Published on May 3rd, 2015 | by Boris
INTO THE DAWN – 2015 BMW R1200R
“Wanna ride to Canberra for the Dawn Service?” Biffa asked me, apropos of nothing in particular.
“We leave Pheasant’s Nest at 11pm.”
I shrugged. The time of departure was fine by me. And it was Biffa’s circus and Biffa’s monkeys. He was the Ringmaster. And the Ringmaster decides the whens, whos and hows.
Good call, I thought. The idea of a blast through the autumn night to attend the Dawn Service in front of the War Memorial in Canberra ticked many of my boxes.
“Just you and me?” I asked.
“I thought maybe Daz, Rob and Al.”
I nodded. Once again, the Ringmaster decides who performs.
“I’ve got accommodation sorted,” he added. “My missus’ rellos have a deceased estate thing, a house, that’s being renovated in Red Hill. It’s gutted but there’s a few mattresses and hot water.”
I nodded again. This was certainly my favourite kind of trip. One where I had to decide nothing, plan nothing and book nothing. I just had to turn up. There was shelter from the storm, hot water and I was not sleeping in a table drain.
I have few other needs.
So a touch before the allotted departure time, I presented myself at the Pheasant’s Nest servo.
The evening was cool and clear.
“Straight down the Hume?” I asked.
Biffa nodded. The Ringmaster decides the route.
The Hume was fine by me. Those hopping shit-rats that infest our country are less likely to jump into my face on a major highway.
Al arrived, followed, after a lengthy period of time, by Rob and Daz, who had been pulled over for questioning by a policeman on a motorcycle. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that Daz had fitted his KTM 1290 Super Duke with driving lights that emitted 12 billion lumens, and the left one had worked its way loose and was melting trees on the side of the road.
As Biffa drank coffee and Rob and Daz fussed over the loose light, Al and I wandered about the service station and communed with The Night.
Now if you’ve ridden at night, late at night, you’ll know that things are different.
On the road, in the dark, every night is Walpurgis Nacht.
Your Circadian rhythms are being forced out of whack. You need to be asleep, but you’re actually wide awake and hyper-alert. This produces an altered mental state – not only in you, but in all the other vampires, werewolves and freaks that are likewise abroad at that time.
And always remember that creatures who roam the night invariably have some purpose. Otherwise they would be asleep in their beds. Or coffins.
In the space of five minutes, Al and I saw a three-legged dog being fed and watered by a long-legged girl in skin-tight jeans, who glared hatred at us from her badly crossed eyes.
We were addressed by a strange, ancient, dwarf-like creature with twisted, stunted legs who emerged from an old XD Ford that idled like a Top Fuel drag-car.
“Cleveland,” he rasped at us, as he lurched around the Ford on his deformed legs.
We blinked at a man who brought us, out of the darkness, a sheet of thick broken glass to examine.
We don’t know why there was hatred, or Cleveland, or broken glass. Other than it was The Night.
Then the light was fixed and we barreled off into the night.
I was mildly annoyed at the BMW R1200R I was riding.
More concisely, I was peeved at the stupid Perspex screen that had been fitted to the bike.
The new R1200R is a magnificent motorcycle. I had it for two weeks and commuted on it, did some scratchy stuff on the weekends and was now belting it down the Hume in the night. So I know what I know.
The latest and greatest incarnation of BMW horizontally-opposed twin is a hot-rod of an engine. The bike is fabulously comfortable, and has all the lights, buzzers and rider aids a man could ever need. It also has a headlight that slopes backwards, presumably for aerodynamic purposes – because the Germans certainly don’t waste a lot of effort on aesthetics. But having said that, the R1200R without that stupid screen, looks pretty good.
Now, because the headlight slopes backwards and the aftermarket screen, some 90-square centimeters of top-quality Prussian Perspex, sit directly above it, you can see the low beam reflected in the screen. This is acceptable. Turn on your high-beam and the screen reflects the increased illumination directly into your eyes, rendering you somewhat blind. This is not acceptable.
This has the Perspex screen committed the double foul – it looks like crap and it perverts the use of the highbeam.
I have built a bridge in this regard. You see, I would never put a screen like that on a motorcycle I owned, lest people pointed and laughed. And threw stones at me. The shame would be unendurable. And therefore I am at peace.
Happily, Daz’s new driving lights rendered all of our headlights redundant. It was like following a supernova.
