The Final Ride: Outback Worries and Conspiring Elves

On a rainy, rainy day I watched a leather-skinned old Aussie fellow hitch his denim shorts back up over his buttocks. He was stumbling about in an enormous cowboy hat outside his trailer.

We were at the Darwin BP garage. It was starting to rain.

It didn’t matter. Spirits were undrenchable.  We had manoeuvred our lazy bums back onto the bike and were on our way again.

We sped through the storm, got as soaked as an Australian on ANZAC day, and left the rain clouds behind. The rocks turned red again, the sky turned blue, and the gearbox seal started leaking oil.

At Adelaide River the oil left a worrying slick. We rode on.

At Pine Creek we found some folks. They told us the gearbox seal was leaking oil. We smiled serenely, and rode on.

At Larrimah an Italian in a pink shirt suggested it was a problem with the chain. We muttered. And rode on.

Then we found the Pink Panther.

The Pink Panther is a strange old ramshackle trailer park motel, complete with a miniature crocodile, some snake-necked turtles, and a scruffy little wallaby.   The scrawny bottle-blonde behind the counter served us cream soda in cans, and we wandered off to distract the creatures.

Eventually we poured some oil into the poor ailing bike. Short of returning to Darwin again, there wasn’t a whole lot else we could do. And neither of us wanted to do that. 

We spent the night at Daly Waters again.

At Dunmarra, we stopped for old time’s sake. This was where we broke down so hideously last time. The same malevolent crow squawked from the sidelines. The same relentless sun battered us. This time though, we ignored the bike’s grumblings and had an incredible breakfast.

The sun kept up its battering.
The roadkill increased in size.
In the bush we disturbed giant brolgas, and they flapped off petulantly.

Our water canister fell off the back of the bike. We tried not to worry.

The sun set in a spectacular way behind us, and we headed for ‘The Pebbles’, a great camp-spot in the bush. We drank vodka on the rocks, and slept like large twigs.

Adam, looking a little nervous.

The next morning we ate veggie bacon sandwiches for breakfast, and celebrated the best breakfast since Turkey nine months previously.

A red gravel dirt track tried to topple us.

We found the original telegraph station at Tennants Creek, set up years before the town ever arrived with the gold rush. It was empty, lonely, and eery.

We rode on. It was going well. The bike was leaking, but we were pouring it back in as fast as it came out. Spirits were soaring- we had surpassed the tent breaking point (the 3rd night in the tent seems to be when you finally overcome dead-limb syndrome and actually get some sleep). We were filthy and unwashed, and it suited us.

The road continued unabated. The bush changed. We had reached the desert plains. They are usually grassless, red and cracked, but the Northern Territory has had months of rain. There was grass as far as the horizon, and small swampy pools where there shouldn’t have been.

We stopped for lunch at a picnic spot.

Three hours later we were still there, desperately trying to leave. The bike wouldn’t start.

Adam methodically went through every feasible bike problem.  It wasn’t the fuses.  It wasn’t the ignition. It wasn’t the battery- all the lights and the horn still worked. An hour later we still hadn’t worked out what was wrong, and were about to give our recently acquired starter motor up for dead, again. Whatever the problem was, we weren’t going to be able to fix it there. Push-starting was in order.

We heaved the fully-loaded bike up onto a little hill, and pushed it down again. Hard. Adam bounced as heavily as possible on the bike so the tyres didn’t lock. He skidded anyway, but the bike let out a little growl. Then it spluttered and died. Nevertheless, our hope was ignited.

Five attempts and a lot of swearing later, and using the handy muscles of a passing Estonian camper and slightly larger hill, it started. We raced to get our jackets on before the bike overheated, and were off, skidding in the gravel, shouting thanks to the bemused camper.

The only problem was, it meant we couldn’t stop.

But for the moment we didn’t care- we had managed it. The dreaded task of push-starting a BMW R100 was actually achievable, and we had busted several myths. Exhausted, I whooped into my helmet.

10 kms later, the rpm-meter went insane, swooping from 4000 to 0 and back in a worrying fashion.

15kms later, we slowed to a horribly final stop.

We had done the one thing I had been dreading since before Indonesia. We had broken down in the middle of the outback, in the middle of the day, with no water.

A little perturbed now, Adam started quietly suggesting the engine had seized. Nothing else seemed to make sense.

one of the rescue brigade
 Five minutes later, as has been happening with an increasing frequency, we were rescued.

