Is ‘half-way’ when we land or when we depart?
Is it 12,500 miles or a location?
We are not sure but it has a certain ring about it when you say we have come ‘half-way around the world on a motorcycle’.
We quite like the sound as we contemplate the way the words hang together with all that it means to us, thinking of all the people we have met during the 7 months we have been on the road so far. The ‘meaning’ is added to with emails reaching us from China to the United States; strangers who are friends we have not yet encountered.
It sometimes surprises us the power of the internet, the extent to which people are aware of what we are trying to do in some far flung region of the world; if there is such a place as our perception of the planet has changed so dramatically. We know a person is sitting, somewhere, at their computer following the journey.
It seems from the emails, blogs, and web forums we have struck a chord in many places: ‘The Blind person going around the world on a motorbike'; with her daft companion.
We find articles all over the ‘web’ and many of them we do not even know have even been written. We find video clips of us and pictures of Bertha resting somewhere in some street or road. A person has photographed the two decades old bike that has carried us successfully this far, then they have shared the image through the internet at the press of a button. It’s marvellous really if you think about it. The Global Village is expanding and nothing will ever be the same again.
The ping of ‘incoming’ (as Bernard always announces new email) and the lovely words by which people offer their support for what we are doing come from all over the globe. We respond to them all, personally. Sometimes they remind us of home and we miss our friends and family while, at times, they make us sad as blind and partially sighted people write of their lives, hopes and dreams for something similar and I realise how lucky I am. Lucky to have this chance. Lucky to have Bernard whose patience, tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness has made it all possible. He dismisses this thought when I raise it and resorts to his stock answer used so many times over the journey:
“I was coming anyway, and I had a spare seat.”
All these things have gone through our heads during the flight and, as the wheels touch down on Australian soil, we feel incredibly fortunate and lucky to be here on the ‘other side of the world’. Barely have the wheels touched before people leap from their seats while the ‘fasten seat belts’ lights are still burning bright as voluminous cases are dragged from overhead lockers. The isles become blocked as we sit and wait. Still we sit as there is no rush. There are no time limits anymore for everyday things; we have waited in Indian post office queues for two hours to send postcards. Our world revolves slowly and runs at a different speed nowadays.
We make our way through the airport with the queue for passport control and immigration going on for miles as we shuffle two paces forward, put the cases down, pick them up and shuffle another two paces. It takes 45 minutes to get to the counter where we are stamped into the country; we applied for Visas in Bangkok and it is a formality as we receive the ‘thump’ in the passport and a ‘Have a nice visit.’
We make our way through security checks with custom’s officers trying to rush Bernard as he carries two bags and a case while guiding me:
“Just ignore them Cath” was his response to their urging,
“They can wait for a blind woman”.
So he holds up the queue while he puts the bags down at the start of the conveyor belt for the X-Ray machine, guides me past the foot-tapping security man – who wants my stick to be X-Rayed – before leaving me to go back to the waiting bags, lifting them onto the belt before coming back to where I stand; waiting for the return of my stick.
It takes two hours before we step into the airport terminal to find, well, very little actually! After Istanbul, Kathmandu and Bangkok it comes as a shock. No hotel agents can be seen, most of the shops are closed (it is 5pm after all) and there is no information desk. We wander around the semi-deserted building finding there are no Hotels at the airport. There are none anywhere apart from within Perth itself and it takes three hours to find one who have a room (using our laptop, ten dollar subscription to the wireless system – by credit card – and LastMinute.com would you believe). We are in real culture shock when we pay 38 dollars for sandwiches and coffee but it is so nice to be able to read a menu and it is nearly worth the price.
A Russian taxi driver whisks us the 25 minutes drive to Perth where we settle into a vastly overpriced hotel after our recent experiences; where you could stay over a week for the price of one Australian night. We know we are back in the big ‘developed’ world as the evening reveals drunks weaving their way down the street. Several of them stop and ask Bernard for a cigarette and one gets aggressive when he tells him, apologetically, he only brought the one he is smoking from our room. He weaves across the road scowling backwards; as if we have done him some fatal injury.
This experience hits us hard and we try to remember the last time we have seen somebody drunk; eventually remembering the night in Delhi when Bernard bundled me out of the car with our ‘lift’ home who could hardly stand. It saddens us and leaves us a little depressed but we are, in some ways, having a reverse culture shock. Everything seems ‘loud’ and ‘frantic’ as people rush everywhere and exchange few pleasantries with each other. We have got used to complete strangers saying ‘Hello’ with smiles. We miss it already.
We wake up to start dealing with the logistics in the morning; buying an Australian Mobile Phone Card so we can start to make contact with various people, quickly solved at a local shop. As we walk through the streets we come to Traffic crossings which not only give an audible signal but also have a vibrating arrow on them to indicate which way to cross. I spent some time playing with the crossing after initially jumping when I touched it and it started vibrating. I enthused about it while Bernard, as always, stood waiting patiently for me until I had explored it fully.
In England we have the audio beeper with a spinning cone underneath the unit which means you could set off anywhere, in fact, you could go round and round in circles!
We take another taxi back to the airport, this time with a Turkish taxi driver, and arrive at the Freight Office where the paperwork begins to reclaim Bertha. Bernard asks the staff if there is any damage to the bike at all (as it is not crated for the first time). The woman is amused by his obvious fretting, going to check before pronouncing Bertha ‘fit and healthy; there is palpable relief in his voice at the news.
The paper trail begins as various documents are filled out and we set off to the Custom’s Office which we manage to walk past despite the woman’s ‘the big white building with the Australian Flag’ description – sometimes I do worry about him, I really do.
The custom’s formalities take no time really as the Import / Export Carnet is stamped up and countersigned by an officer who complains bitterly about the weather.
“GuDay, stinking bloody weather” as he shakes our hands, looking at the cloudless blue skies with the heat in the 30s as Bernard describes the burnt landscape around the airport. “Stinking blue skies” is his second gambit to the conversation before getting on a roll and continuing “We’re even drinking stinking desalinated water” we’re not sure how to respond before Bernard tries:
“At least you don’t have the cold?”
“You English are strange, you like this stinking weather”.
By this time we know his favourite word is stinking as he walks around the bike.
“Give me clouds and rain anytime, anything but this stinking weather.”
“You wouldn’t like it if you had the English weather, you really wouldn’t” Bernard tries to dissuade him.
“Cold would be good, you can put a jumper on” he continues walking around the bike.
“One wouldn’t be enough!” Bernard assures him before our friend asks:
“What’s in the boxes?”
Bernard lists everything in each box and, helpfully, points out the two compartments in the fairing along with the two hidden tool tubes. He seems happy and nothing is opened. He records the Carnet details and then leaves bitterly complaining, once again, about the ‘stinking weather’.
The quarantine offices area short walk away and we arrange for them to inspect the bike after paying the fee of 120+ dollars. The officers turns up and Bernard tells her of all the precautions we took cleaning the bike in Kuala Lumpur (under the mudguards, the tyres). She seems satisfied when we even declare our packet of coffee, Horlicks and our Nepal flute (which she wants to see as it is wood). She inspects the flute before pronouncing it can enter Australia legally. It is not to be consigned to the quarantine fires inside a plastic yellow ‘hazard’ bag which Bernard had described as we sat waiting for her to appear.
She wants to see the soles of our motorcycle boots and Bernard holds his breath and takes a step back – as he opened the pannier. Now the one thing we have not enjoyed on the journey is the smell of our boots. We have visions of everything passing the strict quarantine rules but our boots failing and being consigned to the fiery hell of the furnace. She examines the soles and is satisfied as she, officially, lets them into the country. So far we have been at the process for five hours and soon Bertha will be free once we pay the terminal fees at the cargo office.
She is pushed out of the warehouse after more money changes hands – health and safety means we cannot start her in an enclosed space. We notice little things like this now, the small restrictions; seeming strange after all the countries we have been through with people hanging off bamboo scaffolding in bare feet, not a safety harness or hard hat in sight.
We puff our way out and haul her onto the stand repacking the contents of the case we bought at Kuala Lumpur before ‘donating’ it to one of the staff in the office. For the next hour as we stand in the shade as Bernard rings insurance company after insurance company to get cover and none will give a quote – apart from one who will insure us for a single day per week – as long as we name the day we will be riding. He laughs and explains it would take forever to cross Australia at one day’s riding a week. He hangs up and decides to ride to Joondalup (North of Perth) where we have an offer of accommodation from the daughter (Jacquie) of a close friend in the UK.
We set off worrying about insurance but have little choice – it is getting late and we have been at the trail for seven hours by the time we swing our legs over the saddle and set off for the 45 minute ride to the address we have. After getting lost, two phone calls to Jacquie and her husband (Jason) we roll up onto their drive, being so welcome as Bertha pulls into the garage and is unloaded.
Over the next few days we find a cross-threaded engine mount done in Nepal as the engine protection plate was put on. Finding it wasn’t actually that easy as it exploded across the garage all by itself sending Bernard scurrying to locate it. We then have a serious hunt for tools to recut the threads; eventually ending up in Neil’s house (an ex-pat) from the UK who solved the problem for us. We change the oils, filters and go over Bertha with loving care as our next roads take us across the Nullabor, an area we have heard so much about. It is where there is little apart from Kangaroos who can make a mess of the front of a car if you hit them; it doesn’t bare thinking about hitting one on a bike.
