It was a sunny May day in Sydney, Australia, when my fingers stopped on an advert in the local newspaper I was reading: “1982 Yamaha XV1000. Racks, bag, stainless pipes, new tires, $1,750 OBO.” That’s the one for us I told Karen, and a few hours later our friend Dave Peach was driving us out of the city to see the bike and take a test ride.
As soon as I saw it I knew it was the right bike, and after parting with $1,550 cash we were heading back to Sydney on the motorcycle that would end up taking us around Australia. Having landed six months earlier in Darwin on one-way tickets from Indonesia with just $22 to our names, it was hard to contain our excitement knowing the next adventure was about to begin.
With a total investment of $50 in plastic bags, bungee cords and waterproof gear, we headed off, rumbling out of Sydney on Australia’s southeast coast bound for North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. The road out of Sydney is motorcycling perfection — or at least it was then — weaving and winding through the hilly countryside, passing the Blue Mountains and on to the rolling hills of northern New South Wales as we headed north. Goodbye, Sydney Opera House, Curl Curl Beach, the Peach family and our other good friends we had made over the six months we lived in this great city. Hello, Australia, here we come.
The first few days we sort of meandered along, with no great distances being covered as we acclimated to the feeling of the freedom of the open road after months working double shifts to raise the travel coupons (money) we needed to make this journey. It was just the two of us, our trusty Yamaha, and the road ahead.
Heading north up the coast into Queensland, we passed through Surfers Paradise, the beautiful white beaches stretching forever, crashing waves rolling endlessly up the shore and the cliffs above crowned in soft green grass. Surfers Paradise is aptly named.
Our next stop was Brisbane, the gently flowing Brisbane River and abundant parkland giving a relaxed feel to the city. Our visit was short, stopping long enough for coffee and some sightseeing before pushing north toward Nambour to camp for the night.
We continued north the following morning, speeding through Gympie and riding on some of the finest motorcycle roads imaginable through cool, dark forests, occasionally bursting out into shafts of brilliant sunlight before, unfortunately, the rain came. Farther north, a curiosity stop found us exploring the Capricorn Caves, founded by the Olson family in 1881. Our guide was a fourth-generation Olson and proudly informed us it was one of the largest privately owned cave systems in Australia. It was fascinating, with millions of years of evolution preserved underground for us to see.
Two days later, after passing through the coastal towns of Mackay and Townsville, we arrived in Cairns. Here we found mile after mile of unspoiled beaches, tropical rainforests, crocodiles, giant fruit bats, and the jewel of Australia’s crown, the Great Barrier Reef. While there, we learned to scuba dive, marveling at the multicolored fish and coral in the tranquil blue water, an experience that would leave everlasting memories for us. At the time, the diving class course — plus 10 dives on the reef spread over three days, which leaves you a qualified diver — cost a mere $260 Australian, less than $200 American. We made fast friends with our international group and left as certified divers, having had an experience that might be hard to top. I gave the bike an oil change, adjusted all its important bits, and with luggage packed and stowed we were as ready as could be to tackle the center of Australia.
Back on the road, we headed south, then west for the red center of Australia and the oasis town of Alice Springs, 1,500 miles away. Made famous in movies and songs, it was a place I was dying to see. With a lightly trafficked, open road ahead, I set the bike at 4,200rpm, which gave about 50mpg at around 67-72mph so we could squeeze the most out of the 5-gallon gas tank on the long, deserted stretches of road we were navigating.
The first day saw us heading through endless fields of sugar cane flanked by lush green hills, and by nightfall we were heading west with the lights of Townsville in our mirrors. Camping out in the bush that night, our vista was more intense than anything we had seen, the setting sun creating a blaze of color across the horizon as the bush came alive with the sounds of the night creatures. Sitting by the campfire, gazing up at the night sky uninterrupted by clouds or any artificial light, we could have been the first people on earth.
The next day saw us twisting through hilly, tree-lined roads as we came onto a few hundred miles of flat, open scrubland before the giant mine towers of Mount Isa loomed up and out of the advancing dusk on the horizon. The roads were very demanding, often not much more than 18 feet wide, with gravel shoulders, semitrucks known as road trains pulling three trailers thundering past, and plenty of suicidal cows and kangaroos wandering across the road.
From Mount Isa, there were 180-mile stretches of road with nothing in between and no signs of civilization, but thankfully the lazy thumping of the old V-twin inspired confidence, as there was really nothing out there if we encountered a problem.
The last 400 miles into Alice Springs were hard. A bitterly cold wind was whipping across the flat, unchanging desert that dominates the Northern Territory, and its sheer vastness held us in awe. Improperly dressed in a used, open-face helmet, some gardening gloves and my old leather jacket, we layered up as best we could and pushed on.
