05 August, 2007

On the West Island

Arriving in Australia was pretty easy. I was asked aside for a few extra questions by the Immigration lady who, I quickly realised, just wanted a wee look at the now overly-filled passport. I'll need a new one very soon and this one still has eight more years on it. Lynne and Ailsa were waiting as a familiar welcoming committee in the arrival area and we were soon on our way back to their home.

The bike might arrive in Australia in a couple of days but I was left in little doubt by the officials I spoke to, that I'd be very lucky to see it within a week! It was among a consignment of a few hundred containers. I had the number of the container I needed. If only I could have found a sympathetic forklift driver . . . but I couldn't get past the office-working bureaucrats. This was highly disappointing since my niece, Louise, was flying out to join me for a month. The extra delay would heavily cut into her time. How to fill it?

Louise flew in the next day and, as with many 17 year olds, I almost didn't recognise her as she'd dyed her hair as a disguise since I last saw her. If she hadn't looked so much like an innocently confused Scotslass coming through the doors, I might never have approached her! Luckily she recognised me and we were able to get her to sneak up behind her Auntie Lynne for a wee scare.

I was initially a little surprised when Louise had said she wanted to come out to spend some time on the back of the bike. Her previous motorcycling experience extended to a quick scoot around Burntisland and then to Aberdour and back on her 16th birthday. Before that, she had consistently protested that they were noisy, dirty, smelly things much to my dismay. This was going to be something quite different for her.

Lynne, Ailsa and Angus accommodated us both very comfortably and took care of our every need. I tried to make myself useful by emptying the guttering around the garden shed, but Lynne's hospitality was incredible. While being the perfect hostess, she attended to every household task expertly. We were hardly able even to offer any help - it was all done before we'd even thought to ask! We were treated like royalty, I suppose, and will remain eternally grateful.

We had seen some sailing on a small lake in the centre of Melbourne and Angus suggested we could spend some time doing that. Lynne lent us her car and off we went. We had a squeal and fun-filled hour tacking up and down the lake trying to keep out of the way of about 40 children racing around in tiny wee dinghies I didn't recognise. Both Angus and Louise had a go on the tiller and Louise was surprised how much she remembered from completing the Beginners' Course at Kinghorn over a year ago.

A friend of mine happened to be visiting Adelaide. When I came here almost 20 years ago, I'd thought Adelaide was my favourite Australian city and I was keen to see it again. Louise needed to start her holidays and see a bit of the country, so we hired a car and drove along the Great Ocean Road. Much in Australia is curiously described as "Great" but the Ocean Road is truly spectacular. It took us a long, long time to make much progress due to the twists and turns towards the South Australian border. Perfect for a motorbike, but a bit frustrating in an automatic car. Sadly I couldn't take any photies because my camera was being mended back in Melbourne.

The great advantage of the car was that Louise and I could talk and catch up and I could get all the news from home. We found Shannon in the centre of Adelaide, almost as arranged, and soon drove southwards to a fine cafe she knew and wanted to return to. It was great to see her again, and have a good blether about Australia and how she'd found it on her visit. It so happened that our opinions on the country were quite similar, although mine was so far based on an older experience. I was much more optimistic for this visit.

We walked along a windswept beach and then took Shannon back to Marc and Jude's the friends with whom she was staying. They were very welcoming and had us in to their house for more blethering and snacks. In the morning we had a long drive along a route Marc had recommended as being fast yet scenic as well. We could get back to Melbourne in a day. Along the way we saw some small kangaroos (they may have been wallabies). We somehow found our way back to Lynne's in the dark.

Lynne said she had been phoned by the shippers that very day to be told the bike had been ready for collection two days ago. We had three days from when it was ready for collection, to pick it up. But two of these days had already been used up. We would have to clear it through Customs and Quarantine in one whirlwind day! I had already paid A$250 for, well, I'm not all that sure but I think it was some sort of office work. I was told I had to pay this but I still have my doubts! Then I'd paid A$85 for the Quarantine inspectors to inspect the bike. Of course, there wasn't any way the bike could possibly have been clean enough (I'd scrubbed it in America) and so it had been cleaned by P&O. It seemed to me that all this had achieved was to wet the bike and put some water into the exposed front wheel bearings. I could still see bits of Sahara and Atacama on some parts. This cost A$120!! For that amount I'd normally have expected a very deep shine.