In the early days we turn up at the registration office in the town and completely non-plus the poor woman behind the counter with our request for a temporary registration for Bertha. We sit and fill out all the paperwork as she makes calls and then tells us we have to drive to a testing centre (called the ‘pits’) for a roadworthiness test before she can issue a registration (which includes the minimum insurance requirement we find out). We set off for the ‘pits’ where – she assures us – we can get the vital registration once Bertha has passed her ‘test’.
We turnaround at a set of lights and within seconds the howl of a police siren announces our presence is needed and Bernard is roundly trounced by the female officer for ‘pulling a UE’. At this point he resorted to:
“I’m awfully sorry officer (flutter, flutter) we have just arrived in Australia and are heading to what, I believe, you call the ‘pits’. So sorry (flutter, flutter) there was no sign to say you could not turn around there?”
She explains to him, if there are no signs telling you can do a U-Turn it means you cannot do it.
“I’m really sorry officer (flutter, flutter) it is SO different and completely the opposite in England. A sign tells you not to do something. There are a lot of those signs in England and so I am used to looking for them and being careful!”
She waves us off and at least we didn’t have to bribe her and so some things have improved!
The pits involves a brief examination by John who is very helpful and Bernard has read everything they will test anyway! He is happy with the condition of the bike and signs everything off but he cannot register it; they do not know how to do it as it has happened only once in the ten years he has worked there. We drive back to the main office at Joondalup where the woman we have seen earlier dives down behind the counter when she sees us. Bernard heads straight for her and waits patiently before explaining we have been sent back while she nearly tears her hair out. She disappears into the back office while we take a seat. Twenty minutes later she comes back with a Western Australian number plate baring the number WA123 and she starts to fill out the paperwork. Bernard stops her and it goes:
“That’s not for me is it?”
“Yes, it’s your number plate.”
“Sorry, but there seems to e some confusion here. All we need is a temporary registration for OUR number, not a NEW number plate.”
He helpfully pulls out a copy of the Australian regulations (which he just happens to have) and points out the paragraph. By now she is loudly huffing and puffing, being clearly out of her depth. She goes for reinforcements returning with somebody from the back office whom Bernard goes through it all again with (helpfully waving his carnet at her). Over the next 30 minutes (after two trips to the drinks machine), and with several other people involved, they manage to input the ‘foreign’ number plate into the computer system (it doesn’t like our number or plate colour). We leave successfully clutching our two months insurance certificate, our Western Australia (WA) windshield disc after a morning of paper chasing and with the whole office relieved at the sight of our backs.
We take a bow to the assembled people who have been watching the whole scene play itself out before them.
We return to Jacquie’s and an email has arrived from The Times in Perth who have latched onto our visit and they want to send a reporter and photographer the next day. They turn up and we talk of the journey while the photographer takes picture after picture – even convincing Bernard to take his glasses off for a shot (“Which way’s the camera?”); this was the picture they used in the story. It left him less than amused with his comment looking at the paper:
“I look like a mole squinting in the sun!”
We spend a lovely few days at Jacquie and Jason’s home (with their two children Freddie a big six years old, and William is two). They leave us to potter about and we appreciate the space they give us as we are so used to being on our own; it feels strange to be in a ‘home’ with a family. It takes a little getting used to in many ways after being on the move for so long surrounded by languages we cannot understand.
Meanwhile Freddie has been giving the bike ‘moonie-eyes’ since it arrived and he ends up on the back with a short ride to the end of the road; turning into a quick ride down the freeway. On Freddie climbing off, Jacquie has the same look according to Bernard and I convince her to have a go (it takes a few seconds although Jason, her husband was, I think, a little more reluctant!) They set off and go missing for far longer than Freddie’s ride – returning with her breathless at doing an unspecified speed down the Australian highway – shall we say it was faster than when Bernard was radar gunned in Turkey and leave it at that!
Our final afternoon is spent at our first Australian barbie which was full of ex-pat ‘pommies’ who engage in the BYO (bring your own so that it doesn’t kill the host in terms of costs). Big cool boxes which clink or clank are brought in and deposited for people to reach into as the afternoon progresses. Stubby holders abound (a form of insulation sheath which you place your beer in to keep it cool) as we laze in the afternoon sun while children leap in and out of the, inevitable, swimming pool.
People congregate around me and questions fly everywhere about where we have been, what it has been like, and lots of visual awareness questions about how we have dealt with life on the road. One couple – on holiday from the UK – have been thinking about riding to India on a motorbike and she asks what it was like. Her husband listens as we try to describe what it means to ride a bike in India. He is not happy with the recount of our experiences and he jumps in with:
“But surely if you ride defensively, it can’t be that bad?”
He has a wish to ride a bike through India and Bernard can understand this; he too was the same for most of his life.
We try to tell them what it is like but it proves impossible.
Even when we tell them of how five people were in the country at the same time on bikes and only 3 survived unscathed (and wouldn’t do it again) has no impact. We tell him of how one rider went home in a body bag and the other in an air ambulance, still it does not change his view of staying safe through ‘defensive riding’ and ‘anticipation’.
Bernard shifts the conversation to the neutral ground and talks of bikes and, again, our companion listens but does not hear what is being said. After going through India there is no doubt we would have taken a different bike (confirmed with the roads of Nepal) and it would not have been a road bike. After travelling on a ‘hybrid’ bike in Nepal (with long travel suspension) Bernard has no doubts, next time, we will not use a road bike.
We think riding is in India is so far beyond what most motorcyclists will ever think it will be like; they envisage we are exaggerating, or ‘ramping up’ our experiences. We are not. We tell it like it was while also saying “You’ll either love India itself or hate it but you will hate the riding.”
He wanders off commenting “If you ride defensively and be careful, it’ll be fine”. We think his wife is, perhaps, a little more pragmatic about what it involves being ‘a tourist on a motorcycle in India’.
The afternoon passed by and I enjoyed it so much, never stopping talking as people constantly introduced themselves and we went on to talk about life in Australia, their work, children and everything concerning what it means to be ‘a pommie’ in the land of down under.
We left Jacquie and Jason’s after several days with a little sadness as we had settled very quickly as life restored, something like, normal rhythms into us. We had an emotional hug from Jacquie (saying our goodbyes to Jason the previous evening as he works long hours and leaves early). It’s funny how we attach to people sometimes so quickly and if Jacquie or Jason read this entry then, again, we would like to thank you for taking us in and giving us space in your home (along with part of your garage!) We enjoyed our time with you very much.
We pulled out of the drive, waving behind us, before stopping outside Freddie’s school where we identify him playing and he returns our wave while his friends gather around looking through the fence. With one last wave we pull off and settle in for the 2700km ride to Adelaide across the south of the country.
In our heads ring the warnings about crossing the Nullabor; the ‘inhospitable’, hot and desolate area which runs between Perth and Adelaide; where 100 mile distances between petrol stations are common. We have other warnings about water needs and breaking down in this region so we steal ourselves to carry spare water, stopping for petrol whenever we come across it. We follow the advice and will not ride at dawn or dusk as the ‘roos’ (Kangaroos) will ‘get you’. People have told us they come out to feed at these times and, often, it is close by the side of the road as the water, when it does rain, nourishes the plants as it runs off the tarmac.
We stop at a motorcycle shop on the way out of Joondalup as Bernard needs a new pair of gloves; his right hand one has worn through the palm completely with the constant turning of the throttle over 7 months. New gloves on hands, we are soon high above Perth in the hills overlooking the city and the bike feels like home.
All the familiar sounds come back, the exhausts, the engine, the little rattles of bits and pieces in the panniers and back box. The flap of our clothes in the wind and the flag on the right hand side of the bike snaps in a frenzy of sound. The whistle of the tyres on good roads makes everything feel more, ‘predictable’ and safe as the engine hums and the exhausts throb until we stop for burgers, French fries, and petrol; as couples wander over and talk about the bike. They think we have flown into Australia direct from the UK and many whistle when it becomes apparent we have ridden here. They talk about concepts of ‘bravery’ and ‘how hard’ it must have been but we are used to these responses now. Our answers flow easily and naturally; whether it concerns me being blind or Bernard fixing the bike.
Our first stop is 187 miles later at a small place called Merriden. We laugh as we pull up at a caravan park called ‘Av-a-rest’ where we stay in a small ‘van’ with kangaroos wandering around wearing little pink tee-shirts, munching on grass as we sit and watch them while Bernard describes their features. After eating we sit outside in the shade as the light falls signalling it’s time to turn in.
The miles pass early next morning with Bernard muttering about the roads being really boring to ride; they are so straight and stretch for miles out in front of the bike. He tells me of developing what he calls ‘the thousand yard stare’ as you can look so far ahead with nothing changing and of how dangerously ‘hypnotic’ it is in its own way. There is little traffic and if we meet a car every 15 minutes it feels like rush hour! The landscape is burned and dusty and previous fires have raged across it leaving trees blackened and bare. The new undergrowth sprouts at ground level where it meets the sand at the side of the road as we whizz past warning signs of the suicidal ‘roos’ who might appear to ‘get you’.