A ute with a trailer pulled up alongside us.

A helpful man got out and decided instantly that actually the battery was dead after all (for him the lights and horn conveniently stopped working). He magically produced a large generator from the trailer, and we charged our battery there and then.

The whole family got out, and we push-started it all over again. They were brilliant, and offered to stay behind us the next 50kms to Barkly Homestead in case the battery died again.

We pulled into Barkly Homestead with no more breakdowns, and thanked them about a zillion times, before charging the battery and passing out.

The next day the bike started. This in itself suggested the day was going to go well. The problem was now definitely the alternator. We would have to keep charging the battery every two days or it would stop.

The day progressed in the usual manner. The sun was hot, the road was straight, the horizon large.

Then we found a strange hippy biker on his own old BMW. He stopped us and gave us tea from a billy-can over a fire, and told us his theories of an inverse universe based on the structure of an Aero bar.

We took him with us, and rode all the way to Mt Isa, an industrial mining town with tall chimneys and short scallies.

We spent the evening listening to his tales of smugglers and convict ancestry. He drifted off into drug tales, and described the elves he met during his most recent acid trip.

He had spent the last year biking around Australia, and had recently broken down in a river on the Gibbs River Road (an infamous stretch of dirt track which doesn’t officially open for another two months), and spent two nights sleeping up a tree to avoid the crocodiles.

He seemed our type of guy, so the next morning we zoomed off together. He would turn right at Longreach down towards Sydney, but for now there was only one road.

We found a gang of bikers on their way back from the Ulysses bike meeting down in Albany. One of them had a truck with two Harleys and a helicopter on the back. When they discovered what we were up to, we were instantly famous. I posed for daft photos in front of all the bikes.

The strange Mr Mawson looked on, uncomfortable with the normality of the conversation. No one had mentioned elves since the newbies had arrived. He cooked up boiled eggs over a fire and nudged the ground with his boot.

We finally extricated ourselves from the fame, and rode off with Mr Mawson in tow.

Our hippy friend found a dam he had heard of, and we rocked up to the stunning reservoir. It was very impressive.

We were commenting on the signs warning of crocodile attacks when we turned to find a dirty naked biker race past us in red Y-fronts. He hurled himself off the jetty in a gigantic swooping dive.

For a few dreadful seconds he failed to surface. Just when I was beginning to wonder what the emergency services number was in Australia, his head bobbed up and squirted dam-water in the air.

I cautiously dipped my toes in, and smiled at the tadpoles.

We ate a gigantic lunch and drank more billy-can leaf tea, courtesy of our new mate. (‘Haven’t had a teabag since 1985.  Have to make a stand somewhere.’)

Twenty kilometres down the road we completely failed to say goodbye to our hippy friend. We arrived into Longreach with him. He was behind us. Then we lost him.

We waited at the turning to the southern road, and he zoomed past five minutes later, waving frantically but not slowing down. He waved until we couldn’t see him, and that was that. Goodbye Mr Hippy. It seemed fitting somehow.

The bush continued.  So did we.  Not much occurred. 

Towards evening we finally found a free campspot, and set ourselves up, relieved.

We were tucked up in bed when four roadtrains pulled in. 

We tried quite hard not to listen to the truckers talk 'fackin' truckin'' for the next five hours.  The conversation was entirely circular.  I can now tell you quite definitely that Mick keeps his rig cleaner than the others.  It has a microwave.  And that at least two of the truckers found it very difficult to construct a sentence without the adjective 'fackin' before every noun, sometimes twice. 

Some say I am not adverse enough to the peppering of an odd expletive.  This was a whole new language.  Sentences were reminiscent of pig-Latin.  Meaning was almost entirely obfuscated.  And the rest of the sentence could also be fairly well relied upon to include 'fair dinkum' at some point. 

They didn't really give truckers a good name.  Which was surprising as we keep bumping into Aussie truckers for some reason, and they have all been friendly and interesting, and completely un-trucker-like.

A preying mantis who became a little attached to the knee pads..

We hotfooted from then onwards, and raced ourselves through Townsville and onto the incredibly scary east coast highway, stopping late in the evening in various strategic and less strategic camping locations (like the one outside Charters Towers, where a small gang of slightly retarded hicks drove around the camper vans at 4am flashing their main beam into the vans while pumping out bad house music as loudly as possible.) 

