10th July 1993
O.K. so I've been lazy again. I make it just over 5 months since I last wrote. What do you want, blood? There are other things to do, as well you know. When I wrote last I was in the hills of Victoria heading for Tasmania. Actually I was at the IT Rally, which was just up the road from a real ale brewery pub. Oh dear. Say no more.
After recovery I went north into the hills further, round old gold mining towns on great dirt tracks with good little pubs and lots of free camping. Five of us rented a log cabin for a couple of days before going off in different directions. Then I caught (after another serious session at the brewery pub when I ended up sleeping in somebody's house for the night, don't know whose) the Starship catamaran to Tassie.
I met a group of BMW riders going over for a holiday and to do the same rallies as me, so we all had a good old chat. It takes 5 hours or so to go over to Tas. I went straight to the Tiger Rally, but they spent the night in town and arrived next day. The rally was very similar to ours but with the usual assortment of fires scattered around the site, which is normal down here. During the weekend I got drunk and subsequently friendly with a fine fellow called Marty who lived a few miles from the rally and said I could stay if I needed or wanted to. We drifted back on Sunday and it was just like home. Half built Ariel in one bedroom, assorted bits scattered around, and a good workshop out the back. The house is never locked and he said I could stay anytime - it didn't matter whether he was there or not. I wondered if he regretted that by the third time in the following three weeks when he came home and found me living there. Never say anything if you don't mean it.
When I was in the mountains in the North of Tassie I bumped into the Bee-Emm crowd again and they got me a bit merry. On the way back to the campsite a little wooden post with a reflector on it leapt out in front of me. I almost avoided it but the bugger attacked my left pannier and completely smashed it. Clothes everywhere. Back to Marty's from where I phoned you for M&P's phone no. They were very helpful, had what I wanted in stock, and sent it tax-free straight away. In the meantime I rebuilt the old one with wire mesh and plastic padding as a temporary measure. Then I spent a couple of weeks riding round Tassie and met a girl travelling alone on a CB250, so we travelled together for a while. She didn't like rallies so I went to the Tas Rally, and she went South.
The Tas was a biggie with rock groups etc. and it rained most of the weekend so you can probably picture the scene, most people were oblivious to the mud, being pissed out of their brains, but old hands like me of course got pissed out of our brains while staying clean and dry. In the upbringing you know.
A crowd called "Twins in Tassie" were there just starting a blast around the island. Most were on Ducati's, but some boxers and a couple of other things. Marty was one of the organisers so I got to know them and have since stayed with a couple of them in Brisbane. They were in to serious scratching, and by the end of the week one bike had blown up, one was up a tree and the rider in hospital and the remaining 30-odd had compound hangovers. I bumped into them a couple of times and they were certainly having serious fun.
After the Tas I headed South over the mountains to meet up with Carol (CB250) and got sleeted on a dirt road which completely covered me and the bike in thick mud. When I stopped for petrol the old feller made some remark so I said the next time I meet a Tasmanian in Britain complaining about the weather, I'm going to hit them. He didn't say another word, just served me and took the money in silence, I must have been convincing. Carol had been riding bikes for only 8 months and had never fallen off. She was making me a nervous wreck on the wet mountain roads and on the gravel. How she stayed on I've no idea.
We toured Tassie in better weather for a while, then I went back to Marty's and she took off along the North coast. When I left I caught the overnight boat to Melbourne and went to stay with the couple I met before who met Graham and Mitch. To make sure I had the right house when there was nobody in, I looked in the mail-box for something with their name on; and lo and behold there was a card from the post-office for me to say they had a parcel for me. One blue pannier! It all falls into place you know.
More fun and hangovers then I took off back into the hills on the Victoria/N.S. W. border to the Cold Flame Rally. Nice and small, 50 or 60 up gravel in either direction and bring your own everything - no pub, nothing. That was good. Gravel is not a problem to most Aussies. This was twisty, tight gravel through the mountains, but there were a couple of Harleys, K1OO's with trailers etc. No problem.
