Published on May 13th, 2007 | by Boris0
THE WRONG WAY DOWN – DAY 2
I love Canberra. But not for reasons you may share. I find it a most beaut place to take my wife for a weekend of chest-thumping moose-sex. Nice hotels, attentive staff, and a general atmosphere of benign indifference where a man can take his woman out dancing even if she’s dressed in two hankies and fuck-me heels, and not have to knife-fight all night.
Other than that, the place is beautifully roaded for late-night racing and all of them seem to lead back to Parliament House, so getting lost is not an option.
As I idled through the early Saturday morning traffic, I was reminiscing about the last time my good lady was channeling Jessica Alba for me on a coffee table inside one of the Canberra Hyatt’s suites.
“As Nietszche said: ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’ — and I was sure gonna get me some of that.”
It was all I could really do, cos it seemed I could no longer ride a motorcycle properly. My bastard shit hurt — all of it. My helmet ground into my skull and the rest of my body throbbed with a strained ache I’d only ever experienced the morning after a big fight with angry bouncers.
As I burped my way past the Mount Stromlo turn-off and the bitumen got twistier, my riding skills deserted me altogether. I must have been about a kilometre behind as I saw the rest of the crew turn off onto the dirt and head into the Brindabella Ranges. The DR, its knobbies, and I just could not get it together.
“Fuck me,” I muttered as I lurched and yawed up the winding track that had the traction of kitchen lino. The dirt was hard-packed, but heavily peppered with shiny buried rocks that caused the bike to skitter alarmingly. I couldn’t stand up on the pegs ‘cos I was too busy hanging on for grim death and it was getting colder and colder the higher I climbed.
Eventually I arrived at the top, and found everyone waiting for me.
“Did you see my pannier lid?” Ian asked.
“No, ” I shook my head. “Did you leave it somewhere for me to find?”
“Funny bastard,” he grunted, jumped on my DR and shot off down the hill only to return 10 minutes later with the lid tied to the back. While he busied himself re-fitting it to his panniers, Dave adopted a serious look and beckoned us all closer.
“Blokes,” he intoned somberly, “we are now going to descend to the Goodradigbee River along this road. You must be very, very careful here. There is no room for error. Absolutely none. Screw up a corner here and you won’t stop until you hit the valley floor a kilometre beneath you. Take it easy.”
I pushed my galling helmet back onto my head, scraping off another layer of skin on my cheeks and settling it against the pain-filled lumps it had formed around my skull the day before. I mentally made the sign of the Cross — even though my arrangement with God has nothing to do with my believing he actually exists.
We rode off, Dave and Miles in the lead, Ian behind them, then me and Mick. I think Mick was riding shotgun on me in case I chose to die, and while I appreciate his gesture, I can’t help but wonder how he planned to prevent me sailing into oblivion.
I stopped three times on the very steep and rock-strewn descent, but it was only to marvel at the scenery. A kilometer below immense wooded valleys undulated off to both my left and right. They were partly submerged in low cloud and looked like nothing of this earth. The air was sharp and cleaner than air has any right to be, and weak sunlight lent the whole vista a distinct otherworldly look. I was captivated and paused to take it in several times on the descent.
Dave was right. If you took this road for granted, it would kill you. But if you took your time and picked your lines, the descent was far more spectacular than frightening. But his warning was timely and well-taken.
We paused for a few pictures at the little bridge over the Goodradigbee and I saw signs indicating we were entering the Kosciuszko National Park and Wilderness area.
“It’s not too bad from here,” Dave said, obviously pleased we’d all survived the descent. “Just mind the ruts; it’s been raining here and there may be a few soft spots.”
The scenery just got more spectacular as we wended our way deep into the park. We weren’t exactly banging along, but we weren’t hanging around either. Some of my skills had returned and I was standing on the pegs most of the time and starting to look 50 metres ahead (rather than two) and pick my lines with some success. Then I went over a slight rise and into some deep muddy wheel ruts some bastard in a four-wheel drive had left. The front wheel went into one rut, the back wheel into another and I found myself traveling sideways at about 20km/h. I was also screaming, but I don’t think anyone heard me over the sound of the revving motor.
“Nofrontbrakenofrontbrakenofrontbrake!” my inner Borrie yelled and I listened. Somehow I made it through and toddled off after Miles, a big shit-eating grin plastered over my face. Of course, had I been paying more attention, I would have seen that both Miles and Dave had ridden around the ruts and saved themselves a challenge.
I then realised I was riding on my own and stopped. It does not do to be riding on your own in the scrub — ever. I waited and eventually Miles and Dave rode back.
“Where are the others?” Dave asked.
