“I have an extra travel voucher,” he told me. “that will let you go anywhere Northwest flies for about $100. Why don’t you get out Minnesota for a week or so over the holidays?
Get out of Minnesota winter? Oh, hell yeah. But where to go? If I was going to travel alone, I figured, why not do a story, preferably while on a dirt bike? Phone call number two to my friend, Ken Faught, who was (at that time) editor of Dirt Rider magazine.
"Ken,” I said, “I want to do an article for you. Maybe travel somewhere exotic and ride dirt bikes.”
“Australia is a hot destination right now,” he said. “Why don’t you go there?”
Phone call number three was to Ray Ryan, the editor of VMX Magazine.
“Ray, who do you know that runs off-road motorcycle tours in Australia?”
“My good friend Warwick Schuberg,” he said without hesitation.
I sent an e-mail to Warwick, which led to phone call number four.
My phone rang at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. I blearily answered.
“Warwick Schuberg on the phone,” a voice rich with earthy Australian cheer said. “I hear you want to come to Australia.”
Four phone calls, and I was off on the adventure of a lifetime.
Approximately nine months later, I was sitting in my house in the suburbs of Minneapolis next to a giant bag of motocross gear and a Pelican case packed with camera equipment, waiting for my friend Mark’s new wife to take us to the airport.
I had asked Mark to come with me back in December. Not long after that, he and Amy became engaged. He was steadfast that no matter what was happening in his personal life, he was damn sure going with me to Australia.
Well, Amy and Mark decided to get married on August 11, about nine days before we left for Australia.
As you might imagine, Amy had mixed feelings about her new husband running halfway around the world to ride dirt bikes with his infamously single buddy.
Mark and I met nearly 10 years ago. I was tearing around a little rectangle of unplowed field outside my apartment complex. I was happily jumping a little pile of dirt when I looked up to see Mark standing there waving at me.
I figured one of the neighbors finally got sick of the sound of a two-stroke motor ripping outside his bedroom window.
“Dude,” he said, “Can you ride here?”
“Ummm,” I stammered, “Do you mean do I have permission?”
“Well, do you think they would mind if I rode here?”
We started riding together then, two guys just out of college and happy to have just enough jing to afford a halfway decent bike and a beer and a burger afterwards.
We also have this uncanny way of being in the opposite place. When he was single (somewhat more infamously than I), I was just getting married. I remember my ex-wife dragging me away from Mark and Jeff at the wedding reception, giving me a hairy eyeball with a crack about me wasting her wedding night talking about dirt bikes and telling foul jokes with Mark rather than circulating like a proper groom.
Considering I was dragging Amy’s new husband away to commune with dirt bikers and other ner do wells on the backside of the world, she was pretty cheery when her and Mark rolled into driveway on a bright August morning.[Fast forward 20 days, and we're in fuck-all, as the Aussies like to say, where it's late and getting later.]
Jacob shuffles his feet, gives the group of bikes and riders on his ferry a furtive glance, and returns his clearly impatient gaze to his feet. He is operating the Jardine River Ferry, an infamous crossing on the north end of the Telegraph Track, a pitiless four-wheel-drive only road that is the only road route to the north end of Cape York in northeastern Australia. The ferry is supposed to close at 5 p.m. and it’s 40 minutes after that. Ten bikes—Honda XRs, Suzuki DRs, and a couple of overmatched BMW Dakars—are loaded on the ferry waiting to cross the croc-infested waters of the Jardine river. The bikes are part of a tour put on by Stay Upright, an Australian training and touring company. The tours colorful leader, Warwick Schuberg (an ex-cop turned motorcycle instructor who used to publicize his training school by deliberately high-siding motorcycles) crossed hours earlier, driving his brand-new Chevy Suburban up the Cape to Punsang bay. The Suburban was hauling Warwick’s fishing boat and motor, our injured riding mate, Brendan, and all of our clothing and gear.
The hold-up that has Jacob as nervous as a 125C rider at the gate is the second chase vehicle, a customized Toyota four-wheel-drive rig carrying camping gear, gasoline, and a trailer loaded with an extra bike, and the third tour leader, one very fast ex-roadracer, Matt X. We last saw Matt and the truck about 50 kilometers back, Matt grinning and telling us how much fun he was having threading the agile Toyota through the Cape’s treacherous Old Telegraph Track. That was nearly three hours ago. There is clearly a problem.
