This is the story of an adventure. The theory is that Ulysses riders were born out of a desire to travel, not in the first flush of youth and with that first dangerous motorcycle, but in later years with old mates and with whatever motorcycle they were still capable of climbing on to. Our National Ulysses site states unequivocally that “Ulysses describes the spark for adventure which you seek through riding motorcycles”. Our adventure was 12 years in the making. We had both been there and done that with bikes, so this needed to be something special. The abbreviated words you are about read are the culmination of over a decade of thinking about when, where and how. I hope you enjoy our story.
The Gulf of Carpentaria lies at the top end of Australia and is that big lopsided and indented box-shaped piece of ocean that sits between Cairns and Darwin. The northern edge of the Gulf abuts the Arafura Sea, itself separating Australia from New Guinea. Many roads up that way are unsuited for traversing by road bikes. Many, but not all. There are a number of skinny Development Roads that zig and zag and link up enough of the region to make them viable on a road bike, and without the need to prepare a full-blown Dakar machine. The Gulf country was our adventurous destination 12 years after a long loop around Australia had been ridden and now lay mostly forgotten in the recesses of our minds.
I am very fortunate to have a good mate who is a competent motorcyclist and has also accompanied me on long endurance rides with the old FarRiders organisation and then the Iron Butt Association. Like me, he believes that the tyrannies of distance can be a joy on a motorcycle. Our planned daily average distance was well under 700 kilometres. That was every day, for 14 days straight. We figured that the bike odometers would probably clock us at something over 9,000 kilometres given the usual speedo and odometer errors on modern bikes and the occasional detour to view something interesting. It didn’t matter. The planned roads wouldn’t change too much, even if the distance did. Our GPS would tell the truth for each of us on our return.
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If you drew a rough oval through the vertical half of inland eastern Australia you would have a rough plot of our route. Push, pull and tug at the boundaries a bit, and you would have a plan. Plot it all on a BMW Navigator, and you would have an adventure to fulfil. I could bore you with descriptions of the hours of trip preparation details, but won’t do that. I could bore you with detailed packing lists and won’t do that either. I could bore you with a multitude of stories from practice rides to test fuel consumption and comfort factors, but that is also out. We both prepared our bikes, our gear, our ride-fitness and our minds for what lay ahead. Some adventures take a bit of work. Departure was set for Monday 23 July, well into the northern dry season and theoretically safe from the next big wet.
It was damned cold when I left Canberra on a clear Sunday afternoon and headed to Wagga. It was the dead of winter and felt every bit like the usual Canberra winter we all know and dislike.
My BMW R1200GS was heavily loaded, a function of planning for many nights camping out. A tiny tent is fine for a night or two, but you want something bigger for night after night. I knew Dee would be waiting for me in Wagga, checking and re-checking his gear for the long days ahead on a similar machine to mine. The dry season up north coincides with winter down south. It was damned cold when I left Canberra on a clear Sunday afternoon and headed to Wagga. It was the dead of winter and felt every bit like the usual Canberra winter we all know and dislike. It would be warm soon-enough. Maybe. Perhaps. One bike headed out of Canberra. I would stay at Dee’ overnight and we would start our adventure in earnest early in the morning. Dee was ready and anxious to get going when I arrived, but we had one more sleep to go and celebrated the coming morning departure with a final check of our gear.
Two bikes would do the distorted loop to Broken Hill, Port Augusta, and Alice Springs and on to Daly Waters where we would turn right for the Gulf. Borroloola sits on the higher western side of the Gulf and Karumba sits on the lower eastern side. They were our target destinations, linked by a skinny road that darted south from Borroloola to Barkley Homestead, then east to Cloncurry and northwards again to Normanton and Karumba. Beyond that, it was a leisurely run east and then an erratic winding path south through Lightning Ridge and into the colder climes again before farewelling Dee and going home. 14 days. 9,000 kilometres. All for the sake of doing a decent ride. “Spark for adventure” indeed! The fire was lit and we were off in a blaze of excitement and mild trepidation.
The oft used saying that it’s about the journey and not the destination is only partly true. We had a firm target in mind and already knew that it was achievable save for breakdowns or illness. Break it down and it’s about two tanks of fuel per day. Meals were taken on the run and after we stopped for the night. We only had two meals a day and liquids in-between. We relied on a system of getting up with the sun, breaking camp, and burning most of a tank of fuel before pulling up for a late breakfast and a refuel. Another tank of fuel would take us into the afternoon and the second refuel of the day. We usually needed a third refuel due to the strong cross-winds that killed our fuel consumption. We chose motels for the couple of colder nights at each end of the trip, but camped for all of the nights in the middle. It was easy to find a campground for the coming dark, set up the stretcher-tents, and wait for darkness and a bed-time scotch and chat about the day just done.
It sounds really casual and easy, but there were times when we needed a midday leg stretch and cold drink to quench a wind-borne thirst, or yesterday’s burger or toasted sandwich needed an escape. The big, bulky and heavy stretcher-tents were a god-send for old and tired bodies. Maintaining a decent average speed is easy on paper, and sometimes easy in practice when the roads are good and the traffic is light. Contending with skinny development roads, occasional roadworks, humongous road trains, wandering stock, and apparently blind Grey Nomads towing oversize caravans means you are often travelling well below your desired average. Throw in a few stops for refreshments or fuel, and your 700 kilometre average extends from 7 hours in the saddle to 10 hours in a flash.