I pointed behind me and they rode back the way we had come. I turned and followed and soon found myself back at the wheel ruts I had conquered.
Mick hadn’t conquered them, and was busy picking up pieces of BMW from the track and holding his hand.
I stopped my bike and walked up to look at his paw. It was swelling quickly and had a large bruise forming in the palm. It was either broken or dislocated, but there is so much of Mick and he is such a determined human being, I doubted anything short of full decapitation would stop his trip.
We shared the broken bits of BMW around (a pannier and a front guard), mentally thanked Andy from Andy Strapz for supplying us with his incredibly versatile products, and headed off once again — still further into some of Australia’s most glorious wilderness.
I elected to ride last, concerned Ian was going to run out of petrol sooner rather than later, and was suddenly stunned to see all of the bikes stopped ahead, with a motionless rider in the middle of the track.
It was Dave. And he wasn’t moving.
The other blokes were either kneeling or standing around him, so I pulled up and clumped my way up the hill (one doesn’t run in dirt boots, one clumps), to see if I could help.
Apparently, a wallaby had come out of the scrub and taken Dave’s front wheel out. He was doing about 60km/h when this happened and his fall was very hard.
Dave wasn’t moving, but he was conscious and in a great deal of pain. The headlight, instruments and levers were smashed on his KTM, which otherwise looked rideable, but certainly not by him. We later discovered he had broken his humerus (upper arm bone) clean across the ball that goes into the shoulder socket. That ball of bone had floated off behind his shoulder and the jagged remainder was stabbing into the vacant socket.
We were truly in the middle of nowhere and our back-up truck was in Canberra being repaired (which was the last message we had before losing all mobile phone coverage), so there was no salvation from that quarter. Our helicopter was refueling and was meant to rendezvous with us only at the end of the day, so they couldn’t help either.
We were indeed very much on our own.
It’s only in such extreme moments that you realise what your mates are made out of — and mine are made out of very fine stuff indeed. No one panicked, no-one despaired, and no-one did anything except what needed to be done with an absolute minimum of fuss and total purpose.
All of us had extensive first-aid experience and we did it by the book. Dave was going into shock, so I quickly stripped off and covered him with my riding gear. Mick was kneeling by him, speaking gently and evenly, assuring him he’d be alright and ensuring that Dave could feel physical contact. Miles had Dave’s satellite phone out and was going to ride until he found the damned satellite, and Ian was busily unpacking all the first aid gear we had and thanking Geoff Ballard for providing it.
Miles rode off and the three of us set about seeing if we could work out what injuries Dave had and how we could alleviate any of them. Dave wasn’t bleeding (that we could see) and his pulse was fast, but regular.
I’d also located his Emergency Personal Beacon (EPERB) and activated it. It “eeped” reassuringly.
Dave was also eeping, but it was far from reassuring. He was in great pain and it seemed to be his arm that was the main cause, though he did manage to pant out that his neck was also hurting.
We didn’t want to move him, but the way he was laying — head downhill and half on his side — was making him far more uncomfortable than he maybe should have been. But at least he was fully conscious and relatively lucid.
He was well into shock now and becoming panicked and irrational, so Ian began to gently talk him through the craziness, and to see if we could get him to move his feet downhill so we could make him more comfortable.
It was probably his tone that had more effect on Dave than anything else, and bit by bit, inch by inch, the big fella moved his legs so they were facing downhill. We put a sling on his arm and combined it with a folded jacket to take the weight off the injured limb. We then asked Dave if he thought he could sit up.
He didn’t think he could right that second, but if we were to help him when he got his breath back, he might give it a go.
As we waited for Dave to collect himself, Miles rode back.
“I got through to triple zero,” he said. “But they’d already got the EPERB signal and said there should be a chopper here within the hour.”
I could see a collective sigh of relief run through us all at that moment. Help was on its way.
Dave must have been encouraged by the news and said that he’d like to try and sit up. We arranged the loose pannier from Mick’s BMW behind Dave’s back and propped it with a rock to keep it from sliding, then Ian, Miles, Mick and I gently levered him into a position where he could recline against its smooth surface. This process made Dave scream — but screaming men are still breathing men, so I drew comfort from this.
We next cut his Hydrapak off his back (See? I don’t always carry a razor sharp killing knife just for killing shit) and gently removed his helmet. We figured this was okay to do ‘cos he was moving his head easily and only complained of a little pain in that area. But we did immediately put a neck-brace on him and secured it around his neck with of all things, an Andy Strapz strap.
That he was still in profound pain was obvious, but he was certainly more comfortable that he was 40mins before. We even gave him an Allen’s snake and a small sip of water to occupy him until the chopper arrived.