With the light fading, the crocs hungry, and Jacob about to shut down the ferry, leader, cook, and camp boss Dave X decided to take one of the XR400s and go see what had happened to Matt and the Toyota. The group would wait at the Jardine River campground, we would catch up with Warwick and Brendan in the morning, and Jacob could go home. My mate, Mark, and I grabbed the remaining XRs, a 400 and a 650, to join Dave on the trip. For one, we can’t let Dave travel bush track alone, much less in the dark. For two, Mark and I were still hungry to ride.
The section of trail we would be retracing was sandy two-track, an amazingly treacherous road considering it was the only land route to the top of the Cape. The wide, winding road presented plenty of opportunities for disaster. The bulldust holes, gigantic potholes formed when the ground dries and the dirt turns into talcum powder and just sinks away, were one problem. One of these had taken party member Brendan out of commission, sucking the front wheel and launching Brendan and the bike into a patella-cracking endo. Brendan spent the rest of the trip bouncing along the easy route in Warwick’s Suburban, unable to find even an x-ray machine for several days. The back roads of the Cape are a terrible place to get injured.
The ride back was open and fast sandy two-track dotted with four-foot-deep washouts, wicked deep sand ruts, and vicious corrugations. I was on the XR650, and the big beast had a simple solution to the challenges the road presented: full noise (Aussie-speak for full throttle). When the sand got deep and the starting shaking its head, grab some throttle and the bike smoothed right out. Wandering in ruts? Click up a gear and twist. If a washout snuck up on you, sit back and gas it; the bike sailed right over the top. Deep sand whoops? Same story.
With the light fading and the southern stars beginning to shine, the worry more significant than the road was what was lurking in the jungle around the road. A kangaroo, wallaby, or xx-pound bird dashing in front of me would put my ride to a quick end. And medical help was at least a two-day drive away.
With an XR650 barking beneath me, the Australian moon glowing above as the light faded, and the jungles of Cape York around, I had found the Australian adventure I had come looking for. I only hoped that Matt had not found more than he was looking for, stranded on the Telegraph Track in the fading Australian light.
The journey began more than 1,500 miles earlier, in the center of Australia, Alice Springs. The Alice, as locals are wont to call it, is a dusty little tourist town that consists of a fly-infested main drag of gift shops hawking didgeridoos, Aboriginal art, Aussie bush hats, kangaroo scrotums, and gallons of sunscreen and bug repellant, restaurants, pubs, and travel tour companies pushing bush adventures in four-wheel-drives, ATVs, balloons, and airplanes. Throw in a couple of hostels, a dozen or so hotels, and a cybercafe, and you’ve got the idea.
The tour group for the first leg of the Stay Upright tour gathered in Alice. We were going to ride across 1,100 miles of Outback to the east coast of Australia, ending the trip in the vacation town of Cairns. Chased by the Stay Upright Toyota, we would be crossing some of Australia’s remotest country. The Toyota carried camping gear, fuel, water, and spares. Stretches of the crossing saw us travel 400k or more without seeing a single gas station, homestead, or fork in the road.
The Outback, by the way, is most of Australia. The country has only about 18 million people, yet it is about the same size as the United States. Once you get beyond the clusters of people on the southern coast of Australia, the rest is mostly Outback, which is simply very flat, open country with not many people. The locals refer to the center portion of the Outback as GAFA (Great Australian F&@!-All).
Gathered at our hotel in Alice Springs, the tour group crowded around a poolside table to introduce ourselves, listen to Warwick’s briefing, and eat sandwiches. Warwick explained that being careful was more than just smart, it was essential in the Outback. The only medical help out there is the Royal Flying Doctor service, a dedicated group of doctors that fly light planes. Stay Upright carries a satellite phone, but it may be 5 hours, 8 hours, or a day before a doctor can be summoned. The riding would not be overly technical, but speeds would be high, the days would be long, and obstacles—washouts, potholes, kangaroos, and so on—would appear. “The Outback can bite you,” Warwick warned. “Eight o’clock tomorrow morning guys,” he added, “We’ll hit the road.”
The next morning, dressed and hot to go, we chose bikes outside the hotel. Warwick offers a variety of bikes, and urges riders to switch it up, see what they like. I was immediately drawn to the XR650, eager to see what the water-pumper had to offer. Others went for the street-oriented BMW Dakars, or the do-it-all DR650s.