Up north in the dry season you have about 10 hours of daylight. It is very much a case of riding from dawn to dusk, day after day. We knew that before we left. We planned for it. The planning took months. The trip was two weeks. There were no surprises other than the cross-winds that killed our fuel consumption and generated a few more stops than expected. It is annoying when your 400 kilometre range struggles to make 300 kilometres, but the leg-stretches were always good even if we had to short-fill at 200 kilometre intervals on some days. BMW makes a fine motorcycle, but the seats were not great when the on-bike hours were over the 100 mark. 103 hours and 33 minutes to be precise. It’s a big ask in 12.5 days of riding.
Describing a trip such as this is often met with incredulous looks. What did you see? The white lines down the middle of the road? That’s partly true, but we stopped for photos and had fun making ludicrous hand signals to highlight some obscure observation that meant nothing to those around us and to each-other sometimes. Yes, this was a journey that encompassed the chosen destinations. Some were new to both of us, some were paths well-used, and some were just different when seen from a motorcycle. The people we met seemed keen to chat. We, on the other hand, became a little reclusive, content to chat to each other after hours on the bikes listening to the voices in our helmets. We didn’t use a communication system. We didn’t listen to music. The hum of tyres, clatter of engines, purring of exhausts and whistle of wind was music enough. Strange, but true.
We had more than a few friends express interest in joining us for this ride. It all sounded so easy. Most decided that they had sock-drawers to rearrange or windows to wash and lawns to mow once they read through the ride plan. It takes a special kind of rider to do trips like this, but we are not special people. Anyone can do it. Many people do it often. It just takes sensible preparation, the right mindset and an acceptance that you have to STOP when your body or mind says so. It’s hard to STOP. It’s even harder when one rider is feeling ok and ready to burn a full tank of fuel but the other one says STOP because he needs a break. We both had those moments. It’s a part of the ride and a part of the planning. It’s how you live to ride another day. It takes a day or three to get into the rhythm. Ride, eat, sleep, and repeat. Day after day.
Borroloola was everything we expected it to be. It was interesting rather than exciting. Karumba was the perfect place for a break, so we spent an extra day there refreshing our bodies, our minds and checking over the bikes. We had worked up a day to spare, so we spared our bums and our bikes and just relaxed for a day. Karumba Tavern was everything the glossy internet pictures said it was. The beer was cold, the view was great and the food at night was excellent from the little fish café down the road. It’s a pity that Karumba is such a long way from home, but that’s why we were there. Washing done, bellies full of beer and barramundi, a good night’s sleep and we were ready to go again. It was hard to get back on the bikes and head east for a while and then south towards home. The ever-reliable GS bikes fired up and we waved goodbye to new friends and headed back to Normanton. We were underway once more.
We rode roads where nothing appeared to exist or be capable of existing. We dodged cattle, pigs, emus, kangaroos, sheep, horses, wedge-tail eagles, large kites and multitudes of caravans and shiny 4WD vehicles. We travelled flat country bounded by shrub, trees, rocks, dirt, grass or nothing. We were assaulted by the stench of roads coated with the dismembered carcasses of hundreds of small kangaroos. Can you pave a road with roo leather? Apparently you can. There should have been none left, but our occasional ride into the night proved different as we were challenged by multitudes of the little buggers. We were starred-down by large cattle that stood their ground and looked us in the eyes and dared us to push them off their highway. That was always interesting. Our bikes have good brakes. We needed them often.
It was hard to leave Karumba and even harder to look at the map and the distance we still had to ride, but it took very little time on the bike to feel like we were already home. A mobile home that had a bed strapped to its back and a screen to look through and a seat that felt strangely comfortable even though it wasn’t. It felt normal to be on the bike and unusual to be off it. Multiple 10-hour riding days has that effect. The reality of what was normal had changed. Riding was normal. Keeping the spark for adventure alive was normal. Stopping was not normal. Talking to other people was not normal. We rode progressively further south until the weather forced us to open our packs and add extra layers to our gear. The days and nights grew colder and riding was more about keeping warm than cooling down. And then it suddenly ended. I left Dee in Wagga and headed home.
Arriving home was a let-down for me. It was over. The trip was done. The bike was looking tired and dirty. I was looking tired and dirty. Dee was probably feeling the same. We would both wake in the morning and feel that we should be dressing in our now filthy ride clothes and strapping dust-covered gear onto the filthy machine sitting quietly in the garage. Months of preparation over in a fortnight. It’s good to have a mate who is like-minded when it comes to undertaking adventures like this. The memories live long after the ride, but most are personal and it’s difficult to describe ‘why’ to someone who doesn’t understand the basics of endurance riding and the “Spark for adventure”. The two of us will dredge up stories and memories for years to come, but I’m sure their meaning will be lost on others listening in. That’s ok. It was our ride and only has real meaning for us.
Thank you to Dee for accompanying me on this adventure. I couldn’t have travelled with a finer mate. It’s a lifetime of memories crammed into a two-week journey. Yes, we were born with a desire to travel. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the Ulysses charter. It goes way-beyond the Sunday latte rides and stretches long into the hazy distance where the white lines flash beneath your wheels and the decomposing wildlife assaults your senses and you plan distances and stopping points by the range of a tankful of fuel. If you haven’t done it, then perhaps you should. Isn’t that why you joined Ulysses? There is a “Spark for adventure” in all of us that goes way beyond being a member of a social club for motorcyclists. Either that, or the Ulysses charter has got it very wrong.
Cheers, Mick Beltrame.
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