On the dot of 50 minutes from when I activated the EPRB, we saw the chopper making a bee-line for us. None of us waved like you see in the movies. Us yelling and waving would only make them laugh at us.
The chopper hovered above, then started circling to find a landing spot. This was an utter impossibility. We were in the middle of a billion acres of tall timber and the biggest and nearest clearing wouldn’t have been 10 metres across.
We then witnessed what one of the paramedics told us was the longest rope descent they’d ever done — 85 metres to the ground.
As paramedic Paul Brooke made his way up the hill towards us, I went down to meet him and grab the big gear bag that he’d descended with. The other paramedic, Mark McGrath, was then descending with the stretcher.
What immensely good natured and competent blokes these two turned out to be. Smiles on their faces and all business in their movements.
Paul offered to inject some backbone into Dave for the forthcoming trauma (finding a vein for a cannula so that litres of happy drugs could be administered), but there was also some humour as Dave’s top-of-the-line BMW Savannah jacket parted like paper under the blade of his rescue knife.
“I told you I would have given you a 100 bucks for that ‘cos they were gonna cut it off,” Ian declared sadly. “It would only have hurt a bit if we took it off.”
“But it’s Kevlar… and Goretex… and armour… and…” Dave puffed, as one of the paras pumped him full of morphine.
“It’s now a bunch of rags,” Paul grinned, folded the knife up and started to assemble the stretcher.
In short order, the paramedics had Dave trussed up like Christmas turkey and we were lugging him down to where the chopper would drop its lift-line.
Paul gave him another shot of something that was to keep him placid and calm on the journey up to the chopper, locked himself to the stretcher and gave the thumbs up to commence the extraction. Mark was next on the line and the four of us stood as one and applauded them as they flew off. I don’t know if they saw us clapping, but we could do no less for these incredible people.
The silence that surrounded us after the chopper left was complete and profound. One of our party was gone and a poignant reminder of his comforting and competent presence was a shredded jacket and a smashed motorcycle.
We re-geared in that silence. I was shook up. I don’t know about the others, but I was not at all pleased by this turn of events.
Miles had found a crossroad about three kilometres up the track and he and Ian shuffled Dave’s KTM up to it. When they returned, we all saddled up and rode there together to stash Dave’s bike and gear, plot the position on one of the GPS units so the Land Rover could collect it at some stage and work out what to do next. We were now about four hours behind schedule and the whole trip suddenly had a dark cloud hanging over it.
There was no question but that we would continue. Surrender was not an option and Dave would have been very disappointed had we thrown in the towel. I was just working this through my head as Ian and Miles stashed the bike off the road, when I noticed several bees buzzing around my head. I looked to my left and was horrified to discover about a thousand beehives not five metres away.
“Blokes,” I peeped. “Blokes… um, I cannot be here.”
“What’s wrong?” Mick asked.
“I don’t get on with bees. If I’m stung, then the men in the chopper will be making another trip out here.”
“Piss off outta here then!” Ian yelled, and I did just that.
Mick followed me and we made our way about five kilometres down the track and pulled up at another crossroads to wait for Ian and Miles to finish their business.
As we sat there, I saw a sign on the track to my left. “LONG PLAIN 15KM” it read.
“Weren’t we supposed to ride something called Long Plain today?” I asked Mick.
“I think so, ” he blinked. “Why?”
“Cos it’s in that direction.”
“But the map says we should stay on Boundary Road and go straight ahead,” Mick stated.
We decided to wait for the others, who duly arrived and began to compare notes, maps and GPSs. One GPS stated we should go straight ahead. One GPS stated we should turn left. The third GPS informed us we were floating 14 kilometres off Bribie Island. We put that one in a bag and looked at our maps and notes.
One map informed us we should go straight ahead. The other, along with our notes, said we should make for Long Plain, but didn’t mention anything about turn-offs.
We took a vote (as if democracy was meant to work in a situation like this), and agreed to go straight ahead in the hope this road also eventually spat us out at Long Plain.
It didn’t. And some 15km later our inner compasses told us we were heading north, when we should have been heading south. We were actually on our way back to Canberra.
We quickly performed a U-turn (a stunt that would later utterly confuse the champions in the Land Rover who were following our tracks ‘cos their GPS told them they were just north of Adelaide) and headed back to the crossroad with the Long Plain sign.