Forty metre long wagons (Road trains) start to appear and when they come towards us they blast the bike sideways with avengence as a huge wall of 100kph wind hits us (plus our own velocity). Huge shiny chrome houses on wheels that traverse around this vast country towing two or three enormous trailers. The bike lurches violently each time one passes and it startles me badly with the sudden ferocity of the wind, sound and movement. I become tense for the sudden movement before Bernard realises and says “road train” then counting down “3, 2, 1″ at which point the blast would hit us; as we accelerate slightly to cut through the trailing wake of the displaced air.
The heat is profound as we cross the Nullabor with little for Bernard to describe and our water consumption starts to climb as the temperature gauge hovers in the 40 degrees. The sun beats down on us cooking our brains inside our helmets. The smell of heat is overpowering and the bike starts to reflect the temperature – smelling different and much, much, hotter than before. Bernard frets a little as I feel him tilting the bike sideways; looking down at first one side of the engine and then the other, looking for something, anything which may mean trouble. He sees nothing and the bike settles again as we bash through the furnace.
After 475kms he has had enough for today.
We have been riding into the sun most of the day and the wind builds up as it constantly sweeps across the road from the sea to our right for hours on end, sending the bike tilting crazily with sudden gusts. When a road train hits at the same time we lurch violently between the two forces until, once again, stabilizing until the next time; occurring within minutes.
Gratefully we pull into a ‘cabin park’ and fall into a couch still in our bike gear where we sip cold soft drinks until we can be bothered to move. The site is full of the roving crews who repair the roads and they are away from home for extended periods. Sitting in the shade of the verandas with cooler boxes full of stubbies (small beers) and laughing the evening away outside their rooms while we wash our clothes, be-decking Bertha in a very unflattering way for them to dry in the warm breeze. We eat the largest burger ever conceived in the mind of some twisted chef who has set out with a single mission to produce the largest and most cholesterol laden mountain totally guaranteed to destroy your arteries; it was definitely a 40mg Simvastatin meal and, in fact, I was tempted to take two as even 80mg would have struggled to cope!
I fall asleep with visions of the statins meeting their foe and throwing their hands up in surrender; I giggle to myself at the cartoon I have created in my head before falling soundly asleep.
We are on the bike by 7.45 next morning as we plan to do over 500 miles today due to our whole concept of distance changing with the huge gaps between cities in Australia. A little while later we pull into a scheduled petrol stop (as they are few and far between) and find a 750 Triumph parked. As Bernard fills our tank he is approached by Greg who asks if he knows anything about bikes?
“Depends” was Bernard’s non-committal response. Greg goes onto explain it will not start and he is not mechanical.
“Will it turn over?” was Bernard’s first question.
“No, I think it is the coil” the answer comes back.
“Do you want me to have a look?” Bernard offers and I know we may be here for a while – he so likes puzzles and a bike which will not start is like petrol on a fire to him.
Greg is travelling from Perth to Brisbane with his mother (Diane whose bike it is) and she soon joins us. It ran fine yesterday but was completely dead this morning. Our seat comes off, jump leads are extracted, and Bernard convinces a reluctant car driver on the next pump to pop his bonnet. The Triumph is connected to his battery and ‘bang’ it starts but dies whenever the leads are disconnected; no matter how long it runs for.
Sounds of a head being scratched means Bernard now has his teeth into the problem and the 500 mile barrier starts to recede into the distance; but there is always tomorrow as he will not leave a fellow bike rider stranded without, at least, trying to help.
Both bikes are moved a little further away from the pumps and he tests the battery before again linking the Triumph – this time to Bertha. ‘Bang’ it starts and we leave it running for at least 10 minutes before disconnecting. It dies again. The Battery is showing 0.5 volts and even life support would not help it. It has died and gone to battery heaven. No CPR is possible. It’s a ‘goner’.
Bernard suggests they buy a small car battery and rig it up inside the pannier with a set of leads but the petrol station have no batteries and no leads; which surprises Bernard no end! There is little which can be done from this point onwards but wait for the breakdown ‘assistance’ they have called out. It will take up to five hours for them to reach where we sit.
We wish them luck and pull out of the station and head back on the road towards ’90 Mile Straight’ which is precisely what it says – it is the longest straight road in Australia and we stop to take pictures by the sign which declares this fact. There is nothing on this road, absolutely nothing, but scrub land and heat but thankfully the sky has gone overcast which keeps the heat down in the low 30s.
After about 45 miles Bernard asks me if I can smell anything (“A burning smell”) and the bike rocks sideways as he looks downwards at the engine before the brakes come on, the gears change down and I know we are stopping as he tells me the right hand side of the bike is covered in oil. We coast to a stop on the dirt by the road side. The silence hits you as the engine dies.
The whole side of the bike is dripping with hot oil and it has coated the tyre on that side as well. “Bugger” was his exclamation as he sets to work trying to work out where the oil is coming from; eventually finding problems with the gasket on the oil filter housing.
He dips the oil and finds it still registers and so it is not terminal although the housing is in the bottom of the engine and it cannot come off without losing all the oil but it cannot be fixed without taking it off. It’s one of those situations where you go around in circles looking for solutions. We are joined by a biker who stops and ponders with him before suggesting we lay the bike on its left side to try to save the oil; while dismantling the housing. He stays with us for a little while before setting off to inform the people at the last petrol station we have broken down (where Greg and Diane are sitting waiting with their dead Triumph).
The tools are spread out in the dust as both panniers are taken off to be strategically positioned to lay the bike on rather than laying it totally flat. Cars and trucks fly past kicking up clouds of dust as we wait for everything to cool down before removing the exhausts to get at the offending gasket.
A large chrome road train goes past with an empty trailer and it starts to decelerate, going down the road and then turning around to park behind us. So it is we meet Glen who pops down from the heights of his cab to ask:
We explain and he ponders if the bike could be lifted onto the empty trailer before the option is discounted as too heavy.
“Do you have anything I could drop the oil into so I can fix the gasket?” Bernard asks hopefully.
“Have an oil container in the truck” he grins and comes back with the plastic container. The top is cut off with a pair of scissors I have in my wash bag and soon the engine oil is dropped. Problem one solved.
“Anything else you need?” Glen asks.
“Some cardboard to make a new gasket” came the reply.
“Gotta coco pops box in the cab, had it for months and have never opened them, will that do?”.
He strides back to the cab and returns with the cardboard carton of breakfast cereal which is soon six inches smaller as the scissors go to work again.
Glen settles himself onto a beer crate as I sit on one of the panniers and he talks of Australia as Bernard traces out a new gasket sitting in the dust before cutting carefully around the shape.
“Is it hard being alone so much?” I ask and he laughs saying:
“It’s good to meet people and break up the day – I thought it would just be another boring day. Then I saw you and here we are!”
As we talk trucks and cars fly last as the Nepal engine plate is taken off and consigned to the bush as it has proved to be cumbersome getting it on and off – Bernard can’t get at the drain plugs and the leaking housing with it in place.
Soon everything is back together again, the oil goes back in and Bertha fires up while Bernard watches the suspect joint – now resplendent in a new gasket and copious amounts of red gasket cement (another thing he always carries and has done for years since riding Norton Commandos and Triumph Bonneville’s, both, he says, with a tendency to leak oil).
The engine ticks over with the heat sealing the joint while the back tyre is cleaned with handfuls of baby wipes before dry dust is rubbed into the tyre to absorb any residues of the slippery substance.
Glen returns from his cab with three cold cans of coke and it is only at this point does he realise the woman he has been talking to for two hours cannot see.
Bernard guides my hand to the offered tin as Glen’s face (described to me later) falls when he understands. His eyes fill up and his face goes red under the strength of his emotions and he is lost for words. Bernard steps in and covers his discomfort. He talks about the repairs while thanking Glen who had, by this time, sat with us for nearly three hours in the heat of the day; for spending his time with us to make sure we were cared for and not left alone. Once everything is packed away on the bike Glen climbed into his cab telling us he will follow us for a distance to make sure we are ok before leaving.
We set off down the 90 mile straight (now the 45 mile straight) with the big chrome truck filling our wing-mirrors as the miles pass and Bernard tilts the bike to check the repair which holds fast (all the way to Adelaide in the end where he eventually replaced the gasket with a new one – while keeping the ‘Nullabor version’ as a memento). With one last honk Glen waved as we pulled into a toilet stop and then he was gone. At times like this we came to understand that never has it been truer to say that: The interruptions are the journey. It really is all about the people you meet; such as Glen. It is not about the distance you cover each day or the country you are in. It is not even about the motorcycle strange as it may seem although Bertha acts as a distinctive ‘calling card’ or a magnet for people; it draws them to us. Sometimes Bertha reflects their own dreams as they stare back at themselves in the dust covered paintwork listening to the ping of the cooling engine. The journey is, and will always be, about people.