The Quarantine inspector kindly waived the fee for a re-inspection, but I kind of wish he'd done it so that he could see that it wasn't any cleaner! Lynne helped to rebuild what Laura and I had dismantled in LA. Forklift drivers were helpful too so that far less muscle was needed. Back in Alf's shed, I stripped the bearings out of the front wheel and re-greased them.

Louise, Ailsa and I went for a stroll around the neighbourhood. This seems to be something of a novel, minority activity in Melbourne. There were very few people walking, even near the shops, and nobody at all walking around the suburban streets. We felt we were being looked at from cars with some suspicion. It was a fantastic day, and we couldn't understand why there weren't any children playing in their own gardens, or even in the playgrounds. Ailsa commented that she hadn't seen some of these streets, even though she had grown up there! She did cycle around but hadn't been up any of the roads we went - not all that far from her home. Very interesting wee stroll. In some places there wasn't any pedestrian pavement at all. Most kids in Melbourne, it seems, are driven around from activity to activity in the back seats of their parents' cars. Then their parents spend forever complaining about having to drive the kids around all weekend. It all works out well. Kids get to do stuff, grown ups get to complain - everyone's a winner! But there's a pretty good bus service, they all have bikes, and then there are legs! We two Scots were quite baffled, but the same mad situation is creeping in back home. Childhood is now very much experienced under ever closer adult supervision, something my chums and I would have hated when we were young.

As I'd just got the bike back on the Friday night, Alf appeared to surprise one and all. This was great both for his family and for Louise, since Louise got to see her Uncle Alf, which she wasn't expecting.

Louise was, however, very keen to get on with her promised adventure and so we left the family some time to themselves in order to make what progress we could late on the Sunday afternoon. We didn't get too far but we had at least begun. It was quite cold and so we'd decided to stick to the coast and not cross over the hills of the 'Great' Dividing Range. We hoped things would warm up as we headed north and we weren't disappointed, but it took much longer than we thought. For now, camping was not really an option.

We arrived in Sydney after only a few days and found a campsite where we were able to rent a 'unit', which is like a self-contained caravan, but without any wheels. Sydney was very pretty, apart from the Bridge and Opera House, there were some other real attractions, such as this statue of Queen Victoria that the Australians got from the Irish after they'd almost thrown it out! We did the tourist thing and visited the Aquarium, did a bus tour, and went up a huge tower for the view. Signposts were a bit odd. There seemed to be a tradition of signposting only up until a few streets away from the destination, then you were left to get confused, just a few streets from where you wanted to go. There was a mono rail and some top things to do if you had all the time and money in the world. Up the huge tower, we did an "Aussie tour" which was a virtual reality thing, meaning you get to watch a film while they shake your chair till your vision goes blurred and all your teeth fall out onto your lap.

We blasted up towards Tamworth, having been told the coast would be too crowded. Louise sat patiently as I fixed our first breakdown - this same three pin plug at the front getting moisture in it. I suspect this was what happened in Cartagena, and again in Honduras. A passer-by offered to come to our rescue with a trailer but I thought this unnecessary. However, he very kindly re-appeared anyway just as I was putting it all back together. It got much, much colder but we were convinced we were making better progress. We had determined ourselves to get north and up to the warmth as quickly as possible. At one point we were riding across flat lands when we saw a sign warning we were at 1500m. Very cold indeed. We'd hardly noticed climbing this high up from the sea, and there were few hills to indicate being so high. Along the way we passed through several small towns with curious "attractions". 'Big' things were everywhere, but they didn't make much sense. The Big Pineapple, Guitar, Horse, and several other big things I can't remember. The Big Guitar in Tamworth was to commemorate the Australian home of Country & Western music (they have both kinds), but the others didn't seem to fit into anything much at all. They were just "tourist attractions" without reason.

We by-passed Brisbane and headed straight for Rockhampton on the Sunshine Coast. Then we rested before going to Keppel Island for the day. We could have stayed over on the island but weren't sure exactly how or where to. On a day visit we had a mad triathlon of cycling, snorkelling and canoeing before we had to get the ferry back. Louise was keen to do some horseriding and organised this for us. We enjoyed a fine trek through the bush. Camping that night for the first time, in Emu Park on a beach-side campsite, mainly populated by retired people. Foss and Jean, two retired Kiwis on tour, invited us over to their small camper van for tea and a blether. They liked our idea of all those in New Zealand not of Maori descent, and so not having an iwi (like a clan or tribe?), organising themselves, with Maori support, into a new iwi which could be called the 'K'iwi - get it? Well, they did. We also learned from them that Maori rugby players have a gene which prevents them feeling pain. Doctors in New Zealand know that there are different ways of dealing with people who complain of stomach ache. Some are packed off with an aspirin, others are sent for a blood-test, but the Maori are rushed straight to hospital! We'll never beat the All Blacks!

