24 August 2008

Looking for the Wizard, Part 1

Quick summary of my dirt bike trip down under. Have split it into 3 parts to make easier reading (and writing).

Arrived in Perth in style but a day late courtesy of KLM. Friday I was jet lagged to buggary but did get to meet the other folks joining the trip, Gareth, who I have know for years, Jen and Justin, who were doing most of the logistics and Ben, the other bike rider, mechanic and MrFixit. Was very pleased to see that they all seemed fairly normal but I am not sure what they thought of me?

Saturday was a busy day, had a mad dash shopping trip trying to buy last minute things such as video tape, 3 pairs of cycling shorts (the guy in the shop was so impressed he gave me an extra pair from free) and a new bivvy bag (failed). Was able to borrow most of the bike gear I needed which was a bonus – thanks to Rich Woods for boots, pads and goggles and to Paul for the helmet. In addition to manic shopping we loaded the bikes onto Justin’s trailer and had Ffion’s birthday party. They didn’t tell her it wasn’t her birthday until Monday, I guess when you are two it doesn’t really matter, so long as you have a cake.

The bikes and supplies were loaded and Jen and Justin headed off on Saturday afternoon for Kalgoorlie. Apart from Ben’s apprentice blowing up our petrol tank on Friday afternoon, everything was going to plan – scary. Sunday, Gareth and I collected Ben, only two hours behind schedule and drove up to Kalgoorlie to meet the others. It was a 7 hour drive but it passed pretty quickly. For much of the way we followed the immense water pipeline that was built to take water from the coast to the goldfields. Apparently the poor sod who designed it committed suicide before it was finished because so many people told him it would fail – which it didn’t.

Arrived in Kalgoorlie which is a clearly a mining town and meet up the guys and the bikes. Being Sunday it was pretty quite but there were a lot of bars and “hotels” along the main drag and chalk boards advertising the “skimpees”. Skimpees are young ladies who serve drinks while not wearing very much – apparently its very profitable! Didn’t see any but its good to know that the outback is a desert for political correctness as well as water.

We visited the “super pit” – which is predictably a very big hole in the ground, were gold is extracted at 0.1 ounces per ton! It made me wonder why? Gold is actually pretty useless. Sure in the old times it was required for currency, but not now? At least oil and coal have a use, they provide energy, but gold, its just used to provide nasty jewelry for Essex boys with no taste and very expensive speaker cable. I don’t really get it.

Pondering that we headed out to camp, just outside of town. At the camping spot we unloaded the bikes and I got to ride mine for the first time. It was emotional! It was potentially more emotional as I almost got lost on the maze of dirt tracks that cut through the bush, which would have been very embarrassing. Found my way back just as it was getting dark and dinner was well under way.

I quickly learnt that Jen and Justin know more about camping and bush living than Mick Dundee. They are awesome. The cars were totally organized with fridges and storage draws; dinner every night was cooked on huge open fire and was better than most restaurants. We had cooked breakfast, morning tea, sandwichs for lunch, afternoon tea, and then a hot snack and dips before supper. I had planned to loose some weight on the trip but that clearly was not going to be an option.

First night was a bit chilly, sleeping out without a bivvy bag, especially since there was a heavy dew. Next day we breakfasted, loaded everything up and rode east, out of the goldfields and into the desert. Most of the days riding was on pretty good tracks and graded roads. This worked well for up as a I got the feel of the bike. Riding a dirt bike is nothing like riding a road bike, you have to get used to everything sliding and slipping under you. Its somewhat disconcerting at first but you quickly get used to it. I ploughed through a few large puddles, almost drowning in one and earned myself the nickname Nemo, much to Ben’s amusement. By the end of the day my ridng had improved although the gravity monster had scored his first point in some deep sand.

