10 November, 2010

3rd time success – the Burgie finally makes it to Birdsville!

…. and what’s this about the pink tutu tourers?

Well, I wasn’t sure whether I was fated to never achieve my goal of riding B1 to Birdsville but on Monday 25th October I am pleased to announce I arrived in town and had a celebratory pint of VB in the Birdsville Hotel.

Getting there, and back, though is a far more interesting story.

Wednesday 20th October started off cool and fresh as I headed on the 3rd annual Suzuki 1400 MCR ride to Bathurst. This time there were only 8 of us, heading East to Bairnsdale and over the top of Mt Hotham before arriving for our first night on the road at the Tallangatta Hotel. It was an inauspicious start as not more than 100km down the road in Yarragon, a fellow rider noticed my handbrake hanging loose from the rear brake calliper – a 12mm nut and washer was sufficient to get me going again, but did cause me to have a few niggling doubts about whether I had sufficiently tightened everything after my rebuild of B1 with its replacement motor and drive train.

It was a chilly start to the day and on the long boring stretches of the Princes Freeway it was good to be able to crank up the heat in my Gerbing’s gloves and enjoy some toasty warmth.

From Bairnsdale things started to get more interesting as we followed the river valley North from Bruthven to Omeo and on to the top of Mt Hotham, before descending to Harrietville, refuelling at Bright and taking the back roads to Tallangatta.

Now for this ride, which included a group of by-now-well-known-to-each-other regulars, we had decided to have a pink tulle tutu made up, and it would be worn by each person whenever they performed an act sufficiently foolish to deserve the privilege. I was fortunate enough to not need to wear it till we reached Bathurst, but more on that later.

The following day we left Tallangatta bright and early, following the Murray Valley Highway over the top of Mt Granya and then down to Corryong before taking the Alpine Way to Thredbo for lunch. The ride along the Murray was magnificent – albeit with a little threatening rain - and it was wonderful to see how much the river levels have risen with the recent rains.

Leaving Thredbo we headed North to Cooma and then East to the coast via Brown mountain – what a brilliant descent it is down a very tight stretch of road with challenging, but smooth, hairpin bends.

Thursday evening saw us once again billeted in the Tathra hotel for the evening, where we were rewarded by a special performance from Winkey* the whale.

* Tathra is one of the best locations in Australia for whale watching. If you want to know more about Winkey then check out the Tathra hotel website.

Friday saw us arriving in Bathurst around 5pm after picking up a couple of stragglers in Goulburn. This time our ride was without incident (unlike last year’s unfortunate accident with Fraser) apart from the heaven’s opening in a major way for the last 10km into town. The force of the downpour was incredible, like someone had turned a hose on you, soaking though most of our ostensibly rainproof gear.

After a late night of merrymaking and catching up with old friends from previous MCRs, I took my 1st rest day as Saturday dawned gently and we made our way out to Mt Panorama to await the core Sydney crew’s arrival.

Now at the top of the mountain there are some great viewing areas. I looked across the kitty litter saw a few 1400s parked the other side of it and figured I would take a short cut – I got around 5m before it was obvious no further forward motion was achievable.

Much to my ignomy, the attached video shows 4 of us retrieving B1, and that is the story of how I earned the right to wear the pink tutu!

After lunch we headed back up the road to Oberon for lunch, but once again we all ended up as drowned rats as heavy rain set in for the rest of the day and following morning.

7am Sunday dawned cold, wet and very windy – I was not looking forward to this as I had a ride of 1,200km ahead of me – but fortunately by the time I reached Dubbo 250km later the roads were drying out nicely, even if the sun wasn’t able to break through the clouds till much, much later that day. Following the same route North from Bourke as I took on my ill-fated August ride, I arrived in Quilpie just as the shops were closing for the evening, filled up with fuel and then headed back out of town to set up camp in roadside stop. It was a pleasant night – clearly a lot warmer than it had been on my previous ride up here and a lot warmer than it had been earlier that day.

