Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wimmera and Mallee: Day One

What if our life's meaning is rooted in the space and light of our earliest experiences, when our existence was fresh? I am a child of the Mallee. The distinctive light and space of that land is present in almost all my earliest memories. The memories are of things: stones, ants, red dust at my feet, flat horizons, giant skies.  These things are also experiences of the world: the silence and heat in the light showed this ant as something that exists, and I felt wonder at existence itself. The way the horizon recedes and blurs was full of vague longing, a promise of otherness. It spoke to something deep in me which I can never really grasp or articulate; but which is present in my love and experience of the place now, and in my love and experience of life itself.

Yet so much of my experience, both then and now, is confined to regions around Nyah. My mother lives there so I visit a few times a year. I know well the south, the east, and the north of Nyah and Nyah West. I love to ride the back roads to Tooleybuc; or Moulamein; and south takes me to Woorineen, where I lived in a caravan as a young child out the back of the farm house at Grandma’s (near the old dusty dance hall where my parents met) where many of these memories have their origin, in moments when I looked up at the horizon or down at the dirt and never forgot what I saw.

At 16, in my final year at home, I lived at the western end of Nyah West. My head consumed with all the promise that a young man feels as he prepares to leave for the city, the road heading west out of town was something I considered only from the edge of thought. Thought without enough energy to demand attention and words. Searching for them now, to me that space out west was a nothing and a mystery.

What is out there now blows about in my imagination; the words and images of desert and salt and dust push to the surface. Often I feel like I am standing before my grave, wondering where I went and what actually mattered. Sometimes I feel a kind of grief because the people I love and the small precious things in my life will pass. So many such things have passed: so many souls, so many times and places, the substance of lives, hidden and shared, beautiful and painful, different to me and just like me, have become lost. Killed by time.  Passing. I wonder where they go.

The answer I give takes me no further than my earliest memories, than my basic experience of existence which rose out of the space and light of the Mallee, the taste of salt and dust and distant desert, of heat that compressed me and light that absorbed me. The mystery which sometimes saddens me is like the place west of Nyah West: a mystery and a nothing. I know that it is timeless, outside of human invention, beyond human values. What was with it will always have been. The place has absorbed all that time and all its things, protecting them like secrets within itself, suggesting them but holding them just beyond the light of knowledge.  Dancing shadows at the periphery of my knowing, unknown but present.


I had little money for the trip and the SR500 was not running properly. So I spent $100 at K-Mart and walked away with a tent, a sleeping bag, and a mattress. That covered my accomodation. I was worried that my migraines would return without a proper bed, but travelling through Eildon National Park some weeks before I had felt that this concern for comfort was robbing me of something too important. It would also give me the freedom to take chances and know that I could get by no matter where, and at what time of night, I ended up or broke down.

Heading west from Melbourne on Saturday morning the winds were quite powerful. As I rode down the highway to Ballarat I mused on what I disliked riding in more – strong winds, or heavy rain – and when the heavy rain added itself to the strong winds I had my answer.

Drenched all the way to Ballarat, the sun came out just as I rode through the WWI arch at the Avenue of Honour. The land was green and wet and the Spring sun perfect. At Ararat I had lunch, then continued on to Halls Gap. The GR650 sung as I wound through the hills and corners, overtaking cars with sporty fire from its twin cylinders.

Here I am leaving home

Looking out to the Grampians

At Halls Gap, with the rocks humbling the town

From Halls Gap I climbed into the mountains on the road to Horsham

On the way to Horsham I had reason to pull over

The reason I pulled over was because, cruising at 95kph, the bike began to lose power in waves. It was quite noticeable, so while it was happening I shut off the engine and coasted to a stop in order to do a plug chop. Pulling out both sparkplugs, I found the same thing: it was as though they had been dipped in icing sugar! The feeling was not of the spark plugs missing, an electrical fault, so much as a starvation of fuel. Why now, after months of being unable to go, when I had just now gained the chance to take this trip?

At Horsham I had a coffee and watched four police cars range up and down the main street pulling over cruising carloads, and even arresting a gang of youths who used all manner of bogan expletives as an ineffective form of police-repellent. This place is more entertaining that inner Melbourne.

There was nothing to do but to push on, this time at 80kph top speed. This actually suits me; some people both do and conceptualise touring as a matter of achieving high kilometres, and people sometimes ask me about my riding in terms of kilometres ridden. But I find that the best touring seeks out those things that cannot be measured, compared, and boasted about. I had determined to get bigger distances achieved however – I am not criticising fast long-distance touring, but pointing out that there is this alternative, the slow way, and it offers something unique. You see more of the detail, you really get to feel a place. Throughout this trip I stopped the bike constantly to look around. But my aim was to make Nhill tonight, and on day three I intended to travel from Ouyen to Pinnaroo in South Australia, north to Renmark, then across to Mildura via back roads, and maybe to Mungo, all in one day. Right now at forced slow speed I was unsure if that would happen, and with the bike showing white plugs across the range, even at idle, I wondered how foolish it was that I was pushing at dusk into Little Desert National Park.

