A Motorcycle Adventure

August 14, 2010 | By Elynn Lorimer

A Motorcycle Adventure
  • Introduction

An exhilarating motorcycle journey from Brisbane to Sydney on a BMW F650GS.

“Woo Hoooo!” I shouted into my helmet as I gunned it down the highway. My pulse raced and I had the hugest smile on my face. It was incredible! Pure exhilaration. It was my first motorcycle roadtrip, my first time riding a big bike and my first solo ride into the Australian bush.

Only a week ago I couldn’t have imagined this moment. I mean, I’d been dreaming about doing a motorcycle trip but it was supposed to be in New Zealand. I hadn’t planned on doing a ride in Australia, but it just seemed to fall into place.

I was in Sydney, talking with the manager of a bike rental shop, Bike Escape, about my plans to tour New Zealand on a BMW F650GS. She mentioned they had this same bike in Brisbane that needed to be brought back to Sydney, some 1200km, and offered me a good deal to do it. She said it was a favourite ride for bikers and that I would love it, particularly if I travelled the country roads. On a map she pointed out the Thunderbolts Way, a 290km stretch of highway running through scenic New South Wales countryside.

I said I’d think about it, but in my mind I was already sold. Since I had a few friends in Brisbane this would be a good excuse to fly up for a visit and a chance to do practice run on my dream bike before NZ.

A few days later I boarded a Virgin Blue flight to Brisbane and imposed myself on my friend Chad and his family for the evening.

We had a delicious dinner, talking about life, travel and adventure, great roadtrips, beautiful beaches, Australian wildlife and bushfire season. Later over another bottle of red wine, Chad and I poured over maps and planned my route. I had four days, which seemed like plenty of time to cover the distance without feeling rushed.

I went to bed feeling positive but spent the night tossing and turning, too anxious and excited to get a good night’s sleep. I got up early, showered, packed and got ready to go. As a final gesture of support for my adventure, Chad & family drove me to the other side of town to pick up the Beemer.

At the pick up location, I signed the paperwork, was handed the keys and given a run-down of the bike. Once I’d packed up and got my touring gear on I pushed the starter button and the engine purred to life. I was ready to go. It was mid-December and summertime in Australia and one thing for sure it was bloody hot.

I rode around the block, getting a feel for the bike and was pleasantly surprised at the ease of handling, much easier and more enjoyable than riding a smaller bike. I felt confident and ready to hit the highway. Woo Hoo!! Motorcycle road trip, bring it on!

The Pacific Highway is the main artery running along the east coast of Australia. It was my plan to follow this for most of the day, taking it easy and getting used to the bike. From Brisbane I passed Surfer’s Paradise, pulled in for a quick pit stop at Tweed Heads and continued down to Byron Bay, where I stopped for a late lunch. Byron Bay is Australia’s most easterly point and a popular, slightly bohemian holiday and backpacker destination.

Although there are countless stunning beaches along this coastal area, most you won’t see from the Pacific Highway. So I decided to take the tourist drive to Ballina after lunch, about 35kms, hoping to see more of the coast. As I found out, you don’t see a lot of coast from the scenic road either, but it still was nice to be off the main freeway enjoying a slower pace and less traffic.

At Ballina I needed to make a decision – continue down the Pacific Highway or head inland through Lismore and down Summerland Way. I’d already been on the road for 3 hours and I didn’t want to overdo it on the first day.

I took another long look at the map and decided to stay on the Pacific Highway.  While I was keen to get onto the country roads, the town of Grafton, which was my target destination, was still another 165km away, at least 2-3 hours more riding. Riding a bike is hard work and I figured I had more options to stop if I took Pacific Highway. The other way was pretty much all or nothing.

Motorcycling is like being in a movie rather than watching it. You feel the wind’s force on your body, nudging the bike. In fact you become more aware of everything on a bike. I noticed the heat, the clouds, the birds, the signs, the distances and a slight ache in my throttle hand.

