It’s 5.30AM and nature’s alarm clock is rising up and over the horizon in a beautiful, warming array of soft pinks and yellows. With an uneasy sensation resonating throughout my tired and restless being, I decide it’s best to get up and utilise the early start on tackling today’s adventure: the Old Telegraph Track.
I slip out of the swag and spend some quality time pacing the first challenge on foot whilst the others sleep for a while longer. I absorb each inconsistency in the undulating surface; noting the location and severity of sand pits and protruding objects, whilst mentally mapping out a proposed route that – with any luck – will ensure a clean run through Palm Creek Crossing.
I skip breakfast and instead unpack the pannier bags to retrieve my tools and a 14-tooth countershaft sprocket that I have packed for this very occasion. The DR runs a 15-tooth countershaft sprocket as standard, so removing it and replacing it with a 14-tooth unit means that for every full rotation of the rear wheel sprocket, the countershaft sprocket will need to rotate just a little more. In essence, removing a single tooth from the countershaft sprocket means that a higher engine RPM is required to achieve the same speed in the same gear, affording us the ability to utilise more torque with less strain on the engine. Having the resources to swap the motorbike’s gearing on-the-fly is critical when it comes to trail riding, and then when you add in all the extra weight that The DR is carrying you can really appreciate why the extra accelerative power is absolutely necessary!
I fit the sprocket and then adjust the chain tension by moving the axle rearward to take up the slack, before tightening everything up and then packing the bags onto the motorbike. I notice that the chain is substantially tighter with all gear packed on. I know that having an over-tensioned chain isn’t good for it or the sprockets, which happen to be the only parts I haven’t yet replaced on the trip. A little voice in the back of my mind tells me to slow down, double check things, and then adjust it accordingly. This doesn’t happen, though. Instead that little voice is drowned out by screams of urgency to push for an early start on the day; perhaps mistake number two, where mistake number one is the exclusion of breakfast from my morning ritual.
The engine bursts into life with an unusual insistence, followed closely by a silky smooth idle – well, as far as The DR is concerned anyway. I run the motorbike for a few minutes to warm the engine while I check over everything one last time – turning a blind eye to the chain that is begging for mercy. With the helmet-mounted GoPro running and Rah watching on from the sideline I ease off and re-trace the route I mapped in my mind earlier this morning.
I select first gear and roll into the crossing at a pace that makes walking look like a 100 metre sprint. Keeping left, I find a groove for the wheels to settle into and, going against every instinct telling me not to, I drop down into the depths of the sandy banks dodging loose logs and trying with all my might to stay upright!
Success! I traverse the bottom of the dry creek bed – where during the wet season I would be 10 feet under water – and come to a halt in the face of the crossing’s exit; an equally daunting ride out that will require a combination of skill, momentum and courage, and that I am most certainly not looking forward to as I feel I’m lacking in each of those areas.
I kill the engine and reassess what lies ahead of me; again walking the route that I plan on riding. I stall for a while, though I decide against removing all of my top-heavy bags and just get stuck into the climb. I get a small run-up and try to maintain a consistent speed. That speed, although fairly consistent, is of course far too slow. The main advantage of carrying momentum into a climb like this is the beneficial balance you’re afforded. It’s far easier to manage the change in surface camber with a little extra speed. I make it over the first hurdle, though it throws my balance off and ,with nowhere to go and not enough time to correct the mistake, I fumble with uncalculated gobs of throttle lifting the front wheel off the ground which sends me straight into the embankment to my right.
Mistake number three; packing our luggage onto the motorbike before attempting Palm Creek Crossing. Not to worry, the majority of our bags are now strewn across the dirt – making it an easy decision to put them to the side before round two of Palm Creek crossing exit.
With the help of both Brogan and Rah, The DR is flipped back onto its wheels and I psych myself up to have another go. I have about half a metre of run-up. I select first gear again and feed in a touch of throttle. The danger now, with such a small run-up into a steep climb, is feeding in too much throttle at a low speed which will almost certainly result in me flipping off the back of the motorbike. It takes a couple of attempts, though I eventually launch out of the crossing with the front wheel a foot in the air! My victory is short-lived, as I look up to see Brogan sail effortlessly up and out of the exit like he’d done it a million times before; rubbing salt in my wounded pride and confidence.
I pack the motorbike back up, jump on with Rah and then we head north into the unknown. We get a grace period of around 30 seconds before the road surface fades into a powdery bulldust-filled nightmare. I try not to think about the high chance that the entirety of the Old Telegraph Track will be covered in bulldust, and instead focus my attention on staying upright. Again, Brogan devours the challenging surface at a rate far greater than what we’re capable of. His lighter, more powerful, and stiffer-sprung XR400 is perfect for tackling such conditions, not to mention his lack of a pillion passenger sitting behind him!