Outback architecture from the early days

We checked into the packing shed where we will hopefully get work in a few weeks.  The lady looked a little surprised by us.  Seeing myself in a service station mirror a few hours later, I understood why.  We were both pretty grubby.

Three days of serious riding later, complete with buckets of rain and a strangely English countryside which caused some unexpected nostalgia, we rode into the surreal cityscape of Surfers Paradise. 

We'd made it. Our final destination had been reached. Stinking, soaking wet and a little emotional, we pulled into Adam's brother's apartment car park. Karolina ran down and tried not to look shocked by our disheveled appearance and frankly abhorrent smell. She bravely gave us a hug. Adam's brother Phil arrived back later, and we all got drunk.

And that was that.

We've made it.  We've ridden from Yorkshire, England to the Gold Coast, Australia.  It has taken us 373 days.

And it has made us think.  Rather than this be the end of our trip as originally planned, we may only be halfway through...  hmm...

Surfers Paradise by night from the 31st floor

The Saint from Darwin

We woke up to a loud knocking.  An enormous neon-clad postman was struggling with a very heavy box.  It had arrived!!  We leapt around the room for a few minutes, singing.  Then we realised there was a Frenchman asleep in the next room who possibly mightn't be quite as excited about the arrival of a second-hand gearbox, so we sat down quietly and opened it.

Adrian The Workshop-Saint rang about twenty minutes later to say the workshop was available, and within the hour Theo was driving us and a gearbox across town in his funky cow-painted van. 

At the workshop the gearbox went on beautifully smoothly, excepting the sneaky ignition switch.  It had decided it wasn't going to move from the old gearbox to the new one, so we persuaded it, with force.  All seemed well and good, and we started on the shaft.

bit of a difference...

Its a bloody good job Adrain reappeared at this point, to help get the driveshaft sorted, because we weren't getting anywhere.  

The bolt was stuck.  Very stuck.
We tried most things.  Adam and Adrian put on a good performance wrestling with it.  Various wrenches and levers failed.  Then Adrian barbecued it.

Adrian barbecuing a swing-arm

Despite the antics amusing the hell out of me, the boys didn't actually manage to get the bolt off, so had to reassemble it by persuading the very solid metal bevel drive to politely wrap itself without complaint around the back end of the driveshaft. 

struggling with the driveshaft

From then on it was fairly plain sailing, and a few hours later there we were with the bike on the floor, ready for a test-drive.  It was finished, all was well, and we grinned smugly at each other...

Then it leaked oil all over the workshop floor. 


It was leaking out of that blasted ignition switch.  Far from persuading it, we had actually just bashed it. 

There was only one thing for it.

The whole gearbox was going to have to be taken off again...

I was a little upset. 

Adrian arrived back, took a look and decided we could get at the ignition switch without removing it completely all over again.  They got busy while I moped around in an irritating fashion.  

They extracted the sheered switch, and Adrian gamely hunted down a fitting bolt from somewhere far away.  

Many long hours later we finished off the last little bits and scrubbed down the workshop.  It was 10pm and we were knackered, but it was done, and it worked.  What's more, it worked well.

Adrian had saved our bacon several billion times, and he saved us again by lending us the den to sleep in for the night.  We found a bottleshop, and celebrated. 
the workshop



 Without this man, we would be by the side of the road, in the sun, still trying to get the exhaust off. 

The Long Ride South...and, erm, back.

In Darwin, we crossed our fingers and toes as the very serious quarantine lady inspected the bike's guts with a torch.  I toyed with screaming at her about the five days of bike-washing we had suffered.  Thankfully I then untoyed with it.

She passed us, but not without another mini-jet wash.  We were free to go.... after we had put in the new starter motor. 

Our Fellow Overlanding Brits and the Also Overlanding Icelandics got through inspection OK too, but poor Sven and his old Landrover then had to be towed home.  Their luck seemed even worse than our starter motor problems, with an entirely wrecked gearbox and engine.
We pitied them.

Had we known what lay in store, we would have been far more empathetic...
being towed out of the port.

There we were, in Darwin, with the bike, having driven from England.  It felt like it should be a momentous occasion.  As it was, it was a little worrying. 

The bike was definitely not feeling happy after the perils of disassembly in Dili.  And Australian roads are FAST.  There is no faffing about with Aussie roads.  Not unless you don't mind spending a few weeks in those comfy beds in A and E.

We made it back to the house and spent a couple of days wandering around the impressive botanical gardens, and doing various tasks to try and make our weary steed happy.