It’s late in the afternoon when we reach Caiguna after our time with Glen and it would be dark before we reach the next possible motel. We call it a day and pull into the service station, book a room, and listen as the familiar sound of Triumph exhausts cutting through the air. Greg and Diane sit down with us and tell us of being given a bike battery and of no money changing hands for it; knowing we had broken down ‘just up the road’ as the motorcyclist stopped to tell them as they sat waiting. A bottle of red wine lands on the table and we talk of our separate journeys and of the kindness of people; them with the battery and unknown car driver and we with Glen our Road Train ‘truckie’ and our coco-pops gasket.
We retire to our room hours later and drift off to sleep hoping for a better day tomorrow although, to be honest and despite everything, it really was a very special day in many ways.It is a day we will never forget by the simple act of kindness from a stranger in a truck who became ‘Glen’.
We leave early the next morning as we are supposed to be in Adelaide tomorrow to meet Bernard’s uncle Patrick but we will not make it now as we still have over a 1000 miles to go.
He last saw his uncle Pat at his mother’s funeral in Ireland in 2006. All of Bernard’s family are Irish and he is the only one with an English accent would you believe! He had promised Pat (as everybody calls him) at the family home in County Laois we would call in and spend time with him before moving on across Australia to Sydney. He is eager to arrive and meet the whole network of family whom he has not seen since he was a child.
The day is full of straight roads, road trains, warnings of kangaroos, Camels (yes camels) and flying doctor airstrips. It reminds us so much of the 1960s TV programme “The Flying Doctor” that the day is spent in hours of conversation talking about our childhood memories as the miles pass with the occasional stop for ‘click, click, inhale’ while Bernard stretches his legs. He nervously examines his gasket, at every stop, for any signs of leakage but finds none. We pull in for petrol and the clock on the wall says 45 minutes later than both our watches with a sign above it saying “Yes, this is the right time!” We laugh as Bernard is tempted to go over and ask “Is that the right time?” but it probably has been done so many times before, he resists the temptation.
So we find out we have crossed another time zone from West to South Australia after 422 miles of tedious straightness. We call an end to the day as, once again, the next stop is to far away to reach before nightfall when the landscape becomes full of ‘marauding’ kangaroos!
Pulling into a small garage with cabins for rent where the sign says ‘NO Vacancies’, one of them becomes ‘magically’ free when the owner comes out and talks to us, realising we will not throw a TV out of the window and he uses the sign as a ‘filtering’ mechanism. We eat at the Garage as an enormous grey and white Irish Wolf-Hound bounds over to say ‘HELLO’ and ‘fuss me'; where the waitress complains she has not been paid for several weeks while Bernard, hours later, ends up with food poisoning from the ‘safe’ fish and chips he orders. The next morning arrives and he is worn out and sore from vomiting; he drifts in and out of sleep all day before starting to feel better in the evening. In fact, by then, he thinks a beer might do him good and so I know we can move on tomorrow!
The next day we settle back onto the bike to cover the 589 miles to Adelaide, passing through Quarantine Borders where Customs officers check to make sure you are not carrying anything illegal and then say ‘Nice one, no worries’ when we declare we have nothing; while cars are emptied by the side of the road for searching.
After hours and hours of straight roads Bernard gets so excited at coming to the first corner in days he nearly overshoots it, missing the bend to send us straight off the road! About 20 Aborigines are waiting to cross at the corner and Bernard tells me how their faces light up in genuine Nepal-like smiles as they wave at us. We slowly turn the corner while they stand watching and we both wave back in greeting before leaving them to cross in peace.
The traffic gets heavier as we turn North towards Port Augusta with Bertha’s exhaust note turning into a cross between a World War Two Meshersmitt fighter plane coming into land and a Harley-Davidson (but somewhat quieter than the Harley). Bernard is convinced everybody in Australia can hear us coming and, although she sounds considerably noisier, compared to some of the deafening sounds of the local Harley-Davidsons we sound like a sewing machine! You can hear some of the Harleys miles away and we both wonder how anybody could stand the noise for hours on end. The riders must suffer from terminal deafness riding such a de-exhausted bike (even with ear plugs!)
His uncle’s house is too far for one day as, at 384 miles, Bernard has to give up as his stomach is too sore from the vomiting and riding; getting cramps again and having eaten nothing all day. We pull over for the night, finding the left hand exhaust has blown. We just shake our heads at what this means in terms of time, parts, or whether it can be fixed or needs to be replaced.
We stand in the motel reception being asked what we would like for breakfast after pulling in noisily (what juice, what cereal) as I query “What time is breakfast” without realising the woman is putting items into a small shopping basket as we respond; to take to our room. So it was breakfast is whatever time you want it! We laugh as we put everything the fridge back in the room.
We walk down from the motel and clump into a restaurant still in our dust covered bike gear, sitting amongst all the ‘reserved’ signs on the tables. Bernard watches as waitresses put bottles of cold water on the tables where they warm up while the seats remain empty long past the reservation time. He jokes with the waitresses if the people complain about the water being warm she should tell them “Try being on time” but she does not think she can do that. He offers to do it for her but she laughs and declines his helpfulness.
When our meals arrive they would feed a small town in India. Huge plates crammed to overflowing and one meal would have been enough for the two of us. The TV in the corner is full of the Bush Fires in the South and West, Floods in the North and Obesity on the rise in Australia; causing real problems for the Health care system with the related disorders. We can understand how the news concerning obesity would be true as we find space for less than half the meal before giving up.
With the final day towards Adelaide and only 200 miles to cover we stay in bed later before setting out in the heavier traffic which now seems constant. After days and days of the empty roads across the Nullabor it all seems so busy, so noisy, so congested. Streams of motorbikes pass the other way and we realise it is Sunday and they are out for the universal ‘Sunday Ride’. They wave as we pass, making their way towards their destination of, probably, somewhere to eat and drink, where they will talk about bikes and everything around them; like bikers all over the world.
A final petrol stop sees us sitting in the shade munching on lunch with ice-cold drinks. People do a double-take when they pass Bertha and see all the stickers covering the boxes denoting the countries she has ridden. They wander over to where we are sat (do we stand out that much?) and talk for a while wishing us ‘Good Luck’ as two loud exhausted Harley’s pull in ridden by two bearded, cut-off denim wearing riders sporting German WW2 helmets. They climb off nonchalantly, light cigarettes, and then try not to look at Bertha and the people surrounding her. Bernard cannot resist driving slowly past them when we leave, waving, while we wonder if they belong to what the Australians call “The Bikie Gangs”? The Australian Government is having problems with the gangs as they seem to run the drugs industry and, to all extensive purposes, they are painted as criminal gangs who happen to ride bikes; rather than being ‘bikers’ as we understand the term to mean. The problem is that ‘everyday’ bike clubs are going to get caught up by the, proposed, legislation which would outlaw membership of ‘Bike Clubs’ and, under which, the various Bikie Gangs operate.
The outskirts of Adelaide sees layer and layers of traffic lights appearing with annoying frequency and we stop, start, stop, start every few hundred metres. After months and months of ‘open’ roads it takes us forever to get anywhere! At the lights people lean out of their car windows beside us calling “Good on ya” and “Good Day Sport” as they take in the dust covered Bertha who generates images in their head of far-flung places.
We pass through junctions and flyovers constantly and it all seems so busy as we make our way towards the South of the city and ‘Happy Valley’ where Bernard’s uncle is expecting us. Soon Pat’s car is sitting at the side of the main road, lights flashing in hello, as we ride towards him for the car to lead the way over the final miles. So it is we arrive to be greeted by a whole branch of the family who sprung from one of the five brothers of the small Irish town of Bagenalstown (Muine Bheag in Gaelic). Only two of the brothers are still alive (Bernard’s father and Pat) and he has lived in Australia for forty years. As he speaks his accent changes from Irish to Australian and everywhere in between within the same sentence; he is a lovely man who I liked instantly when I met him previously.
We hug Pat on his drive and are greeted in only the way people’s of Irish heritage will understand as we settle into his home and spend the evening catching up. Over the following days we get to meet all the ‘distant’ relatives who now live just down the road instead of ‘on the other side of the world; his cousins Paul and Jacquie along with the younger generation of Sarah and Katie, the respective daughter’s of Jacquie and her sister Tracy (who lives on the Gold Coast on the east of the country). Paul himself always reminded Bernard’s mother of Grizzly Adams from the TV series of many years ago as he is so huge and wears a long beard; definitely somebody you would want on ‘your’ side as Bernard points out!
Even the local ‘bottle bank’ (Alcohol store / Off-license) is a drive-in. You pull up, wind down your window, order your beer, pop your bonnet, pay the attendant who even puts it in your boot to save you getting out. It is the land where everything is recycled while four litre cars fill up with ‘gas’ for half the cost of England and everybody goes mad about how much it is; where 18 year olds can drive the same huge cars as long as they display a ‘P’ plate. It’s a land of contradictions. In some ways it makes sense. The land is so vast a big car would be needed. A lot of people we speak to, however, also point out many Australians have never been out of their own state and they use their four-by-fours for driving around the city – much like the same curious habit in England; particularly in London.