Fortunately the conditions were ideal for the drive, a partly cloudy sky offering a bit of shade from the harsh Australian sun, very little traffic and hardly any big trucks. I had no problem handling speeds of 135kph down straight stretches of road although I pretty much kept to the 100kph speed limit, especially when I felt strong gusts of wind.

As I soaked it all in, the Pacific Highway crossed over the Clarence River and into the final stretch towards Grafton. The final 30kms was particularly memorable, with the light of the late afternoon sun adding a warmth and richness to the stunning farmland vistas. And as I cruised along this picturesque landscape, there was a mob of kangaroos in the paddock. It was just so…Australia.

When I pulled into Grafton, I couldn’t help but feel a bit relieved. Like taking a deep breath in…. and slowly…. slowly… letting.. it out. My hand was aching. But I’d made it. And damn I was thirsty for an icy cold beer.

I made some kind of an impression when I parked the bike in front of the local pub. I guess they don’t see many girls on bikes, because when I walked in every head turned to look. I was feeling pretty conspicuous, so I just bought a 6-pack and a meat pie, got back on my bike and headed down the street to find to a motel. The first hotel I tried had no vacancy. Luckily the next hotel did because all I wanted to do was have a shower a cold beer and put my feet up.

It didn’t take long before I started to fade that evening. I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, but the heat, excitement and adrenalin of the day had left me almost groggy with exhaustion. I checked in with Chad to let him know that I’d made it to Grafton but soon I was sound asleep, no doubt with a big smile on my face.

On day two, I woke up in a great mood, the apprehension I’d felt the morning before was totally gone. I layed in bed longer than I should have – I was reading the third book in the Millenium Trilogy, Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, and found it hard to tear myself away. If you’ve read any of these Stieg Larrson books you’ll know what I mean. Addictive. But finally I got my ass in gear, checked the weather and figured if I got moving quickly I might avoid the rain that was expected in the area.

I had planned to cover about 400km, which was ambitious considering it was already after 10am by the time I got the bike packed up. My first stop would be the next main town, Glen Innes, which was about 160km away. After a quick breakfast, I fueled up and headed west on Highway 38, aka the Gwydir Highway.

Riding inland away from the river, it didn’t take long for the landscape to change, with verdant pastures giving way to gently rolling hills. It was incredibly peaceful, nobody else on the road, just the quiet hum of the motorcycle, the sun on my back and the deep hazy blue of the Gibraltar Mountain Range ahead. It was like living a scene out of a motorcycle commercial – a solitary rider winding along a picturesque country road into the distant hills and beyond – a defining moment of total freedom.

As I neared the Range the road started to get progressively more challenging. As if marking the entrance to the park, I came to a huge zig zag turn and found myself twisting and turning up a stretch of road, climbing into the massive granite hills and thick Australian bush.

It was my first time riding a mountain road and I could almost feel the adrenalin sharpening my senses as I leaned into the tight corners, my turns becoming more fluid as I gained confidence. 

Sunlight streamed through a high canopy of trees and the air was infused with eucalyptus. A pair of large white cockatoos came swooping towards me out of the trees, squawking loudly and flying overhead momentarily before disappearing back into the trees. A large fat lizard dashed across the road ahead. It was almost surreal.

I saw a sign for Raspberry Lookout and pulled over. I took off my helmet and took a deep breath. Wow! This was motorcycling!

From the lookout, the road wound it’s way down the other side of the rugged mountain range to the town of Glen Innes in the Northern Tablelands region of New South Wales, essentially a much flatter, dryer region of farm country. 

I had gone about 160kms and it had taken about 3 hours. It was almost 2 o’clock and time for lunch.  Over a burger and ice tea I studied the map and knew I wasn’t going to cover my intended 400kms. Another 3 hours of riding and I’d be done physically, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t on the road at dusk when the kangaroos start becoming active. Last thing I needed was to ruin a perfect day by colliding with Skippy.

I could feel the dry summer heat as zipped up my jacket and put helmet and gloves on. I got back on the bike and turned south onto the New England Highway towards Armidale.

