To me, Australia was the beaches and the outback. The Sydney Opera House was cool, as was all this foresty stuff along the coast but that was not what I’d been dreaming about. I’d been dreaming about white sand beaches and red sand deserts. And that’s what I wanted to explore. So once I got comfortable with the XJ, I started planning a trip into the outback. The first stage of the plan was to acquire an appropriate map. This was accomplished during my lunch break one day, via sleight of hand at the NRMA shop on George Street while no-one was looking (OK OK I stole it. One map for fucks sake, it wasn’t exactly shop lifting though I probably would get tasered for doing it today). I barely had enough money for food so I definitely wasn’t going to spend 10 bucks on a map. While all the other Indian software programmers spread out their greasy tiffins in the kitchen at lunch time, I unfurled my map while chomping on a chocolate stolen from the charity basket at work. To most of my Indian colleagues at work, I was an anomaly. A weird young punk who had no interest in saving money, eating curry and staying under the radar, like all good Indian software developers on overseas deployments were supposed to do. And to the white folk, I was just another darkie who had his eye on their job. So I didn’t quite fit in either block and kept mainly to myself. Not that I cared, I was too busy planning solo adventures to worry about what people were thinking of me.
I pored over the map, searching for desert. Didn’t need to look for long, it was the large orange blob that started not too far west of Sydney and filled up the map all the way to Perth! The quickest way to get there seemed to be towards Broken Hill and the distance from Sydney to Broken Hill didn’t look too far. A few hours easy, I thought. And I’ll go onwards from there. I hatched a plan to do a 5 day trip and take in as much of the outback as possible. It was February and there wasn’t a public holiday for months so I’d have to take 3 days off from work. Now I’d only been in my job for 3 weeks and my manager wasn’t very impressed with my proposal. But I was young, naïve and bursting at the seams for exploration. I didn’t give a shit and went anyway. Over the course of the next few months, I had several run-ins with this particular slave-driving manager and the cunt got me back finally by not extending my contract but I had explored the shit out of Australia by then, besides leaving a trail of fatherless, half-caste children in my wake. I think I won.
But I wasn’t fazed, having done a few big motorcycle trips in India, I was ready for more. At Nyngan, my dreams of red Australian dirt starting coming true. The landscape turned deserty and everything was covered with the fine red sand of the desert. I pulled over next to a muddy river to eat a sandwich and ruminate on how far I’d come. For the past 3 years I’d been in a tumultuous relationship with a superhot but unhinged Russian girl and I’d broken up with her just before leaving for Australia. The Australian trip couldn’t have come for me at a better time emotionally. I had needed to get out of that relationship and sitting here at the edge of the desert, staring into nothingness, becoming nothing, was exactly what I needed.
And the nothingness was so real. I’d never seen or even imagined so much space, such endless horizons. Riding dead straight for an hour between Nyngan and Cobar froze me to the bike and when I tried to get off at the fuel station, I fell over with the bike on top of me. I sat in a corner there for a long time as darkness descended wondering why this fast, straight line riding without traffic was harder than it first appeared. I’d done long days in the saddle in India but I wasn’t used to the consistently high speeds. And I was only doing the speed limit. In India, there is a constant barrage of obstacles and kamikaze road-users you have to dodge. Dogs and buffaloes will run out on the road, you will travel through the middle of a village with ladies drying their washing inches from you, tractors and bullock-carts will block your way on a single lane road, you’re constantly slowing down and accelerating, weaving and swerving. The level of focus required is easy to maintain because you know you will die within minutes if you don’t. But the average speed over a 100KM stretch rarely exceeds 60 kmph, even on highways. You did big days but only covered 300KMs at the end of it. This outback riding was very different. No obstacles, nothing obvious trying to kill you. But holding a bike wide open for 1 minute, let alone 1 hour is something I had never done before and there was a different kind of concentration and endurance required.