The streets are deserted as we walk to and from the local centre learning the area; the library where we catch up on the internet and the shops where we buy bits and pieces. We even manage to find the hairdressers where a little Tender Loving Care (TLC) is lavished on my bedraggled head – which feels like a crow’s nest as the days have progressed since Nepal. I get to stroke my first Kangaroo in a shopping centre where they are selling raffle tickets for rescued Kangaroos. Eight month old ones wrapped up in blankets like babies with their gorgeous coat and big ears.
The shops are full of people saying “How’s you day been?” and Bernard, eventually, when asked the question early one morning responds:
“The day has only just started and so it is a bit hard yet to comment on it”. He is met by a blank, uncomprehending look at his response; as if they do not know how to respond to such an answer. Perhaps he should have just said “Fine thanks, and how are you?” Then again, his response was typical really when he notes such things; going against the grain is, perhaps, the politest description of how he responds.
Water is on everybody’s lips as the Australian Bush fires rage and people die in the infernos which are on the news constantly. ‘Black Saturday’ (7th February 2009) where 208 people died with donations and collections springing up everywhere to rebuild shattered lives; where houses and whole world’s are lost, engulfed in flames with nothing, every treasured photograph, every childhood item gone forever leaving only memories. The collections had started as we crossed the Nullabor with signs on garages and motels saying “Are you heading for Victoria? Can you carry supplies and donations?”
The whole country mobilises to assist Victoria while Darwin drowns in water and the same end-result occurs as Queensland submerges and crocodiles swim in the streets; people lose everything in the same way but, thankfully, retain their lives to rebuild. Perhaps fire, or the fear of burning, triggers something more ‘primordial’ in our responses that water can never reach?
At the same time the radio stations are full of the debate about water shortages and droughts and of how people need to install rain-water tanks in their homes; which everybody had ripped out years ago but are now thinking of having installed once again rather than watching what little falls from the sky swilling down the drains. The talk is endless of the ‘dying Murray River’ which feeds Australia.
As we settle in we are contacted by Guide Dogs of South Australia who have picked up we are in town from their connections in Perth and we are invited to visit their offices where a live interview on ABC Radio is arranged. The next morning we struggle out of the bed at 6am for the 7.30 broadcast from the side of Bertha – who was being worked on by the time the programme went out on air. Even Pat was up and about as he did not want to miss the event!
Subsequently people who heard the broadcast ask if we carried any weapons for defence while in countries such as Pakistan to which Bernard answers “Just a big smile” before going on to describe the sticker in our windshield which states:
“What you see depends mainly on what you look for”.
So, to us, we saw people going about their everyday lives trying to make a living, looking after their families, children growing up with parents wanting them to have more than they themselves did. Just like people all over the world.
Over the following days after the interview we hunt for exhausts and discover it will take three weeks to get replacements in Australia while we ring England and they arrive nine days later. During the wait Bernard decides to go over everything before we head for Sydney and then South America. He finds a ‘pulled’ crankcase stud on the right hand cylinder and I can hear the disappointment in his voice as he describes a complete dismantle of the side of the engine. We find a local engineer (called Dr Bolt would you believe) who comes to the house and installs a new thread in the engine after it is all in pieces. The re-assembling starts and, on a Friday afternoon, an ominous metallic crack leaves Bernard in silence; breaking an oil ring on the piston. Phone calls reveal we have to wait until Tuesday for new ones to arrive from Sydney. He fumes in the meantime and disappears into Pat’s shed to make a wooden tool to hold the piston tightly for the next time he re-assembles the cylinder.
Days later the rings arrive, and after hours of carefully putting it all back together again, the new thread promptly leaks oil through it which mean it all has to all come apart again.
We are fed up and no-one more so than Bernard as Bertha is starting to go wrong in more and more severe ways and he has spent hours crouched beside the bike; he admits his knees are feeling their age! All the time Pat watches patiently as his drive becomes a work shop, engine parts everywhere until, eventually, Bernard manages to seal the whole thing into oil-tightness and she is pronounced ‘fit’ for the next leg of the journey. The drive starts to reappear from under all the tools and sheets of cardboard (put down to protect the surface from any oil).
As we filled our time, in between working on the bike, we managed to keep a promise we made to the eye surgeon who operated on both my eyes before leaving England.
When I had eye surgery shortly before departing (and then been pronounced ‘fit to travel’) it was a feature on BBC Radio Fours ‘In-Touch’ programme; the importance of regular eye tests for such things as glaucoma. The fact people may be blind should not stop them from having their pressures checked. In many ways, being unable to see makes the checking of eye pressures even more important as you do not get any of the ‘warning signals’ (which are all visual in nature); so it is that the internal pressures build and become so severe the physical structure of the eye itself is threatened. This is something most blind people do not know as we discovered there is a gap in the literature about events such as this.
We had promised we would have the pressures monitored when we reached Australia and so we wandered into a local opticians where the receptionist is, initially, a little puzzled by a blind woman wanting an eye test. It all becomes clear as we explain to the kind optician the nature of the test I needed; revealing internal pressures of 18 and 19 and so everything is fine and it is one less worry on our minds for the next leg of the journey.
With Bertha now in one piece, we visit the Adelaide hills with Pat where we had a lovely day wandering around Mount Lofty before going into the Cleland Wildlife park where I got up close and personal with a three year old Koala named Peter. Peter munches contentedly on Eucalyptus leaves while awake for the five (or so) hours he is not sleeping everyday. We stand in line for a child-like experience in a queue of adults; with not a single child in sight. Before long my arms are around him feeling his really soft fur and his very long sharp claws around my neck. He was so cuddly and gorgeous I did not want to let him go. As my picture is taken I can hear all the people going “Ahhhhhh” as he wrapped himself around me and I stroked his fur gently (avoiding his ears as they are so sensitive).
I feed ducks who are mad for the 3 dollars of purchased grain held within my hand as their beaks draw blood several times. I wonder if they are some type of Meat Eating Aussie duck we have not heard about. Bernard laughs as the blood drips from my savaged fingers (nearly) as he asks me to feed them several times (“until I get the right picture”) but I think he is just enjoying my pain until eventually I tell him no more! Kangaroos snuffle around me as I sit on the ground and Ostriches wander around the park freely.
We end up back in the park shop where Bernard falls in love with a hat and I convince him to buy it (which was surprisingly hard). He tries to make me believe he looks a little like Crocodile Dundee (whatever he looks like) as he parts with the money. The girl behind the counter stifles laughter; which means he doesn’t.
All too soon, and sadly, it is time to leave the Australian side of Bernard’s family and we are very subdued as we pack the bike, having several cups of coffee while talking to Pat in order to delay leaving.
We have 740 miles to cover getting to the overland motorcycle meeting in Victoria and in the end we force ourselves to move as time is getting on and, eventually, we climb on the bike at 11am – two hours later than planned. We embrace Pat in a quiet emotional leaving before setting off for the long ride to fulfil one of Bernard’s dreams (attending an ‘Over Lander’s Meeting’ while on the road himself).
The ride is very quiet as we both reflect on leaving Adelaide and it is a long time before we settle down and our mood lifts. We have to travel slowly to allow the new rings to settle in and today 80kph is our top speed. Tomorrow we will up it to 90kph until 500 miles are covered. Cars blast past us all day at 100+ and we think we should have put a ‘Running In’ sign on the back of the bike! As always Bernard tilts the bike as we ride along checking for any signs of problems with the latest repairs but soon it is obvious everything is running fine – although the new exhaust sound is a little throatier than the previous ones but they soon become ‘normal’ as I get used to them.
We arrive at Mildura and stop for the night earlier than planned as we cross another time zone, losing another half-hour as the clocks go forward. The small motel staff we stop at are very aware as they put the knives and implements down on the table describing where they are to me. The meal is delivered while Bernard is outside and the lady even asks if I would like her to tell me where, on the plate, the various contents of the meal are located. I thank her as she lets me know everything and it is so helpful to have this simple assistance without even asking; it makes all the difference. We retire to our room where we watch bad TV programmes until we fall asleep.
The Malaysian rain has followed us the next morning as the heavens open and we sit and ponder the torrential rain, waiting for it to finish; while the manager thanks us profusely for bringing the English weather and tells us it hasn’t rained here for four months (just our luck really). Australia is baking in the sun as the water runs down the roads where we sit and wait for it to pass. We give up after half-an-hour, done our waterproofs, and splash our way through the exit. It feels strange having the sound of rain bouncing off our helmets and feeling it hitting you as riding along. The whole world sounds different as we ‘sploosh’ through the wet roads with the bike slowing down as the running water grabs the tyres; the water turns to steam which can be tasted and smelled as it dries on the hot engine and exhausts.
The rain continues for most of the day as we make our way East. It stops and starts. The sun comes out warming us and then disappears as the heavens open leaving us too hot in our waterproofs but with too much rain to take them off. We steam inside the suits as we steadily make progress. We stop after a few hours, divesting ourselves of the rain suits, climb back on the bike and 10 minutes later the heavens open drowning us. So the journey continued, we steam as the sun dries us before we get soaked again but while we feel wet it is not uncomfortable as the sun and warm breeze dry us after each, short, downpour.