Once in Alice we put on a needed new rear tire, then decided to stay a day or two to explore. We found a great hostel, drank a lot of tea and ate a lot of Vegemite, but in spite of my desire to visit, I can’t say the city contained much interest for us, so on a crisp, cool day with no clouds in sight we headed out of Alice, rolling south to take on the famed Nullarbor Plain.
Rolling along through the low, scrubby desert, a sudden loss of power brought us to a halt, the only sound in the vast empty desert being the metallic “tink tink” made by the quickly cooling engine. I had heard a weird sound just before, and pulling the inspection window on the front cylinder I found the cam chain all bunched up. It was not a good sign, as I assumed it meant that both valves on that cylinder were now bent and the bike would need major repair.
Sitting beside the road in the Outback, time passed slowly as we waited for someone to come by and help us out. Travelers are few and far between, but finally a car came into view — but going in the wrong direction — and then a pickup truck, heading back to Alice. I gave Karen a list of parts, and asked the driver to take her to the Yamaha dealer to get them ordered and look into a way of rescuing the bike and me. Watching the truck disappear, I sat back to wait, staring out across the vast, empty desert, making calculations in my head of how this setback would affect our travel plans.
Some hours later, the sound of a 4-cylinder engine came riding on the wind, and shortly thereafter a fellow whose name I don’t recall came into view on a very ratty-looking Suzuki GS750 custom heading south. Unemployed and heading for Tasmania, he quickly offered to tow me back to Alice Springs, even though it was in the wrong direction, and proceeded to pull a long rope from his backrest. For the longest 50 miles of my riding career, I slalomed from one side of the narrow road to the other as my new friend towed me, and somehow we kept both bikes upright and made it safely to Kevlin Yamaha in Alice Springs.
Karen had already ordered the parts and booked us a room at a local hostel, and when I arrived I found her organizing transport to come and rescue me. Delighted I was back safe and sound, we decided to hitchhike out to Ayers Rock at Uluru the next day, as we were facing over a week’s delay while parts were flown in and repairs made. This turned into a grand adventure as we met and camped out with local Aborigine people, climbed the famous red rock and traveled with an assortment of crazy road warriors working out in the bush, many days out from civilization.
Back in Alice with a running Yamaha, but now with depleted travel funds, we aborted our plan of heading south across the Nullarbor Plain and made our way north to avoid the onset of winter that was already making for some very cold nights in our tent. The road through the red, dusty interior remained endlessly straight and narrow, and at times we would simply park in the middle of the road to boil up water for tea or soup, as there were so rarely any other vehicles in sight. A couple of days out the landscape began to change: less red, more trees, and even a few corners. One night we camped out in the small town of Daly Waters beside one of Australia’s oldest pubs. Once a camel watering hole, a lot of the features are unchanged since the pioneering days.
The following day found us farther north and relaxing with some other motorcycle travelers at the Mataranka thermal pools, where we soothed away the miles from our weary limbs before continuing north to Nitmiluk National Park and Katherine Gorge. While in the park we spent a few days hiking and exploring the gorges, swimming in the cool, clear pools and basking in the winter sunshine.
Leaving Katherine Gorge and heading west we rode some of the most treacherous roads we’d yet encountered, narrow, twisting and winding, with far too many road trains.
After a few hours the countryside changed again, opening up to wooded scenery around the Victoria River before we found ourselves in Gregory National Park, where we left the road in exchange for some hiking and exploring. Following some wet weather and tentative floodway crossings, plus a 270-kilometer (almost 170 miles) stretch with no fuel stop, we camped up in Kununurra around dusk.
Another full day of riding found us swimming in the Indian Ocean at the town of Broome. What a contrast to the barren Outback, with uncrowded beaches and a strong Chinese and Japanese influence due to pearl trading, which still goes on today. Feeling good to be off the bike again, we watched the pearl luggers returning to the dock to unload their wares as we moved slowly in the winter sunshine. With our money running dangerously low, and winter fast approaching in the south, we set off on the last 1,400 miles of our journey to Perth in search of work.
The sun had been up for a couple of hours as we worked our way out of Broome heading southwest, with strong winds from the northeast helping us roll across the Roebuck Plains, where it is not uncommon to go 200 miles between road houses. The Australian road houses are like small islands in this vast desert, and they have their own generators for electricity as they have to be totally self-sufficient. These stops always made for an interesting break, talking with the people who work there and meeting other travelers like us, stocking up on fuel and provisions for the next leg of their journey. We set up camp after a 420-mile day, and just when tiredness was setting in, Mother Nature turned on an Australian sunset that simply set our souls on fire.
The last three days into Perth were a little unkind to us, with heavy rains, dropping temperatures, strong, billowing winds, and even a plague of bugs. We pressed on, though, rumbling into Perth after having covered some 6,000 miles since our departure from Sydney. We were tired after two months of constant travel, but we found an immense satisfaction in having crossed Australia on two wheels. It was a trip of a lifetime. MC
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