Saturday, 7 April 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 7)

Day Seven


         And so, another day dawned over the vast hinterland of north-eastern Australia.  Kookaburras, those charming sweet-voiced birds of the Queensland bush and billabong, woke me with their trilling.  Their song can only be compared to the nightingale, for its musical range and depth of passion.  Ha!
         I rose – it was still dark of course – with my miner's light wrapped around my head.  Packed my kit, washed and did certain other unmentionables in the ablutions, and then went to breakfast with my pals, Pete and John.
         As usual at breakfast I read the Queensland edition of Lonely Planet and looked up the towns we were going through.  I'm a huge fan of Tony Wheeler's Lonely Planet and have been since its conception.  I bought one of the first copies of Asia on a Shoestring, and travelled the Far East with it back in the days when Tony Wheeler was a struggling entrepreneur and I was a young buck of just 50 years of age.  Since that time he has published only one fiction book with his publishing company, an anthology of science fiction stories entitled Not The Only Planet which featured one of my own stories, the first I ever wrote, called Let's Go To Golgotha.
         Today was Gregory Downs to Normanton.  Burketown was on the way.  I had thought Proa Station was going to be the  most difficult ride.  Wrong.  Today was going to be the ultimate test of my basic biking skills (virtually zero), my stamina (pretty good), my spirit level (reasonably high) and my ability to bounce (which has got worse with age).  However, there was some bitumen at first, and Burketown was an early stop.
         Most of the bikes were behaving very well, with one or two exceptions.  Murray Nettheim's little gem apparently changed gear of its own accord when he hit soft sand.  Pete's bike was running too rich at one point and I think Scotty fixed that for him at a fuel stop.  The engine of another lad's bike cut out at odd times leaving him coasting. 
         Murray's strange gear-changing sounded very frustrating, since he said it often jumped from 4th to 2nd without warning.  Such a sudden change might have the rider somersaulting over the handlebars if he's not ready for it.  Murray suggested that the bike had decided it was an automatic, rather than a semi.  Or maybe the machine had decided it could read the road better than its rider?  Who knows, one day perhaps Steven King will write a horror novel about it and there'll be a movie.
         I always started 21 after breakfast, ran her for a few minutes to warm up her engine, then switched off again.  She started as ever like a dream.  Once I had a bit of trouble, but that was me, having knocked the choke lever on, thus trying to force rich fuel down her throat that she didn't want.  You can't blame a girl for objecting to that.  Another time the tall-guy Irish-Aussie surreptitiously messed with my cut-out switch, so I was left kicking the starter for a while, obviously with no result.  I saw him grinning at me and guessed what he'd done.  All a bit of fun, but it gave me grey hairs for a few minutes.
         Burketown, the first stop, was only 93 kms from Gregory Downs.  Almost 50 bikes hurtled into town and began devouring food and coffee, leaving the locals stunned and lacking provisions for at least two seasons.  I love Australian coffee shops and always enjoyed our brief stops at them.  It's very easy for a Pom to forget he isn't in his own country when everything on the menu is in English. 
         Then again when I'm in Oz or Kiwiland, I miss those strange distortions of the English language one gets on foreign menus.  In Greece once I had 'scrawbled eggs' and in Thailand 'massed potatoes'.  My all time favourite however, comes from Spain, where someone asked a friend for the English equivalent of aguacate (avacado), but what the friend heard was abogado.  What appeared in print on the menu was a wonderful salad consisting of 'tomatoes, lettuce and lawyers', an abogado being a Spanish lawyer.
         Burketown is on the Albert River and has a population of just under 200.  (About the size of my Suffolk village, back in the old United Kingdom).  Burke and Wills, the explorers, went past here on their way to the Gulf of Carpenteria.  This is where I saw another of those wonderful Morning Glory clouds which can reach sometimes to a 1000 kms in length.  Isn't that as long as Britain?  It was great to ride under it, trying to get from one end to the other. 
         Local weather is back to front if you want ideal conditions: hot humid and wet summers, but warm dry winters.  Cyclones are not unknown in the streets of Burketown.
         The area is rich in fossils and this is one of the regions where the giant Doom Duck, which I mentioned earlier, roamed the landscape in prehistoric times. 
