Thursday, November 26, 2009

Riding North-East from Nhill

I left town about half an hour ago but am not sure of the time. With an easy grip on the handlebars humid air streams up my sleeves. The bike's 650 twin motor sings in the morning warmth. I've never been here before, and I ride with a mixture of anticipation and relaxation, wondering what's ahead of me in the next half hour, and in this day.

The air at 80kph is pure - no scent of machines, or animals; the paddocks are of wheat. I am in farmland north-east of Nhill, where grain silos impose themselves like abandoned castles. There are few creatures, just the occasional crow whose sound, whenever I stop, is part of the landscape. The road is narrow tar without markings. For a moment it becomes orange where the earth has spilled over during road works, then is black again.

Riding through this place makes me happy. There are no people in view but there are signs of local life - a combination offering comfort and solitude. Tensions disappear. The bike's suspension absorbs the bumps so that I float past the paddocks. A fence at right angles to me divides an expanse of thick yellow wheat from acres of thin moist grass - cattle feed. And there's a farmer's ute, white cab and stainless steel tray and nobody in sight. I sing out loud.

Inside the helmet it's easy to hear my own voice, so I close my mouth and return to letting the song play in my head. There it sounds rich and tuneful. A summer morning, riding my motorcycle through a new place. I have always said that travelling in a car is like watching TV; you are removed from everything and merely observe. To travel on a bike is to be a part of the scene. Everything is present, immediate, your body is in contact with it all. I slide my foot along the tar. I make a wing with my hand and it rises on the air current like a plane. It is as though the bike disappears, as though it is just me, my body, in flight.

I do not know where I will end up tonight. Probably Ouyen. It is only 200 kilometers away, but I have a map full of back roads to explore on the way. I will travel the whole day and at dusk find a caravan park in the closest town. Back-road riding is the way to tour. You see a lot of things that way. I like to take my imagination along with me, to stop at abandoned houses, historic markers, rusting harvesters, and dry lakes. To my right somebody has hung a big fish from a road sign. I stop and take a photo. It has been rotting a while and no longer smells. The sign points down an unsealed road with a good surface of yellow and orange. I am tempted - it heads into the National Park that has been playing on my mind. But I continue on the sealed road, pleased with the thought of pulling into towns to drink at the general store and breath in the life of the place.  To wonder about the people and stories enfolded in its past. And to be awakened to the present again by the sun and the sound of a dog, and a nod from a stranger.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Experimental Answers to the Question: Why Ride? No.23

This area used to be under the sea, and there is still something oceanic about the Mallee under its sun: the land is submerged in light, the distant scrub moves in its hot current. The heat is intensely silent, so powerful it makes you listen. In that mute state my mind, like a muddy sea-bed, releases things to the surface that float: joys, anxieties, memories. My own of course, but others which seem new, which this place evokes.

In the shadowy social world I take a hardened form: a person known by this name, with defining ties and obligations. My petty cares matter. It matters what I have achieved. My very appearance reveals me, apparently, and must be answered for. We make much of these abstractions. Like a religion where each act has the weight of eternity.

That world is a series of little meetings, we relate with only a part of our self and feel separate, distinct. A person is defined by that and by what others make of him. This is why I am out here with a wheel spinning before and behind, and little else. To ride a motorcycle is to release myself into something greater. Last Sunday I rode into a storm so intense I could not tell if it was hail. Later I felt blanketed by the chill of the grey sky. To be submerged each time is to experience something more than myself; no longer a separate unit but merging with the whole scene, the entire flux of sensations and beauty.

Back in the Mallee, as I rode east from Hattah, called by the pink salt flats and their ghosts, the storm grew. Its sound submerged me. A drone of wind which seemed absolute. Pulling and tugging me, swirling the dust and the trees into a dance. All this was given me without choice, and yet I chose it: I assented to the storm, to the winds which before had frightened me, and gave myself over to what this great thing had to offer. On two wheels I let go of everything in the drenching of rain, of chill, of heat and light.