I met up with Carol again for a few weeks, just nipping off to rallies at the weekend until it was time to head for Queensland and The Cane Toad Rally which is one of the older rallies that people take seriously, rather like the Thistle used to be. You make a point of not missing it. Chris and Sam the couple from Melbourne, couldn't spare the time off work to ride the 1,300 miles each way, so they flew to Brisbane, borrowed a K100 and rode the last 350 miles. It's that sort of a "do". You don't miss it. Naturally I took a couple of weeks to get there with all sorts of places that aren't on the way. I drifted inland to sample the outback but it was still too hot. One place I stopped for a beer I was invited to go wild boar hunting with an Aboriginal couple I was talking to, but when they explained the details of how they sometimes have to butcher them on the spot and carry the good bits out because they can't get the "ute" (utility vehicle - pick-up) into the bush where the boar is, I remembered I had to be in Toowoomba. I did too, went back and stayed at Jenny's again (from Stratford).
One national park I camped in I met a feller on a Honda Dominator who comes from Veipa, which is the last town up Cape York. That should be a good place to rest up when I get there. I called in Brisbane and stayed with a couple of the "Twins in Tassie" crowd, who live in a house with 2 or 3 others where it is all bikes. Excellent workshop although I didn't need one at the time. We all had a good party watching the Japanese G.P. on telly.
As it was still too hot to head into the outback I went South again and met up with Carol. She was working in her brother's restaurant to get some money together, and staying in his flat overlooking the sea, so I stayed there as well until we set off west through the hills again, then over the Hay plain to Broken Hill and then up into the Flinders Ranges north of Adelaide. She was still making me nervous going too fast on iffy surfaces so I looked at the map and sussed a few short cuts. During the next 2 days she fell off 5 times but always in soft sand with no damage to either her or the bike, but she got the message and started slowing right down for anything she wasn't sure of.
The first 6 months of my multiple-entry visa were due to run out on the 12 June by which time I reckoned to be in the outback, so while I was hanging around Carol's brother's place I flew to Auckland, New Zealand in late April, went through immigration then returned on the same plane. When I returned on an international flight, with a valid visa there was no problem - 6 more months 'till the end of October.
We headed West by a devious sort of route but the weather was a bit chilly, there again it was getting on for the depths of winter. We stayed at Silverton, north of Broken Hill which I realise won't mean a thing to you, but we camped one side of a dry river, walked across to the pub then couldn't get back because of a flash flood. Somewhere else had a big storm and we got a raging river that we couldn't cross. Eventually we got a lift on a 4 wheel-drive truck but even he was dubious about crossing. Next morning all was dry again. Dodgy place.
Eventually Carol ran out of money and set off back to the coast to work and I set off into the real outback. It was a nice three months, but also nice to take off on my tod again. There had been some unseasonably wet weather in some places, and the tracks got very boggy so I was a bit uneasy as times. It started spitting one day so I detoured to a place with a pub in case it continued, but it came to nothing. However it was a good pub and it took me 3 days to leave. The tracks were dry but there was evidence of lots of recent water. I figured I'd been lucky with my timing even though it was by accident. I was sailing along over nice smooth clay that had until recently been a horrible, sticky mess, feeling quite smug until the obvious eventually happened. You know when you're on a soft bit that you thought was hard and you're going just fast enough to get right to the middle but not fast enough to go any further? Up to the sump guard and the rear wheel spindle I was. Took me ages to get out of that one.
I was using small back tracks and camping wild but even then it was difficult to get a good-nights sleep at times. One night I heard a strange noise gradually getting louder for 20 minutes before I saw what it was. Couldn't figure it out - I was out of the tent looking up in the sky for UFO's etc. and all it was an empty cattle road train bouncing down the track at 2. 00am.
I made it to the Strzelecki Track, which you can find if you’ve got a good map, and up to Innaminka (population half a dozen or so). So far the outback was turning out to be a lot more touristy that I imagined. It seems half the country owns a 4-wheel drive and it was getting difficult to meet the locals, rather like Scotland, everybody you come across is just geared up to deal with lots of people passing through and they're only interested in selling you something, not in getting to know you. One exception was Betoota (population 1) on the track East of Birdsville. The pub, which is the only building in Betoota, is owned by an old Polish man who has lived there alone for 25 years or so. The night I camped I was the only other person there so we had a good chat. Actually he chatted and I listened - all his exploits as a prisoner of war with the Germans and a few good Aussie adventures back in the 40's and 50's. When I say it's touristy, it's still pretty remote. Betoota is 140 miles West of the nearest town and that's only small. Birdsville is another 105 miles West and apart from the odd cattle station off the track there isn't another building in between.