         Nowadays it's a large fish that draws the tourists.  The barramundi or 'silver jack', a South East Asia game fish.  It's at home in fresh or salt water.  Its Australian name (I am told) means 'big scaly one' in the language of a tribe that lived near Rockhampton.  These fellahs get to 1.5 metres in length.  An interesting fact about this big fish is that if there’s an imbalance in their numbers - say, 100 girl fish, to only 50 boy fish - 25 of the girl fish will change their sex to even up the numbers.  Real gender benders.  That’s what I’m told.  I believe it to be true.
         The World Barramundi Fishing Championships are conducted out of Burketown.  If you're a good angler you can win $2600 dollars for the heaviest single catch.  Where I come from angling is the most popular sport, but you have to eat all you catch.  I would rather catch a cod than a barramundi. 
         You can also find freshwater crocodiles in the region around Burketown.  These prehistoric throwbacks aren't as hungry or ferocious as their salt water cousins up in the Gulf of Carpenteria and don't normally eat tourists.  I imagine they still have a nasty bite, so be careful when petting them.
         Back on the road again, grinding along.  Some of the riders were fairly hefty blokes, quite wide in the beam.  I often tucked myself behind one of these substantial characters and used them as a windbreak.  What I could never understand was that if they wanted to go fast, they did, and I had a job catching them, even though I was half their size.
         Next stop was the Leichhardt River, by way of Gunpowder Creek and Fiery Creek.  The Leichhardt was named after Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt, explorer and naturalist.   His name sounds a little Germanic to me, but apparently he was a Russian.  After several expeditions in the interior, Leichhardt vanished, as so many do in that wilderness even today.  His body never found but only in 2006 the remains of a shotgun bearing his name was discovered near Sturt Creek in Western Australia.
         After navigating the historic Leichhardt River the postie caravan came to the worst track I have ever seen.  It crossed the bush like a twisted red scar on the villainous face of the Outback.  There was bull dust lurking in every crevice.  On its surface was scattered loose gravel, rocks, sand and worst of all, corrugations.  It had been gouged both ways, long and wide.  There were horizontal ruts that resembled a corrugated iron and lateral ruts that grabbed the wheels and gripped them hard to prevent the rider from steering.  In the first few kilometres many riders bit the dust.  I was one of them.
         I saw Ewan go over and give himself a very nasty crack in the ribs.  Some people in a four-wheeler stopped to help him back on his feet.  A few minutes later I hit thick bull dust on the edge of the track and went over the bars.  On this occasion I wasn't going very fast and was more humbled than hurt.
         I suppose the worst thing about that ride was having my bones shaken for nearly 200 kms.  How the bikes stood the juddering of those corrugations were beyond me, because all I could hear was the rattling of metal on metal.  How the tyres never burst was again a miracle.  I know my body suffered from this hour on hour shaking.  It nearly drove me crazy. 
         At one point I decided not to ride on the track but to go on the edge of the bush, which was a little flatter.  Unfortunately every so often there was a natural ditch coming out of the bush which led right up to the edge of the dust road.  I hit one of these side-on ditches at medium speed and once more flew through the air with the greatest of ease.
         Unhurt again, I climbed back on the saddle and set off along the proper track, saying to hell with my internal organs if they wanted to change places I could do nothing about it.  I had a headache from the constant rattling of my whole frame.  I could see other riders having the same trouble, but the best of them seemed able to glide over the ruts.  It was one of the worst few hours of my life.  I thought it would never end.
         When I had about 60 kms to reach Normanton and despair was at its peak, I decided to try to emulate the good riders.  They were going at a much faster speed than me, so I assumed that speed was the answer, that one could skim over the ruts at a higher velocity.  I picked up my speed, until I was going somewhere between 60 and 70. 
         Of course, the faster you go the less time you have to see danger on the track.  I didn't see the huge lateral rut that trapped my front wheel until I was in it.  The rut had a twist in it at the end which knocked aside my front wheel.  This time I sailed through the air like a bird.  I didn't land like one, though, I came down like a bread pudding.  The track was iron hard.  It knocked all the wind out of me and I gulped on red dust.