It was time to head for Darwin so that Louise could get her flight to Melbourne and from there back to Scotland. It would be a long run, but we had an extra day to spare. If anything happened, then Louise could get a flight from somewhere else along the way. That was the plan. (Ugh!! A plan!) There had been another ongoing problem with the electrical system which was intermittent and so hard to trace. But Louise hadn't complained too much on the couple of times she'd had to push the bike! On the second day we were riding through an unpleasant, sulphurous, very pooey, eggy smell. When we stopped for fuel we asked the mechanic there about it. He said it was the grass interacting with the recent rain. He was filling the petrol tank at the time, and the smell was overwhelming. We had also heard about drinking water being drawn from deep underground and bringing sulphur with it. We weren't sure but it certainly ponged!

Later that day, the bike died a very dead death. I had a look at some things, but it wasn't fixable by me. No spark, no power in the battery. We had all the equipment we needed to stay out overnight and so, just before the sun went down, we got the tent up and made ourselves comfortable. A car stopped and the man inside introduced himself as Ian, with relatives in Kinross. He asked if we were okay and I said we were fine but joked that we might be a bit low on toilet paper. He immediately reached into the back seat and produced a fresh roll! He was concerned about the cold (it went down to 5C) and phoned the station (that's a really big farm) owners up the road to let them know we were there. Soon enough, Louise and Matt (relatives near Fort William!) turned up in their ute (that's a pick-up truck) offering accommodation on their station. But we had already sorted ourselves out and were fine so they helped us push the bike a bit further off the road and promised to return in the morning to take us into town! Matt said our biggest threat was a road-train hitting a kangaroo and catapulting it into the tent! The thought was a bit chilling! But the sunset was warming.We settled down for the night surrounded by an entire skyful of stars and a half-moon for light. Perfect! In the morning, we loaded the bike onto Matt's ute and drove into Longreach. Stan, a friend of Ian's, was an excellent electrician who went straight to work on the bike. I helped with the mechanical bit of taking things apart while Louise sunned herself. It soon became clear that the battery had been killed. It was all swollen up and Stan concluded that the regulator (new, improved, singing, dancing, fitted in Chile) had not bothered to regulate so that the battery had been receiving high voltages from the alternator. Luckily I'd kept the old regulator which was fine. I just needed a new battery.

Stan the electrician very kindly lent us his ute to scoot around the town hunting for a battery. I didn't expect anyone to have one in stock but was surprised when the fourth shop we went to said they could get one in the next day. Excellent! But I was lucky I had kept all the old bits. This regulator had cost a fortune, destroying not only itself and the battery, but the 'black box' and several other wee bits. It has also cost the price of Stan's labour as well as a night in an expensive motel. However, we were back on the road next afternoon and rode an extra 100miles. Now we had very little time to spare on the run to Darwin so we decided on 300mile days, hoping to get to Darwin in time at least to have one day's relaxation before Louise had to fly back to Melbourne.

There's very little to attract the attention in Outback Australia and we were grateful for the iPods we had. Louise commented that a sense of humour was useful on this trip and it was just as well she had one. Indeed!
There were huge bush-fires looking like massive distant battles. These fires can't be controlled and are allowed to burn themselves out. We stopped at Katherine to look at their Gorge and took a 20minute ride in a helicopter to save time. My first go in a helicopter and top fun.
Later that same day we rolled into Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. From here I hope to get a boat to Malaysia. If I can't, I'll head round to Perth and fly back to Africa. Sadly, there wasn't any time to spare for Louise and I to relax in Darwin because the only flight available had to be the following night. So Louise's motorcycle adventure came to something of an abrupt end. We had covered 4000miles in three weeks - impressive when you think Louise had only done about 8miles previously. One day we had managed 419miles - a record for this bike with a pillion passenger. Throughout she had brilliantly maintained her sense of humour, and helped me to keep mine! Thanks Louise!

Other things seen along the way . . . some emu . . .

Some motorcyclists . . .
A big thing to avoid . . .

Some fantastic scenery . . .

Somebody falling off a horse . . .