I was just leaving Birdsville when I noticed a new, rough note in the sound of Beastie’s single-cylinder thump. It wasn’t quite a rattle… but it was almost a rattle. It didn’t sounds quite right.
I pulled over by the steaming town bore where networks of white-painted piping cooled the boiling artesian water. The piping reminded me of the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, and also of the West Texas oil refinery before it had blown up.
I listened to the noise again, putting my ear near to Beastie’s engine, and checked for loose bolts. The morning cool was a distant memory as I crouched in my riding gear, sweating buckets in the sun. I turned off the bike, let her sit for five minutes, checked the oil level; she’d used a bit on the road to Birdsville, which was unusual. I topped it up – maybe 100ml – but I couldn’t find anything else amiss. Maybe I was imagining the new noise?
I got back on the road and back into cool airflow. The road to Bedourie was mostly bitumen, with just the odd stretch of rolling gravel over corrugations. After miles and miles of that coming into Birdsville, I was feeling more comfortable with it. I even relaxed enough to listen to a bit of Motorhead; since I couldn’t hear the engine noise over the grinding and pinging of the gravel, I figured I might as well rock out while I could.
I’d been thinking of making it a short day and only going as far as Bedourie, but there was a hot wind blowing when I got into town. It swept the cool out from the shady spots and brought the dust in, setting my nerves on edge.
There didn’t seem to be anywhere to camp except for the caravan park, and that was out of my hobo budget. The fuel at the roadhouse was $1.90 a litre.
I decided to push through to Boulia.
So I got back on the road, shifting up through the gears as I left Bedourie behind and the road smoothed into beautiful rolling bitumen. I came through a valley between looming hills where I watched the roadsides obsessively for suicidal kangaroos and emus, but then the landscape opened out into broad, flat gibber plain.
The gibbers – middle sized rocks, red with ironstone – changed colours according to the angle at which I looked at them. On one side of the road, they appeared red; on the other, almost black under the high afternoon sun.
For a long time, it was just me and the black bitumen and the blue sky.
A hill appeared suddenly, and I rode the snaking bitumen up its flank to a desolate lookout. I could see the plains stretching out endlessly at my feet, the horizon almost visibly curved.
There was a shade shelter on to of the hill, so I sat there for a minute to drink some water, eat some almonds. I had a bit of a headache, which always makes me want to just keep on riding to my destination as quickly as possible. However, in my right mind I know that I need to do exactly the opposite: I need to stop, drink, eat and rest, because the reason I have a headache will be because I’m dehydrated, hungry or tired. Pretty obvious, but surprisingly hard to implement sometimes.
While I was sitting there, two pairs of grey nomads showed up, towing a caravan each. Like the rest of the population of the world, some grey nomads are amazing and fascinating people, and others are just miserable bastards. These fell into the latter category.
The first aged couple got out of their caravan and wandered around, looking pissed off and studiously not making eye contact with me. I said hello, one of them grunted. The other couple seemed no happier, but the man wanted to speak to me. Where are you going? he asked me. I told him. Out here on your own? Yes, I said. What are you going to do when you break down? he said, but it wasn’t really a question. Fix it, I said. Had any big crashes? he asked, looking vulterishly hopeful. No, I said. He seemed disappointed. He shook his head, and wished me ‘good luck’ in a tone that seemed to mean the opposite.
Well that was fun.
I rode back down the hill, leaning the bike over into the corners, mentally apologising to my tyres for the almost total lack of lean angle over the previous 5,000km. There aren’t many corners in the inland, and my tyres were square as books.
In spite of this, they took it well. A few good corners and my headache was gone, my joy returned.
I smashed the next hundred or so kilmotres into Boulia, arriving long before the shadows lengthened too far. The main street was broad enough to feel lonely, and baking under the sun, but the verges in front of the visitors’ centre were a luscious green.
One of the ladies there told me I could free camp in peace by the river if I went out of town, past the race course. I thanked her and went next door to the pub to treat myself to a beer and some admin: I had arrangements to make. My rear tyres looking pretty ordinary, and I wasn’t sure if it would take me all the way to Darwin. I was sure, however, there would be no easy acquiring of tyres once I headed past Mount Isa. That last 1,700km would not be a good time to look down and see steel belts winking back at me in the outback sun.
It was at this point that I took out my little laptop and discovered how it felt about the corrugations on the road to Birdsville.
It hadn’t liked them at all.
I was crestfallen. Sure, it had been the cheapest laptop I could buy, but I had still paid many dollars for it. Could I work around the big black blotch in the screen?
And yet, I was optimistic. I managed to boot up my little computer and bash out an email to the good people at Metzeler, asking them whether and how and when it might be possible to get me my hands on some Enduro 3 Saharas in far western Queensland.
However, by the time I’d finished my email I could see that the screen had deteriorated further. It seems like the layers of components in the lid of the computer were progressively separating; the blackness was spreading like a cancer.
I tried to write a new blog update in the corner of the screen where the text was still visible, but the home menu and task bar had completely disappeared. I used shortcuts and my memory of the menus to back up my recent documents to my portable hard drive, and gave up.
I was back to pen and paper.
I rode out of town, along the Burke River, and found myself a quiet spot.
I needed to track down the source of the worrying rattle sound, and get my hands on a new rear tyre; but that could wait until tomorrow. My fire was bright and my belly full by the time the stars came out.