I’m forced to sit on a steady 25 km/h and use mainly first gear alone. Any slower and the air-cooled engine doesn’t get enough air flow, causing it to overheat. Any faster and we risk a potentially dangerous crash. The track is tight and technical, so slowing for corners becomes one of the biggest challenges. As soon as I roll off the throttle the front tyre digs in and follows the camber of the rut we’re riding in, sending all the weight to one side and making it impossible to stay balanced!
I struggle like this for half an hour before finally succumbing to the slippery surface – luckily at a jogging pace – after braking for a corner. I try to put my right foot down to catch the falling dead-weight though there is nothing I can do to save us. Almost in slow motion, we topple over into a sandy bank. I somehow end up on my feet, though Rah lands flat on her rear-end! I kill the engine and then help her to her feet, naively stating that “we’ve got the one stack out of the way!”
The low-speed spill whips me back into line and acts as a subtle reminder to take it easy through the sandy sections – especially considering I’m responsible for Rah’s safety as well as my own. After a quick rest we unload the two top bags to make it easier to lift The DR back up and onto two wheels. It’s a real struggle, and it takes multiple attempts with only two of us, though we eventually succeed and I begin the process of draining the carburettor so as to not flatten the battery while trying to crank the engine over.
I’m certainly not feeling as confident as I’d have hoped at this stage. Compared to Fraser Island, the roads we’re riding are much better, though having the weight of an extra body – albeit a tiny one – so high up has really thrown the balance off. Our centre of gravity feels to be at chest-height, which exposes some very interesting handling characteristics. Then you add in the extra water, food and clothing sitting in the pannier bags and you’ve got an accident just waiting to happen!
We ride for another half an hour, weaving between fallen logs, tight tree trunks, wash-outs and waterways; every successful manoeuvre giving me a little hit of adrenaline and increasing my level of confidence ever-so-slightly. With this new-found confidence comes speed: lots and lots of speed. I begin to think less about the way the motorbike is reacting to the surface and my inputs, and instead feel it becoming more natural and flowing. There is less analysing happening, and more time spent enjoying myself.
Note the radiator sitting proud in the tree. People pin-up car parts they ruin whilst driving the OTT, like trophies!
I fall into a nice rhythm, becoming more precise with my stabs of the throttle, and I begin to thoroughly enjoy the small challenges instead of resenting the fact that the road is sandy. The extra torque when I twist my right wrist has changed the entire dynamic of The DR; from an agricultural mule to a fire-spitting, sand-flinging beast! From any RPM in the first two gears, the front wheel is able to be coaxed into the air with little more than a flex of my wrist. I certainly enjoy this more than Rah does. I know this because each burst of throttle is closely followed by the feeling of ten fingernails digging into my waist as she tightens her grip.
This feeling of immortality, of flowing inputs and roads dissolving behind us, comes to an abrupt end. I exit a long sweeping right-hander in second gear, opening the throttle and enjoying the sensation of the heavy rear-end pushing to the outer edge of the corner, when I realise we’re heading straight for a 15 metre pit of deep bulldust. I know what to do here, I’ve been in this situation before! I twist the throttle to the stop in an attempt to relieve the front wheel of all that weight, though with the extra torque from one less tooth on the countershaft sprocket and the momentum of 300 kilograms travelling at 60 km/h, the rear of the motorbike steps out further than ever before! At this point I realise I’m well out of my depth, and so basic instinct takes-over.
Without thinking twice, I counter-steer one way – far too aggressively – and then I’m forced to counter-steer the other way. The last turn of the ‘bars sends us spearing off the road in an uncontrollable slide. I’ve managed to scrub off 10 km/h whilst fish-tailing down the road, and then I manage another 10 km/h as we leave the road and head straight for a tree!
My right bark buster is first to make contact (undoubtedly saving me from a broken hand), which viciously swings the ‘bars from centre to full-lock in the blink of an eye. The motorbike manages to go from 40 km/h to a dead-stop thanks to the tree, though Rah and I continue to travel at 40 km/h as we’re flung from the seat, over the bars and onto the ground – which is only slightly less painful than you’d imagine due to the soft, leafy coverage. Rah manages to hit her head in the process, and I have somehow injured my right ankle. Again, I miraculously end up on my feet as I turn to find Rah on her rear-end; dazed and confused. She’s not very impressed.