We camped the night by some aboriginal water holes, not much more than small depressions in a limestone pavement but the water was obviously enough to attract some wild life and I got to see my first Kangaroos. Next day and the riding got a lot more interesting, off the graded roads and on to tracks. The scenery was changing as well, its amazing how much variation you can have on the theme of red desert with green scrubby bush. In the afternoon we stopped at an amazing salt lake. The first of many. This was small, about 1 km across and looked like ice. In the center there was water standing on the hard, crusty salt surface. It was beautiful. Jen found a spider that was trapped in the salt – he looked pretty fierce, even though he was clearly very dead.

Sometime that afternoon Ben, who was in the lead saw some wild dogs and headed off cross country to investigate. He latter confessed that while he was trying to get closer to one he actually ran it over. He spent the rest of the trip wishing he hadn’t confessed and getting constant flack for persecuting poor Fido! Feral dogs are a real problem out there as the kill all the indigenous mammals which have never had to deal with predators. The dogs are actually poisoned; there are signs in some areas warning that there is dog bait down. Justin told of a trip he ran where someone’s pet dog wandered off, ate some bait then died, frothing at the mouth, in front of the kids. Nice! Maybe Fido got off lightly after all.

The quality of the camps was also improving and we were starting to get a bit of a routine together. We would stop about 3.30pm and Justin and Jen would park up and arrange the camp while the rest of us collected wood. There is so much dead wood there that a huge pile generally takes about 10 minutes to accumulate. Then we would light the fire and set up the camp beds and chairs while Jen rustled up the afternoon appetizer. This would generally correspond with the first beer being cracked and dinner would follow. Bike maintenance under the watchful eye of Ben the master mechanic would ensue.

KTMs are probably some of the best offroad bikes in the world. They are certainly amongst the most iconic. We had three 450 EXCs , light, easy to handle, very tough and ideal for this sort of terrain. They did have one problem though, the tend to lose bits. All the rattling and bouncing about results in bolts working loose and bits dropping off. We lost several nuts and bolts in the first few days before we restored to checking everything each time we stopped and using locktight to actually glue the bolts in! And yes it works.

That night, our third under canvas it was brutally cold! By the morning the thermometer was reading a min. of -5. The wok which had been soaking from Gareth’s rather excellent curry escapade the night before was frozen solid! Nobody told me it was going to be cold. Well actually they did but I just ignored their advice and figured that they were all light weight aussies who didn’t know what cold really meant! After that night a was a firm convert to the “hot water bottle” club – of which Jen and Justin had obviously brought 5, one for each of us!

Took a while to warm up but eventually we got going. More great riding to the Plumridge Lakes nature reserve. Here our well organized guides had ordered some wild life and I got to see my first camels, emus and some more kangaroos. I knew that the trip was close to perfect as I rode along a dirt track with two large red roos bouncing along beside me.

Great riding as the track got tighter and more bendy. Constantly changing from soft sand, to gravel to hard packed mud. Whizzing through the trees and dodging fallen trunks, pot holes and termite mounds at 70 – 100 km/h. It doesn’t get much more fun, until you fall off! Even that doesn’t hurt too badly. The other guys were much better riders than me but I was managing to keep up (ish) on all but the most bendy sections.

Lunch time Jen managed to stake a tyre on a fallen tree. She received a mild ribbing but nothing to great. Justin dived in with his puncture kit and plugged the hole in about 2 minutes. Very impressive, I have never seen that done to the side wall of a tyre before and it lasted until the end of the trip.

That evening Justin got his rifle out. He figured after some many days of not washing and messing about with bikes and cars we were red neck enough to play with guns while drinking beer and shoot the cans. Much fun was had by all. There is something compelling about shooting stuff – I am not sure what it is, weather it’s the satisfaction of the well oiled mechanical workings of the gun or the challenge of hitting the target or what. Say what you will about guns, but you have to admit that they are fun! Especially when the targets are only empty beer cans and rocks. After we eventually tired of killing beer cans we settled in for another great camp, another big fire, another top dinner and another cold night. This was getting into a rhythm.

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