We drive the Sturt Highway towards a town called Albury and our destination of Mitta Mitta; a small place south of Albury and just past Tallangata. On one stretch the whole road has been dug up leaving only red mud left to drive on due to the torrential rains of the day. The bike fishtails alarmingly for several hundred yards and it seems inevitable we will come off as we slither and slide down the road while trucks going the other way covering everything in the sticky redness of the surface. We don’t come off and we both heave a sigh of relief as we stop to stretch our legs and (according to Bernard) we look like we have been immersed in a bath of the red mud while sitting on Bertha (who looks no better).
Soon we are in the twists and turns of the side roads towards Mitta Mitta and we swoop through bends very much unlike anything we have experienced in Australia so far. The bike tilts and drops into corners the likes of which we have not felt for a very long time. Bernard’s happiness comes through the intercom as he lines the bike up for corners, drops a gear, and then drives through leaning over before setting up for the next corner and the whole process is repeated. Soon we arrive outside the Laural Hotel in Mitta Mitta where the meeting is to held and bikes are already outside. They continue to pull in as we sit eating and watching through the windows as Bernard describes each new arrival to me, the bike, the riding gear, the luggage set-up.
We had booked (while we were in Malaysia) a cabin at a local caravan park but we find they have cancelled out all of the reservations of the bike meeting claiming a mix-up; we think not. Happily the organiser Dave has been to work and found us a caravan in grounds of a lovely lady (Margaret, 79 years young) and we unpack and settle at the bottom of her garden. We turn in early as the meetings, presentations, and all aspects do not start until tomorrow and fall asleep to the quiet.
It is four o’clock in the morning when we realise the caravan backs onto a house with chickens and, you’ve guessed it, cockerels who announce it is time to get up. Bernard shuffles around the caravan looking for his ear plugs and manages to bounce into every piece of furniture in the unfamiliar environment. He hears me laughing from under the covers and mumbles:
“What’s so funny?”
“You” I reply
“You don’t do the darkness thing too well do you!”
He mutters something about me having much more practice before settling back under the sheets only to be woken three hours later by The Hound of the Baskervilles – who lives at the same house of our – still crowing – cockerels. The dog starts howling 10 seconds after a car pulls out the drive – presumably the owners leaving for work – and it continues howling for the next one-and-a-half hours. We give up and get dressed.
The day is spent talking to bikers from all over Australia, about trips, bikes, equipment, and everything concerning being on the road. People come and go from where we are sat on the grass with the tents set up at the rear of the small pub and all around the sounds of exhausts signal the arrival of bikes. There is a constant change of people in the conversation but following the arrivals and departures is relatively easy as Bernard lets me know of the coming and going as people drift in and out of the conversation. This was to be our first encounter with ‘AL’ as he became known and we were to spend several days in his company turning out to be ‘one of those people’ like who, Ian in Nepal, you ‘take to’.
As we sat and talked, with the ‘stubby’ pile getting larger around the site, Al asks many questions about blindness in an easy going way – with no discomfort, no hesitations about the ‘right’ wording’. Conversations like this are always good when I come across them; they seems so ‘refreshing’ after the constrictions of England. Sometimes ‘political correctness’ stifles conversations with somebody who is interested but is frightened of saying ‘the wrong thing’ or asking ‘the wrong’ question – if there ever is such a thing about blindness.
He turns out he was a deep sea diver and it is interesting to hear him talk about the comparisons to the blackness of the ocean and trying to orientate and work in that darkness – something blind people do throughout their lives. He compared the skills of blind people in this way, thinking we would make excellent deep sea divers as the skills of orientation and ‘self-perception’ with no visual clues are so highly developed in many people.
You never know, perhaps there is a career opportunity for blind people which has never been thought of before? Could you imagine the application form with the question “Do you have any disabilities?” to which the answer could be written “Well actually yes, I’m blind, but then again, I believe you can’t see a thing at the bottom of the ocean anyway so it won’t be a problem will it?”
Little ‘postie’ bikes start to appear. They are used by the Postal services of Australia to deliver mail and have developed their own ‘cult’ following as people re-bore the 110cc engines to larger capacities, fit bigger fuel tanks and then go ‘walk-about’ around Australia. It appeals to Bernard’s nature as he looks from the gleaming GS1200 BMWs parked everywhere to the little, overloaded, luggaged red bikes. He spends ages talking to one of the ‘postie’ bike riders about the challenges they undertake through the outback. Given half-a-chance I know he would be on one of the challenges riding one of these little red bikes.
We walk back to Margaret’s house to find another motorcycle parked up and so we meet Bonnie from Sydney who has travelled for her first meeting on the longest ride she has done; Bernard describes ‘ The Gleam of the Faithful’ as he calls the look in her eyes as, over the days, she throws herself into learning about what it takes, and means, to ride around the world on a motorcycle. She has turned up alone, knows nobody, and so for Bernard she is already half-way there; as this is one of the biggest features of what it means to ride around the world.
During the evening presentations on the equipment people have used, the roads they have ridden, and the people they have met Bernard spends a long time talking to an American, Scott, about navigation through Mongolia; a landscape which has few roads but many tracks, about petrol availability, about camping and about self-sufficiency. I can imagine the ‘gleam’ in Bernard’s own eyes as he talked, and later watched the presentation of Scott. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if at some future date……..
The next day 80 bikes set off for the photo shoot up to Dartmouth (the largest dam in Australia and currently only 20% full due to the chronic water shortages).
The air is full of testosterone – Mitta Mitta is buckling under the weight of it as people charge up the road. We putter off following a small postie bike until we hit the hills and then Bernard’s testosterone kicks in with avengence and Bertha launches herself forward. The air becomes filled with sounds of metal scraping as he fires a – still loaded – Bertha into corners; catching a large group of 1200 cc BMWs before he settles back down and follows them to the dam at a, slightly, reduced speed. Despite signs everywhere saying “No Parking” all the bikes are lined up on the dam itself while people walk up and down looking at bikes, talking about this and that on the way. Bertha is photographed to death as she is the oldest bike there and, as far as we know, has travelled the furthest to get to the meeting; some people even want the two of us in the shot as well!
We talk to people about shipping, breakdowns, carnets and living on the road, about countries and people, as we sit on the dam wall taking in where we are. After a while, and all the cameras have done their job, people drift off in small groups, bikes fire up and disappear down the hill before we too head back towards Mitta Mitta. A single bike behind us (who turned out to be Al) on a trip not full of the frantic cornering and metal scraping of the climb up!
A motorcycle accessory manufacturer has turned up complete with large trailer for the weekend and by the time we get back they are open for business. Bernard heads for them as he is looking for two items (a waterproof tank bag and a small waterproof bag – both ours leak) but they have neither of these things and so he retires – sulking – to the pub before returning to look at all the things they do have for sale.
He asks the female attendant “How much?” in an incredulous voice.
“Ahh but” she goes on “You can run your bike over it as it is made from Titanium”.
“Why would I want to run my bike over it?” he asks mischievously leading her on. She cannot answer.
“I bought a mug in Nepal for two dollars, good mug as well, stainless steel. If I ran over that I could buy another 58!” She cannot deal with him at all and admits they are mostly sold to ‘the cafe racers of Sydney’ who consider it to be a ‘must-have’ accessory – according to her. Sounds to me like a draw at this point and he seems mollified at her answer.
The heavens opened in another deluge as people scamper back to the pub yards away from the stand before the “Secret women’s business” meeting starts. All men are barred from the meeting although Bernard did try to convince all the women he would be needed; that he would sit quietly; we would not know he was there; he would fetch and carry drinks from the bar. None of which worked and he was propelled out the door.
“Secret women’s business” is actually an aboriginal term and, much like here, it means NO MEN. He limped away after my cane left a bruise on his leg in ‘Goodbye’, ‘be gone’ and ‘get lost’. I could hear him harrumphing as he shut the door with a final ‘women’ which left us all laughing.
Bernard had told me the meeting would probably focus on the unique (at times) difficulties women face travelling through the world on a motorcycle; he was convinced it would focus on personal safety, bodging and fixing, ‘feminine’ matters and all such things. It turned out to be on the same things as the men talk about, shipping bikes, riding distances and the use of Skype to stay in touch with people. It was difficult at times to keep track of what was being said as the heavy rain on the roof, and the large table we were sat at, made conversation difficult; much like it always is for blind people in a larger gathering. We split in smaller groups as conversations went off on tangents with people close by and this was easier to engage in and I shared my observations and experiences of the journey so far.
The evening consisted of an enormous lightening flashes as storms raged off in the distance as we sit in the hall for several presentations by people who have crossed China, Bolivia and all such exotic places.
The next day the tents start to disappear as bikes are loaded and people set off for home.
It is Sunday and many have to be back at work on Monday. We sit talking to Al and his friend Mick (who both have serious hangovers) and who woke the whole site up at 4am as they fell over tents, weaving their way back to sleeping bags. Mick has ridden in five Paris-Dakar’s and has turned up with only a tent and a sleeping bag strapped on his bike “It’s enough” he commented, looking around the campsite laughing at the mountain of gear on show.
