Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wimmera and Mallee Day Three

Monday morning I woke early but slept in till 8am, as I intended to wait in town until the shops opened in hope of finding colder spark plugs for the bike, reasoning that I was less likely to burn pistons from overheating when on colder plugs. I was unable to locate the right spark plugs and was recommended to head to Mildura. I had planned to head west to Pinnaroo in South Australia, then north to Renmark, then east via back roads to Mildura, but I didn’t want to spend much time on busy highways with the bike running as it was, and I was eager to get better spark plugs and maybe some mechanical advice at a motorcycle shop. So instead of heading to Pinnaroo, or back into the land east of me, west of Nyah, as I otherwise thought I might when I resolved the night before to abandon the South Australian route, I decided to ride the 100kms of highway north to Mildura. It only occurred to me afterwards that, were there no appropriate spark plugs available in Mildura, a phone call could have saved me a 200km round trip!

But the trip north was well worth it. The highway was classic Mallee scrub.

As well as this more sparse scrub which was unfamiliar to me

The trip to Mildura was a wonderful part of the whole ride. As I passed a sign welcoming me to the Sunraysia region the sun came out and grape vines and palm trees appeared and glowed in its warmth. The Mallee scrub was no longer and I felt as though I had entered a sprawling fruit garden, ordered into neat plots and lines.

At Mildura I found the right spark plugs and decided to head from Red Cliffs to Colignan – a road which touched the Mallee Cliffs State Reserve and then dropped back on the Ouyen–Mildura highway (the Calder) near Hattah. I had ridden to Mildura at no more than 90kph and the bike was running fine, without any wavering loss of power. It had run well all the day before, though I had not ridden it over 80kph, which might have been the reason. With the new sparkplugs in I expected better running, but the contrary was true – the bike was wavering constantly when between 80 and 100kph, still with white plugs across the range. The wind had begun to blow in strong gusts, and I wondered if this was effecting it as well, creating a kind of pressure on the bike akin to riding up a hill. I decided to ignore the problem and to push the bike at speed. This was still Sunraysia country, grapes and oranges, and the Murray was approaching on my left as I wound through the corners and enjoyed the straights on a road which I mostly had to myself.

I was cruising along at speed enjoying the sights when suddenly I entered a swarm of bees which exploded as they hit me. One hit my neck and I was distracted for a moment expecting to be stung and, at about 80kph, looked up to see gum trees in front – the road had suddenly veered to the right and I was about to crash! Lean! Lean! Lean! I tipped the motorcycle over hard. Fortunately good riding technique showed itself enough of a habit in me that I did not touch the brakes – which would have stood the bike upright and left me like one of those crushed bees against a big gum – and I simply leaned harder and ran my line of sight up the sliver of road-edge that still promised grip, hoping to keep my tyres at least there (this is an example of target fixation used to one’s advantage). I made it through the corner.  It was one of the closest moments I have come to having a serious accident.

Exhilarated I rode on, and pulled up at the river when the road met it.

Then I said goodbye to Sunraysia and headed back to the highway

I met with the highway and headed south to Hattah where there was a general store at which I had lunch.

Out the front of the store was this sign

The general store is owned and run by a friendly elderly couple. Goods displayed on the shelves include fishing tackle that appears to have been there for years, and wooden shelves of canned food. I thought of Keen’s general store in a novel I had recently read by David Malouf, The Great World, and of the proprietress Jenny Keen, of whom “the kindest thing to say of [her] was that she was simple”. That novel has played on my mind since reading it. Both because of the way it brings to life the inner world of a woman who, in life, many would find silly and a nuisance – a vision and capacity on the author’s part which is a justice and calm compassion; and because of something more: the way these different lives are brought to life for the reader, sympathy aroused, such that I am left afterwards with a sad and haunted sense of the preciousness of so many things which pass. Perhaps because of the feelings I was carrying after this novel, I spent some time sitting out the front of the store, and would have spent longer had I not the urge also to move on. I went for a walk around the side and I heard an echoing upright piano playing an old tune in a hall, but a fence separated me from the building and so the source of the music.

As I was having lunch the wind picked up and rain had fallen. The wind was worryingly strong and it sounded huge overhead. The sound was like the wind through pine trees, only much bigger and higher and deeper, and the fact that it sounded so without the aid of trees impressed me even more. There was something unsettling in the massive sound it made.

I mounted the bike and immediately turned east down the Hatta–Robinvale road. I was not sure where I was heading, and I did not even have a destination for the night. I will do more of this style of touring because it is so liberating: each time you reach an intersection you just choose your direction at whim, sometimes without really knowing where you are going. With a tent and a full tank of fuel you cannot go wrong (for the most part).

I came across this old structure for shifting livestock onto a truck

The wind was powerful and gusting, and I was blown from side to side. It felt like somebody was grabbing my head and shaking it, and it didn’t take long to develop a headache. It also felt like an invisible hand was pushing back against the bike, and this exacerbated the problem of the wavering power – it felt for the next few hours like the bike might die at any time. As I ride along in these places I keep an eye on farm houses should I break down, and I saw none out here – the place was more barren than on previous days – which combined to give angst to the sensations aroused by the wavering engine. The wind was dangerous. I had to slow for oncoming traffic, fearing I would be blown into their path, and I had to grip the handlebars and constantly deal with powerful gusts from unexpected directions. The weather seemed to be developing into a heavy emotion, like rage or lust mounting to an explosive peak which was as yet far off, but all the more impressive for that, given its current strength.

At an intersection I turned left to Annuello with the bike running as badly as ever, and on to Manangatang where I stopped for my afternoon tea. A lady in the street said they were expecting hail.

I decided I couldn’t make it far south with the bike running so badly and a big storm approaching. I rang my Grandma in Swan Hill and arranged to spend the night with her. I had wanted to do this anyway, if the chance came up. So again I headed south, thinking I might go into the western end of Nyah West, then through Woorineen and then Swan Hill. The storm was growing with anticipation of what I might finally find out west.

To my left – the east – lightning began to dance in the sky.

At Chinkapook I stopped to gaze at the ghostly derelict tennis courts

And then made straight for the west of Nyah West, with the lightning getting bigger and closer

And finally I had found it: what lay out west:

It was nothing and a mystery.  It was beautiful and desolate. The wind had ceased its bluster and at ground level had gone into a deep calm, no less impressive – its immanence now felt high and distant, sounding like a didgeridoo holding everything in its drone. The Earth glowed pink and showed that the essence of all this was not at some physical centre, but in the spread and connection, the contrast of salt and grass, of dry dead wheat and places where the moment was wet and green, of an indifferent and beautiful earth seen with human eyes and human affection, entwined with lives where it became and becomes more than it might otherwise have been. The land is alive with spirits so long as human beings look with the look that brings them to life, and so long as people live and belong here, living out their stories and letting these be absorbed into the earth just as their bones eventually are. This place was alive with the mystery which I saw as a child, which I could now feel and which could only be perceived and gestured at as a thing so real and close and yet which, when you stare at it, blurs, and yet feels as real and vital as your own blood.

And so I rode in from the west to Nyah West

And headed down to Woorineen

The storm continued to increase its pressure as the dusk drew the curtains on the day. The wind had dropped at the place of salt flats out west of Nyah West, and the earth was still but the sky silently boiled. As I came in via the back way to Swan Hill the lightning was now only two paddocks away, stabbing out of the sky with the brilliance that sells postcards.

I pulled up at Grandma’s, she let me into the back yard where I wheeled the bike into the shed, and…the sky exploded with rain!

Day Four, next post…

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