Feeling pretty shocked, we take some time out to calm ourselves and make sure we aren’t badly hurt. Once I know Rah is okay I turn my attention to The DR that somewhat resembles a beached whale as it lies on its side against the tree. In the confusion of it all, I make mistake number four: trying to lift a 300 kilogram dead-weight upright without removing any of the luggage, and without bending my knees even a little. I instruct Rah to lift from the top bags while I position the handlebars such that they dig in to stop the motorbike from rolling forward, as I lift from under the 33 litre fuel tank. On the very first try, already exhausted and still shaken from the crash, there is an audible pop! I fall to the ground, unable to move and in immense agony. My lower back is throbbing and burning as though there is a flame beneath my skin! I release a muffled scream and close my eyes, though tears from the pain alone find their way out as I lie on my side in the sandy dirt clutching my back and wishing I was anywhere but here.
I stay down for 10 minutes, lying as still as the night in fear of a second surge of electric pain running through my body and making its way to every extremity. I’ve never experienced muscle pain like this before, though there is only one way out of this situation so I brace myself, bite my tongue and slowly drag myself up using the motorbike as a prop. Rah helps to unload every single bag that can be removed, and we try again with a little more success this time. I turn to her with absolute sincerity and tell her that “there is no way I’m going to be able to pick the bike up again today with my back the way it is.”
We load the motorbike up, slip all of our protective gear on, and I drain the carburettor again before painfully throwing a leg over the seat and starting the engine. We pull out cautiously onto the sandy road and find ourselves sitting on 25 km/h once again – partially because of the crash, though mainly because the conditions have once again worsened with some stretches of sand nearing a daunting axle-height depth.
We reach a beautiful shaded area that looks to be perfect for a lunch break (or breakfast as it may be), and pull out the rations: a delicious spread of tuna and crackers, closely followed by a sweet biscuit or two, then chased with half a litre of water in a feeble attempt to rehydrate our endlessly sweating bodies. The heat and humidity really creep up on you whilst you’re riding, and you find that everything touching your body is wring-able as it absorbs every last drip of sweat. That damp skin makes for an interesting noise when, unfortunately as I find out, it’s pressed against the opening of your piping-hot muffler; it’s always strange to hear your skin sizzle against a hot surface. I watch as an oval-shaped blister rises instantly off the underside of my arm. This day is panning out to be a memorable one – perhaps for all the wrong reasons!
The dense, tropical greenery of our lunch stop zone is due to the fact that it is situated right next to a water crossing. Dulhunty River is the first crossing we’ve come across today that isn’t bone-dry. We prepare to cross the shallow body of water after having satisfied our hunger cravings. It’s nearing on midday, and the overcast sky has opened to reveal the great ball of fire which is unleashing everything it has on us. A part of me almost wants us to come unstuck whilst crossing the creek just to cool off, though we sail through without a worry in the world.
As we approach the other side we’re met with a daunting sight: two options out – both of which are near-vertical and look like glorified sand dunes. Luckily, just as we’re leaving the running water, an opening appears to our right. I don’t think twice and opt to take the third option which, aside from a few deep ruts that almost buck both Rah and I off The DR, is perfect hard-packed sand.
We continue on, through the challenging, technical, sandy trails of the Old Telegraph Track until we reach yet another water-filled crossing: Bertie Creek. The southern entrance doesn’t line up with the northern exit, so I ride east along the rock ledge and cross closer to the exit, where it also happens to be far shallower. Brogan is parked up in some shade and waiting for us. Apparently we just missed him misplace his foot after the crossing, resulting in his first crash for the trip! He didn’t seem too fazed by it, and continued on soon after we arrived. It is nice to know I’m not the only one falling off a motorbike today!
A fairly accurate indication of how Rah is feeling at the moment…
Not long back on the road and we reach what I feel is the halfway point for this section of the Old Telegraph Track. A sign protrudes from a particularly sandy surface, stating: “<-- Gunshot 8km | Northern bypass road 27.4km -->”.
Whilst in Cairns, before deciding upon this route through the Old Telegraph Track, I had punched its name into a Google image search, resulting in pure fear and severe apprehension. All I know is that there is no way I’ll be riding through Gunshot Creek. I made that decision – to bypass Gunshot – as soon as it was brought to my attention that a bypass did indeed exist!
We turn right and it becomes abruptly apparent that we’re in for a seriously tough ride. We’re spat from the lush, tropical savannah vegetation and hurled head-first into a fiery, sandy hell. I hit it with speed and determination, though the unrelenting slipperiness prevails and we end up on our sides rolling around in the searing hot sand. Still filled with determination, I put the sharp pains in my lower back behind me and we commence the frustrating process of rescuing the beached whale: removing all of our riding gear, relieving The DR of its heavy load, heaving the mighty mule upright, and draining the carburettor before gearing up and pushing on; along the seemingly endless sandy desert plains.