         For a few minutes I just lay there in mild shock, looking up at the sky.  I remember seeing little puffy clouds.  I was hurting in several places, so I tested myself bit by bit to see if there were any broken bones.  Arms, legs, neck, back.   It seemed there were no serious breaks.  I got myself up and then dragged my bike to the edge of the road.  A single rider came along, a bloke named Gary, who I always called 'One-R' since my own name has two r's in it.
         'Are you OK?' he asked.  'Any real damage?'
         'No,' I gasped, still winded.  'Just shaken up I think.'
         He helped me off with my jacket to make sure there were no bones poking through the skin.  I had a healthy black bruise developing on my right arm and some lacerations.  Gary put some iodine on the cuts then asked me again.
         'Are you sure you're all right?'
         'I'm fine.  I'll wait for the repair truck.  You go on.  I'll be OK.'
         He rode off, leaving me to inspect my bike.  One of the mirrors had smashed, my speedo had bent over the front wheel and was pointing away from the rider and there were one or two other dints and scratches.  Oh well, I thought, at least I'll get a ride now, from the repair truck.  I won't have that last 60 kms to do over those sodding corrugations.  It was my only consolation for the tumble and my aches and pains.
         The truck arrived not long afterwards.
         It was Dan himself.  'Had a fall?'
         'Yep, I'm afraid I bent the bike a bit.'
         'Let's have a look.'
         I said, 'I must have been doing 70.'
         Dan replied, 'The damage isn't that bad – your handlebars would have been bent.'
         Most writers are prone to hyperboles.  It's our stock in trade.  We exaggerate.  Why spoil a good story with the truth, is what we maintain.  My dear wife is always straightening out the truth for me in front of people.
         'There were at least a hundred of them,' I say, excitedly.
         'Just twenty,' corrects my wife.
         Wives do that to you.  So do motorcycle challenge organisers.  Dan was having none of it.  So I guess I was probably doing less that 70, but how much less I don't know.  All I maintain now is I was doing 70 at some time, but probably at the time of the crash my speed had fallen to less than that figure.  My body felt it was 70, OK?
         He took the broken mirror off, then straightened the speedo before testing it by spinning the wheel.  Within a few minutes he had the bike in shape again.  A horrible feeling was creeping over me.  I really wanted that ride to Normanton, yet I knew I would be a failure if I took one.  No chance of even having the choice though.  Dan saw to that.
         'Right, off you go,' he said, holding the bike so that I could climb back into the saddle.  'See you at Normanton.'
         'Thanks Dan,' I said, choking back something that was stuck in my throat.  'Yeah, see you.'
         Sore in a very many places, I started off again, my teeth rattling, my bones rattling, my liver changing places with my kidneys.  It turned out it wasn't so bad.  I only had 30 kms before the road conditions change to a hard surface.  I cruised into Normanton, missed the sign to the Rodeo grounds (where we were camping for the night) and had to ask two aboriginal young ladies for directions. 
‘What?’ one of them asked.
They obviously didn't understand my English accent.
‘The rodeo grounds?’ I tried again, in an Aussie accent, which I’m pretty good at by the way.
They still looked at me as if I'd flown in from Mars.
I mimed an imitation of riding a bucking horse.
Still no comprehension in their eyes.
‘Rodeo grounds.  Rodeo,’ I cried, desperately.
‘Oh,’ said the older girl, ‘the Rodeo Grounds.’
To my way of thinking she hadn’t said it any different to my mimicking of an Aussie accent.
They both pointed back the way I’d come.
‘Thanks ladies.’
         Once in the camp I was met by Pete.
         'I hear you had a tumble.'
         'Three,' I admitted, 'but only one really counted – the other two were just falling-over-sideways tumbles.'
         'It happens,' he said.  'I had one last year.'
         'Just one?'
         'Hurry up and get your shower, we're going down to the Purple Pub,' he answered.
         Sure enough, everyone gathered at the Purple Pub, a local tavern painted – you guessed it – purple. 
         It was a good evening.  Good food, rugby on the television, several drinks to heal the pain in my limbs and body.  Josie arrived in an ambulance with her foot in a plastic bag, but able to carry on the ride.  Ewan told me how he went over his handlebars after hitting a large polythene water pipe.  That must have been when I saw him take his tumble.  'Not necessarily,' he said, 'I took a bigger one later.'  Others have parted company with their Hondas today.  Victims of combination of corrugations, loose gravel and bull dust.  I don't feel too bad, just a little upset with myself that I had actually contemplated a lift in the ute.  I wanted to do all the stages with my bum on the saddle.
