Published: August 21st 2009August 21st 2009
Wed Aug 19, Perth to Dongara
This is a travel log and while a personal account about travelling it is not here to discuss every detail of encounters with old friends. Suffice to say I received wonderful hospitality from my old friends Steve, Helen and family and the rest is between me and them. Okay to say one thing more, they define old friends - people you can not see for years, but with whom you remain always in synch. Something to be treasured. After coffee with the treasures this morning the motorcycle journey proper began.
My initial trepidations about the handling and weight of the BMS 1200 were put to rest as I got more comfortable with the machine and very soon got to like it and after an hour my rear end told me this was going to be a different experience than trying to do long distance on the Suzuki GSX 1000. In fact it was about Midland I realized the value of the bike - Midland is not even out of the suburbs of Perth. This is not to say my rear end will not suffer, it will just not suffer as bad. On the open road the bike just feels right, not sure I can say it better than that. Past Midland it is the rolling hills and meadows of the Swan Valley, a place for wine. Not sure where this rates relative to the Hunter Valley of New South Wales and the Baraossa Valley of South Australia, but some of the wineries looked pretty prosperous. (Perhaps correlated with the fact I later discovered that a bottle of wine is no longer cheap in Australia).
Emotions may be muddled by jet lag, but already the idea of a 10,800 km round trip have faded and the notion of enjoying a few places along the Western Australian (WA) coast seem more attractive. It will be interesting to see how this pans out in the days to come.
As I was riding towards Geraldton, my modest goal of 424km for the first day, I was reminded of an expression which I had heard on my second trip to WA. In 1990 I attended a scientific conference in Perth. The conference outing was a steam train ride to the small town of York about 100km from Perth, duly noted by those attendees from New York and York, UK. It was memorable, first because a complete train of scientists was suddenly disgorged into a small outback town with a plan that consisted of little more than be back on the train in 3 hours. The locals must have thought it was an invasion from Mars, but the owner of the local pub probably had a different view. The second remarkable thing was a scientific colleague of mine upon getting off the train uttered the phrase, “isn’t the sky big.” At the time it seemed a little absurd, but today, 19 years later, and I must confess in several other southern hemisphere destinations in the intervening time, I have had the same sense. It is something to do with the vast emptiness of what is around you coupled with the clarity and brightness of the atmosphere and sun, respectively, that gives everything such a surreal quality. Sitting high up on the bike this feeling strikes me every few minutes as the view continues to change. Both land and sky were changing. It was like scenes in a well orchestrated and expensive stage production.
Beyond the vines of the Swan Valley the landscape became rolling hills green and in the dells often water sodden. Blessedly that water kept away from me. On a couple of occasions I could see rain showers in the distance, probably 10-20 miles away but none came near. The landscape changed into more arid low scrub but still beautiful.
As one does on such trips I had begun to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again. I had read it in the 70’s not long after it was published. I did not get it at the time even though I struggled through to the end. I think I read it just for the bits about being out on the open road on a bike. A possible connection for why I am here now. After a few pages I realize this is going to be a different experience , but more of that later. A striking description, that I remembered from the first reading, was the idea that riding in a car was like watching television - remote and outside of the experience; whereas on a motorcycle you are part of the scene as it unfolds before you. I was reminded of this upon passing a dead kangaroo where the stench was definitely part of the experience. It was also a reminder to stay alert. The chap who rented me the bike upon my arrival the day before had been talking about black cows and the dangers of driving after dark. It was all a bit of a blur with jet lagged combined with a gun shot set of instructions which went over my head, just like one would hope bullets would. The instructions for opening the rear helmet carrier were lost and 15 minutes were spent this morning figuring out how to lock it properly. Hands on is the best way anyway. It had to be done otherwise I had a vision of my meager set of clothes - two pairs of spare jeans, tee shirts etc. leaving a trail across the WA landscape.
I had to stop for petrol twice at one of the oh so few roadhouses, the term Australians use for gas stations. This may not bode well for the longer hauls. At one stretch there seemed to be 300km between stations. Roadhouses are interesting affairs, beyond the vital need to serve liquid hydrocabons, to which we are all so addicted, they are a sort of home away from home with a variety of stuff ranging from meat pies (an Australian staple - I enjoyed mine) to floor mops. It was during my first stop that I purchased a map, to me definitely more useful that a household cleaning product but an embarrassment to admit that I did this so late in the game. I am not one for advanced planning obviously. Previous plans had consisted of time in front of Google maps and a bit of hand waving when asked where this intrepid journey would take me.
At the second stop there was one of those massive windmills that dot the Australian landscape and to me at least are iconic. Endlessly turning and pumping that even more precious fluid than petrol, the hydrocarbon addiction. In a small enclosure below the base of the windmill there were two emus passing back and forward defying my efforts to get a decent picture. What dumb birds they are, or at least give the impression of being dumb. Big awkward bodies with stick like legs protruding from the bottom and a long thin neck with a tiny head on top. A dead end species. I was tempted to think they would not survive if they had any natural predators beyond the four wheel kind with the big iron grill protecting the radiator, but then I realized that ostriches, their African counterparts, do seem to have an endless number of predators and do quite well by just sticking there head in the sand. I need to look into this further. Perhaps they are smarter than appearances dictate.
The original plan was to stop in Geraldton for the night, but looking at my Frommers guide I got the sense from reading between the lines that Dongara was a better bet. It turned out to be a quaint little town and I got a cabin right on the beach for A$65. I had totally forgotten that finding a place like this in most places in the world would cost a fortune and be completely over run with people. This is truly the “Lucky Country.”
Years ago I was so struck by this notion, that after returning to Australia having spent two years in Sheffield, UK, I was inspired to write a letter to the Advertiser, the daily Adelaide paper with the title of “Lucky Country. It was published, which says more about their lack of good letters than the quality of mine, but I was pleased to have made the statement nevertheless, which was along the lines of Australians wake up and appreciate what you have got compared to the rest of the world.
I was struck by something today that I had never noticed before. Even when the sun is still quite high in the sky, say around 4:30pm when sunset is at 6pm, there is a noticeable diminishing in intensity so that it begins to appear as twilight would. Perhaps it is something to do with the angle and the otherwise incredible intensity of the sun. The effect can be almost surreal. I visited the Dongara war memorial and with a panoramic view over the bay the lighting was remarkable.
Later I had the beach to myself and was treated with the most incredible sunset. Dinner was at the colonial pub in town. The girl behind the bar was dressed in a scant nurse’s uniform, for reasons I did not quite fully discover. The workers (all men) sloshing it back after a day of manual labor seemed to take it as a matter of course and further were not ready to hear about my views on their lucky country, so I had a quite meal, the proverbial Aussie steak sandwich, which is literally a rump stake between slices of white bread made red by the stain of beetroot that accompanies it. This indeed a lucky country I though as I crashed out from jet lag and the first day of riding at about 8:30pm.