The social world is a cave, people believe in their shadows and take them for reality. But as Diotima taught Socrates, we transcend ignorance only by love. Through visions of beauty. And it is true. The love of motorcycling can be a way of loving the world. Of loving a beauty whose selfless lack of limits embraces and teaches us. Before it finally absorbs us too, as echoes and memories buried in salt flats.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SR500 Club Rally, Bethanga

Last weekend was the tenth annual rally for the club dedicated to the model of bike I own, Yamaha's SR500, the late '70s 500cc single.

I rode there with my friend James. We found Marlon (who appeared some months ago on this Blog) and Bize outside Wodonga, where we were all lost.

Marlon's bike, and Bize's super-cool white van


This was only Jame's second motorcycle ride since getting his license 18 months ago. His first ride was on his '73 Czech CZ175, which he rode to Cowra (NSW) and back. The bike then broke down, and James disassembled it and is fitting 12V electrics. He recently bought an old Yamaha SR250 and was determined to get to the Rally for his second ride on a motorcycle. The RWC and registration took place Friday afternoon before leaving.

We left 9.30am Saturday. An hour later Jame's front fender fell off and his indicators stopped working. Avoiding the Doom Highway (the Hume), we made for Yarra Glen to Yea, to Mansfield for lunch. The rain started.

The road to Witfield would be great in the dry, and we loved it even in the wet. The mist, the gentle rain, the mountain trees, the Kawasaki Z Club. And more and more mist which at it's height, which was the height too of the mountain and of the twisties, allowed only 6 foot of vision. James was a vague glow behind me, in front threatening shapes materialised like rocks to a sailor, and by an act of faith I kept the throttle open.

We took back roads all the way, met turtles, old train stations, and were soaked by the time we slid our bikes over the mud and into the Rally.

We went grass racing on Jame's SR. This inspired him, and so in a single movement he revved the bike, spun it out of control, flipped it, and broke his clutch lever.

We fitted another lever from a trailored SR and James did the same again, breaking an indicator and bending the gear shifter.

After a lot alcohol and laughter we went to bed, James and I in my one man tent. It was raining most of the time. I was so wet that I left my boots in the rain without caring - it was not possible to soak the more than they were. The next morning, naked, I would stand in the rain and dress - at a certain point you cease to care. In bed my feet and head touched the sides of the tent and water trickled in on me all night. Then the storm came with real water. We'd wake almost feverish to the burst of light and sound. Sometimes a damn broke above in the stitched plastic and water gushed onto me. Near dawn something slimy woke me -- a slug on my cheek! I cried and flicked it...onto James. I didn't want to leave it on him, but neither did I want to touch him, such that he'd wake in the dark to my hands caressing his warm body. At dawn a fellow revved his Triumph beside my head and then did the same with the exhaust in the door of our tent, and we began the day.

Our camp

Arriving the previous afternoon, to a footy club room of 150 men and two women, all of them incarnations of the Toecutter, with the odd NightRider and Bubber thrown in, not all of them clothed but all steaming, a fellow exclaimed: "Young Blokes!" We felt like cute girls. The next morning I went for my shower in my dress-like nightgown, eyed like I was tasty or eccentric by old men in muddy leather, cock eyes and mad hair. I found the shower: it stuck out of the wall at the entrance to the toilets. I would have to stand naked before a steady procession. I showered clothed, figuring it was impossible to become more wet.

Tired, sore, hungover, violated, James and I decided to ride the boring Hume home. A good idea given the relentless storms. At one point I think it was hailing but it was all so intense that I couldn't tell.

Jame's SR held up well. Then it became more powerful, and louder: his exhaust had broken in half.

It was good to experience my first rally. They were a fine bunch of people.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lake Mountain and the spurs

Today's ride was moody. I always enjoy my weekly ride but little events, along with anxieties, left me feeling mixed. I set out late, midday, so didn't attempt Walhalla. I chose my route at each intersection, but not with carefree pleasure. My small accident the other day played on my mind.