         The best laugh I had that night was when John fell off his chair – I don't think he was even drunk at the time.
         At one point in the day, I can't remember when, we had all crowded round an 8.64 metre salt water croc – not a real one, of course, but a statue – for a photo.  Of course someone had to crawl into its mouth and have just his head and shoulders protruding.  Anyway, this was a crocodile famous for its length, and why shouldn't it be?  Over thirty feet of ravenous beast wouldn't be out of place on King Kong’s island.
         The meal at the Purple Pub was good, but halfway through I went to the bar to get a drink.  One of our guys was telling the barman a long and windy joke.  The barman was leaning on his bar with his eyes glazing over when I asked for a drink.  He turned round to get me one and the guy telling the joke said, ‘Hang on, I’ve got another one for you.  There’s this bloke . . .’
         The barman whipped back round and said, ‘Shit man, I nearly went to sleep during the last one.’
         Nothing so blunt as an Aussie barman.  The joke teller moved away, looking hurt, but at least I didn’t have to wait to get my drink.
Later a local woman sidled up to Pete, saying, ‘You married?’  ‘Yes I am,’ Pete told her.  ‘Oh dear. Well never mind then, have you got a few cents you can spare?’  Pete reached into his pocket and produced a coin.  She took it and went straight to the bar and asked for a drink, whereupon the barman sighed deeply and told her, ‘Look, Alice, you can’t beg for money in here.  You’ll have to leave.’  The woman made a face and went back to Pete and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go to another pub, they won’t serve us in this bloody place.’  Pete of course stayed firmly in his seat, but we had a good laugh at her cheek.


Friday, 30 March 2018

Rookie Biker in the Outback (Day 6)

Day Six

         Someone told me at breakfast that we had actually lost a rider at Emerald.  One of the blokes had damaged his back kick-starting the bike.  It's easily done.  A back can go just bending over and tying a shoelace.  Poor devil, to have to leave the group after not even experiencing the high-flying excitement of going over the bars of his bike.  That must have been a real bummer.  I'd have been spitting bull dust.
         A few of the lads found some skulls the previous day and had mounted them on their bike bars.  These were the pure white headbones of dead rams, with beautiful curling horns, but they looked kind of sinister and cool as trophies on the front of the bikes.  Big, bad riders and small mean-looking bikes.  One rider had found a set of horns – ox by the look of them - and they too made a statement.  The Wild Ones.
         After a massive breakfast that would have fed an army, we gathered around Dan for the daily briefing.  Today was another loooong ride.  459.5 kms.  I was looking forward to the last .5 kms.  I ached a bit from the previous day's battle with the bull dust.  Perhaps it was my inexperience, gripping the bars too tightly, holding my body rigid instead of loosening up and going with the flow?  Anyway, I was not looking forward to leaving Proa.  We still had a few kilometres of dirt road and loose dust before we hit any solid ground.  However, Dan told us the road out of Proa was better than the road in, so I thought to myself, 'Gotta learn to relax when I'm riding.'
         We went out in our usual stream, 46 bikes now, all in a line, until the overtaking started and the wild ones went flying out in front, leaving their dust to be eaten.  The headwinds were ferocious that day, forcing down the speed.  Temperatures on the other hand, had risen, to around 35 degrees centigrade.  There were kites and hawks feasting on kangaroo carcasses every few hundred metres.  A bike passed me, with SQUIRTER written on the rider's back.  And then TRYPOD, who was another Pom like myself.  TRYPOD owned a good expensive camera and took some great photos with it, including some eagles and hawks which I'd specifically requested him to get for me.  My own little camera was fine for most things, but photographing wildlife is an art and science in itself, and requires something more than a point and shoot.
