Wizard in Oz
Australia's a fairly big place. Actually, that's not merely British understatement... that's raging inaccuracy. Australia's simply bloody enormous: almost 2500 miles from east to west and pretty much the same from top to bottom, going from most the northerly to the most southerly point. To put it in perspective, mainland Britain is less than 400 miles at its widest (St David's in South Wales to Lowestoft in East Anglia). Coast-to-coast across the USA is also about 2500 miles, if you take the most direct route. I didn't, and it took me 50 days...
So how on earth am I going to cover Australia in the time left to me? Especially as my bike isn't here? Well, I start by picking up another hire bike. I get the cheapest I can find - which turns out to be a 12-year-old Honda VFR800. It's definitely seen better days - the tank and bodywork are different colours, the fairing's held on with mis-matched fasteners and the bars have hideous red-anodised bar-ends (scuffed where it's gone down). I dub it Bruce - not just because it's an Australian bike but also because I'm picking it up from Hornsby in northern Sydney. It's a swine of a place to get to from my brother's house in Manly, so it's past 11am before Bruce and I hit the road.
The ride out of Sydney is surprisingly great. There's a bit of of urban and suburban stuff to deal with, but I also get to go through the Galston Gorge - another of Sydney's many semi-wild park areas. The road is fantastic, dropping into the Berowra Valley in a series of tight hairpins shaded by gum trees. It all feels very exotic. Better still it turns out that Bruce the hire bike is alright: throttle is accurate enough, brakes work well, the Pirelli Angel GTs are fairly new and grip well. I think we're going to get along just fine.
I flow through a mix of semi-rural and suburban roads to reach Windsor, picking up a local biking favourite: the Putty Road. It's superbly twisty... but I'm sticking in fourth and creeping along at the 100kph speed limit. Which feels like a waste. I stop for fuel and a bite to eat, when a tidy old Ducati SS stops. "Nice bike - did you restore it yourself?" I ask the rider. "It's not restored. It's original. I bought it new in 1984," he tells me.
I ask the question that's been occupying most of my attention for several days: just how hot are the cops on speeding, really? "Sometimes you won't see any... sometimes they're lying in wait, one after the other," he says. "I've just come down here at 120-130kph and often you can get away with it, though I did hear of one bloke was done at 113kph." I nod: perhaps I don't need to be quite so paranoid, after all. Just keep my eyes peeled and ride sensibly. "But stick to the 80s or 90s: there's no leeway there..."
I press on, really enjoying the Putty Road now I'm using a bit more of Bruce's Honda V4. All too soon, though, I'm on the A15 towards Tamworth – the country music capital of Australia. There land is flatter, dustier, with hundreds of dead kangaroos lining the roadside – in places there's one every 100m or so, in various states of decomposition. The fresher ones are huge: imagine a spring-loaded mouse the size of a big Labrador. I don't want one of those jumping out on me...
I break my journey in the one-horse town of Manilla and make an early start next morning. It's bright but cold: the air-temp on Bruce's dash shows just 13°. After a slightly challenging hour, I get to Bingara and stop to fill up the bike... and me, getting a fry-up in the wonderfully restored Roxy Theatre's Art Deco cafe.
I haven't stopped in this town by chance: my family comes from here. After the war my grandfather brought his British bride to the sheep station just outside of town. His grandfather had been the local senator (and deputy premier of New South Wales, in his day). There's supposed to be stuff about the family in the town museum, but it's closed. Instead I go to the pub... for a second coffee and a look around, as I half-remember my mother mentioning it. Did another ancestor build it, maybe?
I don't stay too long, though: I'm heading to Brisbane and there's still a long way to go. The riding reminds me a lot of America: long straights feeding into sections of pleasant corners. The landscape, though, is subtly unlike anywhere else I've been - which perhaps is down to the gum trees framing otherwise familiar, dusty views in a way that is uniquely Australian.
I would have posted this update from Brizzy, but a sat nav SNAFU has me doing a magical mystery tour of Brisbane city centre. The irony of getting lost only when switching the nav on to find the hotel isn't one I find terribly funny while I'm battling the rush-hour commuters – especially as the light is fading fast and I realise I've left my clear visor in Sydney. By the time I get to the hotel, I have to take a super-fast shower then rush out to catch up with Rich, an old friend who left London at the same time as me, 15 years ago: I moved to Lincolnshire; he moved to South Africa and now here.
Next day, I swing past Rich's house to say hi to the family then head into the hills. Common sense says I should be heading straight back to Sydney... it's a long way, after all. But where's the fun in that? Instead I head inland again, riding roads Rich recommended: Clear Mountain and over Mount Glorious. It's mid-week but the cafe halfway up is still busy with bikers. I ride all the way through the rain forest to Lake Wivenhoe, then turn round to ride back over Mount Glorious again and over Mount Nebo. It is a spectacular ride – these are superbly twisty roads. I wish I had more time to spend exploring the roads here, but it's past lunchtime and I have a long way to go... Australia is a very large place, after all.
All that time spent enjoying myself comes back to bite me in the afternoon, as I have to abandon any thought of riding the quieter roads through the Gold Coast and just sit on the southbound motorway. Even with a more flexible approach to the heady 110kph limit, it's not enough to make up time and I'm really regretting leaving the clear visor in Sydney. I do the last hour to South West Rocks (it's a town, not a Cornish boast) with the black visor of my Shark Race-R Pro raised, killing giant moths with my stupid face. That'll teach me... But it's worth it, as next morning I get to have a gentle wander around the town. It's very much like an English seaside resort, but without the penny arcades and kiss-me-quick-tat. Plus the beach is immaculate and the sea is clear. Though the road surface is patched and bumpy like the worst of our neglected coastal byways. See: it's not perfect here, after all...
I carry on south, just killing miles now. When my stomach starts to rumble I spot a sign for a bakery boasting of "The best pies on the coast" and, as I turn off to investigate, I see a sign for the National Motorcycle Museum. It's too good an opportunity to miss, as I'm here. I pay my $15 and explore the huge collection.
I'd say there are more bikes here than in Barber, but the facility's not in the same league. Bikes are packed in tight and you really have to search through. There aren't many race bikes but there are lots of old British bikes, plenty of Hondas and Yamahas and a good smattering from everyone else, including some really fine curiosities (Suzuki's rotary-engined RE5 and one of only 1153 Suzuki XN85 Turbos). There are also some absolute horrors – my favourite being a hideous Chang Jiang KNUJ (if you squint, it was perhaps meant to be an R80 clone). The museum's tag reveals that this one was brought in to see if the model would get approval for import to Australia... but "when the intended importer opened the crate and saw the 'quality' he broke down and cried".
Sadly, I have to get Bruce the hire bike back to Hornsby so don't have time to do the museum justice. I'm sure there are more gems tucked away within it. I do stop at the baker for a pie, which is really good. But I also have a sausage roll... and I know why they don't put posters up about them: it's so bad I don't even finish it. I hurry back to Sydney having enjoyed my ride... but I'm itching to do more.