Goodbyes are hard and so is packing a ridiculous amount of stuff onto a motorbike so that it doesn’t fall off. I felt like I was right back at the beginning again – bike laden down with gear, feeling so heavy and cumbersome that I didn’t know how I was going to ride around the block, let alone to Paris.
Not knowing how to do a thing, however, has never stopped me from trying to do it. So I got on Beastie and rode down Shane’s driveway, onto the motorway, and out of Brisbane. It was 1500km to my next warm bed and I had 1.5 days to do it.
It’s a long boring haul on the main road but I wasn’t in it for the scenic route this time – the objective was simply to get back to Navarra, help Andy install a couple of solar pumps (because I said I would), collect the rest of my gear and get back on the road to Paris.
The shadows were getting long by the time I got to Chinchilla. I fueled up there and chatted to a toothless old bloke about motorbikes and how he’d destroyed his knee in some sort of unfortunate dirtbike situation. He was friendly enough but there was something about his gaze that made me uneasy.
I kept rolling west, looking at my map for free campsites. I could see there was a national park maybe a half hour further down the road, but the sun was already down and the sky turning a mauvy pink by the time I got into Miles. I bought some baked beans for dinner and pulled into the rest stop by the river. There were scores of grey nomads and trucks, and the b-doubles howled past as they downshifted to cross the bridge into town.
Ah well, I thought, doesn’t matter. I just need to sleep then I’ll be gone first thing in the morning. How bad can a 10 hour stop be?
Pretty bad, actually. After a couple of months of not travelling, and not having brought all of my gear on the plane from Longreach, I found myself missing a few essentials, like tea leaves and spare batteries for my headlamp. The rest stop was also stripped of firewood, so I ended up huddling in the dark over a twig fire, freezing my arse off, without even a cup of billy tea to ease my sorrows. At one point, while trying to cook in the dark, I realised that I had cooked my pot scourer with my baked beans. I fished the pot scourer out and boiled the baked beans for a bit longer before I ate them, but I’m still slightly surprised that violent food poisoning did not result. That pot scourer was not exactly clean.
I decided to cut my losses and get some sleep, but did I mention that it was cold? My sleeping bag is rated for 4 degrees Celsius, but it was no match for the cold air that settled in the hollow by the river that night. I tried the ‘wear only underwear in your down sleeping bag’ approach; nope, still freezing. I tried the, ‘put on three layers of merino (including socks)’ approach; nope, still freezing. I contemplated putting my boots back on for warmth; I shivered until maybe midnight when I drifted into a light, unhappy sleep.
At about one a.m. some dickhead drove into the rest stop, right up to my camp, and shone his hi-beams right through my tent. I sat bolt upright and grabbed my vegetable knife. I got up, stuck my head out the tent, ready for war; I saw a white van and some idiot poking around in the cab while his hi-beams roasted my camp.
I may have yelled some really unfriendly words at him. He turned the hi-beams off. I watched while he crawled into the back of the van and apparently went to sleep.
I was ready to cut him up like a capsicum if he came too close.
But it was fine. He didn’t. I went back to my shitty night’s sleep.
As first light broke, I got up and started packing up my miserable camp.
The motorbike was covered in a layer of frost. I poured some water into my tin cup, put it on the footpeg of the bike while I packed up the tent. When I came back to drink it, there was a crust of ice on top.
I spent half an hour layering merino under my Klim gear and doing up every possible fastener to keep out the wind.
The guy in the white van left. The other grey nomads pretended not look at me. There was an old couple with a trailer load of ducks. They let the ducks out to run around the rest stop.
When the sun was up and the kangaroos hopefully napping, I got back on the road.
My fingers were numb in minutes. The windchill was brutal.
There were roadworks. I put the bike in neutral and put my hands over Beastie’s hot exhaust while I waited for the guys to wave me through.
Half an hour down the road I saw a series of signs proclaiming ‘hot coffee’ and my spirits lifted. I found the establishment in question, started peeling off layers, dreaming off coffee. There were people there, in the kitchen. A woman came out. ‘Oh we’re not open’, she said. ‘We don’t open til ten.’
Oh, okay, no worries, I said cheerily, and spent another ten minutes putting all my gear back on, secretly wondering whether false advertising of the availability of coffee should really be a civil or a criminal offence?