         YOU'VE BEEN PASSED BY ROGER was the next to throw dirt into my face with his back wheel.  I said to Roger afterwards that a more penetrating statement on the back of his coat would have been YOU'VE JUST BEEN ROGERED, but alas they can't all be literary geniuses like moi.  When I was thinking of writing something on my own back, I eventually put MONKEY CATCHER, the idea being 'Softly, softly catchee monkee', in that I would eventually finish the ride, no matter how slowly I went.  In retrospect, I wish I'd put my other choice, which was MARVEST HOON, a spoonerism of HARVEST MOON.  Australian 'hoons' being wild youths who drive bad boy cars at reckless speeds.  However, this convolution seemed to erudite at the time.
         I decided to ride alone again, given that we did have a good stretch of dirt road, and so let John and Pete shoot off.  They were very competent riders, both of them, though John was ever impetuous and was known to leave the road and hurtle into paddocks to say hello to horses and other livestock.  John is a wonderful talker and when he hasn't got anyone to listen, he probably talks to himself and his attention strays.  There is nothing so cheery as John in the morning and he sort of bucks you up from the moment you rise.  Good lad that he is.
         However, our John is also fastidious.  I'm amazed he was never a regular soldier in the army.  I spent 18 years in the RAF and have some excuse for folding my shirts just so, but alongside John I'm a slob.  Pete and I would stand waiting for John in the morning, as that man spent eons taking down his tent, packing his kit, and polishing the grass afterwards.  Tent pegs would be lined up, poles standing to attention, clothes laid out just so.  We all had to cram our gear in the army style kit bag – there was never enough room for tent, air bed, underwear, spare shirts, camping towel, air pump, and all the personal items – so even if stuff went in neatly, it came out looking like a jumble sale at the village hall.
         Pete on the other hand is one of your taciturn Aussies.  He would stand there watching John pack, shaking his head slowly and thoughtfully.  Sometimes he growled.  Sometimes he cast his eyes to heaven.  We all have our foibles.  I probably exasperated the pair of them, but heck, I'm lucky because I'm the one writing the book, and as far as I'm concerned, Kilworth is the perfect buddy to go on a bike ride with. 
         I got a bit of stick from John for not shaving and keeping the standard up – in Leicestershire they wear blazer and tie to the pub – but I did that anyway, later, because the bloody beard threatened to stifle me inside the helmet.  It was one of those nightmarish imaginings, the hair growing and growing and filling the helmet until it finally suffocated the wearer.  So I did shave, and I did wash out my underpants once or twice.
         Underpants!  Now there's an interesting subject for a bike riding challenge.  Pete had warned me to get t-shirts and underpants that would dry quickly.  You can get quick-drying clothes, towels, etc at any good camping shop.  I'd got the towel and t-shirts, but not any underpants.  Pete had also told me to bring boxer shorts, rather than briefs.  I didn't know why and ignored the advice, bringing (it has to be said) mostly boxers, but two pairs of briefs also.  I found out why.
         On a bike you wear so much clobber  you feel like a knight in armour.  Once the stuff's on, you can't reach things like underpants without calling for your squire and having him assist you in de-armouring.  I went out from Proa wearing briefs for the first time.  Within two hours, having crossed the dreaded dust and found blessed tarmac again, I was writhing in agony.  The briefs were cutting into the inside leg of my crotch like cheesewire.  It was excruciating.  I knew if I didn't stop soon I would sever both legs at the joints with the pelvis.
         The motion of the bike – not the velocity but shaking and rattling – judders the rider forward all the time, while on the other hand for some inexplicable reason which has puzzled Greek philosophers from the beginning of time, underpant briefs remain static on the saddle.  Rider shuffles forward, pants stay where they are.  Pants then become a cutting instrument, trying to sever limb from torso.
         I stopped to top up the fuel tank, but was exposed to girl bikers and cars going by every few minutes, so I couldn't strip and get rid of the offending item.  There was no real cover off the highway.  The bushes were pathetic little things that wouldn't have hidden a modest elf.  The arboreal landscape was no better.  The trees were stunted eucalypts – known   affectionately as 'gum trees' in Oz – and acacias – known affectionately as 'wattles'. 
         Aussies, as you probably know, like to smooth awkward words – if they can't add an 'ie' to the end – sunnies, Pommies, etc – they give it a nickname.  This has nothing to do with any lack of intellect.  Aussies are at least as bright as any pommy bastard, most of them coming as they do from the same stock.  It's more to do with liquidity of speech, having the words flow off the tongue.  After all 'sunglasses' is not a word that poets instinctively find easy on the ear.  'Sunnies' is much more fluid.  Americans call them ‘shades’ but they go for drama, rather than smoothness of speech.