We turned left and were regaled with a technical twisty and rocky track for almost exactly 15km. By now I was standing on the pegs and carving corners like I’d done it my whole life. I felt good and the bike felt right under me. I was still miles behind Miles (pardon the pun), but was having no difficulty getting the bike to go where I wanted it to. Miles even gave me a hint about the accursed spoon drains: “Roll off the throttle as you come up to them, feather the clutch and let the momentum carry you up and over, and then gun it a bit…”
Suddenly I was actually looking for the humpy bastards and my progress was much smoother.
Then suddenly the trees cleared and we found ourselves in an immense open area with monstrous power cables running over head — this was Long Plain and this was where we were to meet the chopper. Except there was no chopper.
We turned off our bikes, ate some muesli bars and lollies, and Ian rode around a bit on Miles’ GS as we waited for the chopper to materialise.
We were now around six hours behind schedule. It was about 4pm and we only had about an hour-and-a-half of daylight left. There was no chance of us climbing Mt Pinnabar today or going anywhere near Omeo, which was to be our stop on Day Two. I wasn’t quite sure what were going to do right then, but I still had lots of petrol, water and lollies, some sardines and a big fuck-off knife in case a Lord of the Flies scenario began to manifest, so I wasn’t concerned too much.
I was quite surprised when two four-wheel drives emerged out of the scrub and disgorged their drivers.
“G’day, Miles,” they both said. “What brings you out here?”
“Just riding around with these blokes,” Miles grinned.
It turned out that the drivers had done one of Miles’ dirt-riding courses and were out for a weekend with their families in what I was thinking was a very small world indeed.
They then asked us if we knew who the three blokes were in the silver Land Rover with the bike trailer. We admitted that we did.
“Christ that bloke was on fire up there,” said one of the drivers. “He passed us doing about 90mph. Then he pulled us over, asked if we’d seen any bikes, then took off again like a mad bastard when we said we hadn’t.”
That would have been Dino. We later learned that Dino had heard from our chopper that one of us had crashed in the wilderness, slammed the bonnet shut on the mechanic’s head in Canberra and high-tailed it for where he thought we might be. As they roared around the scrub looking for us, they stopped at the beehive intersection and Al spotted the bike in the scrub. They quickly assessed it was Dave’s, then Dino kicked bits of it straight and Stevie got kitted up to ride it out, since they could all go faster if there wasn’t a bike on the trailer. They followed our tyre-tracks for a while, but that all went to shit when they saw we had doubled back. The blokes in the two four-wheel drives had come across Dino as he was howling through the bush looking for us in some kind of crazed search pattern.
Then our chopper appeared and landed in the big open space about two hundred metres away.
We had a quick meeting and decided to head for Thredbo. We decided this on the basis that Miles said he “knew” the receptionist at the Alpine Hotel and that she could probably get us somewhere to sleep at short notice. There was a big jazz festival on at Thredbo and it was booked solid, but Miles felt sure his “friend” would look after us.
That settled, the chopper took off and prepared to film our run over Long Plain, the four-wheel drives drove off and we set to with a will.
I rode that amazing bit of dirt faster and better than I’d ever ridden any dirt ever, and even managed to round Mick up eventually. It was smooth, clean and grippy and I was standing on the pegs like a veteran desert racer and “bringing it” as they say on the hip-hop records. I had one awkward moment when the front washed out and pushed me up a bank, but I recovered and hammered on until without warning we found ourselves on the Snowy Mountains Highway.
We were grinning like fools and backslapping each other like drunks on a bender. I was light-headed with hunger and my helmet had worn divots in my face and skull, but all we needed to do now was tool into Thredbo for pizza, showers and beer. But we had to do it before the kangaroos came out.
We paused briefly in Adaminaby for a 5pm breakfast, then made for Thredbo as the sun began to dip below the range and the immense black cloudbank that hovered over it.
Miles’ friend had found us a chalet that slept 12 and left us to sit around in our underpants until Dino, Steve and Al finally turned up at about 10pm that night. They’d eventually hit bitumen and mobile phone coverage at about 6pm, but on the wrong side of the range and spent four hours driving like madmen to Thredbo when they got our SMS messages. Like us, they had eaten nothing all day and were somewhat fey and loopy when they staggered into the heated chalet and commenced to snort the left-over pizza into their exhausted bodies.
End of Day 2 outside the lodge at Thredbo:
For reasons I still cannot fathom, Miles and Ian went out to listen to jazz bands and drink Red Bull and red wine with yet more people that Miles knew.
I just needed to put my head on a pillow and worry about tomorrow when tomorrow came around. After all, we were almost there, weren’t we? One more day and we would be at Phillip Island. All we had to do is climb this Mt Pinnabar thingamajig and ride some more dirt. How fucking hard could it be after what we’d been through?
As Nietszche said: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” — and I was sure gonna get me some of that.