The road was straight and easy to ride, but an anticlimax after the morning’s challenging stretch through the national park. After only an hour I found the heat was really sucking my energy and I started to feel the now-familiar ache in my hand from gripping the throttle, so I stopped for a water break. I could smell the smoke from nearby bushfires.

I hadn’t really considered how physically demanding riding would be. I knew it wasn’t the same as being in a car, but it is sooo much different. Rather than driving through the countryside you experience it, the heat, the smells, the splat of the insects on your visor.

I was also a bit surprised at how long it took to cover distances. This is mainly because of the necessary pit stops required to rehydrate, take a toilet break or snap a few photos with the additional ‘faff’ factor required to gear up and down. By the time your gloves, sunglasses, helmet and jacket come off, you take a drink, look around and gear up again, it’s 15 minutes. It wasn’t a problem, but I made a mental note to factor it into my planning for the next few days.

I rode on and it wasn’t long before I was in Armidale, a pretty town with a population of about 25,000, known for wool, museums and its university, the University of New England. From there it was only about another half hour to the town of Uralla, the point at which I was planning to start my ride down the Thunderbolts Way.

The highway is named after a renowned bushranger from the 1800s, Frederick Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt, a convict who escaped prison and made a career of being an outlaw, surviving in this expanse of Australian bush. In this region he is up there with the Australian outlaw-hero Ned Kelly in terms of legend status. It’s corny but I thought it was cool to be doing a ride that had such a quintessentially Australian history to it.

I saw a sign for Thunderbolt’s Grave and pulled over to check it out. It was a typical country cemetery with a simple headstone erected to mark Fred Ward’s grave. I looked at my watch. I had to decide what to do. It was already past 4:30pm and as I looked at the map I wasn’t sure I wanted to go any farther. I had about as much life in me as Captain Thunderbolt, so I decided it would be a good place to rest my weary bones too. 

I took a room at the cheaper of the two motels in Uralla and figured I’d get an early start in the morning. I put a few beers from the left over six pack into the tiny fridge in the room, got out of my gear and had a cool shower. Omigod it felt good to wash the grit off. I gave my eyes a little rest and then cracked a beer and read my book for an hour before dinner.

Dinner was uneventful, just me, my maps and a crossword puzzle at a small non-descript diner next to the hotel. With Keith Urban music videos playing on a big screen in the background, I sat there thinking how amazing the day’s riding had been and wondering what the Thunderbolts Way would be like.

Up early on day three I didn’t waste any time getting packed and on the road. The nearby bushfires created a moody haze across the landscape as I headed south towards the town of Walcha.

Walcha (pronounced Woolka) is a popular pit stop for bikers and local traffic on their way north or south along the Thunderbolts Way or the Oxley Highway that runs diagonally from the New England Highway to Port Macquarie on the coast.

Although I’d planned to stop for a coffee, I felt a bit intimidated by all the bikes lined up in front of the cafes, with their biker owners standing around talking bike talk. As I drove past, being a chick on a bike seemed to draw a lot of attention and with at least 10 pairs of eyes on me, I felt self-conscious and a bit shy. So I skipped the coffee, and went to the petrol station, fuelled up and grabbed a meat pie to eat later. In hindsight I kind of regret not stopping and getting some pictures but at the time I just wanted to get back on the road and enjoy the morning.  

It was 75km to the next town, Nowendoc, on a more or less flat stretch of brown asphalt road. With its long sweeping turns and pretty countryside, it was a pleasant ride, but not the biker heaven I was expecting. 

Nowendoc is barely a hint of a town just off the highway with a well-maintained rest area as big as the town itself. I pulled in, took a little walk and found a shady picnic table to read my book. The meat pie I’d bought in Walcha was still warm and I relished the chunks of steak in gravy. It really hit the spot.

Back on the Thunderbolts Way in the direction of Gloucester, the road started to become more interesting with an initial climb into wooded parkland followed by a rollercoaster ride of rises and falls though forests of tall eucalyptus trees and lush valleys and tree-lined streams. This was more like it.

