06 September, 2007

Darwinian Daze 32,813miles

With Louise safely away on the plane, I went to find some cheaper accommodation in a hostel in town. Then I began seeking a way to get myself and the bike to Asia. At Darwin Sailing Club a friendly barmaid went cheerfully off to ask about whether anyone was going that way and returned in a less friendly state, looking as if she'd been given a big telling off. In a more subdued voice she said that I should look at the notice-board but if I wanted to put up a note of my own then it would cost me A$10 per week. I got the impression that the mood of this club wasn’t reflected in its fantastic views out to the western sea. There was an advert on the notice board asking for crew on a boat going to Malaysia. I e-mailed the skipper, one Captain William Turner, and we arranged that I should phone his mobile.

William turned out to be an affable Scot whose boat, "Quickstep" was registered in Dundee. He had lived for long enough among the British military to have picked up that curiously unplaceable accent many Scots develop there. Originally from Newport on Tay, we found we were fellow Fifers as well. His accent lessened greatly whenever he spoke directly to me and we got along very well from the start.William taking a breather from the cosy snugness of the bilges. I didn't think I had as much experience as he might have liked but he was impressed with a story I told him of how Nick, Ewen and I crossed the Forth in a dinghy in heavy weather last summer to attend a "Pirate Battle" off Fisherrow on the Lothian side. The daftness of this seemed to appeal to his sense of silliness and he knew the Forth could be a difficult place to sail. The weather in an estuary like the Forth is unpredictably changeable. And then again someone else might still turn up to help us. William was also very keen to help out a fellow Scot. He said he'd think about how to get the bike on board, but that I'd best find out what the story would be if I had to ship it separately.

Perkins Shipping in Darwin were helpful and efficient so I had all the information I needed that same afternoon. William had offered accommodation on his boat, saving me piles of cash on noisy, unpleasant backpacker hostels. It also meant I’d be around to help him out, give him lifts into town on the bike, and for us generally to get to know each other a bit better before taking on the deep, deep, dark ocean. Some intersting 'debates' ensued as we gradually discovered one another's political leanings.

I moved onto the boat the next day, choosing to sleep on my blow-up mattress (green) above decks rather than attempt the airless oven that passed for the downstairs cabin area. This meant I was woken early by the morning sun, but at least that I could breathe during the night.

There were several different curious characters on the marina in this round-the-world yachtie group. Many were couples but there were the odd few who were sailing alone, or with friends and sometimes crew whenever they could find them. William had been sailing around for seven years. During this time he had had several breaks, leaving his yacht at various ports while flying off for months at a time. A certain amount of mild insanity seems necessary for this game. They get to know each other well after meeting at all the usual bottlenecks. Sailing is as much affected by the seasons as anything else and sailors appear at the same places, at the same times of year ready to do similar trips.

While riding around Darwin one day, a tall pedestrian approached to ask where I'd come from. He said he'd come on a bike from England through Asia and was waiting for it to clear Australian customs. We arranged to meet later for a blether.

Jim, a London-based Manchunian TV producer (he's worked on 'The Bill'), was riding his Triumph Tiger (a new, 955cc one) RTW. He was the first RTWer I'd met, although I was the third he'd encountered. He had as much (or as little!) equipment as me. No GPS, no Satphone, no Blueberry (Blackberry?) just him and the bike and some maps. The other RTWers he’d met had all the buttons, buzzers and bells - more to go wrong and worry about. His bike appeared out of customs with far less hassle, and at far less expense, than I'd experienced in Melbourne. They didn't even wash it, and he hadn't washed it before leaving Indonesia! What about all those bugs, beasties and microbes from Asia!!? We agreed to ride up to the Litchfield National Park for a couple of days’ respite from the heat of Darwin. Jim wanted a quiet introduction to Australia, and I could use a last minute run to somewhere interesting.

