Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Melbourne to Mallee: the long way, at 80km/hr...

I was having a rough time of it earlier in the year, which lead me to leave my stable, easy job with nice people in an interesting work-environment a week or two earlier, for I needed some space - a break and then a change of pattern. What’s the best thing to do when life’s getting you down? Well, if it’s the height of one of the hottest Australian summers and there are terrible bushfires ravaging the countryside, and if you own a 30 year old kickstart-only motorbike which is prone to overheating, then I’d suggest riding 1400km into some of the more isolated parts of your state. It worked for me!

I decided to do a four day ride to stay with my mother in Nyah, in the Mallee in north-western Victoria. I had been wanting to do this for long time on my 1978 Yamaha SR500 single, but had chickened out for fear of hurting my bike or being stranded somewhere.  For much of my passionate motorcyling life I have been a poor student, and so my bikes have been old.  Half of them have blown up, including my first bike after only three weeks of ownership! (oh how I miss you my 1978 Yamaha Passola!) -

so you can understand that I have suffered trauma, the constant threat of being off the road and so missing out on something I love so much. So I got myself a loan two years ago and said: "Stuff it! I'm going to get myself a late-model low kilometer bike!" I had a one test-ride of a functional modern bike and of course I went straight and bought a vintage big single bike! The SR500 is Yamaha's late 70s attempt to appeal to the British bike crowd, a kind of Japanese BSA Gold Star

(Here's a Goldie.)

Yamaha didn't quite get it right - my mate turned up on his SR at a pub and everybody came over, trying to name the old British classic "Is it an Ariel?" "A Beeza?, until some fellow at the back announced with irritated amusement, "It's a Jap dirt bike tarted up to look like a Pom bike!" - and that's essentialy what it is, with its too-light a flywheel and too-straight lines.  However Yamaha definitely got something right, and the bike nevertheless has a charisma and beauty which few have possessed since the Japanese sunk the Britsh motorcycle industry with their sewing-machine engineering. But my bike is thirty one years old now. New it pumped out a measily 34hp, and it feels quite over-worked at 100kph, tossing that one big heavy piston up and down at 4000rpm. Even so I had been very tempted to try the bike out as a tourer, because I am drawn most of all in my motorcycling to exploring empty back roads the SR is such a wonderful companion for such roads. At 80kph it chugs along with an easy pulse, one beat per every second fence-post. In the middle of nowehere I feel that I am not only exploring place but also in my imagination time. The whole event does not look or feel so much different a similar scene in 1955.  The SR500 is good for touring for the same reason that it is so bad: it forces you to search out the backroads when mapping your route, and that is the vantage point from which the best things are seen and experienced. So I did my 1400km at no more than 80kph.

Twisting north on Saturday morning, I chose roads that had been closed due to the recent fires on what they now call Black Saturday, leading to Bendigo. 'Burke and Wills Track' was the highlight. The hilly country is a windy mix of bushland and dry grassy paddocks. A few places were burnt out, and you could see the way that the fires had gusted about, leaving one area free while burning out the patches beside it. It was comforting to know that I was riding a bike which was prone to stall and not start, in an area where there was no assured place to hide from the flames! I took my camera along but as always was too lazy to stop and take pictures. Besides, I had no high beam and was likely to hit a kangaroo at dusk, so I figured that to dilly dally was not in order. Here, however, is a photo from some months later in one of those burnt-out spots.

From Bendigo I headed to Wedderburn. It was a hot deserted place, except of course that as you rounded one corner you saw a green oasis of pensioners playing lawn bowls, the lifeblood of every Australian town. Through Boort, which was another oasis of the more traditional sort – a lake amidst dry flat country, except that the drought was having its effect and the oasis was rather low and thus swampy - and on to Quambatook, where I had a drink at the local pub, alongside its two other sole patrons. We all watched a big screen, on which was showing lawn bowls. From there to Swan Hill. This whole route involved increasingly straight country roads, with flat 360 degree horizons making for big skies. I saw about one car per hour. It was a hot, empty, spread out land, endless paddocks turned to dust in the drought. A bottle of water in my backpack removed me from any angst-like sense of fellowship with the sun-bleached bones of sheep which littered the holes that used to be dams.


I took Sunday off at Mum’s, except for a morning ride out to Moulamein with her partner Danny, who currently rides my old SR185. Below is a picture of me on that bike on the day I bought it, after three years of riding a 'postie bike'. As I rode away, the photographer (and girl who is now my fiance) commented to her friend that I now had a man's bike! Obviously that 185 worked its magic!


On Monday I headed north from Nyah to Moulamein again. I had planned to go via Deniliquin but it was in the high 30s out there and I didn’t want to cook the engine (I suspect I am over-anxious about such things, but as I said, my bad experiences, and biking on a stingy budget, has made me so). So I headed down to Barham, which means riding in the river region (chatting along the way to a servo attendant who rode the SR's twin-cylinder sibling back in the day, an XS650, Yamaha's attempt at the Triumph Bonneville), and then toward Deniliquin in search of a back road to Echuca rather than taking the busy highway. Below is a picture from when I stopped, realizing that I had gone the wrong way and that it was very hot and quiet. This is also just before I entered the road from hell.