I stopped for some photos of a mountain range, somewhere near Mitre directly west of Horsham

And as darkness enclosed, and my bike ran badly, and I pictured myself hitting a kangaroo, and noted the distinct lack of other vehicles, I felt a little anxiety.

I have known anxiety for as long as I can remember stretching back into childhood – he is an old friend who thought that he should matter much in my life. I thanked him for the things he’s given me – an awakening call to what is dark and, by comparison, what is light in life – as well as his sensible reminder, which can indeed be useful to take on board, of all that might go wrong.  And henceforth, ignoring his chattering presence, I continued through the back roads and, to my relief, found the crossroads and entered the desert.

I was rewarded with beauty.

Pushing on for a long while through the dark, at a slower speed and with more attention on possible Kangaroos than on the sights, I found my way after dark into Nhill Caravan Park where, for $10, I had myself a campsite and amenities and very kind service.

I spent the evening eavesdropping on conversations at the local pub before enjoying a surprisingly warm sleep.

Day Two, next post….

Wimmera and Mallee: Day Two

I am compelled by a landscape that exists both out there and in my feelings. Riding out to the deserts, it was as though I was searching for the source of all this scrub bush and emotional sky. I imagined that the national parks are a kind of volcanic over-flowing of the dust and heat.  And silence and ochre earth.  And red skies at dusk. That the essence of the Mallee lay there. For a while now I had this desert vision in my mind, and stood at its edge, half in , half out, perhaps supporing that when the time came I would be changed by it all through connecting with something in it. Through becoming a part of its story.  That I, too, might sink into its unspoken memory. I wanted to be there, naked in my sensations, on a motorcycle, riding through the Little Desert National Park, through the edges of Wyperfield and Murray Sunset Parks, Hattah-Kulkyne Park, heading north to Mungo…or, in following the thing that most deeply drew me, going west, west of Nyah West, to stand in that place.

This ride was a search for something else as well, besides the landscape and its profound ways of holding things. It was a search for what it was that I saw when I looked up as a young child, out the back of Grandma's in the dirt at Woorineen. Horizons and skies, things we might record with a camera, but something more.  There was something deep and hidden in that vision which has made it dwell in me ever since. My life has been guided and centers around this unspoken something. A longing, a mystery, a promise, never close enough for words to give it literal content, and far away from any doctrines I have met. It is something which is always in things: in that horizon, in a particular afternoon's sky, in the sun on a WWII shrine, in a moment of great dense clouds behind rusting iron, in the aliveness of the air on a clear morning, or in the build-up of a storm. To be vulnerable in my flesh to all things on a motorcycle in this place, is to be throw myself at - into! - this something. Something deep and alive even if impersonal. Existence. But personal too: gathering so many lives and all their intimacy. So many lives and little things that matter and yet dissolve and get forgotten.


On Sunday morning I arose at 7am to find myself quite warm in my $39 tent until I opened the flap and discovered how cold the day was. I spent an hour working on the bike – checking the fuel tap, draining the carburettors and so forth. The fuel flowed well from the fuel tap on Prime, but was red with rust from the float bowls.  Perhaps I had picked up some rubbish in some fuel, or rust had made its way from the fuel tank (I foolishly I have never fitted a fuel filter to this bike).  Because the plaugs were white and the bike could be damaged from running too hot,  I replaced the sparkplugs with an old set I had which were colder, and the bike ran terribly – I think one of those plugs was defective, so I returned to the hotter ones and went into town for breakfast and to look, unsuccessfully, for new colder plugs. It was 9am before I left town.

I had intended to take the highway to Bordertown and then head north, to explore every sealed road I could as close to Big Desert and Wyperfeld National Park.  But instead I began this journey from Nhill heading north to Yanac.

Along the way there were friends to be made.

The roads out here expressed the true essence of multi-strada riding: the work of a group of artists known for their swearing and high-vis jackets, this road challenges the assumed boundaries between sealed and dirt road. Tarmac and Dirt, 2009.

As I entered Netherby – a town composed of a few churches and halls – I noted two cars and thought, “Well, the population of Netherby is present!” Throughout this ride, when I came to a small town I would ride up and down its streets to get a feel for the backside of the place. I did so here and as I came around the back of the town to my surprise I came across a large crowd, Honda banners, and dirt track motorcycle racing!

After the big boys had finished knocking themselves around, the Pee-wee 50s came out

With the prettiest of all in second-last place

I pushed on, taking short detours onto dirt roads here and there, amidst splendid country

There were naturally many wheat silos out here

And constant reminders of Spring

As well as frequent plaques commemorating schools which were no longer.

These now vacant spaces are no doubt peopled with ghosts for some older locals; I would love to see what they see when they stand at these spots.

I rode up the western side of Lake Hindmarsh, attempting to access the lake but finding the roads too slippery, until I entered at a better spot, only to be halted by a sand dune

Here is the lake

There is not much fishing to be had

I will come back here with a good supply of water and some way of marking my route, and do a hike out into the centre of the lake. I was quite tempted to do so now, however it was impractical and dangerous without proper preparation, and there was no phone reception out here.

