Published on May 14th, 2007 | by Boris
THE WRONG WAY DOWN – DAY 3
Remember that song, “Climb Every Mountain”, sung by the Mother Abbess (played by Peggy Wood) in Sound of Music?
That woman could sing up a storm, but she didn’t know shit about riding dirt bikes.
Nor did I, and I have no idea why that particular ditty kept twirling around in my head as I strapped my gear onto the DR on Day Three.
I was probably a bit loopy by this stage of the game — but no crazier than Ian, who’d been introduced to the questionable joy of Red Bull and red wine the night before with Miles, and hadn’t slept a wink. He was also out front of our Thredbo lodge in the crisp dawn gloom and dealing with his luggage, mainly by muttering at it.
“Tell me honestly,” I blinked. “How bad is it?”
Miles stopped grinning.
Miles joined us and showed no sign of having been out the night before. He unlocked the top box on his GS, which made a disturbing sucking noise as the seal was broken and tossed in some of his gear.
“Big day today,” he said.
I wondered how today could be any bigger than yesterday and a cold chill ran through me. Miles is not the kind of bloke to make overblown statements.
“Miles,” I rasped, fixing him with a gaze that must have looked like that of a spooked child. “You’ve been up Mount Pinnabar haven’t you?’
“I have,” he grinned.
“Tell me honestly,” I blinked. “How bad is it?”
Miles stopped grinning.
Buckley looked at me and I looked back at him as Miles walked back inside to put his gear on. We didn’t speak. There didn’t seem much to say right then.
We finished with our luggage and went inside to gear up. Mick was making arrangements with Roger for a glorious rendezvous atop the summit of Mt Pinnabar. We would be filmed by the helicopter in 360 degree panoramic magnificence, as we basked in our conquest of the peak.
The clicking of the fasteners on my boots sounded like coffin nails being driven into a cheap plywood box (don’t bother asking me how I know about that — just be satisfied that I do), and I was the last to stomp out of the carpeted embrace of the chalet.
It was brisk and overcast as we wended our way out of Thredbo and up to Dead Horse Gap. The last time I’d traveled this road it was banked with snow and precipitated a hellish sliding ice ride that was one of the highlights of AMCN’s Dumb & Dumber story.
No snow this time, but it was still altogether pointless chasing Miles on the big GS. Apparently a few twists of the preload knob and the wretchedly capable monster (the bike, not Miles) transforms into a sportsbike — and chasing sportsbikes through twisties is not something DRs, Transalps and Dakars excel at.
We got to the Tom Groggin campground and made a side trip to examine the river crossing we were meant to ride through previous day, before Dave’s mishap changed all our plans.
There are lots of kangaroos in this clear, pretty campground and I watched them hopping casually off as we made our way down to the ford. I used to shoot roos for money and I would have made a good night’s drinking vouchers out of this lot, but short of running them down on the DR or throwing rocks at them, I could only hate them with a burning passion from afar.
We got to the crossing and Miles offered to essay it with my DR to see how deep and/or navigable it was.
“We’re not crossing,” Mick declared. “We need to meet the chopper on the mountain at a certain time and if we drown one of the bikes, that’s not gonna work.”
Miles shrugged and we rode back to the road, then along it until we turned into Tom Groggin Station — the entry point for the Mt Pinnabar track and one of the most luscious and beautiful beef stations I’ve ever seen. The place was like a centrefold for Cow Growers Monthly. Green pastures, a meandering creek (apparently called the Murray River here), chubby hooved steaks everywhere… and a bloody motocross track.
It transpired that Trevor, the station manager and yet another of Miles’ vast assortment of mates, had some kids who were quite good at riding dirt. His daughter was in fact the current Junior State Motocross champion and one of his sons (Luke) raced competitively and later told me him and his mates frolic happily up and down the Mt Pinnabar track most weekends.
Trevor’s hospitality was overwhelming. Not only did he not seem to mind the chopper tensing up the live steaks, he also made us some coffee and watched with detached amusement as Mick fired a few puffs of Geoff Ballard’s Monkey Butt powder into my bum crack.
I was in no danger of arse-rash at this stage, but I had no way of knowing what the morning held and figured I may as well prepare for all contingencies. If a dirt-riding god like Ballard gave me the product, I would be a fool not to use it. At the completion of the process, my bum felt smooth and powdery. Much later, when I was sweating like a rapist and pinwheeling down the mountain, I would notice with pleasure that my arse-crack wasn’t a moisture filled crevice of revulsion — which was the only positive thing I could identify at that time.