At Wilcannia I filled up and was pleasantly surprised to see my first aborigines. For my 12th birthday, Dad had gifted me a map of Australia drawn on a cloth and it had aboriginal symbols and instruments like a Dingo, Boomerang on different parts of the map. I’d always been intrigued by Aboriginals and had hoped to interact and get to know them in Australia. The black kids hanging around outside the servo hassling me for “smokes, Mista!” weren’t exactly what I had imagined my first contact with Australian aborigines would be like. I had expected a more romantic first meeting “HarryD, I presume”, I’d expected some wizened blackfella with a spear to say when he saw me emerge from the desert dust. The kids pressed money in my hands and asked me to get them smokes from the servo. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get them themselves but in the spirit of trying to strike up a conversation, I bought them the smokes. They took ‘em and ran off, leaving me looking like a fool in the glare of the servo attendant. This episode left me very confused and my romantic notion of the aborigines (based on how they were portrayed overseas) were somewhat shaken.
I asked her how to get to the lake and she said, I’ll take you if you give me a ride on your motorbike. I said cool but I don’t have another helmet. She said “no worries” and hopped on anyway. That’s the first time I’d heard that expression “no worries”. It sounded Buddhist and I didn’t quite grasp what it meant but I liked it immediately. Anyway, Kate took us on a dirt track that crossed a train line then went over a little sandy hill where I nearly dropped the bike. This only made Kate hug me tightly so was clearly a clever strategy. I fumbled a bit more before reaching the top of the hill where I suddenly beheld a vast expanse of blue water in stark contrast to the dun coloured desert around it. It was breathtaking, Lake Menindee, the deep blue waters created a huge oasis that extended beyond the western horizon. There were dead trees of all shapes and sizes poking out of the water along the shoreline and thousands of birds swarmed around. We sat there in silence for a while before I announced I was going to camp at the lake. Kate had to go back into town so I dropped her back promising to catch up with her later. She suggested “8PM”, I suggested “sunset” because this was way before I begrudgingly accepted that clocks and mobile phones were necessary to live a satisfying life.
My morning slumber was interrupted by loud mechanical noises very close to me. I woke up in a panic, looked around me but couldn’t see anything. Then suddenly 1, 2, 3 dirt bikes came storming out of the tree line and onto the sandy lake shore. They were roosting each other and pulling wheelies. I’d never seen a proper dirtbike ever before and they looked like they were having the time of their life. But I was also annoyed because their loud shenanigans were so in contrast to the peaceful natural surroundings and they seemed like intruders.
Nearing Balranald around dusk, I was bombarded by the biggest swarm of insects I’d ever seen. It was like the biblical plague of locusts. My helmet, an open face thing with a visor was covered in them and some of them got inside the visor up my nose and into my eyes and ears. I didn’t wear any gloves or boots so a few of them went up my jacket and jeans. I danced a funny dance on the bike trying to squash them as best as I could. I stopped a couple of times but it was the same whenever I got back on so I just limped into Balranald and collapsed in a fast food joint. I sat there till the young attendant girl looked like she might call the cops on me. I emerged and found a beautiful spot to camp under some huge trees next to the Murrumbidgee river. I walked around town at 9PM and it was a ghost town, kinda cool though. Sleeping under a huge gum tree I was woken by a loud crack in the middle of the night, then a thump. In my dim torchlight I couldn’t see what had happened and all looked the same as I’d left it. In the morning I discovered a massive tree branch on the ground about 10 feet away from my head. It had obviously spontaneously fallen off at night.
Civilisation shocked me after 5 days in the outback and Sydney seemed to have gotten larger and busier in my absence. This is why I like travelling by land though rather than by air. As you approach your destination from ground level, at an organic pace, you have time to get a feel for its surroundings, its history, its context, its place in the world. Air travel provides no context or time to adjust to your destination and I find it incredibly disorienting.
It was a big day that last one, over 12 hours on the bike but I was nowhere near as tired as I was on Day 1 as I pulled into Emmdale roadhouse. I guess my body was getting used to the Australian motorcycling experience. There were more trips to come but this first trip remains my favourite for the rich memories and the greatest personal growth.
Read about my next adventure - Australia - Abode of snow