Around the world with The Bear – Part Three
The King of Every Kingdom – Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Nullarbor is from the Latin and apparently just means ‘no trees’. That’s reasonably accurate, too. The road is mostly straight and not very interesting, unless you find flat ground with occasional small, dried-out bushes interesting.
There are signs warning of camels crossing the road, but we didn’t see any of the actual animals. Camels were imported into Australia to carry supplies out to work parties in the desert and have multiplied in the wild.
These days, Australia is the largest camel-exporting country in the world, so I’m told. I cannot vouch for this. Other animals which might get in your way out there are kangaroos, wombats, emus and wedge-tail eagles. There are also innumerable but reasonably polite venomous creatures. As far as I know we export none of these, which does seem a bit strange.
To make camp, we went half a mile or so off the road and found ourselves a little sheltered hollow. There was plenty of small timber for a fire, and the stars looked the way they only ever do in the desert: cold, fat and piercingly bright. There are twice as many out there as anywhere else.
When we finally reached the coast the next day, we found a slip road that someone had bulldozed down to the waters of the Great Australian Bight. We couldn’t resist it and took the heavily overloaded bikes down there.
A shelf of rock at sea level had once contained petrified tree trunks, but these had been eroded away leaving vertical pipes through the rock. They now acted like fountains, and whenever a wave came in under the shelf it produced water jets of different heights.
Going back up the road was a comedy. The surface consisted of broken limestone on a bed of sand, and it was steep. I took quite a bit of it on my rear wheel, with Charlie laughing himself silly at the faces I was making. Then we had a 200km ride before we could get a beer.
There were lots of bikes on the road and a lot of dead kangaroos next to it. People will insist on driving across here at night. The crows and enormous wedge-tail eagles were gorging themselves. A stop at Newman’s Rocks, one of the few waterholes along the road, refreshed us and the long, sweeping bends as the road drops down from the plateau made riding interesting again.
We arrived in Norseman, the first town since Ceduna 1000km to the east, in quite good spirits after spending three days out in the desert. The newly tarred road really makes the crossing easy. Norseman boasts a good, traditional pub that serves passable pies as well as Swan Lager.
Highway I took us down its narrow, potholed length back to Esperance, which is blessed with truly beautiful beaches of fine, white sand and clear water; it’s also cursed with the most comprehensive collection of signs forbidding anything that might conceivably be fun. We spent the evening, thoroughly depressed, in one of the local dives called, would you believe, ‘Casa Tavern’.
Before leaving Sydney, I had wrangled an invitation to stay with the west coast correspondent of Two Wheels, the bike magazine I was writing for. I now rang this unfortunate to advise him of our imminent arrival and to ask him for some help with tyres and spares. I’d forgotten that it was Sunday morning, and got him out of bed. That wasn’t to be the end of Ray’s troubles with us.
The rest of the day was spent dodging road trains – trucks with two and three trailers – and squeezing past a huge, wheeled hay rake someone had managed to arrange immovably across the highway. When we made camp, we could just see the outline of the Stirling Ranges through the evening haze.
In the morning a short detour took us up to the foot of Bluff Knoll, where the national parks people, with an unerring eye for the most objectionable siting, had built an enormous brick toilet block so that you could see it 20 or more kilometres away. Bless their furry little heads. The Stirlings are still lovely, their steep but soft slopes covered in evergreen forest.
We lunched at Albany in the London Hotel, feeling rather homesick. Our local in Balmain is also called the London. It was a good lunch, too, and reasonable value for money. You can tell Western Australia is a prosperous state—food is dear and the people are dour. Wealth doesn’t seem to cheer people up at all.
We didn’t put our tent up that night, but slept in a little hollow in the sand hills at William Bay, cozy on thick grass. We swam out to the rock bar across the bay, and there was a gorgeous sunset. After Walpole, we reached the forest of great karri and jarrah trees which covers much of southern Western Australia.
The cafe at Pemberton had an old Seeburg jukebox, stocked with records of the appropriate vintage, and we amused ourselves playing ‘Running Bear’ and the like. After a day of riding through chocolate-box scenery, we camped near Busselton and were confronted by a rather scary array of enormous insects. I’ve no idea what they were, but they were huge and looked nasty. None of them bit us, I will admit.
We found Ray’s house when we got to Perth, and the key was in the letterbox as promised. By the time he got home from a hard day at the scrambles track we had emptied his refrigerator of Swan Lager. We sang the Swan Lager Song in an attempt to mollify him.
The agents for Palanga Lines, with whom we were to sail to Singapore, were helpful and told us to bring the bikes down to the wharf on the morning we were due to depart. Formalities were minimal. In Sydney we had been told to get there a week early, so we now had that week on our hands.
The time passed quickly enough, mainly bikini-watching on Perth beaches and sampling various batches of Swan Lager as quality assurance. We also located an old Singaporean pal of ours who was running his own restaurant and discussed Lee Kuan Yew, the Angels and the martial arts with him. Hoppy knows more than most about all three.
Cruising on the MV Kota Singapura
Ray and Kerry hosted a very small (the four of us) farewell party on the night before our departure. The number of empty beer cans this produced is now, I believe, a legend around the Two Wheels office. Badly hung over, we watched the bikes being slung aboard our transport, the MV Kota Singapura, and then tied them down ourselves.
They were down in the hold with a shipment of live sheep. Once boarding started, we staggered up the gangplank and found ourselves some deckchairs. Then we broke open the flagon of wine which we had, with uncanny foresight, rescued from the previous night’s debauchery. Just as well, for the bar didn’t open for hours.
Cabins were quite comfortable, there were a lot of congenial people on board, and it didn’t take long for the trip to take on the atmosphere of a cruise. I started a water polo competition, which was incredibly rough and lots of fun. To be able to tell the teams apart, we played beardies against cleanskins. Us beardies cleaned ‘em up every time. Mind you, it was mainly because we tried to drown as many of the cleanskins as we could get our hands on.
I also met Annie, the attractive, petite lady of whom you will be hearing more later in the story. A shipboard romance! You see, it does happen.
On talent night, we presented a musical version of Waltzing Matilda (for the cognoscenti, it was the Queensland version) a traditional Australian poem concerning a sheep thief.
Australian legends are almost exclusively about thieves of one kind or another. Charlie rustled a real sheep from the mob in the hold. Its stage debut was rather spoilt by the fact that it crapped all over the dance floor. Still, we were all nervous…
The ‘Paper Tiger’, Singapore’s preoccupation with paperwork, sprang as soon as we berthed. It was a Sunday, and therefore not possible to arrange the multitude of documents necessary to get the bikes off the ship.
The ship was going back out into the Roads as soon as the passengers had been offloaded, and would not return until Wednesday. Palanga’s agent was unhelpful to the point of being rude, and we had to settle for a bus ride to town.
I’m sorry to say that Ray has since shuffled off this mortal coil. I hope there are dirt bikes wherever you’ve gone, mate. More of our ride in Part Four.