Once we hit the dirt, Warwick’s words proved prophetic. The riding is not technical at all—mostly consisting of open two-track that runs straight for miles and miles on end. Speeds were high, as we ran from 60 to 80 mph for 10 hours or so most days. Paying attention was crucial.
Kevin Wilson, a tough old Aussie, learned that lesson the hard way on the second day out. Coming to a T intersection, Kev’s attention drifted a bit. He came upon Warwick, myslef, and Mark a bit too hot, grabbed to much front brake, and did a clumsy low-speed high-side. We laughed and went to help him up, finding Kev grimacing in pain. His boot wedged under the bike, and his ankle had been cracked (check). He finished the ride wearing a boot two sizes too big, in serious pain, earning himself the nickname Kevin “Bloody” Wilson.
The relatively easy riding in the Outback leg may have single-track-freaks a bit hungry for more, but it is ideal for guys like Hans X, a Swiss engineer and scratcher with no off-road experience. You see, in Switzerland, dirt biking is illegal (CHECK). A long-time street rider, Hans’ hunger for off-roading and Australia led him to the Stay Upright tour. The Outback leg’s easy roads and Warwick’s instruction offered him the experience he was looking for. Hans took easily to the dirt, picking up powerslides and roosting your buddies with ease.
On the second day, with the group gathered around the campsite before dinner, Hans took one of the guys aside. In that serious tone that seems to characterize the Swiss, Hans asked what we were doing when (he made a hand gesture, lifting his fingers to mock a front wheel coming up). When told that this was a wheelie, Hans said very seriously, “You must teach me to do ze wheelie.”
The next day, the group crossed the most desolate portion of the trip, a stretch of perfectly flat country—miles and miles of red dirt dotted with knee-high spinifex, the Outback’s knife-leaved equivalent to sage bush. The stifling heat, choking dust, and the vast expanses had worn us down.
We came to a windmill pumping water to a herd of cattle. The rancher was there. He told us he was 50 miles away from his ranch and was still on his own land. He owned 5,000 square miles of this godforsaken country.
The windmill pumped water into a raised pool, and we took the opportunity to dip our heads into the water and cool off. Sitting and drying in the mid-day sun, we realized Hans was not with us. Off in the distance you could hear the sound of an XR400’s valve’s floating. About a mile off, we could see Hans’ distinctive yellow Husquavarna jersey, and see that he was getting the front wheel about six inches off the ground. Hans was doing “ze wheelie.” “Shift, Hans,” Warwick groaned. “Shit!”
After 10 hours of dust, heat, and open road, the Stay Upright crew pulls you aside for an evening in the bush. The first night, Mark and I were bombing along, the red dust of the Outback turned scarlet in the waning light of the day, when we came upon Robert, one of the guys on the trip, waving us off into the bush. We drove through about 250 yards of scrub brush and came upon the bikes scattered around a sort-of clearing, the guys stripping off gear and gathering firewood. When the Land Cruiser (check) pulled in, Dave and Warwick started unloading gear. Warwick tossed Mark and I a couple of rolled-up canvas bundles. “The Americans,” he said with a grin, “Need to try out swags.” John, the only repeat tour member, muttered something about “canvas coffins” under his breath and grabbed a tent.
John’s description is not far off. Swags are Australian bedrolls, a canvas bag just big enough to cover your sleeping bag, with a couple of short poles giving you a bit of breathing space at the head and foot.
With a bit of help from Warwick, we set up the swags and eyed them dubiously. Not much extra room in there, I thought. Mark wondereld aloud about the poisonous snakes and spiders Aussies are so fond of talking about. The only response was a shrug. “Zip ‘em up, mate” one guy offered,”and I hope yer not claustrophobic.”
While we were setting up swags, the guides had been busy building a fire and getting supper going. Warwick had opened the bar (an electric cooler behind the seat of the Toyota), Dave had smoked oysters and crackers out on a plate, and folding chairs were set around the fire. While we snacked, drank beer, and swapped stories, Dave set to work making fire-cooked sphaghetti sauce. An excellent meal, a couple of beers, and a long day behnind us, we turned in. The swags are a fine way to spend an evening, tho being tired and not being claustrophobic are key!
By the second day, we had covered about 1,000 kilometers, going mostly north and east. As we approached the Gulf of Carpenteria, on the north side of Australia, the land heaved and dipped, with escarpments of rock and more trees breaking up the skyline and twisting and bending the road.