A few of the long descents were surprisingly steep and challenging, with the downward momentum seeming to pull me through sharp twists and turns to the valley floor faster than I would have liked. This was particularly intense when the narrow two-lane road suddenly became a single lane bridge over a river, only to  climb steeply right back up the other side of the valley.

There are few places to stop along this stretch of road. One is at Carsons Lookout, about 25km south of Nowendoc, which has spectacular views across great expanses of mountainous forests to Barrington Tops National Park. The others are about another 30km further at the bottom of the valley along the Manning River, where there are a few rest stops and campgrounds to pull over and catch your breath after the face-paced, heart-thumping descent. 

Towards the end of the Thunderbolts Way (or the beginning if you are heading north), is Barrington, which prides itself on being a ‘tidy bush community’ and Gloucester, a similarly picturesque but slightly bigger town, where I stopped for lunch, this time parking my BMW alongside the other bikes.

Over lunch I reflected on the last few hours of riding and something that was different today was the road kill. Not a pretty sight, but something I seemed to come to terms with on this trip. I saw a huge wombat the size of a big dog that almost looked like it had been inflated; several snakes, lizards, possums, foxes and what looked like parts of kangaroos.

After enjoying the short rest, I continued my journey south along the Bucketts Way through a stretch of countryside that reminded me of the Dukes of Hazzard. It was early afternoon and I fell into a relaxed pace along the gentle hills and sweeping turns of the country road. I had about 100km to go before turning east and heading back towards the coast for a night at Nelson Bay on the south entrance to Port Stephens.

A seaside fishing and holiday town, Nelson Bay is about 3 hours from Sydney. I was looking forward to spending the last night of my road trip there, and was already envisioning a nice seafood dinner and glass of crisp dry white wine. As I approached the town, I noticed they had a koala road kill toll. (It was at 28, less than the previous year). 

I took a cheap room at the hotel pub, got cleaned up and decided to have a quick beer and go for a walk along the waterfront. It had been another exhilarating day of riding and I still couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

The next morning, with only 200km to go before arriving back in Sydney, I took my time, going for a big breakfast before taking on the final leg of the journey.

After looking at the map, rather than take the freeway, I decided to stay close to the coast and follow the Pacific Highway through Newcastle, thinking it would be more scenic. As it turned out, it wasn’t at all scenic or fun with lots of big trucks and slow moving traffic. And it started to rain

At Gosford I joined the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway and by then it was pouring rain, so it was a wet, full-on hour of riding before the freeway ended and I turned onto the Pacific Highway for the home stretch.

I pulled into the nearest petrol station, a final pit stop before heading into the city. I’d been riding deserted country roads by myself for three days and this last leg couldn’t have been more different, with the rain, big trucks and heavy traffic.  But although it wasn’t the most pleasant riding, it was all part of the experience and I found myself riding slowly into Sydney, not wanting the trip to end.

Once safely home, I unpacked the bike, hung up my wet gear and ran a hot bath. Sinking into the bath was pure bliss.  Wow I’d done it. And it was so much more than I expected. It was freedom. It was Australia. It was living the dream. I couldn’t wait to do it again.

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  • Diane:

    Posted: 08.16.2010

    Wow! You are an amazing writer. Awsome adventure Elynn. Keep going.

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  • Beginning the trip, the nervous anticipation and excitement
  • The exhilaration on getting the bike up to 135kph for the first time.
  • Living in the moment each day, all day for four days. Just me, my bike and the open road.
  • Feeling exhausted at the end of every day. Sweaty, gritty, tired and thirsty. But loving it.

Tips for Riding in Australia

  • Take lots of water. Duh.
  • Get good maps. If you have an atlas-style touring book, it's also useul to have a fold-up map of the country or region so you can see your whole trip and get a sense of perspective.
  • I recommend a full face helmet for summer in Australia as there are a lot of big bugs that will hurt like hell if they hit your face.  Also, if you are wearing glasses or sunglasses, make sure they fit comfortably in your helmet.
  • Make sure you put sunscreen on even if you think it’s cloudy or that you are covered up by your jacket. As soon as you stop for a break you will be out of your helmet and jacket quickly and into the harsh Aussie sun.

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