But right then, I saw the helicopter appear overhead and we moved off behind Miles along a smooth farm track bordered by painfully green grass untouched by any drought.
Two gates and about a kilometre later we commenced the climb — and it was immediately steep. Very steep. And wet. And clayey. And rocky. And rutty. And bedeviled with satanic spoon drains.
And unquestionably and despairingly epic.
Knowing this, Miles had offered me some needed advice earlier that morning.
“Try and stay out of the ruts. Pick your lines and ride around them, but if you do get into one, just gas it on and ride along it. Do not try to climb the front wheel out of it.”
Fabulous counsel. Why I didn’t follow it, I don’t know. But less than a kilometer into a 17km climb I plunged the front wheel into a deep rut, shat myself, and tried to ride out of it. Bear in mind that I was riding up an incline you would have trouble standing upright on. So as I jerked the front wheel out of the rut and gassed it, the DR did what any great bike would do, i.e. what it was told.
It was not its fault the teller was an idiot.
And that idiot watched with dismay as the front wheel came out of the rut and up the side of the bank edging the track. Two things then happened simultaneously — I parted company with the bike and began rolling backwards down the hill, and the bike rose straight up into the air and flipped onto its side, before sliding down the hill with me.
Mick and Miles were ahead of me and Ian was behind me, so I was surprised to see Ian parked sideways several metres into the scrub to my left when I finally crashed to a halt.
“You OK?” he yelled.
“Great!” I yelled back. “How’d you get there?”
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “One second I was belting up the hill, the next second I was going backwards and sideways. And here I am.”
He was making every effort not to tumble further down and was sitting astride the Transalp, trying to figure out how to proceed.
I got up and immediately fell backwards once more. I got up again and saw Miles coming back down the hill on foot. His bike and Mick were about 150metres further up the hill on a level spot.
“You good?” he asked, helping me wrench my bike upright.
I nodded. I was OK physically. A breathing testament to the sanctity of body armour.
“I’ll ride it up to the level bit for you,” Miles grinned kindly.
“I’ll have your babies for you if you do,” I muttered, but I don’t think he heard me.
I then watched agog at the ease with which he did just that, with Ian right behind him, and then commenced to clump after them.
In 10 metres perspiration was cascading off me and I was puffing like a whipped dog. In 20 metres black spots were exploding in my vision and there was not enough air on earth to satisfy my needs. I stopped, hands on knees and retched emptily into my helmet. It smelled like old lollies.
Miles, Ian and Mick watched my glacial progress from above.
“When were you giving up the smokes, Borrie?” I heard Miles ask from on high.
Since my remaining time on earth was measured in minutes, I didn’t waste it replying. I just kept clomping up the hill.
This scenario was to repeat itself several more times. Sometimes Ian helped me, sometimes Miles helped me. Once, Mick almost ran over me, which would probably have helped me as well by putting an end to my misery.
I’d stopped sweating. There was none left and I’d just about sucked my Hydrapak dry. So much of my body ached and pounded with pain, but I was too tired to cry.
Of course, there were moments of sublime genius on my part. Steep bits that I did ride up and didn’t crash on, and longish sections of very easy and relatively flat dirt. But each time I told myself I was doing great, another nightmare of a 300m-long climb would rise before me, and I would find a suitable gear, dry swallow and hurtle up it. Or some of it. Then I would pick up my bike, and if no-one was available to help (we managed to become separated by several hundred metres at times), I’d carry on. Sometimes for as much as a metre. Sometimes less.
The last crash I had was about a third of the way up.
Some three hours had passed since we commenced the ascent, which was worrying, cos we figured it would only take us about 45mins to do the 17km.
We were once again behind schedule, but I was ahead of Ian and just behind Mick. Miles had probably already ridden 17km just going up and down to help Ian and me, and it just happened to be my turn this time.
“This time” I think I just fell off from sheer despair. As Miles lifted the DR off my legs, he grabbed hold of the clutch and made a face.
“Your clutch is gone,” he said.
I remember thinking where such a vital piece of equipment could have gotten to, and if perhaps it had somehow run off during one of the many cartwheels the DR and I had performed that morning.
“Where’s Ian?’ he then asked.
I waved in a “down there” direction and when I turned to look, I could see Ian about 200 metres below and not really upright. Miles then made several trips back and forth, searching for tools, then ultimately riding the DR back down to Ian to see if it could be fixed.
I sat on my powdered arse for a while, then painstakingly made my way, sometimes on all fours, a few hundred metres up the hill to where Mick and Miles’ GS sat and watched.
