Sunday, September 18, 2011

Six Day Ride : Introduction & Monday

Two years ago I attempted a ride that would encircle the major deserts of north-western Victoria, a trip which would take me through three States. On the first day my 1986 Suzuki GR650 developed problems, and I abandoned the route in favour of remaining within the boundaries of Victoria. Now, one week ago, I returned on an older and less reliable motorcycle – my 1978 Yamaha SR500 – to complete the journey.

My earlier abortion was fortuitous, as the alternative route meant I explored closely the eastern side of the two deserts – the Wyperfield and Murray Sunset national parks - as well as taking a path through the Little Desert National Park. I explored every back road and stopped regularly to pay attention to places and their objects. It meant that between these two rides I could make a circle of the deserts.

My motorcycling is not about speed, petrol or adrenalin; though it is about spiritedness, the joy of motion, and the enjoyment of being alive. It is driven by an imaginative sense of the places up ahead. Without any clear picture of these places, they draw me like something flashing at the periphery of my vision. And even as I move through them, in an aesthetic of constant flux, what these places are is in large part formed by my imagination.

But it is always a combination: of imagination, but also attention. The indigenous Australians are right, as I find when I stand in a mallee forest or on the red dust of Wyperfield and am made silent by the heat, silent enough that my ears start to hear without prejudice. Then I begin to sense the living and breathing nature of these places. Aboriginal mysticism is a consequence of standing still for long enough. But there’s a special power, also, to standing still at moments in the midst of the larger action of spreading my body out over the broader spaces, in flashes of noise and colour. And this is what I do on a motorcycle, my throttle pinned open, my motor humming and hammering, my body leant forward in motion.


Monday morning I set off with minimal sleep, on the Western Highway. At Ballarat I stopped, utterly frozen after pushing the bike hard for an hour and a half.  I was so cold and tired that I could barely count out the correct change for a coffee. I become brain-dead in such conditions. As I sat down at the cafe, some people walked in and one of them complimented me on my bike. He then asked whether I had heard of a licensing proposal aimed at re-testing car drivers every five years, partly to improve their awareness of motorcycles on the road. I had not.  It turned out that these people were a TV news film crew, and following my coffee I stood with a camera and microphone in my face and was interviewed, then filmed as I geared up, kick started the bike, and rode off. I’ve since heard that all this appeared on the evening news. I cringe to wonder at the quality of my answers.

I continued up the highway until Stawell. The SR feels strained at 100kph, making 4700rpm. When I saw a sign indicating a sealed secondary road to Waracknabeal, near Jeparit where I intended to camp for the night, I made a sudden turn. This allowed me a more relaxed ride, and the opportunity to pull over and take in small sights and the dying light of the day.

I arrived at Jeparit before dark. I set my tent up in the empty council caravan park and spent some hours sitting alone in the dark, quietly experiencing the sensations emanating from the nearby waterlands, before sleeping. 

Six Day Ride : Tuesday

I have wanted to visit Jeparit ever since two events: I missed going there during my last trip (even though I followed most of the outline of Lake Hindmarsh) and Jeparit appeared as a setting in Peter Carey’s wonderful novel Illywhacker.

Jeparit is the birthplace of Robert Menzies. It is the town closest to Lake Hindmarsh and is surrounded by snaking waterways that feed into the lake. The town was very quiet on a Tuesday morning.  The few residents seem to love my bike: an old man stopped his car in the empty main street to stare, and when I pulled up at the service station – the rusted fuel bowsers of which, it turned out, had not been in service for a long time – I got an ear-bashing from two enthusiastic mechanics. Nowhere was open for breakfast, so I headed out of town to visit the Wimmera–Mallee Pioneer Museum.

The museum is well worth visiting, and I spent an hour and a half there. Various buildings of historical value from the area have been moved onto the site and filled with appropriate items donated by local people.

It is a volunteer effort. You walk through a homestead, shops, a chemist, schools, gaols, a black smithery, and so forth. I was not so much interested in the farm machinery as in those exhibits that had human and homely interest, and the thing I loved about this museum was that everything is at hand. Nothing is behind a glass case. You can touch everything. You can run your fingers over garments and tools and for a moment you are holding hands, as it were, with people long dead.

A foot-pedalled dentist’s drill (a nightmare!)

Leaving Jeparit at midday, I rode as close to Wyperfield National Park as I could, on the roads that lead through Netherby, Yanac and Telopea Downs, then down to Serviceton to make for Bordertown. This road took me along the base of Lake Hindmarsh. Last time I was there it was the height of the drought, and it was empty. I had wanted to return and hike across its desert surface with provisions and a compass. But Jeparit was hit by the floods last summer and the lake is brimming.

Perhaps it was the weather on Monday, but the place had a kind of pre-historic feel. But it was a hindsight kind of pre-history, as though you could feel the lake coldly boiling with anticipation of the things that would evolve out of its waters.

It is Spring and my whole trip was a contrast of colours, of desert drabs against an explosion of flowers, fields of rich green wheat, and bright yellow canola.

At Bordertown I had crossed into South Australia. I was met with a flurry of highway patrol police pulling people over, but they ignored me. It is hard to speed on the SR500. It was now 3:30PM and I decided I would make it to Pinnaroo, once I passed through the national parks. So I made north from Bordertown, on the opposite side of Wyperfield to the side I visited last time on my second day. This ride strangely mirrored my last one, but there were less pine forests here and rather a forest of low scrubby natives. The landscape was generously green.