Stir and repeat. After tearing a muscle in my back early this morning, and confiding in Rah that I cannot possibly bear to lift the heavy motorbike even one more time, we manage to come unstuck 14 times over what is undoubtedly the most testing and potentially dangerous situation I’ve ever experienced: 40 kilometres of the driest, most powdery sand imaginable, which takes us no less than 7.5 hours to ride through. Never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine riding the Old Telegraph Track 2UP and without a support vehicle would be so challenging, both physically and mentally, nor did I have any reason to not believe the word of many locals telling us that the track wasn’t sandy – until now. For the second time on this trip, I find myself wishing I was riding an unladen 250cc motorbike so I could be thoroughly enjoying myself!
At one point, having not seen Brogan for hours and trying to pick up the pace to catch him, we come unstuck four times in less than 2 kilometres. My eyes glaze over and my mind wanders off uncontrollably in thought: ‘What have I got us into? Will we ever make it out of this?’ A strong sense of guilt and regret washes over me, as I become angry for not only getting myself into this mess, though for also dragging Rah in with me. Every negative thought brings with it a physical tension and tightness that I cannot shake, and that pulls on the torn muscle in my back. We have run out of water and are both suffering from dehydration in some of the hottest temperatures Australia has to offer.
I unbuckle my helmet and throw it far into the harsh, scratchy waist-height shrubbery that boxes us in and makes me feel like I’m in a gaol cell, before retreating to a tiny patch of shade. Both Rah and I are silent, though my mind is filled with white-noise; thoughts, frustrations, questions, and very, very few answers. We’re surrounded by distant wild fires that are licking the sky and filling the horizon with plumes of dark smoke. As far as we can see we’re riding straight for those fires, and a scary thought crosses my mind: ‘Are we going to reach a point where we need to turn back to make a dash from the closing fires, because I don’t think I have it in me to ride back through the sandy hell.’
If not for Rah’s reasoning and logical approach to the situation, I’d unpack the swag and camp here for the night. The thought of pushing on is one that my mind currently cannot comprehend. Rah insists we triple-check the pannier bags for any water that we might’ve missed earlier in the day. Right at the bottom of the left pannier bag is a 1 litre bottle of water, and next to it is a sachet of powdered Powerade: a true miracle, and our saviour from this horrible nightmare.
Note my shirt, which looks to have just been pulled from a washing machine mid-cycle…
With shaking hands and clouded vision, I tear the sachet open to pour the contents in. I lift the bottle to my lips and as soon as I get a taste for the refreshing sweetness something comes over me – I can’t stop! I want to, but I can’t! I can feel the cool Powerade working its way down my throat with each swallow. Rah looks on in horror as I uncontrollably skull the liquid, before she rightfully snatches it from my hands! She has a small mouthful, and then puts the bottle away to save it for when we’ll likely need it even more than we do now – a vastly unnerving thought.
Another B-man helmet special. Please excuse the quality – screenshot ripped from YouTube.
With no other sensible option, we’re forced to power-on. Gradually, the worst of the sand clears and we find ourselves riding across scorching plains that feel to have retained the heat from the wild fires. Everything is char-grilled – everything except for the highest trees.
We find it is easier to ride next to the road rather than on it in particularly bad sections, and do just that. After a couple more low-speed ‘offs’, the road swings and it becomes known that we’re going to miss the burning horizon. I’ve lost all sense of direction and have no idea which way we’re now riding, though out of the blue we come across yet another crossing: Cockatoo Creek.
Brogan has pulled up just before it and is chatting with someone who is travelling in the opposite direction on a quadbike. I catch the end of the conversation: “There’s an easy way to cross, where it’s actually quite shallow,” and with that he takes off without telling us where exactly the easy way to cross is!
I offer to go first as Brogs’ XR is having difficulties with the deep water splashing up and into a breather hose that he can’t locate to fix. Rah opts to walk across (I don’t blame her – it doesn’t look to be an easy crossing!) and so I’m relieved of a little top-weight. I stick to the left, edging around a metre-deep black hole, and then I cut right to follow a protruding rock ledge that gives me some indication of the waters’ depth, which is doing its best to lap over the top of my riding boots!