Day three was our hardest and longest. The group had the vagaries of negotiating Outback dirt roads at 70 mph down, and we put our heads down to make time. Foot-up broadslipes around Outback sweepers kept us entertained, and the promise of fishing barramundi kept us going. “Guys, if we can make Karumba, we can go fishing in the morning,” Warwick promised. Everyone either wanted to go fishing or just to go fast, so we humped!
Pulling into Karumba that night, we found hot showers at a campground and cold beer, grilled barramundi, and a fantastic sunset at the town’s open-air pub. The next morning, we piled into fishing boats and crossed the pale blue-green waters of the Gulf of Carpenteria to land a half-dozen blue salmon, enough for Dave to fire-roast for supper that night.
The Outback leg concludes on a pavement ride that had me wishing for a set of sticky tires and maybe an R6. The final leg is pavement, crossing the Atherton Tablelands, rolling, green country reminiscent of upstate New York with palm trees. Winding down from Atherton to the east coast is the Gillies Highway, a savage little stretch of road that is nothing but switchbacks, hairpins, and sweepers. On this fantastic stretch of road, I learned that knobbies offer an amazing amount of on-road traction. Someday, somehow, I gotta do that road again with a proper bike and sticky tires!
We had a rest after the Outback ride in Cairns, a vacation town surrounded by rainforested mountains on one side and the Great Barrier Reef on the other. This fantastic little town offers reef diving, rainforest tours, and other outdoor adventures during the day and great pubs, hopping night clubs, and live music going until four am at night.
Leaving Cairns, we traveled up Australia’s northestern tip, Cape York. Known simply as the Cape, this part of Australia is incredibly diverse and amazingly remote. The coast is reminiscent of Hawaii, with green mountains rimming the coast, stunning white-sand beaches, and gorgeous blue-green water. Distinctions from the land of the luau are readily apparent, however. For one, there are very few people. Head north of Cairns for only, say, 10 miles or so, and you can find mile-long stretches of beach that are completely empty. For two, you can’t swim. Jellyfish, sharks, and particularly saltwater crocs proliferate in these waters, and the coastal waters are not safe.
To travel to the tip of Cape York by land, you have to have a four-wheel-drive. The paved road ends about X km north of Cairns, in Cooktown. After that, the road turns into a potholed baked hard bone-jarring stretch of dirt known as the Peninsula Development Road. The drive to the very top takes at least four days, a serious four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a skilled driver. Paradise, Australia-style, is a rough place.
Our tour left Cairns on a sunny Saturday morning, a couple of us smarting (including yours truly) smarting from long nights on the town. The tour winds up the last bit of pavement along a stunning coastline, stopping at overlooks and the historic Cooktown along the way. We get back into the dirt west of Cooktown, headed away from the coast and back into the Outback. The roads on the Cape tour is more technical, as becomes apparent at the first stream crossing. Tour guide Dave is standing hip-deep in water, indicating that I should ride to him and then across. “Gun it,” he shouts, “and don’t back off.” Well, I make it to him, hit a hole, stall the DR I’m riding, and tip right over. Brilliant.
Winding our way up the Cape, we cross a mix of Outback and rainforest. The diversity of this ride is truly hard to describe. You begin on some of the most beautiful coast you’ll find in any country, and end the day back in the Outback, on flat, dusty spinifex grass covered GAFA.
On the third day, with nearly 1,400 miles of lonely track behind us, we came to the Old Telegraph Track. All along the trip, we had been promised the technical riding we were seeking here. The track, built in the 19XXs to string a telegraph cable to the Cape, was a rough, sandy road that featured deep sand, river crossings, and a couple of tough climbs. We couldn’t wait.
The opening stretch lived up to its billing. It was deep, powdery sand, nearly unridable in first gear, wallowy as hell in second, and pretty good in third. Slow down, and you’ll flop like a fish. Turn the throttle and you are golden.
That day was the best riding day of the trip. Lucky enough to land the XR650, I was in hog heaven. Blasting sand berms, wheelying over streams, jumping exposed root systems and washouts. Real off-road stuff.
The day ended with a 50-km run of sandy road crossed with washouts, sand whoops, and corrugations (stutter bumps) that ended at the Jardine River Ferry. Somewhere on that section, Matt and the chase truck had run afoul. So Dave, Mark, and I were pounding back along that section as the day turned to night, hoping to find Matt around the next bend.
We came upon a group of kids in a battered Land Cruiser they bought for $5,000 to drive up the Cape. The kids had come across Matt on the side of the road, and had a message for us. “Your mate’s lost the trailer,” they told us, “and needs your help.” He was about 30 km further up the track, they said. Off we went.