Two days later, fed, showered and oil-changed (well ok, only one of the crew got an oil change), we reluctantly left Chris' house.

With Chris at the house.  This man rescued us.
We sped off down the Stuart Highway. 

An hour and a half later we were in total outback. The landscape could only have looked more Australian if a crocodile had been sat gently gnawing on a kangaroo's foot while a possum took photos of itself in a cork hat.


Look how proud I am.  You'd think I built the thing.

I couldn't find any crocodiles, but I'm sure they were around.

There was red earth. There were termite mounds. There was bush.

There wasn't a whole lot else. For miles, and miles, and miles.

a fair old distance, really...

We travelled for hundreds of kilometres, on straight, flat road.  I stopped kangaroo-hunting.  I stopped singing.  At times I stopped breathing. 

We were suffering culture shock.  It was our first real roadtrip since Flores, before that fateful day in Kupang.  There were no scooters whizzing about our heads.  There were no overloaded buses with goats tied to the roof.  In fact there wasn't a whole lot of anything. 

The road was damn fine though, and we were in fifth gear at 100kph all day.   And the outback was eerily haunting...

In the evening we found ourselves a nice little camping spot next to the road, in bush-land.  Nothing around, for miles.  With slight trepidation (tarantulas, snakes, dingoes trying to kidnap me...), I set up camp, and changed into my pyjamas.  

Two hours later a single car drove past. 

Half an hour after that, the same car drove past again.  And stopped. 

A security officer politely informed us this was Commonwealth land, and would we please get off it. 


We politely informed him it took us an hour to pack up, and another to set up again, and could we please not get off it. 

It didn't work. 

In the dusk we packed up.  At prime kangaroo-hitting hour, we travelled the 50kms back to Katherine and spent $25 on a piece of grass. 

The man on the Katherine campsite waited for us to set up.  Then he wandered over and politely informed us we couldn't put the tent up there.  It was where the buses parked.

The next morning we woke with a mildly fuzzy head thanks to 'goon' (the Aussie term for cheap boxed wine- considered a tramps drink, but actually quite quaffable...), and went on our merry way.

Not a lot happened. 

We stopped in tiny outback 'towns'. 

In Adelaide River we ate overpriced chips with a Melbourne film-maker who looked exactly like a Blues Brother. 

We found a Swedish cyclist perspiring freely near the Tortilla Flats. 

We sniggered at the dusty postcards in Larrimah, and stopped sniggering when we realised we couldn't afford a drink. 

We met this dude.

Strike a pose.

We rocked up at Daly Waters, the famous outback pub, and asked for a job.  It was on the tip-off of an old Southern cowboy and his missus we found on the road.  They were travelling for four days to reach their million-acre ranch up north. 

Sadly the Daly Waters had a zillion backpackers who wanted to work there, and didn't want us.  We stayed for a drink anyway.

Little did we know we'd be there again far too soon.

Fifty kilometers down the road, strange noises started...

Still zooming along in fifth gear, we began to hear serious clunking.

Then grinding noises in 5th and 3rd. 

It all got a bit painful to listen to, and we crept along in 4th to pull up at Dunmarra, the next pitstop. 

We dragged everything off the bike and did some investigating.  It wasn't looking good.  It had finally happened.  The bodge-job we'd done in Thailand to repair the driveshaft had finally taken its toll, and royally messed up the gearbox bearings. 

We were 700kms from the nearest town of any size.   It was going to be one hell of a costly excercise, no matter the outcome.

The next town, 300kms down the highway, was Elliott, a town of 600 inhabitants.  There was a mechanic.  Allegedly he was expensive and rubbish to boot. 

The garage-lady sent us back up the road to Daly Waters, where despite a total population of 9, there was in fact a mechanic. 

We convinced each other he would know what he was doing, so we could order bearings from Darwin, who would of course have them in stock, and get it all done within a couple of days.  So fortified, we set off.

We crept, petrified the gearbox would explode on us.  (A fellow rider had optimistically suggested this might happen when we'd asked for gearbox advice in the past.  I really wish he hadn't...)

The only gear we could move in was 4th, so 4th it was.

We made it.  It took us over an hour, and several lifetimes of worry, but we made it.

Back at the cheering Daly Waters pub again, we immediately drowned our sorrows, and joined the rowdy rabble of travellers. 

Incredibly, three separate BMW-riders turned up to try their hardest to solve our problems.

In the meantime a hairy old guy from the pub tried to crack onto me.