Bernard asks him why he did not give a talk about what it means to ride the ultimate bike challenge. He is nicely understated and dismissive as, like many others who have done so much, he was happy to sit quietly listening to everybody else. He could have told people so much about riding techniques that Bernard thinks it is a shame he didn’t but, in many ways, they are somewhat similar; understated about what they have done and so he understands. We say farewell to Bonnie at the same time, swopping phone numbers so we can meet up in Sydney where we will be a few days later. Several hours pass and eventually Al’s tent sits alone in the corner and we spend the evening in the pub talking about the weekend and all the people we have met.
We wander over to the single semi-dismantled tent the next morning and it seems we are travelling in the same direction and Al seems genuinely pleased when Bernard asks him if he would like to stick with us on the road for a while. It will be nice to have some company for a little while although both Al and Bernard usually ride alone and have done for years but an affinity is struck between these two loners.
We set off towards the ‘Alpine Way’ and the ‘Snowy Mountains’ with Al taking station behind us, swooping through the mountains and it is like being back in Montenegro or the Alps as the road twists and turns in ever tighter corners; so much so you feel you could reach down and touch the floor as you career around them.
The engine howls as we descend the steepness and I can hear the constant gear changes, feeling the engine slow us down with the little ‘tipping’ of Bertha’s nose which indicates the front brake being used. The smell of garlic pervades the air and is so pungent it makes your eyes water; brought alive as it has been by the recent rain. The rain has released a thousand smells from the forests which cover this area as we go on a roller-coaster ride the like of which we cannot recall for so long. We climb the 1565 metres heights to where the road markings change to yellow due to the snow and gaze at the sights with Bernard describing the ski-lifts and lodges, of the shops with signs declaring “Snow Board Hire” or “Snow Chains for Sale”; so unlike anything we would expect in our naivety about the vastness of this land.
We stop for the evening in two cabins where ours has an army of ants which march merrily through the door frame, across the work surface, down the fridge and then disappear somewhere into the darkness behind the humming unit. Al is still suffering from the ‘massive bender’ he and Mick went on and he retires sipping coffee dug from our panniers as we walk into town to buy biscuits and coffee to re-stock. On our return we sit talking about his time in Mogadishu during the American operation of ‘Restore Hope’ (or as the Somali people called it ‘The Invasion’); of the ‘wet kitchens’ set up by a local woman around the city to distribute food in an effort to stop it being stolen by the War Lords from a central distribution point.
Al then tells us of how many of the bikers at the weekend felt ‘humbled’ by the two of us and the way we deal with each other. Of people talking of the dust covered 20 year old bike sitting amongst the ‘bling, bling’ of new machines with all the latest accessories; of our ‘homely’ or ‘lived in’ dashboard which only needs a set of net curtains on it to add the finishing touches; it is truly our home now.
The next morning it is time to say goodbye to Al as we are heading one way and he another. We embrace and Bernard tells me he gets that ‘misty’ look men get and, after a hug, he is gone. We pull out of the site waving to one of those special people whose lives we briefly cross while we travel on the road. Of a stranger who became a friend.
Over the preceding days before we arrived in Mitta Mitta, Vision Australia have picked up the story off the newswire and after several phone calls they invite us to come visit them in Sydney. The miles are eaten as we make steady progress at 100kph (as Bertha is now ‘run in’ and the piston rings will be ‘bedded in’ according to Bernard) and soon we are only 40 km from Sydney. We stop for the night at ‘Liverpool’. It seems strange, halfway around the world, that we should pull into a town called Liverpool where it all started in many ways – it is where I met Bernard and where he is based in his work at Liverpool Community College.
Our first attempt at a hotel involves twice the cost (advertised) of the one across the road and we leave with the words “Ask to see the room” in our ears from the receptionist. Dodging the busy traffic we enter under a sign which says ‘Half-day price of 65 dollars’ which leave us puzzled but nothing more. Mohammed from Hyderabad in India is genuinely pleased we know his home town and he is happy for us to look at the rooms. They smell of stale beer and cigarettes and the walls are decorated with holes where fists have left their mark. The beds are circular and the landings are full of laundry at 4.30 in the afternoon while girls on the floor above look down. “It’s another Kosovo isn’t it?” he mutters and I have to agree based on what he describes. Mohammed does not even attempt to negotiate as we leave. He knows we know. We cross the road and stump up the cost of somewhere we understand. “What is it about you and brothels?” I ask him later, while laughing.
We park the bike under our veranda and Bernard expertly throws wash and clothes bags into my open arms shouting ‘incoming’ as I try to catch them; thank goodness he does not throw the helmets! We eat a lovely meal while talking about the fact that, in a week, we should be in South America.
Vision Australia have arranged for newspapers and the media to be at their offices and we pull up at 12.30 the next day as arranged. The afternoon is spent being expertly shepherded by the Press Officer of Vision (Megan) who ‘gongs’ out the reporters after their allotted time. We ride the bike up and down endlessly as photographers take pictures; we lie on the grass next door with Bertha in the background as click- clicks fill the air; amused and curious on-lookers pass by, stop, and watch for a while before wandering off. We answer questions we have been asked all across the journey and the answers come as if they are the first time we have ever been asked them.
The afternoon is spent engaging with staff and clients in a seminar room for the “about 15 minutes” talk and one-and-a-half hours later people are still asking questions as the business day came to an end.
One of the staff at Vision (Pauline) has kindly offered to give us accommodation and we followed her to her home, meeting her sister (Vicky) and neighbours over the coming days as we arranged a change of tyres for the final leg up through South America. The tyres would cover another 2000 kms or so but we are not sure where we would get them and so we chant ‘safety first’ as we have them replaced (our third set so far).
We hook up with Bonnie again and she has started planning her own journey so fired up is she after the meeting in Mitta Mitta. She has entered the ‘phase one’ stage where the ‘planning book’ has been bought and lists of lists are developing in the same way of all people who dream and then start to plan. We talk for hours of equipment and all the things we have learned; what we needed, what we did not, what we sent home in parcels to our friend Linda as they were never used. She takes us to the local bike shops where they both drool over machines while we, again, try to find a waterproof tank bag in an antiseptic showroom so unlike anything in countries such as Nepal and Malaysia.
Bernard asked if he also got a new petrol tank with the tank-bag for the 465$ price tag when the parts counter eventually tracked one down “you cannot really want $465 …… just for the tank bag?” The salesman is confused by the directness of the question and so Bernard changes tact, asking “Does it come with a free bike jacket?”
I can imagine the salesman deciding he is dealing with somebody ‘different’ in the end and he apologises but does not think he could do this “Could you go and check with the manager if you can?” was Bernard’s final tongue in cheek comment before we decide to continue to buy plastic bags to protect our belongings from the rain. It becomes obvious Australia and bikes are out of our financial league without a wealthy backer! In the end we kept Mr Visa firmly nailed in our pocket as Bernard drooled increasingly as we wandered around the immaculate showroom where oil never drips. We watch through the windows as a crowd of people gather around bedraggled Bertha out in the car park amongst the new bikes and, weeks later, we find pictures of her parked there on the internet.
All throughout our time in Sydney emails continue to arrive from all over the world and Biscuit, my Guide dog, has even learned to type – clever things Guide Dogs although I’m sure she had some help – or had her nails trimmed!
She keeps me in touch with her training of her foster-parents Sandra and Ian and she even invites us to visit their son who lives in Sydney – and whose grandson’s wellies she ate before she became a very grown up Guide Dog. I think she is somewhat embarrassed at this memory nowadays but, then again, she was young and youngsters do many things they regret when they are older as do we all, dogs or humans.
So we set off to the North towards Balmoral Beach – getting lost, and then lost again – before swinging our legs off the bike in the heat of the day beside the sandy beach where people bake in the sun. Bernard tells me, in many ways, it is the picture-postcard image of Australia as wind-surfers land on the beach while scantily clad golden bodies cavort in the white wash of the waves. As we walk through the park area the world is full of excited children and the hullaballoo of people enjoying their Sunday and the day off school or work.
We find Rick and his two children (Ralf and Alice) building sandcastles on the beach in the way of people for as far as they eye can see. Rick tells us of his life in Australia where he has lived for many years and how ‘the lifestyle’ is everything he wants as we sit on the hot sand under the bright, piercingly, blue sky. It seems strange to us that, through Biscuit’ here we are sat on the Beach meeting someone on the other side of the world whom we had never met before. We eat Ice-Creams and talk for a while before bidding farewell to Rick, Ralf and Alice whose morning on the beach is over and we ride back to Pauline’s to sit and talk in the afternoon shade of her garden.
The long process of tracking down a shipping company begins and, eventually, we booked Bertha onto a flight with Qantas departing Sunday 29th and arrange our own tickets accordingly through a local travel agent just up the road from Pauline’s house. We book return tickets for the flight as, ridiculously, it is far, far, cheaper than a single to Santiago and we are to fly with Aerolineas Argentinas while Bertha departs with Australia’s National Airline. It will mean our time in Santiago will be limited as we will arrive at the same time as Bertha and we should clear the city in about two days so saving time (and money). Both are now becoming shorter in supply.