“I’m fucked,” I wheezed.
“This is hard,” Mick blinked slowly and I remembered how banged up his hand was from yesterday.
“My bike is fucked, too”, I informed him. “The clutch has gone.”
Then I saw my bike, revving it’s mighty guts out, coming up the hill with Ian on it, followed by Miles on the Transalp.
“Your bike’s fucked; the clutch is gone,” Ian assured us as he and Miles took off their helmets.
“How did I do that?” I asked.
“You didn’t,” Ian grinned. “It wasn’t properly adjusted to begin with and all this work has just fried it. It was nothing you did.”
“What do we do now?” I asked — already knowing the answer.
After a brief discussion, we decided that Mick and Miles would continue, and I would descend to Tom Groggin Station and make an attempt to repair the clutch.
“I’ll go down with you,” Ian offered. “I’m struggling with the Transalp anyway, and we can’t send you down alone. If something happens, we won’t know for hours.”
“I’m not wrecking your trip,” I snapped. “I’ll go alone.”
“Mate, I’m fucked. I’m really struggling. The tyres on this are just not right. I doubt if either of us will make it and the choice is simple. There is no choice. You cannot ride up on that bike, and you cannot ride down alone.”
And thus it was settled.
I shall not go into the appalling details of our descent — the memory of which still causes my stomach to lurch sickeningly. It’s enough that you know it was the most difficult motorcycle ride I have ever had. I never imagined I would succeed in making it down unscathed, given that I certainly didn’t make it up that way. The clutch was fried, my entire weight was on the back brake, two fingers of my right hand barely caressed the front brake (one gram too much pressure there and my wife would have been a widow) — and inch by tortuous inch, Ian and I crept down that bastard mountain.
I distinctly remember being perched atop a spoon drain and staring with dismay down the final 300-metre incline. I could see Ian at the bottom and the lovely green fields of Tom Groggin Station through the trees beyond him. And I just could not go on any further. I had hit the wall and there was no more left. My chest, arms and shoulders burned with spasming cramps, and I knew I could not make this descent. I had not really been in control of the bike since I began coming down and that only looked like getting worse the more exhausted I became.
“What are you doing?” Ian yelled as I sat there in despair.
“Dirt bike riding is all about choices, mate,” he informed me from below. “You have to make one now. And you know you can’t stay up there.”
“I fucking well can!” I lied.
“Bullshit. Get down here!”
And I did. Somehow. Without crashing.
Both Ian and I were laughing like drains as we idled back to Trevor’s tender mercies.
We had not made it up Mount Pinnabar, but we had made it down in one piece and that was an achievement all by itself.
Once again, I was humbled by country hospitality. In short order, as Ian wrung out his jacket and re-dressed (he’d actually taken most of his clothes off halfway up, and was wearing his jacket on bare skin), Trevor got his son Luke to load my ailing DR onto the back of the ute. We lacked the bits needed to fix it, but provided I didn’t ask it to climb hills and didn’t load up the clutch, I could nurse it along for a while.
“I can’t have you ride four hours to Omeo,” Trevor shook his head when he heard of our original plan. “I’ll get Luke to run you up to the logging trail at the top of the hill. Omeo’s only 40mins from there. All pretty easy downhill dirt.”
And so the DR and I enjoyed a 20km transport stage along a much less steep and evil track that wound its way gently up the mountain. Ian followed behind and half and hour later we were unloading the DR and thanking Luke like he’d just fished us out of hell — which, in effect, he had.
When Luke left to head back down the mountain, the silence of the bush cloaked us utterly. We stood around for a while, just taking it in.
“I feel like I’ve been riding for weeks,” I finally said, but I was smiling.
“We should get going. Omeo isn’t far and I’m so hungry I could eat a cow.”
“Wanna snake?” I asked. I had come to rely on those lovely squidgey lollies. They had sustained me whenever the abyss of fatigue yawned wide.
Ian was already on his bike and riding off, so I poked a snake in my mouth and set off after him.
The road wound steadily down the range and I was standing comfortably on the pegs and cruising with confidence across the corrugations.
Before I knew it, we were off the range and the sun was out. Ahead of us stretched a marvellous ribbon of white dirt — smooth, wide and bordered by green farms, which were in turn hedged by the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. We were the only vehicles on the road, so this gave us lots of time for sight-seeing and navel-gazing.
I was coming to understand why people do this adventure riding stuff. In the space of 100metres, you can go from a dizzying high to a vein-opening low. Extremes rush at you and you must deal with them on the instant. It is not at all like bitumen touring, where there are often long, boring sections — complete with cops, speed cameras, and crazed car drivers. Out here on the dirt, there is nothing but you and the next challenge.