Birdsville is a famous place. Normal population about 100 but the September horse races bring in 4 or 5 thousand people for the weekend. I stayed there 3 nights mainly to see what the weather was going to do as there were storms drifting around further west and south and I didn't fancy getting caught in one. Naturally when I left I got it wrong and it started raining 60 miles south of Birdsville. The track was sandy with stretches of clay and I thought seriously about turning back but went on instead. It got wetter and the track turned into a muddy skating rink in no time. When it got to the consistency of half dry concrete the wheels locked up and down we went. When I tried to stand up I slipped over again. The land was dead flat all around and getting waterlogged and the nearest habitation was Mungeranine Roadhouse, 200 miles south of Birdsville (population 2). I didn't dare stay where I was so plodded on very slowly, stopping to clear out the mudguards every half mile or so until I came to a sand dune. I managed to get up it and put the tent on top and waited. I expected to wait a couple of days but the rain stopped mid afternoon and by next morning the track was hard and dry again. Very strange ground. Off I went with no worries until I came to a low-lying bit that was still wet. Careful as I was, down we went again. It was so slippery I couldn't pick the bike up until I'd half buried a big rock beside the back wheel plus others under my feet to get some grip. All loaded up I set off again and fell off again so close that I used the same rock. While sitting looking at it, like you do, I calculated that at the current rate of progress I'd reach Marree, the next town in September 2047.
Fortunately the track improved and apart from a couple of good slides I reached Mungeranine by early afternoon and decided to camp for a day or two as it was a very nice place and had a bar. The landlord and his wife were friendly so we had a good evening drinking and chatting. An Aussie called Bruce (honest) came in the next day and we were having a chat when he saw the English number plate. He said it was a bit of a coincidence that he'd seen another one in Birdsville the day before. It belonged to a Mancunian called Nick who had been all through Africa and Asia on a ratty old Bee-Emm. I fancied talking to him and as they've recently installed solar powered telephones in the outback I 'phoned the pub in Birdsville but they thought he'd left town and weren't sure which direction. Never mind. That evening I was chatting to Martin, the landlord and a cowboy called Harry who really looked the part with big hat and fancy boots. They asked what I thought of the outback so I told them. They assured me there was nothing touristy whatsoever once you got off the tracks and that's how 2 days later I was on the edge of the Simpson Desert on a Honda XR600 with 300 head of cattle and an instruction to "take them that way". Then everybody buggered off and left me to it. You've got to show them who's boss.
It's a good job that's the direction they were thinking of going anyway reckon. We came to a sort of agreement whereby they did more or less what they wanted but if anybody else came along, they made it look as though I was in charge. Jolly considerate of them I thought. The real lads do it all on horseback but they also use trail bikes.
I didn't know whether I was more surprised at getting the chance to have a go or the Station owner was more surprised at finding this idiot who was prepared to work for free. They were actually short-handed so somebody who could ride a trail bike and wasn't a complete idiot (debatable) was really quite useful. I also drove the truck with all the gear on. I'd never driven a 4WD before but nobody asked and I assumed it must be the same principal as riding a trail bike. There were no tracks anywhere, we went just cross-country over sand dunes and through gullies. Some places I would never have dreamt of going but it was their truck and the man said, "follow us". The sand dunes just have to be charged as fast as you can go and hope the other side isn't vertical. We were up at 5:30 am, sorted out and miles away on the bikes at first light when the Boss appeared in his Cessna spotting cattle from the air. He radioed to us where to go and we rounded them up and drove them to where we were camped for ''drafting" which is basically sorting out the ones for market, finding all the calves born since this area was last done, branding and tagging them plus castrating the bulls (ouch). All done with a sharp pocket knife and branding irons out of a wood fire. Just like in the cowboy films. Most of it was done in the open so there was a lot of time spent on what I called "crowd control". Sometimes there was a yard, which made things easier. This was a very small Station, only 1,600 square miles and they talk about "paddocks" of 200 square miles. We only mustered a small part of it but that took us 8 days, not finishing 'till after dark each night then collect wood, light a fire and put the billie and the steaks on. Three steaks each plus a few baked beans and a cup of tea. Same every night and nobody washed for a week. What's all this romantic cowboy crap we see on telly ? Some days I would spend hours riding round and round a couple of hundred cattle keeping them in one place while a different lot were being drafted. It was almost as if they'd been watching those prison escape films. They knew after I rode past they had 29 seconds to make a run for it before I came round again. It didn't take me long to figure out that two can play at that game. A large, healthy bullock can get a surprising distance in 29 seconds so I would spot the ones most likely to do a runner, go round the back of the herd and stand on the pegs to keep an eye on them. When they went I would take my time and let them get further away thereby giving myself a perfectly legitimate reason to thrash the shit out of somebody else's XR600 to fetch them back. Wonderful fun. Up until doing this I never knew what a "swag" was. It's a fancy sort of bedroll. So now I've done it, camped in a swag by a billabong under a Coolabar tree although if I tell the truth I wasn't all that jolly at the time. There was a distinct lack of Shelia’s called Matilda.