My route: to Kinglake; Chum Creek Road to Healesville; the Black Spur; Lake Mountain Ski Resort; Reefton Spur; Healesville; Yarra Glen; Kangaroo Ground and home.

I had great rhythm through King Lake National Park and Chum Creek Road. I took a once fateful corner at speed to see what happened to Micki. She was a learner whom I led through there on her first country ride. Rounding that decreasing radius she came off, sliding across the road, her bike tumbling down the embankment. I think it was the unexpected decrease that got her. The most important techniques in riding are those performed by the head: not making assumptions, slowing for corners, never riding faster than you can see. A strong suck on a cigarette and Micki was fine.

The Black Spur was again rhythmic. I always cruise gently through this road but various times I had to break the new rule that prohibits overtaking across an unbroken line, showing how foolish that rule is (unless of course they change half the lane markings in Victoria). The road has always been 100kph and was recently dropped to 80. I overtook only on clear stretches to get round a 40kph car. Where a month ago they might have described the exact same act as sensible over-taking, a cop will now tell me that I was being dangerous. From sensible to foolish in the blink of a bureaucrat.

In a tight section I was taking a left-hander when another rider rounded a corner too fast on his Harley. Clearly unskilled, he was in my lane. His eyes like a deer in the headlight, he simply wobbled and continued for me! No doubt he was target-fixating: a phenomenon where motorcyclists get fixated on the thing frightening them, and because a motorcycle goes where you look, run into the very object they want to avoid. I braked and counter-steered toward my shoulder of the road, a manouver which he should have pulled. He passed me still in my lane. A car could not have avoided him as I had.

Above Marysville I stopped the bike.

I shared smiles with a couple in a convertible whom I would see throughout the day, and followed them to Lake Mountain. There's a ski resort, amidst a landscape tortured by January's fires, where I enjoyed a coffee and wandered about.

This place evoked northern Italy, where I lived for seven months in Piedemonte. High. Thin air. Silent. Meditative.

I then rode Reefton Spur. My recent off left me anxious all day that I might crash. The entrance to one corner was all fern and peace...the exit exploded into high-speed log truck, taking the whole road and about to engulf me. Hard left, hard braking. The trailer edged ever closer and I thought I might have to jump.

Instead I continued and stopped for photos, the peace and beauty returning.

At the end of the Spur I was tired and pulled off into a rest area, and napped on a table. Walking back to the bike I was met by a dog. From nowehere he came up for a pat, then disappeared into the bush. Twenty seconds later he emerged with a stick, dropping it at my feet.

When I'd had enough play I patted him. The same instant I stopped he turned, stick in mouth, and wandered off home, obviously familiar with the ritual!

Faced with an intersection, revived by the peace of staring up at gums and the carefree wisdom of a dog, I took a new road: to the Upper Yarra Reservior.

I tried some self-portraiture

If this is egoistic forgive me - it was fun.

I headed home,

Kangaroo Ground I stood on a hill and watched the day end.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kickstarting: sideways blow-out!

Here's a fix to an old problem.

Kicking an old big single motorcycle while wanting to remain comfortable and fashionable means sometimes you get a blow out. For a couple of months I've been wandering around with half a foot hanging out of my shoe where the side has burst after all this time kickstarting. And who wants to spend money on new shoes when you're already riding on bald tyres. I thought about cutting off the fronts and wearing them like trendy sandals, but then I'd hurt my toes on the gear shifter. So anyway, while I was halfway through fixing the problem I thought I should take a pic so that others who ride real bikes can find a fix to a common problem.

The kickstarter's problem can be dealt with by use of a simple leather sewing tool. I once bought one because I wanted to ride in safety, poor-boy style, and I used it to sew leather patches into K-Mart jeans in those places where I might otherwise get road rash in an accident.

Here I am kicking over a Norton cafe racer.  It is missing a few bits and so I will sell it for only $3000 - email me.  I am wearing my snazzy renewed leathers.

