It’s finally a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the road is in great condition, my only commitment for the rest of the day is to get these 500km done so I twist my wrist and open the throttle up until I’m sitting comfortably beyond the speed the law tells me I’m allowed to ride and I enjoy the shifting countryside around me.
Australia doesn’t really make sense as a country until you do a serious road trip, and by serious I mean in excess of 2000km, less than that and you’re just “travelling” from point to point. It’s only over the course of distances like this that you get to see the variety in landscape and trace it against the similarities and differences from place to place. Like most countries, our mythology is wildly misleading. Over 80% of our population lives in coastal cities, we’re far less rural than we imagine ourselves to be. The Outback (with a capital O) is farther out the back of the country than most people realise (about 1000km inland from the east coast) and the vast majority of Australians have only ever seen it on tv and in postcards.
I’m at the end of my first week of epic travel for work. 15 cities in 17 working days. Weeks one and two will see me rack up a total of 4000km on my motorbike. It’s only in a country like Australia where nobody bats an eyelid at the distances. Week 3 involves flying to 5 cities too far to ride to and week 4 is split with a flight to far north Queensland and one last road trip. Then it’s Christmas.
Day one pretty much sucked. In theory the 600km to Coffs Harbour should have been fun. The forecast said there was a 20% chance of rain and because I like to pack light I decided to take my chances without wet weather gear and riding my open-face helmet (you get better peripheral visibility and it’s summer, so being a bit cooler is definitely a plus). It turns out that the weather gods like a joke as much as the next pack of bastards and so it rained from just south of Gosford to just north of Kempsey. About 450 of those 600km.
I’ve learned a lot about riding in the rain this week. If the rain’s light enough that you’re using the intermittent setting on your windscreen wipers, then it’s possible to ride at 110 with an open-face helmet. It stings but not so bad you can’t keep it going at speed. When you get to the first steady setting on your wipers then I’m going to need to slow down to 90, partly from the pain and partly for visibility. Once you’re on the full speed setting I’m down to 70 and any heavier than that, fuck it, I’m pulling over to wait it out.
Still, I carry my friends with me when I travel and I can’t help but notice my thoughts wander to Jen/Gav (or should that be Jen-Gav?) as I race up the Pacific Highway, even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t live near the PCH and you can’t see the ocean from ours. (Pro-tip: If you want to have some of the best beaches in the world, build your highways at least 10km inland). The PCH is one of those roads I’ve always wanted to drive, but still haven’t managed to yet. One day.
Day two and I leave Coffs late because my meeting ran long. It went well though and I’m in a good mood. It’s cloudy today but not raining and so I slather on the sunscreen and hammer on up to Brisbane. I’m a bit curious to see what it will be like when I cross the border. Queensland’s a special kind of state. It’s kind of like Texas, Florida, Kentucky and Vegas all rolled into one, without the good bits… Anyway, they recently passed some amazingly draconian laws in Queensland allegedly aimed at “dismantling criminal motorcycle gangs” (the actual language in the acts passed is fascinatingly open and non-specific). They’re extreme and insane laws that almost certainly won’t survive the inevitable high-court challenge but for now motorcyclists face intense scrutiny in Queensland. Already I’ve read news reports of charity rides being disrupted (with one example of police confiscating the donation records to copy the information down of attendees/donors).
I’m a big guy and I ride a large American V-twin motorcycle. I’m expecting to be pulled over every single time I see a cop while I’m north of the border. I don’t anticipate any actual trouble, but I’m ready for the inevitable delays. Over the course of the three days I’m in Queensland, I see three police cars and I’m pulled over exactly zero times. I guess even though I’ve got the bike, I don’t exude the right energy. I’m sure it helps that I’m riding alone.
Day three and it’s a short ride of just under 200km up to Toowoomba. I have a complicated history with Toowoomba, this is the town that I grew up in. Today I’m thinking of Sarah and how she loves to tease me about it because she knows I hated it growing up there. It’s not a bad town per se, but it really didn’t suit me as a kid. Too racist, too prejudiced, too narrow-minded. I was glad to leave and don’t miss it at all. Thinking of Sarah reminds me of how she always wants me to take photos for her, especially of kangaroos. Every time I pass a bit of roadkill I resist the urge to pull over and take a photo of the dead ‘roo for her. Even I think that would probably be a step too cruel.