Cockatoo Creek from B-man’s helmet cam
In the time it takes me to cross the creek and park The DR up in the shade, Rah has found a lost dog. The poor thing is covered in a hundred grass ticks that look to have been there for weeks. It is collarless, swollen from the poison and is in obvious pain. We don’t know where it lives, or why it is in the middle of nowhere, but there is very little we can do. We don’t have phone reception or any way to carry it to safety, so Rah decides to feed it some of our tuna rations and begins the gruelling task of picking the ticks from its body. He knows we’re trying to help and submits to the painful process. We really don’t want to, though we are forced to leave him behind and keep moving – though not before we feed him another couple of tins of tuna. Rah is noticeably upset as we gear-up and get back on the road.
Running low on energy and daylight, we decide to push on and find somewhere to camp. We ride for another 20 kilometres across sand and corrugations before intersecting the Bypass Road. This road is a part of a group of roads which all act as bypasses for both the southern and the northern Telegraph Tracks. We follow it for 15 kilometres and, although it’s a damn-sight better than the Old Telegraph Track, it is a far cry from what I need at the moment. My mind is completely frazzled from such extreme levels of concentration for such great lengths of time, and these last 15 kilometres are very, very difficult to endure.
Another picture that perfectly captures Rah’s current level of enjoyment…
We reach a fork in the road, where left is the Northern Bypass Road, and right – a mere 2.7 kilometres away – is Fruit Bat Falls! I instantly recall the conversation I had with a friendly fellow during Herb and Marie’s Sunday morning church service, who insisted we stop in at Fruit Bat Falls whilst heading toward the peninsular. We don’t waste any time, making short-work of Fruit Bat Falls Road which leads us to a small carpark.
At the end of a short walking track we’re greeted with a sight that almost brings tears to my eyes. The track opens out to expose crystal-clear water spilling over a long rock ledge and settling in a yellow sandy floored pool. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing. It’s a slice of paradise, hidden in the heart of the desert!
We strip off and submerge our bodies in the comparatively cool water – momentarily escaping the tropical humidity and cleansing our souls of the day gone. All angst and frustration simply floats away with the running water around me, and in an instant I feel alive again.
We take a chance and fill all of our water bottles with the running water – like we have any other option – and then head back up to the motorbikes. We ride back out along Fruit Bat Falls Road and find a nice quiet spot that will suit us just fine for the night.
Midway through unpacking the bags I hear a very familiar sound. A DR650 rolls into view from the north, closely followed by a white Nissan 4x4 support vehicle driven by two ladies and then a man on-foot. It’s so nice to see another human being, and especially nice to see someone else riding a motorcycle. I walk over to say g’day. They explain that they’ve been riding the northern section of the Old Telegraph Track and, just over the hill during a particularly deep creek crossing, they ran into some issues. The first DR made it through, just, though the second DR lined up and made it about halfway before the air box filled with muddy water causing the engine to stall. I guess that explains the man on-foot! They tell me that the northern section is riddled with the deepest water crossings they’ve ever seen. Both their motorbikes have been flooded twice over the course of the day!
I explain that we’ve just ridden up through the southern section of the Old Telegraph Track, and without going into too much detail I try to relay the challenges we faced. They can’t believe we’re riding without a support vehicle, and it completely blows their mind when I tell them that Rah is on the back of my DR650! They look at me as though I’m slightly insane, and I guess that isn’t too far off the mark given what we’ve been through today.
I walk back and continue setting up for the night, though it isn’t long before the two DR riders, Dan and Dave, bring over an ice-cold beer for each of us. I can tell you right now that I’ve never appreciated a beer as much as this XXXX Gold I’m holding dear in my hand. I haven’t touched anything even remotely cold for days, and the sensation of it against my skin is almost alien-like.
We exchange notes on places to see in the peninsular, before I get stuck into cooking up a vegetable curry for dinner. It’s just what we need to fill our bellies with, and provides a sense of comfort and closure to one of the hardest days of my life.
With dark storm clouds looming I make an effort to pack all the bags back onto the motorbike so they don’t get wet, and I throw our tarpaulin over everything to provide cover should the sky unleash during the night. We sit around a small fire and sip piping-hot tea, each of us fairly silent though understandably so. As exhausted as I am, I do feel a sense of achievement creeping into my mind. The look on both Dan and Dave’s face told me a lot about what we’ve been through today; the look of disbelief, firstly that we attempted such a difficult challenge on fully-loaded motorbikes without a support vehicle, and secondly that we made it out relatively unscathed. It’s this second point that I hold on to, feeding the fire of achievement and making me feel slightly better about the day just gone.
As soon as the sun sets all three of us retreat to bed. We’re completely spent and as such fall asleep in a matter of minutes to the beautiful, soft patter of rain falling from the vast night sky.