The temperature dropped, and I went a little mad and took the wrong turn-off.
No, I am not immune to The Night.
I know the Hume like the back of my hand. I have ridden it more times than I can count. So why I took the turn-off into the town of Marulan rather than the turn-off into the big, brightly-lit service station is anyone’s guess. We rode up the main street, then had to return the way we’d come to get back onto the freeway and into the service station we should have turned into had I not gone mad.
“The Night,” Al said to me as we pulled up at the roadhouse.
“The Night,” I agreed.
We absorbed coffee with rum in it, smoked what we had, and noted that the temperature was beginning to bite. It was after midnight and there was only so much rum we were prepared to drink at this stage.
So commenced the Daz “I’m cold” ritual, which I have seen performed countless times, but which still amuses me no end.
Daz is a man of means. But he has the appearance of a homeless gypsy. He rides like an older Marquez, but looks like a heap of billowing garbage bags hurtling down the road.
His gear consist of a leather Alpine Star jacket made in the 50s (The zipper on the jacket has failed several times and Daz has had to be taped into his jacket with duct tape), a sloppy joe, jeans, and a pair of Puma boots he bought second-hand off a mate. In extreme climactic conditions, Daz will struggle into his cheap-shit disposable wet-weather gear and carry on, at speed, hence the pile-of-flapping-bin-liners comparison.
Every time this happens, because I love him and I want him to be warm, I have the following conversation with him:
Me: “Let me give you a jacket. Please. I have several. Just come to my house and pick one. You know where I live.”
Daz: “Yeah, I gotta get a jacket. It’s fucken freezing.”
Me: “Had you come over the last time we talked, you would not be freezing.”
Daz: “I’ll be right. It’s not far, is it?”
And sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. And it doesn’t really matter, for he is the greatest of men. I just wish he’d come and get a jacket. His misery wears on me.
We carried on, turned off onto the Federal Highway and upped our speed a bit.
Biffa had decided we would pull over somewhere beside Lake George for more rum, which was going to be most welcome, given that pre-dawn fog was now lacing the road.
This made going very fast both tempting (the cops struggle to get LIDAR and radar reading in fog) and hazardous (those hopping fucken shit-rats get frisky when their fur gets dewy and one is liable to land in your lap with every turn of the wheel). Daz’s sun-lights were also pretty pointless in heavy fog. They just made everything white.
So we settled on “kinda fast” and when the fog cleared we turned into a rest stop.
For those who do not know, the drive from Sydney to Canberra is known as the Remembrance Drive. All the rest stops are commemorations to fallen warriors.
We turned into VC recipient Major Peter John Badcoe’s rest stop at just before 3am on a now clear, cold night, the sky strewn with impossible amounts of stars.
I spent a good five minutes silently staring up into the vaults of heaven as comets flashed and died overhead. Our normal chatter was muted before the grandeur above. Thus humbled, I went to read the entirely dispassionate army record of what had earned Major Badcoe his VC, which was on a sign at the rest stop…
“For his ‘three acts of heroism’ and ‘outstanding leadership’ between February and April 1967, Badcoe was posthumously decorated with the Victoria Cross.
On 23rd February 1967 he was acting as an Advisor to a Regional Force Company in suppo rt of a Sector operation in Phu Thu District. He monitored a radio transmission which stated that the Subsector Adviser, a United States Army Officer, had been killed and that his body was within 50 metres of an enemy machine gun position; further, the United States Medical Adviser had been wounded and was in immediate danger from the enemy. Major Badcoe with complete disregard for his own safety moved alone across 600 metres of fire-swept ground and reached the wounded Adviser, attended to him and ensured his future safety. He then organised a force of one platoon and led them towards the enemy post. His personal leadership, words of encouragement, and actions in the face of hostile enemy fire forced the platoon to successfully assault the enemy position and capture it, where he personally killed the machine gunners directly in front of him. He then picked up the body of the dead officer and ran back to the Command post over open ground still covered by enemy fire.
“On 7th March 1967, at approximately 0645 hours, the Sector Reaction Company was deployed to Quang Dien Subsector to counter an attack by the Viet Cong on the Headquarters. Major Badcoe left the Command group after their vehicle broke down and a United States Officer was killed; he joined the Company Headquarters and personally led the company in an attack over open terrain to assault and capture a heavily defended enemy position. In the face of certain death and heavy losses his personal courage and leadership turned certain defeat into victory and prevented the enemy from capturing the District Headquarters.