Even on this cool day I was quite thirsty by the time I returned to the bike. I had filled up a bottle of water from a tap in Nhill, and now swallowed a mouthful.    Salt! It was salty water! I had the sensation of having eaten potato chips. At this point I decided not to stop at other entrances of the lake, but to make straight for the town of Rainbow to get a drink.

I did however get a photo of one of the old-style power poles

And made it to Rainbow for lunch at the local servo

After lunch I went north out of Rainbow to visit Lake Albacutya. The road curved across the west of it and rose to a peak from which I could look out over the refreshing waters

I then road out onto the lake bed and stood for a while, taking in the silence

The entrance to the lake bed is also the site of an entrance, in the opposite direction, to Wyperfeld National Park, and so for the first time today, after choosing roads that extended as closely as possible to it, I finally made it to the park.

Taking the road back I made a friend

Here are the remains of the bridge over the river that connects Albacutya and Hindmarsh

I now took the road to Yaapeet and west into Wyperfeld. The road through this edge of the park, to the campgrounds, is about 5 kilometres long and slow and winding, but amidst open forest of grassy floor, which shifts between pine and gums

Along the way I met with a flock of emus. I took a look around the camp grounds, climbing the sand dune behind them

And made my way out again

On the road back to the towns I made another friend

The road now led to Hopetoun, and afternoon tea. Along all the roads are abandoned homes and buildings, something I always find in the more out-of-the-way roads.  They fascinate me, with their suggestiveness of some story combined with their silence on the matter….

At Hopetoun I had coffee and a long conversation with the children and one intellectually disabled adult who surrounded me to ask questions about the bike. I tried to get petrol but the stores were closed.

My destination was Ouyen for the night and, rather than take the main highway I decided to take the roads north to Patchewollock and then a back road just north of there across to Ouyen. I had been riding at no more than 80kph all day due to the white plugs, and at this speed the bike had presented no problems, however the plugs were still white and I didn’t want to push it on the highway. Moreso, I always prefer to take the least used sealed roads in order to meander.

Heading north from Hopetoun the sky was glorious at the end of the day

One of the children in Hopetoun had told me to keep an eye out for a motorcycle that he and his dad had made out of old bits and pieces

The road north was good, with wide perfect sweepers, and a cold Spring air that was dense with the heavy scent of grass.

This final part of the journey was taking longer than I expected. The world dissolved into darkness rather quickly, and I reached Patchewollock on a chilled Sunday night to find a town with nothing for the traveller, its only illumination coming through an open door of a private house in the main street.  So I continued north in the night on a lonely road, making for the intersection to turn right into the denser scrub toward Ouyen. I was cruising at 80kph. Suddenly there was a kangaroo at my left, and within an instant he had bounded in front of me! I grabbed my brakes hard and he passed in front just centimetres from me. Had I hit him I would have lain there in the cold and dark with no help, for I was to see no other traffic on this road.  Given that things would be worse if were I to strike a kangaroo on the much more lonely road onto which I had intended to turn, and the fact that there would also be more kangaroos out there in that dense scrub, I resolved to instead go all the way north to Walpeup, and take the road east from there to Ouyen, a longer route involving a highway busy with road trains, where I would at least have help should I need it. So I cruised north at 60kph, constantly scanning the road-side. 

Walpeup first appeared as a few lights floating in the night, and it took a long time to arrive, so much so that I thought I had been mistaken and was still in the empty darkness of the nothing. As I got close my bike hit reserve on the fuel tank – I had been unable to get fuel at Hopetoun – and it occurred to me that if there was not fuel in Walpeup then I might be stranded.

I arrived in Walpeup and everything was closed.

I found a campsite and considered camping there for the night, without any dinner, though I felt uncomfortable with my vulnerability alone in this place in my tent, with the only other human movement being a party of older teenagers nearby who sounded as though they were preparing for a wild night. I did not want that bored wildness to spill my way at 2am. I pulled out my phone but it was out of charge. I had to make a decision.

Riding at slow speed to Walpeup I still had to sit in the appropriate rev range such that I used up as much fuel riding at 60kph as when riding at 80kph in top gear. I calculated that, cruising at 80kph, I should – all things going well – have just enough fuel to get to Ouyen. If not, I would be stranded and vulnerable on a black empty highway far from anybody I knew, with no phone. Of course, riding at 80kph meant risking kangaroos, moreso because when another vehicle approached me in the distance – and the distances are very long and straight out here – I would have to drop to low beam, radically shortening the distance of my vision and thus riding blindly at speed toward any large kangaroos. The most rational thing to do might have been to camp in Walpeup, but I went with my gut-feeling, saddled up, gritted my teeth, opened up the throttle, and set my face to Ouyen and whatever would come next.

When I was five kilometres from Ouyen I no longer cared if the bike ran out of fuel, so relieved was I. I pulled into the service station with about 400mls of petrol left. I got myself set up at Ouyen caravan park, and returned to the servo for a hot meal.

Day Three, next post….