I could almost feel my fingers again by Roma, and in Mitchell I stopped for pie and coffee. From then on it was just a case of crunching the kilometres. I ran through to the end of my Spotify playlist and started again.
In Tambo, I bought a coffee and sat in the gutter eating a fancy yoghurt that Shane had brought home for me the night before I left – a moment of uncharacteristic extravagence that brought me real delight that afternoon.
It was there in the gutter that Jim Beck, the local copper, tracked me down. We had a good old chinwag about our respective motorcycling obsessions. The country coppers around this part of the world are good people; Doug in Yaraka, Darren in Boulia, Glen in Jundah. Top blokes all; I’m honoured to consider them my friends.
Before I left, Beastie and I took selfies with Jim; I obligingly stood in the gutter to make him look tall. When I saw the photo on Facebook a couple of days later, though, someone had already commented below: ‘She must be really short – or else she’s standing in the gutter!’ And a very nice gutter it was too…
When I got back on the road, the day was getting away from me. I fueled up in Blackall and headed into the last 180km (?) stretch, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and a warm bed that night. The sun was still strong when I turned West towards towards Emmet, but somehow I find the sun goes down fast out there, over that flat horizon. One minute it’s blazing afternoon, the next minute the day’s stuffed and there’s nothing but a glow from beneath the western horizon.
Sure enough, the sun was down by the time I passed Arbury Station and then I was immersed in a world of greyness and kangaroos. My speed dropped to 35km/h as I picked my way through the wildlife, letting them jump across the road in front of me, around me, behind me. Most of the kangaroos out there are small at the moment – a lot of the bigger ones went in the last drought – but even so, you don’t want to be hitting them on motorbikes.
Why was I riding in the dark again? In hindsight, the answer is because I was too tired to make the series of decisions required in order for me to find an alternative place to sleep. Continuing to my pre-imagined destination was simply a default position, only understandable in light of the previous night’s freezing sleeplessness.
So on I chugged, into the dark, dodging kangaroos in second gear.
There was one kangaroo, quite little, that was just hanging out beside a reflector post on the ride hand side of the road as I rode up. Unlike the others, he didn’t take the available seconds to move as my spotlights lit up the verge. No, he just hung out there until my front wheel was level with him, and then he launched himself into the road, faceplanting in panic. By the time he reached the bike, my front wheel had passed, but my back wheel hadn’t, and he stuck his nose right under it. I felt a dull thump. Oh dear, I thought, but he was up again and gone from the circle of my lights before I could look a second time.
Before I turned onto the dirt road, I messaged Shane to tell him I was still alive, but I didn’t tell him that I’d already made contact with a kangaroo. Time enough for that once I’d actually made it back to Navarra in one piece.
And that I did. In fact, the ride down the dirt road was almost pleasurable. The road had been recently graded and the stars were bright. The kangaroos thinned out with the availability of feed as I crossed Mount Marlow station, and they were alright on Glenloch as well. As usual, there was a mob of wild pigs casually crossing the road where it dips through the bed of the Barcoo River – so familiar that it almost felt like a welcoming party.
Then I was back on Navarra, being licked ecstatically by a little red dog, and Tommo had left out mutton stew for dinner.
* * *
A couple more days’ work, then some farewell drinks with friends: a few whiskies with Tommo, a few whiskies with Doug. (Okay, a lot of whiskies. My lord, the hangover.)
I had plans to be gone but then I let myself be talked into a cocktail party at the local gymkana grounds.
It turned out to be a lovely opportunity to farewell some of the people who’d welcomed mein to the community and made me feel at home. Particular thanks go to the lovely people of Trinidad Station – Wendy and Pete, Margaret, and the ever delightful Claire Jackson (who was shortly afterward crowned Queensland Showgirl for 2017 – congratulations, lovely lady). Wendy, by the by, is a wonderful photographer who stalks the dusty dramas of station work with a camera and a keen eye. If you’re taken by the dramatic visuals of the outback, you should have a look here.
The night of the cocktail party was frosty, so I spent much of the evening festooned in vaguely-warm fairy lights, listening to Jim’s stories from a lifetime in this country. Jim says I am insane, to be riding halfway around the world on my own, but that’s okay with me.