When we came on the scene, Matt was sitting in the shade at the back of the truck. “Where the hell have you been,” he said with a grin. “We got work to do.” The trailer hitch had sheered off the box of the trailer in a deep sand wash, tipping on its side and scattering jerry cans of fuel, five-gallon water bottles, spare tires, swags, and the BMW across the track. Matt had picked what he could up, but it would take the four of us to hide the bike, drag the gear off the road, and move the trailer.
Forty-five sweaty minutes later, the scene was clear. The bike was about four miles back in the bush, the gas cans, tires, and other gear hidden on the other side of the road, and the trailer pushed clear of the track. The sun was also gone, the only light provided by a slender crescent of moon and the XRs.
We had about an hour’s ride back to camp, and the lighting system on the XR was just enough to spot obstacles in time to go over the top. I lost count of the washouts that I simply jumped. Avoidance was rarely an option. With my goggles choked with dust, I simply lost those and stayed well out of the guy in front of me’s dust. I caught an occasional glimpse of the glow of Mark’s taillight, and slowed down now and again until I spotted Dave’s headlight shining behind me. The moon was bright and beautiful, and the XR barked its way through the sandwashes and sweepers of the last leg of the Telegraph Track.
When we got back into camp, the guys had built a campfire. Matt had arrived and opened the bar. Dave grilled steaks and sausages and boiled potatoes. The beer was cold and the steaks medium-rare. The air was clear and I was sore and sweaty, eating half-raw steak and drinking cold beer at the bottom of the word, at least 500 miles from anything resembling civilization. Crocs barked from the river that night, daring us to try a crossing, but I slept too damn hard to hear them.
The next day, we got up, rode Jacob’s ferry across the Jardine, searching in vain for the crocs heard the night before. By lunchtime, we rode into Punsang Bay. Warwick was there, grinning and greeting us like long-lost explorers of old. “Congratulations, guys, you made it!” We didn’t have to ride anymore that day. Warwick was taking some guys to the very tip, the Cape, in his fishing boat. The rest could ride in air-conditioned comfort with Dave in the Suburban. Four of us chose to ride motorcycles the last 20 km. We had to. We had ridden 2,000 miles to get here. There was no way we would ride the last 20 km.
The final 20 was the worst, of course. After falling three times in a 3-km stretch of deep, treacherous sand, my body told me how far I had come, that it was time to rest. We pushed on to the cape, stood at the top of Australia, and dipped our toes into the surf. New Guinea was a mere 120 km to the north, the Far East another hop over.
After the Cape, we rode another 11 km to a deserted stretch of beach open to dirt bikes. We found a flat, hard, smooth beach maybe a mile long, deserted with not a track. We carved that beach into shreds with the XRs, doing long feet-up slides (not mention some lowsides), on that stunning beach at the very tip of the world’s bottom continent.
Then, our ride truly finished, we limped back into camp. I was as dirty and smelly as I have ever been, and I sat on the beach with my mates, had a beer, and watched the sun set.
The Outback’s Best Pubs
1. Lion’s Den (great wall notes, open air, authentic Okkers bellying up)
Cairn’s Best Pubs
1. P.J. O’Briens (lotsa ladies, great draft beer, decent bands)
2. The Cock and Bull (Ioud, lively Irish pub)
3. The Croc Bar (Ozzy working man’s joint)
4. Tropics (yeah, it’s a nightclub, but the scenery is incredible!)
5. The Pier (harbor on one side, lights of Cairns on the other)
6. Verdi’s (a bit upscale, but they have fabulous Boddington’s Ale on tap)
Chef Dave’s Best Fire-Cooked Meals
1. Lamb stew
2. Foil-roasted Blue Salmon
3. Chicken n’ apricots over rice
4. Grilled Bangers (sausage) and steak
Aussie’s Favorite Words
1. Mate (think dude for surfers)
2. Heaps (lots—“We out of bangers?” “Naw, mate, there’s heaps.”
3. Zed, as in DR-Zed 400, or Y-Zed 250
4. Root, as in, um, copulate
5. No worries, think Bronx and forgettaboutit (“Thanks for the beer, mate.” “No worries.”)
6. Right, meaning alright (“Howzit goin, mate?” “I’m right, mate.”)
7. (They say lots of other things, most of them unprintable but funny as hell)