I did start to count dead kangaroos just so I could give her an indication of how many there are, but I stopped after I got into double figures on the first day. The total would just be too depressing. Plus, I know gs will judge me for counting dead, furry animals even though she won’t admit that she has a thing for furries.
I’ve got a bit of time before my meeting in Toowoomba and so I ride past the old house, seeing what’s changed and remembering the things my brothers and I used to do in the neighbourhood. The hill we skateboarded down on an old PVC banana board. The park we used to play football in (and where we took the baseball, glove and bat Dad brought back from America for us). The spot I had my first car accident. It makes me smile but I don’t feel particularly nostalgic or fond. It’s just part of the past now.
Day four and my job today is to get to Armidale. This is the aformentioned beautiful day and every time I pass a house or business or building covered in solar panels I grin and think of Josh and how the world’s changing, even though it’s slow. The landscape up here is still lush and verdant, though not as overtly sub-tropical as the coastal part of the NSW/QLD border. I’m reminded of gs’ recent US road trip and I wonder what the landscape was like for that. I loved driving in the US, although the Interstates are infinitely more functional than our highways. Our highways are like the state highways in America, open and winding and full of nature. I remember driving with Mark and Megan and Tip to go camping with Antoine and Rob and Tom and the rest.
That was seriously one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. The kindness and generosity of internet friends is great. I daydream about hosting a similar holiday here and realise that if that’s going to happen I need to do more research on great camping and riding (real bikes) options. I then have a super-secret daydream that I’m on a road trip holiday with Mark and Antoine, all riding our motorbikes down this spine of regional Australia. It makes me smile.
I look at the shifting nature of the landscape and I’m struck by its beauty. Australia tugs at my heart the way no other country does. I look at the signs of humanity and I marvel at how they’re simultaneously insignificant, barely scratching the surface of land so old and constant, and also so destructive. You only have to look at the bush growing naturally between the edge of the road and the fence that marks the paddock that’s been cleared for crops to understand how different this land must have been even only 250 years ago. I wish I could go back and see that land.
I moo at the cows grazing in the paddocks alongside and I think of Will, wondering if he’d be impressed by them. Thinking of Will makes me think of Jens and I’m a little surprised by how many people I want to share this ride and this glimpse of my country with. I wish I had brought my camera so I could take great photos and share them, but it’s not a big wish because I’m not actually that good a photographer. I’m certainly nowhere near as skilled as Sarah or Mark or Ed (whose name isn’t actually Ed but who generously puts up with Anglos calling him that anyway). Ewoud’s landscape photos always impress the hell out of me. He has such great composition. I see another kangaroo and I think of Vik, who has no idea how lucky she’s going to be this Christmas but I’m hoping it’ll be a good surprise.
It’s near the town of Deepwater that the land starts to turn dry again. I wonder if that’s irony or if the water has all literally soaked so deep that there’s little of it left to sustain things at the surface. It’s a bit rockier through this last stretch too and now I’m counting kilometres, working out if I need to refill or if I can make it to Armidale on this tank. I decide to chance it, I should be fine and what’s the point in undertaking risk-taking behaviour if you don’t double-down every now and then?
I arrive in Armidale tired, happy and eager to tell my friends about my ride, so I wrestle with the wifi and start jotting down ideas in Evernote. When it fails to sync properly and loses my notes for the third time I do what I should have done immediately and go to the pub.
Day five and it’s overcast in Armidale. I had planned to have a slow start today but the sky looks threatening and I’ve got 520km to get home, I’d prefer not to hit rain again so I skip breakfast and get going. 10km outside of Armidale it starts pouring so heavily that I’m instantly soaked through and my speed’s only 70. I regret skipping breakfast.
I stop for an hour in Tamworth hoping the front will move, and eventually I give up and head back out into the rain. It rains all the way to Sydney. Mercifully it eases slightly and I cover most of it at full speed, but I’m soaked and I’m cold and I wish I was there already. The rain slows me enough that I hit the edge of Sydney at 5:30pm, which means that the last 25km home (which would normally take about 40 minutes) takes me two hours of crawling through peak hour traffic. More than once I wish I could switch to my real bike and get home faster.
I get home and get dry and get unpacked and it’s all ok now. Well almost all. It turns out that my arms are sunburnt. Apparently Australia is the only country in the world where it can be raining so hard that any sunscreen you apply instantly washes off and the sun is still strong enough to burn you through the storm clouds.
I love road trips in this country.