I found myself captivated by an enormous rock formation that reared ahead of me. I even stopped to take a photo of it. It was spectacular and majestic — much like I imagined my dirt riding now was.
I was thus mildly disappointed that the dirt ended the other side of the formation, and Ian and I motored sedately into Omeo. The whole crew was there, fed and anxious about our whereabouts. As it turned out, Mick and Miles did make it to the top of Mt Pinnabar, but cloud cover prevented any chopper footage.
As I ate the best hamburger on earth, we had a summit regarding our next move. It was about 3pm and we still had a fair way to go to make Phillip Island. The DR was struggling, but provided I was gentle with it and it wasn’t asked to do hill-climbs, I figured it may make it all the way. Fixing it was an option, but we simply didn’t have the time available to us. I had arranged to meet some BIKE ME! members at the Euphoria café and I had every intention of keeping the agreement. This meant we were not to do any more dirt if we hoped to get to the Island before midnight.
I would like to say I was devastated, but I was actually relieved… with a small tinge of disappointment. I was willing, but circumstances had conspired against us.
So be it. There will be other times.
Miles made his goodbyes and set off for Melbourne on the magical GS. I was prepared to carry him there on my shoulders had he asked me to, such was my gratitude to him. I settled for hugging him.
There’s not much more to tell, other than try not to ride dirt-tyred bikes on the bitumen. It’s not a lot of fun and it can be very stressful — no matter how pretty the run from Omeo to Sale is. And it is utterly sensational, so I made a mental note to explore the bendy bits on something more suited to them.
I was also quite over my O’Neal helmet. The padding in it is a joke and it had worn divots in my skull and ground the skin off my cheeks. I shall destroy it as soon as it is practicable. Probably with a cheap Chinese claw hammer.
The only other incident of note occurred about 100km away from the Island in the dark. The valiant Suzuki DR finally gave up when its clutch ceased to clutch and my forward progress slowed to walking pace.
Mick had ridden on ahead for reasons best known to himself, but I wasn’t fussed. I knew Dino and the Land Rover were about five klicks behind me. I put my blinker on, left the headlight shining and waited. Within 10 minutes, the Land Rover appeared and hurtled straight past me.
I hauled out my mobile and prayed for network coverage. One bar. I dialed.
“Why the bastard fucking fuck didn’t you fuckers stop!? I was the only vehicle on the road! You couldn’t have missed me.
“I thought you’d stopped to have a piss,” Dino said, sounding hurt. “I’ve pulled over. Can you ride it five kays up the road? I can’t turn around here.”
I rode the five kays, the motor screaming and the clutch frying itself even more. It was duly loaded onto the trailer and I was ensconced in the back seat.
An hour later, we were rolling into Cowes.
“Stop the car,” I demanded.
I climbed out, put on my jacket, wedged the shiteful helmet back on my head and perched myself atop the DR in the trailer.
“Onwards!” I yelled.
We idled past the Euphoria only to see it was closed.
“To the pub!” I hollered, betting that if any of the BIKE ME! members were still here, that’s where I’d find them.
And I did, waddling into the pub to be greeted by Datalock, Yer Maun and Island Mick. I hugged them all — with feeling.
It is a wonderful buzz to arrive somewhere after a monster ride and be welcomed warmly and cheerfully — and have beer bought for you and your stories politely listened to. Thanks blokes — that meant a whole hell of a lot to see you and to know you had waited. Mick even invited us all back to his house for a 10pm barbecue, but I figured that no matter how much his good lady wanted to meet us, dragging five strange, roadstained, emotional wombats into your house on Sunday night would have been a serious strain. I promised him a raincheck.
That night, after I had miraculously located the only open restaurant in Cowes (Infused, at 115 Thompson Ave), I would sleep the sleep of the righteous and utterly exhausted. But first I had to eat, and so did the others.
I think the waiter imagined I was gonna rob the joint when I limped through the door as he and the owner were closing up.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“If you can serve us five steaks and 10 beers at this late hour you certainly can help me.”
I think it may have been the pathetic glimmer of tears in my raw, wind-blasted eyes that convinced him to agree.
They fed us royally and I spent several immensely satisfying minutes gnawing at the bone of the best King Island Scotch Fillet I had ever eaten.
When sleep claimed me not an hour later, I had a smile on my face that was undeniably self-satisfied.
And I cannot be blamed for that.