When Pauline’s neighbour (Gary, who works in the import/export world) finds out of our itinerary he makes contact with Qantas along with the Argentine airway; eventually Aerolineas very kindly upgraded us into Business class for the very long haul from New Zealand to Buenos Aires. It turned out to be a three plane trip from Australia taking over 20 hours in total. We were extremely grateful for this upgrade which was beyond our budget and special thanks to them for the assistance!
The long trail of paperwork is completed for our departure over several days with trips to offices all over the airport and beyond. We spent a lovely hour with staff at an office where we get the Dangerous Goods Certificate which allows Bertha to fly. They completed the certificate, then waved all the associated costs – a special thanks to Tony Williams for this act of kindness.
While in Sydney we also took the opportunity to climb the Harbour Bridge in between all logistical arrangements for shipping ourselves and the bike to South America. Again, the Harbour bridge waved all costs when they found out – through Vision Australia – the purpose of our journey and why we were in town. The staff at both Vision and the Harbour Bridge were fantastic in making all the arrangements and I had a wonderful day; nothing was too much trouble and the guide on the climb (Shamus) was so nice. He, in the end, gave Bernard the day off and guided me himself, describing and giving the history of the bridge while Bernard walks behind us. We nearly did not make the climb, however, as Bertha broke down an hour before the allotted time and we walked the final distance to the bridge after leaving her not far away – for Bernard to contemplate later on.
Standing at the very pinnacle of the bridge after the long climb Shamus asks me what I sense and how it feels. I had to admit it felt ‘Eerie’. It was the only word which would come in description. The sound of the wind high up, the silence, while below us lanes and lanes of traffic cross and re-cross this busy thoroughfare beneath us.
A sea-plane flies close by us and Shamus tells us all to wave and if we are lucky, the plane will waggle its wings. We are lucky. As we stood at the top three storms are moving in and the order comes; we have to evacuate the heights as lightening is flashing off to the west and the weather is constantly monitored. We are lucky. Again. We made it to the top before the order came and we begin our downward route involving the 1437 steps of the widest and most load baring bridge in the world. As we make our way down the stairs we will have, no doubt, the consequences in our legs for days afterwards (and it turned out to be true).
After completing the climb I contacted the Radio station who had pre-arranged an interview with us and we have to tell them we cannot get there in time. Sadly we cancel the interview as Bernard searches for the fault which stops Bertha charging her battery (again – like in Malaysia). I offer to do the interview ‘in the heat of battle’ so to speak on a mobile but the station do not think the sound quality will be good enough as Bernard spreads out his spanners in the gathering gloom. Bertha is, again, dismantled before he gets her going with the help of a taxi driver whose battery power we borrow and she fires up. We carefully set off in the same way as he had towards Kuala Kangsar to conserve the voltage.
On getting back to Pauline’s in the south of the city he spends several hours with a head torch on in the dark before being joined by Pauline’s nephew (Jules) who holds second torches, passing spanners, while Bernard patiently answers his questions. He even holds an umbrella over my companion as the rain starts to fall while he lies on the floor looking for the elusive fault. He replaces diode boards and regulators in the dark muttering “Next time a new bike” and his frustration is obvious as he talks of the increasing number of times he has to lie on floors recently fixing Bertha. At mid-night we fall into bed with our legs stiffening from the bridge climb. We keep our fingers crossed for the morning when we will start her; successfully as it turns out with the fault cured – until the next one so it seems to us at the moment! The feeling in our legs is quite another matter however, evidenced by the loud groan by my companion as he swings them out of bed, but slowly!
Bertha is driven to the Qantas freight terminal showing 13.5 volts to be met by staff who are so helpful and interested in everything we have done – she even, somehow, loses weight, shedding 40kg (or 360 dollars!) from the time we drive in to the time she is pushed into the warehouse! Magic and the land of opportunity combine. We leave everything with the bike as we are all timed to land together and really we need only overnight items. Unlike in Istanbul, Kathmandu and Kuala Lumpur we buy no case to give away once we land but pack minimally into two small hand luggage bags.
Bernard has his ‘precious’ Carnet returned to him by a really nice customs officer who turns up to examine the bike with the greeting “I think it is amazing what the two of you are doing. Well done.” He completes the Import / Export Carnet and hands it to Bernard who has been stressing since he had to deposit it in the Custom’s building several days ago. The officer laughs at the obvious relief when he has it back in his hands. “You do all get very protective of your carnets don’t you!” as he shakes our hands and wishes us the best of luck before striding off.
Bertha is duly covered in Dangerous Goods stickers and the only thing she is missing is an armed guard with a sign saying “This bike is truly dangerous, it can injure you health, keep clear.” Bertha disappears into the inner sanctum of Qantasville not to be seen for quite some time (so it turned out) after the usual formalities are finished (tyre pressure reduced, petrol drained and battery disconnected).
We jump a taxi back to Pauline’s for our evening visit to The Sydney Opera house. It was our small way of repaying both her and her sister for their extended kindness as we stayed with them. They gave us a roof over our heads, meals, and even ran us around as we organised the next leap of countries. We were even invited to Vicky’s birthday bash at a local Vietnamese restaurant where I chased food I cannot even name around the plate (at least I had a knife and fork). We could not thank them enough really for everything they had done for us but an evening out at one of the World’s landmarks was the least we could do.
When we arrived at the opera house Bernard struggles to find a good description of the building; words like Armadillo, sea shells standing on end and such like are employed. In the end he convinces the reception to open the closed shop, retrieve a model from the shelves, and, when it is in my hand it all comes together. Now I understand and can appreciate what everybody marvels at. It feels like a work of art more than a building in many ways. It must look truly magnificent.
Beethoven is played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in an environment where the rustle of a programme can be heard rows away. The sound of Beethoven is enchanting although music by Bartok was, shall we say, like the sound track for a horror movie; so full of clashing dissonance was it.
Classical lovers will be horrified, perhaps, when I ask if he was having an off-day when he wrote these pieces – perhaps Bartok is one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century but I had nightmares for days afterwards.
The next morning (Sunday 29th) Pauline will not hear of us getting a taxi to the airport clutching our two small bags and Vicky wants to come as well to wave us off. We climb into the car dreading the length of flights involved under cramped conditions, across date lines – gaining a day – and with 15 hour time differences involved at the other end (we actually will arrive four hours after we left – if you can follow that!)
Bernard is as ready as he can be, clutching his packet of Nicorettes to stave off the dreaded withdrawal symptoms due to the ‘barbaric’ (his words) ‘no smoking unless you are on fire’ conditions of all the airports as we move between transfer lounges. He tells me the last time he was 20 hours without a cigarette, he thinks, he was asleep after a long, long, motorcycle ride up through Spain and France! In fact, he goes on, 20 hours is longer than he has ever given up smoking for!
We hug and wave to our two hosts as we set off through the layers and layers of security where my lethal shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste are taken off me as they looked so dangerous. I try to explain the pump action toothpaste makes my life easier (have you ever tried to squeeze a toothpaste tube when you cannot see it!) but it all falls on deaf ears; as does my plea about the shampoo and conditioner which are in matching bottles but have different tops so I know which is which. Stony hearts and regulations win the day as they are consigned to the bin while my white stick is X-Rayed and considered safe. It’s really funny while they relieved me of my hair care items and toothpaste, they left me with a pen knife and cork screw; both of which are in my shoulder bag. Perhaps I’m missing something here about ‘dangerous items?’
We climb on the plane with Bernard already sucking on his Nicorette pipe thing and settle in for the first journey which takes us to Auckland in New Zealand where we change planes for the flight to Buenos Aires in Argentina and then the final change for Santiago in Chile.
As we sit waiting in the lounge at Auckland I hear our names announced over the Public Address system and nudge my dozing partner into motion. It was at this point Aerolineas Argentinas moved us into the business class for the fourteen hour flight after being made aware of our journey by Pauline’s Neighbour Gary.
We sit in plushness on (reclining) seats bigger than many single beds while listening to the TV which folds into each arm rest. Blankets, newspapers, food, and drinks are all delivered to the half-full seats and we wile away the hours, alternating between talking and sleeping as the miles pass 35,000 feet below us. When the staff bring anything to me they describe what they are bringing, even gently guiding my hand to the drinks they distribute onto the – foldaway – tables. We drift in and out of sleep as we cross date lines and time zones. We wake during our ‘night’ with Bernard starting to feel the confusion of jet-lag as his body says ‘night’ but he tells me of the sun streaming in through the windows.
The plane lands at Buenos Aires and we shuffle towards the smallest plane Bernard (or I by the description) have ever flown in commenting “We are going over the Andes in this?”. We climb the steps and he stares enviously at the empty business class seats just in front of where we are sitting. We fly over the landscape with descriptions of the snow covered peaks and of the red coloured mountains which slip into long shadows by the time we – wing waggle – towards the flight path of Santiago airport.
The flight is mercifully short as we are both starting to struggle now. Two hours pass and then touchdown.
Santiago in Chile.
Our 19th Country.
Let the Latino adventure begin.