There were a series of road works between Moulemein and Barham, such that I’d had to detour on the dirt. This was hard compact dirt and I cruised along at 60 having a great time. I am no dirt biker whatsoever, but I first learnt to ride bikes by riding in the dirt chasing my uncle and brother on a 30 year old Honda CT110, dual range. I entered a road which was 75km to Moama, with a stretch of 25km of dirt in between. After the earlier fun on dirt, which had got me to thinking about doing some dirt road touring (though on something other than the SR with its 16/41 highway sprockets and thus tendency to stall when going slow) I decided not to turn back. Now, you don’t see many signs in the country that warn you that the upcoming dirt-gravel road is horrible and "dangerous"! That's what this had, and perhaps I should have let that influence my decision to continue, but I am stubborn. I learnt to regret that fault deeply (is it a fault, or a 'will to life'? -to adventure?). At first I pushed out of first and second gear with joy, cruising along again at 60, despite the rougher more complicated surface, having gained confidence on my last sortie of a detour. But what had previously led to smiles now led to the handle bars being yanked almost from my hands, back and forth, while the rear tried to slide out in fish-tail fashion! This was not a tank slapper, this was the result of a road surface so bad it had earned the rare honour of a sign warning the wise, ignored by the foolish. I slowed down, sped up, and it happened again. As I fought to remain upright amidst the waves of gravel and sand it occurred to me how isolated I was, how very hot it was, and that if I went over I’d probably lose the clutch lever and the bike would be unrideable.  My mobile is useless beyond the outer suburbs of Melbourne to the point that it was turned off for most of the trip. The bike swiveled almost uncontrollably one last time at the road’s edge, and in an effort to keep upright I decided to take my chance with the fallen trunks and natural debris and barbed wire fence off the road, somehow succeeding to stop. So I rode the 25km of road at 25km/hr, placed between the hot sun bearing down from above and the heat rising from my engine below, along with its growing symphony of tapping and clapping, the sound of oil and metal overheating. Whenever I passed sun-bleached bones (there were no remains of dams out here because generally men do not live in places God has cursed) it occurred to me that I had drunk all my water. Whenever I thought I saw the bitumen in the distance (when I spared a nervous moment to look up from the perilous road surface) it turned out to be blue gravel, a cruel joke.

Eventually, after almost an hour of this hell, the bitumen appeared. I stopped for a while to let the engine cool, but I couldn’t relax because I felt quite dehydrated. Riding again I felt woozy, the bike felt unstable under me, and I knew I was a little addled and that really I needed (in similar stubborness?) to push on (for an eternity it felt), relying on the breeze generated by speed and on my fantasies of what I would drink when I hit Moama-Echuca, river town.  After a hard-earned beer in Echuca I was ready to end the day, so I rode along an endless long straight road to Mitiamo, in a strong head wind longing for the left turn, then turning left from Mitiamo I rode along an endless long straight road in a strong side wind, longing for it all to be over, the road from Hell having left me out of sorts, as it does. I spent the night in Bendigo.

After a sleep-in I rode out to Maldon, for my first visit. Maldon stopped progressing through time in the 1950s. A lot of tourists turned and stared at the SR as I did a riding tour of the town, cruising at 2500rpm like it was something old and British. I visited the cemetery to see the graves of the people from a memoir on which I am writing a thesis (I got the wrong cemetry of course, but at least I did some exercise, in my leathers, in the summer heat), then on to Castlemaine, which almost stopped in the 1950s except that the kids found spray paint and the Melbournites decided to leave the rat race and create a new one here, complete with sprawling suburbs in a place that used to be beautiful. Chips in gravy for lunch and I was intending to head south to Daylesford and below but a massive bushfire broke out. So I jumped on the highway whose elevation gave me a view of the fire, and concluding it was safe enough turned off east away from Daylseford and lost myself in the same naked hills and forest that I had first ridden on Saturday. I arrived home in time to attend the SR500 Club meeting.

All up, the bike stalled once – on the way out of Melbourne – mostly started first kick, used a whiff of petrol only, ran happily at my easy pace even in the heat and sometimes for long hours, and proved to be surprisingly comfortable even with a full backpack on. At the same time it drank 500mls of oil, but as I purposely over-fill on this stuff and carried some spare on me, there was no risk. The bike proved an excellent back roads tourer, which is the best place for touring, and could still cruise at a higher speed for short periods where I needed to jump on a highway and where I needed to avoid being trampled by a semi. Most importantly, it got lots of looks and made me feel, when I wanted it, that I like Maldon was traveling through a different time. On a ride down the Great Ocean Road the weekend before I had stopped on the roadside to repair the carburetor, and it was great also to know that it was possible to do such things on the SR. I plan to extend the SR’s wings from hereon. One lesson I have learnt is that I need to pull out my map when outside of town. All the friendly locals want to come and help when they see me do it, and they just can’t seem to understand that I want to take the longer less convenient route.

Two months after completing this ride I was heading to Bendigo on a back road with a mate, Marlon when the bike started, so it seemed, to lose power in great jerks. I pulled over, and in first the bike was transmitting nothing to the rear wheel! Turned out to be a stripped output shaft (the axle on which the sprocket goes to drive the chain and so the rear wheel). That's a $1000 repair job! I sat on the roadside for five hours with an empty stomach and no credit on my phone. Thankfully Marlon provided good company and a phone, until he left for food: I caught his abandonment on camera!:

I hear the Maccas tasted great!

No comments:

Post a Comment