         I got back on my bike and rode on.  Within the next hour there were genuine tears in my eyes.  I became convinced that the Gestapo must have made their captives wear briefs, forcing them to ride small motorbikes until they burst into tears and spilled everything they knew about troop movements.
         By lunch time I was desperate.  The fuel stop for the day was a patch of stunted gum trees and wattles.  Bugger, I thought.  Not even an old oil drum to hide my white British bum.  Then I had an idea.  In with my compass and map (insurance against getting lost in the bush, like some tourists and even locals, who get out of their car for a toilet stop and end up lost and walkabouting until they die of thirst) I had a Swiss army knife.  I got this weapon, reached down inside my rider's trousers and pulled up the edge of my briefs. 
         I slashed through one flank of the offending undies, then the other, and with great relief pulled the buggers out and threw them into a waste bin.  Job done.  Then I looked up to see I was being observed, with amusement, by one of the Aussie women riders.  I grinned and shrugged.  She laughed and turned away, and I saw WIND on her back.
         I supposed she rode like the wind.
         Going commando for the rest of the day was like having six birthdays all at once.  I couldn't have been happier.  The relief from pain was tremendous.
         Regarding my map and compass.  These were security blankets.  I'm sure if someone gets lost out there, where there is nothing but empty red space, it's better staying where you are and waiting for help.  As mentioned earlier, in my more anxiety-ridden moments I'd thought about bringing a GPS, but the expense did not justify the purchase.  How much is your life worth, I asked myself before leaving England?  Well, at least the cost of a compass, but a GPS?  Not that much mate.
         Two young bushmen who didn't get lost were Duncan and Donald McIntyre, mere youths at the time, who founded the town of Julie Creek in 1862.  They named the town after their aunt after travelling from the south with 10,000 sheep and twenty-five horses.  It's flat country around Julia Creek, once good cattle and sheep land, but now silver, lead and zinc mining has taken over.  The area boasts a local marsupial which I did not see hair or pouch of, perhaps because it's nocturnal.  It's called the dunnart.  I would have liked to have seen a dunnart, simply because I'd never heard of the creature before passing Julia Creek.  Also around the region somewhere is the Combo Waterhole, the billabong in Waltzing Matilda, but I didn't see that either.  They've had fire, flood and drought in Julia Creek, and I wouldn't want to be there in mid-summer, that's for sure, because the temperatures climb to the forties.xxx
         I caught up with Pete and John at Julia Creek, joining them for coffee at the local cafe.  Pete always likes a double-shot long black which takes the roof off your mouth.  I don't like flat white (a sort of latte) but I like my coffee a bit less system-shocking than double-shot long blacks.  In Spain I usually order an 'Americano with milk on the side', so I can mix my own brew and get the strength to my liking.  I tried to do that in Oz, got into all sorts of muddles, gave up and joined Pete.
         'Did you see the road sign about planes landing?' I asked.
         John said, 'You mean the one that said, ROAD MAY BE USED AS AN EMERGENCY RUNWAY?'
         'That's the beggar.  I kept looking over my shoulder for Jumbo jets.'
         'Hercules,' muttered Pete.  'Not Jumbos.'
         'Well they're big enough to knock me off my bike,' I argued, having flown in many a Charlie 130 in my time in the RAF.  'Hercules aircraft are no microlights.'
         'True.'
         One of the lads, Cam, told us the clutch was slipping on his bike.  My 21 still purred along, or rather screeched along, without a sign of a problem.  I felt very privileged to own her.  I loved her as I love my own children.  It troubled me that at the end of the ride I would have to sell her into slavery.
         After Julia Creek I headed for our destination for the night, which was a pub at Gregory Downs.  I'd been told there was a river there, running past the pub, where we could all have a lark about and a swim.  I'd not done any scallywagging up until then and was looking forward to it.  The Gulf of Savannah seemed like a good place for larking around.  The river at this point was supposed to be quiet tranquil water.  I also thought to look out for the unique and spectacular Livistonia palm tree, but I must have missed it, both going and going out.
