was yelling stuff about how high he could bounce the trailer before it landed on the Land Rover’s roof, and some other stuff about how we were all bike-riding bastards and how it was not right that he should drive while we rode.
His words were drowned out by us riding off in the general direction of Taralga.
For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I began to apply myself with a will and made conscious efforts to stand on the pegs as long as possible. The winding, smooth dirt (which interestingly led past the Binacrombi turn-off) to Taralga made this easier than it maybe should have been, and I found the bike tracked and steered a lot better.
Miles might have something there, I thought, braced like a medieval ship’s figurehead, my feet locked straight, my arms loose and funky. I suddenly had much more control and wasn’t having my spine pounded into powder by the ruts and bumps.
Ian had evinced some concern about making the distance to Taralga, so as the others hared off ahead, I tucked in behind him with my supertanker. Sure enough, less than two kms from the town, the Transalp gasped its last and no amount of shaking and shimmying provided any more go-juice. Ian coasted to a halt and fished the empty juice bottle from his pannier.
I parked the DR beside him, lit up a durrie and basked in the glow of the afternoon that shone upon the gentle rolling plains outside Taralga. The country was open farmland and the road thus far had proved to be very rideable and only mildly challenging to a klutz like myself. I was feeling good about me and the world, and the fact that all I could taste was dust and sweat. I was actually riding to Phillip Island on the dirt and I was quite inordinately pleased with everything.
With a half-a-litre in the Transalp’s guts, Ian fired it up and we coasted into the town and a proper petrol supply.
We now had some very fast dirt, which provided lots of dust. Combined with a setting sun into which we were riding and a profound feeling of tiredness, I was surprised that the pace increased.
The final run into Collector was a navigational nightmare. All fast, loose dirt and storms of dust for anyone behind the lead riders — which was Ian, Mick and me. But there was also the added bastard of lots of crossroads and turn offs, so we quickly adopted the second-rider-must-wait policy and thus leapfrogged our way to the highest point of the Southern railway, about 15km from Collector. It was here that I almost killed the DOP who was standing in the middle of the road and filming our arrival. All I’d been able to see for the last 20kms was massive dust clouds backlit by a setting sun through filthy goggles, so I was effectively riding blind. At the very last second I spotted the camera in the haze, locked the back wheel up and slid past Andrew who was grinning at me and muttering what I thought may have been the word “Show-off”.
There was a farmer there and a few other locals who’d gathered at the railway crossing after hearing about our exploits on the local radio.
“How far to Collector, mate?” I asked the grizzled old son of the soil.
“About 10 miles,” he smiled, pointing at the dirt track on the other side of the railway tracks.
The helicopter crew was back on board, and as Roger wound the blades up to take-off velocity, we belted across the railway and set off for Collector at a rate of speed that was truly frightening.
Though not at the time. I was actually horrified much later when I viewed the footage and saw myself riding heaps faster than I’d ever ridden before. The dirt was smooth and white with long straights and gentle bends… and, well, there was a camera hovering above us.
Ian said later that he thought I was riding above myself and of course he was right. I was on the razor’s edge of control as I chased Mick, who was rather pointlessly chasing Miles and Dave, but I was standing up on the pegs like a pro and my goggle strap was in the right place. I even believe my blinker was off for the most part.
The sunset was bathing my world with gold, galahs were flying off the road and I was in a zone I’d never been in before. I felt great and right and powerful… and yes, fully adventurous in ways I’d never felt before. My mouth and nose and eyes were full of dust, but Mick and I were both hooting and hollering like kids as we hammered into Collector for what was up until the following Sunday night, one of the best tasting beers of my life.
The Bushranger Hotel was our digs for the night and the publican was brand new. It was his first night there after years running some pub in Sydney and he made us feel very welcome.
Collector is a strange little place (and I do mean “little”), but it boasts a great pub and an even greater restaurant called the Lynwood Café which specializes in homemade jams and some seriously nice food. The service is as good as you’d get in a fine city eatery and the owners made us feel right at home as we clumped about the joint in heavy motocross boots and dust-impregnated gear.
Later that evening, as the rest snored happily in the dorm upstairs, Al and I were sitting on the steps outside busily engaged in sipping dry a bottle of Wild Turkey we’d bought over the bar. To my great delight, PJ arrived from Canberra on his red-and-white Honda and joined us on the steps that frigid evening. He wouldn’t drink with us cos he had to ride back, but we swapped some tales and told some stories until the power of speech deserted Al altogether and I figured that three hours of sleep would just have to do. I bid PJ a fond farewell, and lugged Al up the stairs to put him to bed.
I shat happily in the new toilet, showered quickly under the new and prickly shower, and fell into a bed that was more akin to a hammock, only to find Mick bellowing at me the instant I’d closed my eyes.
“Come on!” he yelled. “It’s four am, we have to go!”
Damn good thing I’d tucked the almost empty bottle of Turkey in Al’s snoring arms before I put myself to bed, or he’d be shaking me even harder, I thought, and started to dress myself. I knew that no-one had shit in my mouth cos I’d been hungover before, but my head was sore and murky as I struggled into my boots.
“Good job,” Ian grinned as he watched me curse and mutter and search for my wallet and phone which had somehow found their way under my mattress. “I always get pissed on good whiskey before riding 400kays of really difficult dirt.”
“Yeah, me too,” I growled back and swallowed some gooey spit that tasted rather more like old vomit than I would have liked.
Then I went downstairs, got on my bike in the frosty darkness and headed for Canberra along the Federal Highway.