As it happened the nearest town, Marree, which is 160 miles South of the Station had its' annual horse races the weekend we finished and everybody from miles around (hundreds of miles actually) goes for a big party. It was great to be there as an insider and not just as a tourist as the lads introduced me to people from other Stations and generally looked after me. I got so pissed, for the first time in my life I fell over my own tent and ripped it. What made the whole thing even better was the boss saying I'd actually been a good help to them and being paid for the week. Some of the people I saw at Marree are legends in this part of the world. I'd seen newspaper articles about some of them pinned up in pubs and recognised them from the 'photos. Real hard men. It seems the Station I worked on is very prestigious and people all knew I'd been there and they couldn't figure out how I got the job when they could never get hired to work there. If only they knew. For quite some time it had been getting cold with a few frosty nights so I abandoned any ideas of going to Perth and the south west until warmer times and headed north up the Oodnadcitta Track beside the route of the old Ghan railway which went from Adelaide to Alice Springs and opened in 1886. It's now closed but there are lots of interesting relics and buildings along the route. Alice is 700 miles North of Marree so I decided to drift in that direction 'till the weather got warm. It didn't meet my definition of warm until I got almost to Darwin, another 1000 or so miles North of Alice although it did get quite pleasant and I hung around here and there 3 weeks or so to do the 1700 miles. Lots of good pubs to investigate. I met a Mancunian called Nick in Alice on a ratty Bee-Emm who'd been walking past the pub in Birdsville one morning when they came out and told him he'd had a 'phone call the previous evening. That had him baffled.
There were quite a few bikes in Darwin as it's a favourite starting point for people who ship their bikes from Europe or come overland through Asia. Germans mostly. Also thousands (hundreds) of backpackers. I haven't heard so many English voices since the last time I was in England (and Scottish and Irish). The campsites were well out of town so I stayed in a backpackers place. It was like a zoo but they had good, loud music, which I haven't heard for a while and the cheapest beer I've had in Oz. It's all a ploy of course to catch them, then they become fodder for the tour operators. One night was all I could stand but I had to hang around for some mail as my credit cards are expiring and I gave Darwin G.P.O. as my address. A German on a DR600 Suzi and I went camping up the peninsular N.E. of town for a while then checked again later. Then I went into Kakadu Park for a week and checked again. What hadn't arrived I've arranged to have forwarded to Cairns. Kakadu is sort of "Crocodile Dundee" country. Fabulous waterfalls and gorges but it's the dry season at the moment so they're not so spectacular. There again you can't get to them in the wet season so you don't have much choice really. Fortunately the best parts are well away from paved roads otherwise they'd be inundated with people. Lots of deep sand and rivers to cross to the good bits plus free camping beside the main roads where caravans are not allowed. No generators or "little towns in the countryside". Pretty good. I've met a few people who just went through the park on the main roads and said it was rubbish. Serves them right for not making an effort. Fabulous white sandy beaches at the bottom of giant waterfalls but you have to walk a bit and swim 1/4 mile up the gorge to get here. Yesterday I was crossing a water hole nice and slowly but something got in somewhere and the engine stopped. I don't like wet feet when I've got my boots on but couldn't think of any way of staying upright except by putting my feet down. Didn't fancy a repeat of Malham (when Steve left the handlebar sticking out of the water when he legged it for the bank and then had to wade back anyway and get the bike out - GB). The water was just over the top of the crankcase and after a minute or so it started again. No ill effects so maybe it was just the plug lead or something.
While I'm writing this you're probably at the Stella (Alpina ! - GB) or doing the Safari (week of trail riding after the Stella - GB). I wish I was there maybe in a year or two. I really fancy rolling into Bardonecchia and having a birra grande at the station bar. That's about the lot for now. Drop me a line and let me know what's going on back there but try to send it soon as possible or I may have moved on again.
This, I think, is the last letter Steve wrote to Paul Mullis. Steve tragically died when he fell off his bike and hit his head, after an Emu collided with him, in late July of 1993. I think you all share with me the joy for his life and the sadness for his death that I have felt whilst typing this out.