         On the way to Gregory Downs we passed thousands upon thousands of termite mounds, like traffic cones covering a vast area.  It was an amazing sight for a Pom, though the locals were not that impressed, having seen as much many times before I suppose.  At a ten-minute stop later on, I spoke with a retired couple driving an RV, or campervan.  There are hundreds of them in Oz where they're known as Grey Nomads.  This pair were heading for the camp at Gregory.  I was feeling frivolous and pretended I didn't know about the mounds.
         'All these grave markers,' I said, 'there must have been quite a massacre here at some time.'
         The man frowned.  'Termites,' he said.
         'No,' said I, 'that can't be.  Termites are little creatures, like ants.  You wouldn't have big grave markers like that for termites.'
         He closed one eye and I think he would have thumped me if I hadn't got on my bike and shot off down the road.
         On the subject of termite mounds, we had a lass with us, Josie from the Sunshine Coast I believe.  A schoolteacher. Josie decided to ride by one of the mounds and kick it, presumably to watch it disintegrate into dust particles.  There were two big guys who watched out for others a lot of the time – I believe they too gained helper caps - but they failed to keep Josie out of trouble on this occasion.  Josie found that termite mounds are as hard as concrete and she broke some toes.  One more for the doctor at the next available clinic.
         Gregory Downs pub was pretty good.  There was vegetation down by the Gregory River.  There were birds and signs of other wildlife.  I liked the place.  I tried to reach Annette again, but still no signal on my mobile.  Pete's mobile worked fine, but it seemed that Annette's phone was still not in a state to receive the call.  I knew she would be upset by this, but there was little I could do.
         Since I wasn't going to use the bike again that day I decided to fill out my Running Sheet for the following morning.  This was a horrible mental exercise for someone like me.  I've never been great at arithmatic.  In fact I'm crap.  I'd got it wrong once or twice and had to use the rubber and start again.  It was agony having to do it once, let alone twice over, so I furrowed my brow in concentration and used a piece of scrap paper to write down my calculations.
         Gregory Downs to Normanton, past Burketown and over the Leichhardt River.  My speedo read 38, 136 kms at this point in the journey.  I added 93 kms to this figure which was the first stretch in the morning, making 38, 229 kms.  When my speedo registered that figure I would have to Right turn to BURKETOWN according to my sheet.  The next stretch was 119 kms, which again I added to the original 38,136 kms (not to the running total 38,229 as I had done once at the beginning of the ride, an exercise which would eventually result in a journey to the moon and back) making 38,255 before I had to right turn right again, to Normanton.  Then the next stop, 190 kms further on, was the Leichhardt River, an historic crossing point, where we would refuel.
         And so on, a whole sheet of figures which I taped to the bars of my bike each day.  When I wanted to read this sheet, which was extremely difficult since with my glasses on my eyesight is remarkably poor at a distance of two feet, I would have to hold the shuddering, flapping sheet still with my left hand, squint down, glance up at the road, squint down, glance up, squint down, glance up – this series going on long enough for me to eventually read where I'm supposed to be going without leaving the road and hurtling into the bush. 
         Only twice on the whole ride did I take the wrong turning and somehow I instinctively knew I'd gone wrong, backtracked, waited for one of the others to come along.  When I saw a red bike and had made sure it wasn't the local postie trying to fool me, I then took the same direction.  Only twice, which I felt wasn't bad for a stranger in a strange land, and a rookie biker at that.
         At the end of the day we would have done 341.9 kms and would hopefully be in the rodeo grounds of Normanton.  Always the last 50 kms of the day were difficult for me, and I believe for others.  I had to force my eyes to stay open.  My bones and muscles ached with the juddering.  My brain was full of bees.  The bike engine seemed to get noisier and noisier, the mind and spirit got tired, and all I wanted to do was get to the end of the road.  Some of the riders wore ear plugs and some carried ipods to drown out the grinding bike engine with pleasant music.  If I'd thought to bring music of some kind I'd have gone for good Aussie folk. 
         Pete had introduced me to the Bushwackers, whose single favourite of mine is Limejuice Tub.  The Bushwackers, now defunct, sing a great mix of Irish, English and plain old Aussie folk songs.  If not the Bushwackers,  then Midnight Oil, my favourite cd of theirs being Diesel and Dust.  How appropriate would that be?