I’d investigated different routes from Boulia to Mount Isa, and the minor road through Urandangi looked like it might be fun. Local enquiries, however, brought me predictions of bulldust holes ‘big enough to swallow a car’ and more worryingly, reports of fencing wire having been strung across cattle grids at neck height. Apparently some pig shooters were having a dispute with some other pig shooters out that way, and this was the civically-minded way they’d decided to resolve their differences. The local copper cautioned me to slow right right down and look for wires across any gate or grid, and even better, not to take the Urandangi road at all.
I’m not a fan of sticking to the bitumen but I’m even less a fan of decapitation, so I took the main road through Dajarra instead. Now, I had been warned about Dajarra as a place where I might not want to spend the night, while other people had said the opposite: that it’s a great spot to spend the night, nice free camp site with showers across the road from the pub, no worries at all. What nobody mentioned is the beauty of the landscape around there. After long stretches of straight bitumen through flat, open country, Dajarra ushers you into the middle of dramatic red hills.
They loom up and then swallow you, as the road slips sideways through a narrow gap between two hills. I slowed down and rode in quiet awe.
I got into Mount Isa as the midday heat started to sear. It’s not a beautiful town; low concrete buildings and wide, featureless roads cowed under the dry sun. Mining infrastructure looms at the end of the short grid of streets.
On the back of the toilet door, a public health notice informed me that children who eat regular healthy snacks tend to absorb less brain-damaging lead than children who don’t. As if less lead poisoning in children is okay, and as if cutting up carrots and celery at three o’clock in the afternoon is a reasonable way to respond to the contamination of an entire landscape. It made me a little sad.
I found the moto shop that had received my new tyres. Despite expecting me, the owner didn’t seem too pleased to see me. He told me to leave my bike in the back courtyard and he’d let me know when the tyres were fitted.
His attitude gave me pause but I left him to it; I could have gotten out my tyre levers and fitted them myself, but it would have taken me a long time and I didn’t want to have to stay in Mount Isa overnight. I’d been warned against camping there; I’d been told that a lot of people from dry communities in the Northern Territory visit Mount Isa – in Queensland – to get on the grog. Hearsay, yes, but if that was the scene, I didn’t want to be camped in the wrong creekbed at the wrong time.
I was also super, super excited about grocery shopping. Mount Isa has big supermarkets – Coles and Woolworths, full of lots of food and lots of specials. I hadn’t seen big supermarkets since Roma – four weeks and 1,800km ago – and as much as I deplore Australia’s supermarket duopoly, I was hungry. The little outback shops don’t have the mighty supply chains or economies of scale, so your zucchinis are usually shriveled and you pay for every mile of small-scale haulage – if you can afford it. I was down to rolled oats, and Woolworths looked like Wonderland
So while I waited for my tyres to be fitted, I combed the supermarket aisles weighing up how much food I needed to get to Darwin, how much I could reasonably carry. I pounced on the homebrand staples: 67 cents for spaghetti, $3 for half a litre of olive oil, 76 cents for a kilo of rolled oats. They even had crisp Fuji apples; I bought five and ate two immediately, because if you’ve ever tried to transport apples on a motorbike, you’ll understand. (Pineapples, durian, breadfruit are easy enough to strap to a fender, but apples always give me hell.)
On my way out, a familiar sight stopped me in my tracks: Farmers’ Union iced coffee. It’s the best… creamy, delicious, and for me, synonymous with the Northern Territory. It meant that I was getting close to the border; close to the tropical North and close to my gateway to Asia.
After an hour or so in the air-conditioned, food-filled alternate reality that is Woolworths, I received notice that my tyres were ready. Happy days! I hoofed it back across town in my moto boots, dodging from one patch of shade to the next.
When I got there, Beastie had new shoes: shiny new Enduro 3 Saharas from Metzeler. Yeah, baby.
Old mate complained that it had been difficult to get the new tyres on, and gave me a bill for fitment: $100.
I nearly choked on my iced coffee.
For real? For $100 I could have gotten a motel room and a shady verandah overnight, and fitted the damn things myself. I should have. I was annoyed at myself.
I bit my tongue, paid the man, fueled up, and headed for Camooweal. I had a little bit of phone signal, so I called Shane as I left town. I complained about the cost of fitment and the general vibe.
‘Did he balance your wheels?’ asked Shane.
I was confused by the question. ‘Well obviously… how could you fit tyres on this bike and not balance the wheels?’ I asked incredulously. Beastie has great big rimlocks, front and back, which are balanced by big lead weights on the spokes opposite. Failing to balance the wheel properly will peel the knobs off your tyres, as I discovered to my cost – and that of a perfectly good D606 – on my little shakedown run a year earlier. Remember this?
‘I dunno, I’d check,’ said Shane, dubiously.
‘Fine, okay, I will,’ I said.
I was forty or fifty kilometres outside Isa. I pulled over and eyeballed the counter weights. They hadn’t been touched.
I called up Mount Isa Motorcycles.
‘Did you balance my wheels?’ I demanded.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I never balance the wheels when I fit tyres on a dirtbike.’
I saw little flashes of red in the corners of my vision.
‘And is this a dirtbike?’ I asked.
He’d just fitted 80/20 road tyres on a 690 cc dual sport that he knew was headed for the Stuart Highway, where the speed limit alone is 130km/h.
‘Er, no,’ he said.
I was ropeable.
‘I don’t have a wheel balancer,’ he said.
You charge $100 to fit two tyres and you don’t have a wheel balancer? Like, not even a spindle to spin the tyre around on?
‘If you bring it back I can put dynamic balancing beads in the tyres,’ he said.
That would involve removing and refitting both tyres. By the time I rode back to Mount Isa and had the tyres removed and refitted with balancing beads, the sun would be just about to go down. I would be stuck in Mount Isa overnight, without a safe camp.
I fumed by the side of the road for a bit, then eventually made a decision. Fuck it. I would check the wheel balance myself.
In the end, it turned out that the balance was fine. Finally, I could stand back and admire Beastie’s new shoes.
That afternoon I rode through to Camooweal, within spitting distance of the Northern Territory border and not a lot else. I found a camp on the banks of the Georgina River.
That night, my contact lenses were more uncomfortable than usual; scratchy and painful. I’m used to dryness and irritation after I’ve been wearing them all day, but this time they seemed particularly bad. Like I do every evening, I took my contacts out and wore my glasses instead.
Later, as I looked at the bright stars, I noticed a pale smudge across the vision of my right eye. With my left eye, I could see no such smudge: the stars were crisp and contrasting against the immeasurable blackness. Something – more than usual – was wrong with my right eye.
I crawled into my tent and hoped it would be better in the morning; maybe it was just dust, or an insect had irritated my eye. I was in the middle of nowhere, and I needed to wear contacts to ride.