I was a bit lazy and rushed at the sides, but if I ever get a job interview I'll just put electrical tape over it to neaten it up.

So there you go: a simple solution to an old problem that's been hassling kickstarters for years! Next week, I'll show you how to glue new bristles on to your toothbrush.... In the meantime just remember that a penny saved is more fuel for the bike!


Riding my motorcycle along the highway, I do not know why I stopped there to camp. It was dusk. And there were pines. Perhaps it was that – their colour and shape in this country evoked something other than dust.

In the afternoon the landscape had turned into a dream. As the miles fell away with nothing to invite my attention the back of my mind released thoughts, memories, imaginings, one after another without logic. As my imagination took over the earth became un-rooted, the sky soaked up everything.

The landscape felt like a disk on which I spun without really moving, like the needle of a record player. There were no mountains, nothing to show that the Earth was more than this monotony, nothing that might hint at variety. It was the sky which contained things, but in unity. A blue cloudy eternity. Like looking up into the mind of God.

Movement to my left had startled me minutes before. Kangaroos. They are common up here, and they move at dusk. Clearly there is water and life which I do not see. All I saw was a continuation of what came before. Scrub. Dust. Perhaps it was because of Kangaroos that I stopped. The shock made me focus on present realities: my speed and vulnerability, a potential collision.

I am on a trip, a trip I have longed to take, a motorcycle trip.
Back home traffic crowds. Men in utes are angry. Suits in 4WDs try to intimidate. P-Platers merged into me, and when I honked looked frightened, or aggressive, but continued merging. Some drivers move aside as I filter, their kids waving. Most are passive.  But all contributed to the madness. That is not motorcycling. It is numbers on the odometer but not distances measured in heat, darkness, changes, and borders.

So I left the city for a different place. Truck-drivers at stop-overs chatting. Back-packers picking fruit. Retirees in utes pulling up when I am lost. The mechanic’s van bringing help twenty kilometres out of town. And other riders, their bikes loaded and their hand raised in greeting. I've become one of them.

In a suburb back there I have a house full of possessions. Here everything fills a bag. My bedroom is whichever place I stop: caravan parks, pubs, places by the road - places where unexpected things sometimes happen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cohuna Island Road

I prefer to ride roads which I have never seen before. Saturday was no exception. Via a trusted route I slipped out of the city through Lancefield to Heathecote. Then north on a favoured back road for lunch in Moama, NSW. I have been saying for a long time: I want a bike on which I can ride to Echuca for lunch.

Beyond lay roads I did not know. I headed vaguely for Kerang or Barham. This 'swamp' captured the essence of the sun-harsh day.

Torrumbarry was a nothing, but a signpost pointed me to a 'recreational area' which looked like the Murray River. I followed. In straight-road country here was 30km of twists and turns. At a flat open point I stopped to capture the beautiful heat.

Amidst a desert of heat and cindering sun this is refreshing river and swamp country. At Gunbower I stopped at the pub, then on to Cohuna after seeing on my map that a back road hugged a river for 30kms before entering town. I took that road.

It was classic old country. I can't remember the aussie cartoon's name about swamps and fishing which I read as a kid in some dog-eared series of pages, but the author must have lived here, in a time when oil tin letterboxes were practical, not quaint.

That same swampy river opened up, and broadened its colours as it did so.

The road remained the same: empty, narrow, pleasant. Shaded with peppercorns.

Arriving in Cohuna the gauge read 35 degrees.

I set off south. My camera had run out of memory but the road to Pyramid Hill was special, one of those roads that has personality, or rather, which is in some way evocative. Hills of sunburnt grasses, xenophobic clumps of eucalypt or pine in the brilliant light. I crested the pyramid to its lookout as I did in Wycheproof last week.

On straight roads to Bendigo fautigue set in: my eyes involuntarily began to close. The day was ending and I needed vigilance against Kangaroos. I made it nevertheless, for junk-food dinner and the usual race in the dark down the Calder.