Singing the outback
A grey nomad is sitting on her chair outside her van, whisky in hand. We ride our motorcycles into our campsite as she watches, and immediately strip off our riding gear like a pair of desperate young lovers. Sweaty jackets, gloves, boots, pants are flung aside. Panniers are emptied on the ground as we search for our swimming togs.
The ride from our home at Coffs Harbour has taken my partner Alan and I most of the day: up Waterfall Way, across the New England tablelands then the Gwydir Highway to Moree. We’re hot, dusty and tired.
Our camp site looks like a toddler play pen next to the grey nomad’s manicured space with her floor mat, awning and small dog. Our tiny hiking tent is barely big enough for the two of us, what are we supposed to do with all this biking gear? We change behind our bikes and abandon the mess to go for a swim in the thermal pools, followed by a beer and dinner at the pub down the road.
And if one red Beemer should accidentally fall, there’ll be 99 more…
We’re on an adventure moto-camping around Outback NSW, riding two red BMW GS motorcycles or “beemers” in biker slang. From Moree, we head for Lightning Ridge.
After some sixty kilometres on dirt, I’m feeling cocky and going too fast when I hit a long stretch of sand. Sand and I are not friends. I’m standing up on the pegs and nearly at the end of the deepest sand when my back wheel swings uncontrollably like a fish tail. I can see the hard surface only a few metres further on, and urge the bike on to find traction. But physics trumps hope and the bike goes down as I somersault clear over the top.
I am reminded of something my father used to say when I was first learning to ride a bicycle as a child many decades ago.
“You have to fall off a bike 100 times. Each fall means one less fall before you are a good rider.”
Perversely happy, I sit in the middle of the road emptying the sand out my pockets and sing – only 99 more falls to go until I know how to ride.
Up ahead, my partner is turning around to ride back. I stand up cautiously and walk to the side of the road so he will know that I’m okay. Am I okay? There’ll be a colourful bruise on my hip and arm. The bike has lost a left wing mirror and the windscreen is cracked where I collided with it. Alan gets out his tools while I sit in the shade and allow the adrenalin to subside.
Of course I didn’t tell my anxious mother. What would I say? Bikers have an extensive vocabulary of euphemisms to describe these things. The bike got tired and had a little nap. We drop the bike or have an off. Some riders gently lay the bike down as if somehow they are in control as the road rushes up to meet them. There are high sides and low sides, tank slappers and slides. I’m fine mum, don’t worry.
Arriving at Lightning Ridge, we ride past the stony campground and find a room with a soft bed.
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree
Next day, we ride on to Bourke through country suffering from drought. The fish traps at Brewarrina are dry. The paddle-steamer is moored in a stagnant green puddle in the Darling at Kidman’s Camp. The Back o’ Bourke has air-conditioning, so we loiter too long over the exhibits. As the sun sets over the plains, we sit peacefully with our beers listening to the bird chorus and watch a local exercise his horses.
We leave at dawn the next day – tossing up the risks of kangaroos and emus vs the intense heat of a later departure. We enjoy the pretty ride through the trees in Gundabooka country to the copper mining town of Cobar. After that it gets hot. Our helmets and black riding suits have vents for some airflow, but there is no escaping the heat rising off the road as we count down the kilometres and dodge the roadkill on the mind-numbing Barrier Highway. I sing as we ride – one familiar refrain goes around and around inside my helmet.
We stay two nights at Warrawong campground at Wilcannia, holed up waiting out 40+ degree heat, strong winds and a dust storm. There is no flow in the Darling making it hard to imagine Wilcannia was a major river port. The gracious stone buildings from another era contrast with the depressing boarded up buildings and the pub that only sells triple strength beer.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert
The Barrier Ranges come into view as we approach Broken Hill. We set up our tent on impossibly soft green grass at the Outback Resort and open two beers. Some locals wander over and invite us to join their party. A few drinks and many laughs later, our new best friends drive home through the scrub to avoid the possibility of breath tests on the road.
The ride from Broken Hill following the Darling anabranch is surreal. A wild wind is whipping the red and white coloured sands across the road. Large trees stand stark against the brilliance of the sky. ABBA tunes have replaced Waltzing Mathilda inside my helmet. I’m not much of a singer but fortunately for Alan we’ve turned off our helmet intercoms, no need to thank me for the music.
Then an emergency light flickers on – I stop to lookup the error code on my bike manual on my phone. Ah, I need to pump my tyre, why didn’t I notice that before? Later my petrol reserve light comes on, and my bike glides to a halt. The fierce cross wind and soft tyre have reduced her range.
We are only five kilometres from Wentworth, so I find my canvas fuel bladder and Alan goes into town while I wait. Meanwhile, my other bladder demands attention, but there are no trees or bushes on this suddenly busy road. Not that it matters, with helmet on and visor closed, I’m unrecognisable.
After the dry sparseness of the Outback, the abundance at Mildura is wonderful. The Murray River has water flowing over the weir! A craft beer brewery and art gallery! Traffic lights!
Ancient song lines
At Mungo National Park we take a tour to visit the fragile erosion landscape of the Great Walls of China, where shifting sands reveal ancient stone tools. We pick them up and they fit our modern hands perfectly. The old wool-shed documents more recent pastoral history.
Our guide tells us the story of the 20,000 year old fossil human footsteps and Mungo Man, the oldest human remains discovered in Australia. There are tracks of a group of females, one with a restless child on her hip who she later puts down. I wonder what songs these women sang as they journeyed, all those generations ago.
Always take the weather with you
After Mungo, it’s a long ride home. First, we must cross the Hay plains where a thunderstorm rolls through and relieves the tedium of the ride – rain gear on, rain gear off. We spend a night in lovely Junee, endure a freezing ride through Yass, dodge traffic in hot Sydney, and finally, home.
NSW is a big state! Two weeks, 3500km and we barely touched the sides.