“On 7th April 1967, on an operation in Huong Tra District, Major Badcoe was with the 1st ARVN Division Reaction Company and some armoured personnel carriers. During the move forward to an objective the company came under heavy small arms fire and withdrew to a cemetery for cover, this left Major Badcoe and his radio operator about 50 metres in front of the leading elements, under heavy mortar fire. Seeing this withdrawal, Major Badcoe ran back to them, moved amongst them and by encouragement and example got them moving forward again. He then set out in front of the company to lead them on; the company stopped again under heavy fire but Major Badcoe continued on to cover and prepared to throw grenades, when he rose to throw, his radio operator pulled him down as heavy small arms fire was being brought to bear on them; he later got up again to throw a grenade and was hit and killed by a burst of machine gun fire. Soon after, friendly artillery fire was called in and the position was assaulted and captured.
“Major Badcoe’s conspicuous gallantry and leadership on all these occasions was an inspiration to all, each action, ultimately, was successful, due entirely to his efforts, the final one ending in his death. His valour and leadership were in the highest traditions of the military profession and the Australian Regular Army.”
We each read these words on the placard. None of us made any comment. There was no comment possible.
We geared up and rode into Canberra.
Even at 3:30am, the streets were rivers of people making their way to the War Memorial.
The organisers expected 30,000. They got 120,000. There are only 300,000 people in Canberra.
The service itself was solemn, reverential and respectful – and came across as far less contrived than it was. Which was good. They certainly bothered God a lot during the service, but since there are no atheists in a foxhole, it was quite understandable.
We then adjourned to Red Hill, via 40kms of unnecessary riding because Biffa was not entirely sure where his dead in-laws’ house was.
Al collapsed on a mattress, having been overwhelmed by lack of sleep, while the four of us rode down the hill to Manuka to drink beer and eat eggs and bacon.
Daz and Rob bid us farewell and returned to Sydney, while Biffa and I agreed that four beers before 8am was an elegant sufficiency, and that it was probably best if we lay down for a few hours if we were to go dancing later.
We returned to the house – a grand old dame of a pile built in the 60s – and discovered not only our mattresses, but a beaut chippy installing a staircase. On ANZAC Day.
“Fuck,” said Biffa. “I thought my brother-in-law was kidding.”
“About what?” I asked, watching the chippy unloading a band-saw.
“He told me at the last minute he was having a carpenter put in some stairs today. I thought he was taking the piss.”
“It is what it is,” I intoned. “I’ve gotta lie down, chippy or no chippy.”
My eyes were gritty with exhaustion. I felt I could sleep through the construction of a staircase.
I was wrong.
But I did manage to lie down for two hours.
My good mate Elvis picked us up in a car (none of us wanted to be riding around drunk in Tonytown) and took us to a Serb joint where we ate pljeskavice (giant flat cevapcici), and drank German beer and Turkish coffee, after which everything was made right.
Except the weather, which was getting increasingly shit.
Cold and wet.
We went to the Canberra Services Club, which had burned down a few weeks prior, and discovered it had not been rebuilt. Instead, there was a tent in a field and a two-up game that was being interrupted by the weather every ten minutes or so.
Our decision was simple. We were a short stroll from Manuka, where we had had breakfast, which in turn was a short stroll from the Kingston Hotel – and both of which were a cheap cab-ride back to where we were staying, whereupon, if there was justice in this world, the chippy would have sawed his own head off by now.
We hooked up with Peter Wade, who had served in Cambodia. Biff had also been in the army, so ANZAC Day holds a significance for them which non-servicemen don’t get. And if you’re gonna have a few drinks on that day, do make sure you’re having them with blokes who have served. They have tales to tell; tales which you have to hear and they need to tell.
The dead are remembered in such tales. The sacrifices they made, the paths they walked, and the friends they knew, must all be recounted. For those who have passed live on whenever those tales are told and retold.
Sure, not all the stories are about lost mates. Some of them involve baseball bats, lonely Army wives, Russian munitions and Peeping Toms. So there’s more laughter than tears.
And that is as it should be.
Lest we forget not only the horror of war, but the good times and iron-forged friendships that made the facing of such horror possible.
Thank you, to all who have served.