Jim had only just passed his motorbike test before leaving the UK and he was still a bit nervous of his bike's massive power. He did not like dirt roads and was unafraid to admit this. He was getting there, however, and so was I. There's no rush. It seems strange that many bikers seek dirt roads out as being something of the ultimate adventure thing to do. For me, while they can be exciting and I wouldn't go too far out of my way to avoid them, they are slippery when wet, can be hugely risky and lead to all manner of breakages on the bike even if you're very careful. Less of a problem for those bikes designed for such roads but neither Jim's nor mine qualify in that category, although Jim's has the longer-travel suspension, it's really meant for touring the Alps. All that vibration and lack of grip isn't good for these bikes, and so I was happy to stay on the tarmac. The last thing I needed was to break or twist the bike just days before leaving.

Litchfield was an excellent park. Proper scenery and even some interestingly winding roads. Friendly campsite staff and cool evenings in the tents under a fine blanket of stars. Jim and I exchanged stories of derring-do over our respective routes. We expect to follow much the same routes home, just going in opposite directions. It turns out that he has done 20,000 miles to get here and so I calculate that, having completed 30,000 myself, I'm therefore 3/5 of the way home. Jim also reckons that although he left the UK a year ago, if he'd ridden directly here, he could have covered the distance in just three months. I'll take six, and try to do it some justice! He hadn’t used his tent since Europe either, confirming my suspicions that hotels between here and there are inexpensive if not always spotlessly clean. By the time I get to Europe it will be too cold for tents, and I'll be grateful for hotels. Time to put all that camping gear in the post and lighten the load.

Jim hasn't a blog, but was handwriting his trip up in moleskin booklets. All very traditional.

At the Marina we were blessed with a fantastic cafe serving healthy foods at all hours. They had only just opened and were more than willing to accommodate us. Dave the owner had a dream of developing it into a franchise and I hope he makes it. He was serving healthy as well as fried foods - tasty salads and top coffee, with roasts and grilled chickens. All served up by the lovely and attentive Oepha, an Irish girl on a working visa trip (who came to say cheerio). Look out for branches of "The ChookShed" opening near you over the next few decades. A shame there are so few of these and so many of the McDonald's/BurgerKing "food" outlets.

Meanwhile, William had had a wee think and could now see a way of getting the bike on board his yacht. This means that wherever we end up, it'll be with me and I don't need to concern myself about getting to some other port to find and recover it again! Excellent!

We had waited around for a while longer than William had originally planned, hoping for parts to arrive from various places around Australia, but in the end, nobody seemed all that fussy about doing what they'd said they'd do, much to William's dismay and my surprise. He had to leave one lifeboat behind in Bundaberg where it had been sent for mending, hoping that some friends could pick it up, and he'd been told the mechanics could not fix one of his outboard motors. What kind of mechanics can't fix motors? It was, at last, time to go.

Nobody else had turned up to crew with us that was going the same way, but William seemed confident that I had sufficient common-sense so that we'd be fine. Captain Marcos had said this at Cartagena too – that sailing was all about common-sense, and that getting this far on a bike was surely evidence of sufficient quantities. Comforting indeed, but I remember the times I got it wrong, and here we were proceeding out to an unknown point some way beyond my comfort zone. Still, if anything happens all I ever need to do is wake William up and I've at least enough sense to do that!

We got the bike on to the boat easily with lots of assistance from all the yachties around about and even Jim came down to help. I wrapped it up in the strongest clingfilm I could find and then put the tent's groundsheet around it to protect it from the elements. I still wasn't confident, but it would have to do. Early the next morning we were off, motoring out into the Tasman Sea, all waves and smiles. I'd metincredibly helpful and wonderful people and would miss Darwin’s unique character, but I was really happy that we'd be making some proper progress again.

We expect to make 120Nm (Nautical miles - not Newton metres) each day, taking 25 days to cover the 3500Nm to Langkawi in northern Malaysia. We intend to go around the outside of Indonesia, where the winds are more consistent, the currents are more helpful and the sea traffic is much less. I learned that Nm's are 2080 yards long, instead of the 1760 yards of a UK (are these still called "Imperial"?) land mile. So who can work out what 3500Nms in ordinary miles is?