Australian outback, 1995
You might be aware of the fact that once one begins exploring the world using an off-road motorcycle, he is very likely to grow a passion that even an intimate relationship with a Peugeot will not deter for long. That’s why, after a five-year long period manipulating statistics on the line of ‘the best day to fly is after a plane has crashed’, I decided to buy a BMW GS1100, a classic telltale of the German’s predilection of engineering over aesthetics. Only a culture allowing golfers to wear pink trousers can breed designers capable of imagining yellow seats. Once the device was registered and able to ride freely, the second decision was to find a playground for it, being the northern Italian Piedmont hills a somewhat limitative option for such a weight. That’s why I decided to cross Australia, where Peugeots are relatively scarce.
It is indeed a fact that, should a traveller weigh seriously every possible contingency a planned journey might bring, he might as well stay at home. One has to do his best, of course, but without a certain level of insanity a healthy biped would not cross continents on a motorcycle. This is the way I follow to excuse my long list of errors in the planning of the trip.
The first was the underestimation of weight: once the special water and gas tanks were added to backpacks, tents, stoves, parts, spaghetti, dried garlic and wife, the total displacement was well over 1000 pounds: while shipping costs were barely affected, the same cannot be said about manoeuvrability at low speeds. Still, the Sydney BMW dealer long term optimism appeared justified on the first day of the journey, across the Blue Mountains and into the peaceful and green country rolling down west. Once the speed of 40 kms an hour was achieved, the apparent weight rapidly decreased, until reaching blissful buoyancy over the 90s.
It was the following day to reveal the magnitude of the second miscalculation, and I could only find relief thinking that Napoleon, after all, fell upon the same mistake in Russia: underestimating cold. The highway 32 between Bathurst and Nyngan was veiled in a supernatural winter mist, with temperatures barely above freezing, and the magical atmosphere was a reward not fully appreciated by all of the 40 fingers aboard. From then on and for two weeks, riding was out of the question until the sun had warmed up the world a bit, thus reducing the number of humane driving hours, a figure already exceedingly lowered by the wallabies fatal attraction for headlights after 5 pm. When we reached Nyngan with the sun still high and a handful of penguins cuddling around the handle seeking warmth, the discovery of an old style Australian hotel with fireplaces on full blaze was such a relief that our senses were ready to oversee the drawbacks implied in the word ‘old style Australian hotel’. Also ‘Relais & Chateaux’ are old hotels with blazing fireplaces, but there the similarity ends. The Nyngan outfit had seen better days, probably after WWII. Floors, walls, tapestry, taps, terraces, beds, toilets and upholstery were barely used since the days when a Japanese invasion was a concrete possibility. And the features of our host did nothing to dispel warfare inklings, because the amiable chap was a clone of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb who liked to amuse himself with skulls the same way Chaplin played with globes. Here we committed the third big mistake: the Lonely Planet guide should list in the ‘don’t do in Australia’ the arrival anywhere on a Sunday evening when the local rugby team has its night out. In the back of the pub, the fly-half and the backs were clearly demonstrating that life’s core is carbon by transforming a handful of cows into char. Inside the pub the scrum pack and the forwards were kicking away and distributing pints like there was no tomorrow. Thank God it was 1995 and Jonny Wilkinson was not a part of my conversation archives yet, otherwise the amount of Victoria Bitter I absorbed would have driven me into a coma. Still anything that happened between the seventh pint and the following morning invitation to ‘feel free to use the kitchen to make breakfast’ has been lost by my memory. Sure enough the bill was memorable: room, DIY breakfast, charbroiled dinner for two and a substantial amount of VBs was 21 AU$. I don’t exactly know what we paid for, probably just the logs we burned. From then on, hangovers in all places where there were other Australians became another cause of morning delays. Wisely, we started camping out.
The following midday we left Bourke in our rear-view mirrors and the Outback stretched before us. The plan was to reach Darwin on a general NW course following the straightest possible line, therefore we filled the tanks up and followed the track linking two of the most beautiful names I’ve ever seen on a map: Thargomindah and Windorah, in the heart of the so called Channel Country, my favourite corner of Australia. Channels could not be seen anywhere, but the communion between rock and sky cannot reach a more blissful intensity: not even in the high Himalayas I had ever seen such skies, where on one side you have the setting sun and on the other a starry night. The purity of the crystal air, the absoluteness of the infinite gravel and the warmth of the dried logs burning by the tent added perfection to the shrieking silence.
The gravel roads ware not as bad as expected, especially where not maintained, meaning that ‘traffic’ had marked a relatively gravel-free track. Where the pebbly surface was recently levelled, on the other side, trouble had to be expected, because the GS soon made explicit its lack of buoyancy. It was like riding a plough. Still, after two days of blissful riding and camping between earth and sky, with nothing in between, we reached Birdsville, the centre of all things. Here we discovered that cold beer flows towards the bottom and water towards the top, because the liquid from the wells is so hot that needs to be cooled down in tanks on the roof. Thank God it was winter and the nights were freezing as usual. In summer one can probably brew tea straight out of the tap.