We found some reptiles to comfort ourselves with.

This is a cane toad.  Mostly you see them dead.  That's because people shoot them.  They are immigrants to the country, and everyone's heard of Australian immigration policy.

a tree-frog.  these guys are everywhere.
Adam, the next morning, on realising the problem had not gone away overnight...

We made all the right noises to appease the very friendly but slightly worried BMWers about the wisdom of riding a dead bike, and set off to the local mechanic down the track. 

He was a friendly guy, but there was nothing he could do.  He was a car mechanic, and had never been anywhere near a BMW bike.  He sent us on our way, 300kms back to Katherine, where, he assured us, there was a bike garage who would definitely be able to sort it all out.

...back we go.
It was a slow old ride.  I had been wondering whether zooming along at 100kph the first time I had missed something.  Er, well, no. 

Road-trains overtook us.  So did the Landcruisers.  So did everything, in fact. 

In Katherine, 300kms later, we found the bike shop.  It was a well set up workshop with sparkly Harleys out the front.   We cheered up.

Then we found the mechanic. 

Adam started explaining the problem. 

The mechanic's reaction was bizarre.  Without waiting for him to finish, he told him there was absolutely no way he was going to do it, he didn't have time, even if he did have time it wouldn't be worth his effort, No way, No. 

Then he walked off.

Right then.  Well, that was that.

On the way out I kicked his stupid shiny Harleys.   

We had travelled 300kms in the wrong direction to find the only person who could help us, and he didn't want to.  Or couldn't.   Or something.

It was too late to do much else, so we spent the night in Katherine. 

It was a full moon, and late in the evening about 300 enormous fruit bats flew straight over our tent in the trees, where they started to fight each other.  There's nothing quite as uplifting as watching fruitbats chuck each other out of a tree.  I think someone sent them to cheer me up.

The next morning we sat about drinking coffee with an old guy who'd spent much of his life living in his tent, all over Northern Australia.  He ate hamburgers for breakfast and told us stories.

Some time after this we realised there was nothing for it.  We were going to have to ride all the way back to Darwin. 

We saddled up for a long, slow ride.

Not a lot happened for a while.

Somewhere near Pine Creek we started leaking really quite impressive amounts of oil.

An 80yr old BMWer riding around Australia pulled up and told us to put it on a truck.

We were fairly sure as long as we kept topping up the oil, the stupid bike would make it, so on we went.

Adam, a little unhappy on discovering the oil situation.

a roadtrain overtaking our measly 70kph...

where the hell is Noonamah???

Finally we made it back to Darwin, in 4th gear.  We found Sven's hotel, not wanting to land ourselves on Chris yet again, and settled in.  Sven was, not surprisingly, very understanding.

At BMW we found a much friendlier mechanic, and thought we were saved.

It wasn't going to be that easy.  The mechanic agreed to help us at his usual rate, if he could squeeze us in, if we provided the repair manuals for the work, if we took the gearbox out ourselves and gave it to him, and if we provided the bearings.  It seemed like a few too many ifs...

The next morning we posted SOS messages on the motorcycle forums.  We had a massive response from all over the world, and were struck by how much everyone helps each other out.  Someone sent us a manual.  Then someone else sent us another one.  Everyone agreed it wasn't going to be a fun job, mechanic or no mechanic. 

Then we found another Darwinian Saint in the form of Adrian, aka Podge NT, who sent us a message on ADV.  He turned up half an hour later on his shiny BMW for a chat, and offered us his incredibly well-equipped workshop, and his advice.   I think I might have had his arm off.

Getting the gearbox out in Adrian's workshop 

Adam called to order the bearings from the UK and found a helpful stranger there too, who offered us a second-hand reconditioned gearbox for 350 quid including postage.  We rejoiced.  Neither us nor a mechanic was going to have to fartle around inside the gearbox.  Bloody good job considering the BMW mechanic had got back in touch and told his price: $150 an hour.

Adam and Adrian, hard at work whacking the exhaust- iik.

One dilapidated bike and a happy Adam- the gearbox is out.
Some few slightly tense hours later, the gearbox was out.

And now the bike sits prone, waiting for the new one, and we've spent Easter weekend enjoying our air-conditioned hotel and having barbecues by the pool with Sven and the Icelanders and the Overlanding Brits.

Nothing can happen until later this week, when DHL will cause all sorts of excitement with their package.

For the meantime: here is a picture of my first ever possum, found in the back yard.