On my last trip I almost collided with a kangaroo on the other side of the park, as I pushed forward after dark on low fuel. I was reminded in places that none of these roads are safe for a motorcyclist from dusk onwards.

At Pinnaroo I made my camp with an Illywhacker on one side

and an all-night truck route on the other.

It had been a good day.

Six Day Ride : Wednesday

I woke at six and made north.

This day I was skirting the edge of the Murray Sunset National Park. It differed from the day before, just as on my previous trip, with scrubby bush composed of sparse trees and sand. Except that everything is green since the long drought broke and the floods came.

I stopped at Brown’s Creek, which was a nothing,

then pushed on for Loxton, Berri, Renmark and the Murray River.

This area is a delta both lush and historical. I would have liked to spend a day exploring the area, but I was more eager to put further miles on the bike.

The next road was the Sturt Highway, the crossing between Perth and Sydney, and for me the crossing from Renmark to Robinvale. On the map it looks like a long boring march. And for some people that would be the case. However I love the hot, empty, dry feeling of endless space, intermixed with constantly shifting details available to those who look. I loved this road.

Mid way and 90km into this desert and suddenly…an oasis! Lake Cullulleraine.

I passed through Mildura with little interest except to see the shape of the Murray at that place. My Mum lives on the Murray at Nyah, which is Aboriginal for ‘this bend’ in the river. The forest and water at that bend are calm and peaceful. At Mildura the water is big and wild. And impersonal. At Nyah there is something intimate about the forest and the river.

The next 200km began to look more and more like the Mallee I know.

I pushed my motorcycle hard and arrived at my Mum’s a day early, and before dusk.

Six Day Ride : Thursday, Friday and Saturday

The next two days involved no intensive riding. I did 60km on Thursday and 100km on Friday, both times in a loop that ended back at my Mum’s.  Basically I enjoyed a laid back holiday for two days.

The ride on Thursday took in Speewa, Stony Crossing, and Tooleybuc. Speewa is an open area.

Stony Crossing takes in the Wakool River and Merran Creek.

Tooleybuc meets the Murray. Outside of town I stopped and visited a cemetery and lake. I love country cemeteries, generally because they are old. I enjoy walking through the Melbourne cemetery near my house, however it can be quite ugly. Mostly this is because the view from the paths is obscured, for the slither of land between the path and the old graves has been filled in with further graves of black marble and gold, of such a height as to block out the view of the old stone and moss that begins only a few feet further in, utterly spoiling any chance of beauty. Central Europeans have a habit of this, of making cemeteries as ugly as their modern cities. Whereas Europeans from further east or west understand that cemeteries can and ought to be places of beauty: the moss-covered sandstone of England, or the flowers and earth of Czechoslovakia. Old Australian cemeteries are modelled after English cemeteries. But in the Mallee there is no moss. Rather what we find at Tooleybuc is a wonder: a cemetery that is Mallee scrub, made of bushes bursting with native flowers, amidst which are graves interspersed, a few here, a few there.

New graves,

and old.

I was quite alone as I wandered through the scrub looking for the pockets of graves.

The place seemed not only deeply peaceful but also magic. Then I found the source of a sound (look closely) which had effected me without my noticing, shaping my mood as I walked through this place.

Out of my feelings in this place a thought came to me, and I became clear on my rejection of belief in ghosts. I reject the belief because it makes the dead seem strange and fear-worthy, as well as trapped. But the beautiful cemetery suggests a different metaphysics, where human beings die because they are born, a cycle of lives and stories. Their individuality is enfolded in time and memories, and when they are gone their substance, whatever it ultimately is, disperses. Such a cemetery is a place where I am able to say, peacefully, “It is ok to die”. It is natural.

Opposite the cemetery was a large lake which does not appear on the map. Surrounding the lake was flooded bushland, populated by thousands of birds. Ducks. In a constant symphony. I rode my motorcycle through this forest.

The next day was Saturday. I took no photos that day as I rode from Nyah to Melbourne via the Murray Valley and McIvor Highways. In all I did 1700km of riding, mostly over four days, but with a motorcycle holiday of six days all up. The SR500 held up well and I felt very refreshed by the end. Furthermore I had fulfilled an ambition that has sat idle with me for several years now, and those roads around the deserts are no longer lines on a map but now travel within me as flowing memories.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I went to Tasmania this weekend last. I did not ride, rather my wife and I flew for a brief visit to my father. He lives in Nicholls Rivullet near Cygnet, at the very south of the State. It has been four years since I last visited, and I had forgotten what the roads are like. Every road everywhere endlessly twists or sweeps. Straights are an exception. It is a wonderful place for motorcycling. Indeed there were many bikes out. I think I will go riding there this coming summer, perhaps in February.

Below are some photos and video from a Cygnet jetty. The red arrow points to my Dad's house, invisible in this photo, on a mountainside.

Yesterday we visited Bruny Island. We had planned to go there in a small motor boat on Saturday but the weather looked bad. So we went yesterday instead by ferry. The ferry kept breaking down and even crashed into the wharf. It was therefore steered and propelled by a large diesel tug boat.

Here we are on the neck of the island.