From Birdsville the straight line NW runs through the Simpson Desert. This wide area has only one marked difference with the surrounding fascinating and vast desolations: a series of red sand dunes stretching straight in a general NE to SW direction for the trifle of 1000 kilometres. Just like that… Were the sand white, you’d think to be on the mirror where God sniffs coke.
One of the cons of motorcycle riding is the helmet, a device that protects one from the cold but also prevents social chitchat with the passenger. Well, some actually list the helmet as a pro, just for the same reason. Anyway, the result is that one’s mind is substantially free to wander. Mine had been wondering for two days if these sand dunes, notably the first one, aka the Big Red, could be crossed with a GS 1100. Being this geographical feature situated a short distance from Birdsville, prudence advised to leave everything heavy there and give it a try without load and passenger, who could climb the 40-metre high red beach using legs. So there we were, the bike and self, as light as we could be, tires slightly deflated, ready for the climb. Three… two… one… go!.…
I might as well have tried to drill through, because the front wheel went up 1 centimetre and into the sand for a full metre. With the same proportions I had to get through 4 kilometres of sand to get on top of the bloody thing. Our only solutions was a ‘brief’ detour, following the ill-famed Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks, then highway to Alice, a trifle of 2000 kms. VB was badly needed that night, and its healing power was strong enough to distract our eyes from the varied exhibition of reptile-in-a-bottle behind the bar. Not that we were particularly sensitive to these animals, only it’s not pleasant to be reminded at every roadhouse the shape of your neighbours when you camp out. It’s very effective marketing, anyway.
I wish I had seen ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ before riding the Birdsville track. True, the first part was hell, with the track lost in ditches and wet sand. But soon the magic of flying at 120 kms an hour over red gravel and brown powder, leaving a flag of dust behind, became so enthralling that only a huge pink flag flying with an Abba soundtrack would have boosted spirits higher. We reached Marree well before wallaby time, after riding 500 kms in 7 hours. ‘Not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory…’. In the night’s camp, the presence of other 5 bikers did nothing to boost the wellbeing of the liver. The following Oodnadatta track could only oppose a couple of sandbanks to the increasing confidence in our Gs. We had learned the trick: anytime an obstacle looms ahead, be it a stone, a gravel patch, a sandbank, anything basically, just open the throttle and close your eyes. With such a philosophy, we could ride to the moon. Attitude is everything. That’s why, once visited the tourist traps of Uluru and King’s Canyon, we decided we could make a slight detour, that came to be the highlight of the whole trip: the tour of the McDonnel Range through Watarrka, Tnorala and Finke Gorge national parks.
Now, the sceptic might observe that if one feels ‘tourist trapped’ in a place like King’s Canyon, he’ll probably be a psychopath, to say the least. But the subtle power of the open spaces and the desert should not be underestimated. The outback is a place where one can indeed find one’s own destiny. Think about the couple who runs the pub at Williams Creek – pop. 2: here you have two human beings that chose to start a business in a place where they have the same chance to find a customer than an elephant a partner in Greenland. Still there’s no ‘Shining’ in their eyes, and I bet a tenner they’ll get annoyed if the place get crowded, in case, for example, all other pubs in Australia close down. There’s just no way to explain it… you arrive at the end of a paved road, where the way becomes a red scar in the bush vastness. There you feel some strange force that attracts you in, where there’s nobody else than space. It’s the charm of nothingness. You feel a riding Buddha, headed towards a red nirvana. Indeed you feel uplifted, last but not least because the track rises up the same escarpment that creates the canyons. Beware, if you expect mile-high chasms, you’ll be wildly disappointed. The Australian outback is so flat that Holland, with its dams, is the Himalaya in comparison. Still, as we said, the earth is so close to the sky and the air is so terse that climbing up a ladder gives you amazing views and sensations. Imagine when you ride on top of an escarpment. I bet I could have seen the Opera House had I brought the binoculars… From then on the track snakes up and down gentle hills where you slowly become convinced that a nuclear war started and you are the last man on Earth. Like when you are at sea in a calm day, you perceive the round shape of the horizon.
The Australian aboriginal population, certainly capable of using the brain in a very sensitive and ancestral way, did not take long to find the centre of all this magic, a unique circle of low hills, a rim they named Tnorala. It’s very unlikely their songlines date back to when this place was created by a meteor 142 million years ago, even if the explosion must have been noticeable. It’s also unlikely they saw its impressive image from the sky. Nonetheless they did find it special. Land talks, it’s just a question of listening the right way. And a motorcycle helps, even when the flow of the air around the helmet gives you the impression of being in a mountain hut during a blizzard. You stop, and those low bright red hills, the sudden canyons where water miraculously gather like survivors after a cataclysm, the low green bushes and low trees scattered around, are just like small islands out of the bright red sea of sand.
Never before I had travelled on such a low elevation upon the sea level. Never again I had travelled closer to the sky.