From Bourke North it was clear that even though the roads and sky were relatively dry, the ground was still waterlogged after months of deluges, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of emus with their chicks. In the past when I have been through this area it has been mobs of ‘roos I have had to watch out for, but this time there were flocks of dozens of big birds standing by the roadside ready to race you down the road – in particular the mothers who would do anything they could to lead one away from their chicks. They were quite a hazard, requiring regular slowdowns to avoid a nasty incident.

Monday morning I retraced my steps past my earlier breakdown on the 250km ride to Windorah. What started as a monotonous, but relaxing, ride changed somewhat 25km South of Windorah when I reached the first of two causeways across the Coopers Creek overflow. These were around 200m long with a concrete base and water depth of 20-25cm – not much current, and a lot of fun, as the Burgie set up a bow wave spraying me from head to toe with cool, fresh water.

10kms before Windorah I crossed the Coopers itself which was running at very high levels and very high speed, however, it was still a good 30cm below the bridge so there no problems during the crossing. Windorah itself had a couple of surprises for me: firstly because of the solar energy farm they have operating on the outskirts of town, I’d never seen one of these before; and secondly the owner of the local garage – a blind gentleman well into his 70s who operated independently despite his handicaps. The first indication that he was not fully sighted was the mental arithmetic he performed in adding up my fuel and food bills before entering the amount into his EFTPOS terminal. He was able to do this and also run the entire place independently – the only thing I saw his wife do was call out to him the amount on the bowser after I filled up.

I subsequently discovered he is also the garage mechanic – amazing. What struck me the most though was his positive attitude to life. He genuinely loved his work, and loved to chat and meet people – his parting line being ‘well, better get back to work otherwise I’ll lose my job and where I am going to find another at my age!’

From Windorah, it was time to head West. After 120km of bitumen I reached the turnoff to Birdsville and 270km of gravel on the Diamantina Development Road. It took me around 15 minutes to become comfortable with the changed road surface and I was then able to maintain a comfortable 80-90kmh once B1 found its ‘dirt legs’. There was a fair amount of traffic on this road – approx 1 vehicle per hour – including two triple-bogey road trains running empty to pick up cattle in Birdsville, which I had overtaken just prior to the dirt section of the road. I placed cat and mouse with this pair as we passed and then re-passed each other for the remainder of the day, whenever I stopped for photos or a food/drink break.

Overall this road was in very good condition, with only a small number of easy creek crossings and a few detours around the larger mud holes. Speaking of which, I managed to seriously get one of these mud holes badly wrong – preferring to stay dry rather than ride through the slop.

As the video below shows, by trying to take the dry surface to the left of the main track I ended up in a form of quicksand where the more I tried to push the Burgie out, the deeper it sank. By mid afternoon temperatures were up to the mid thirties, and pushing the Burgie whilst wearing my full riding gear caused me to rapidly start perspiring and lose electrolytes. Knowing the risk of this (as per my experience a year earlier on the Tibooburra Road) I thought it wise to sit it out and wait ,rather than continue to struggle. Fortunately 20 minutes after getting stuck a young couple heading East in a 4wd stopped for me and together we managed to free B1 from the glutinous slime.

150km East of Birdsville, near Bettoute I passed the turnoff to Cordillo Downs and Innamincka, via the gibber plains of the Great Stoney Desert – this was the route I had planned to take last year from Cameron Corner..

After that it was plain sailing for the rest of the run into Birdsville as I decided to plough straight through the middle of any wet sections, instead of trying to find a drier route.

Arriving in Birdsville you first pass the racecourse and then the turn-off for the Birdsville track. The racecourse is quite impressive for such a small, remote township and it is easy to see why the race is such an important event on the town social calendar. Unfortunately this year the races had to be cancelled due to the waterlogged track, and this did not bode well for the next stage of my ride - South along the Birdsville track to Marree.

After a refreshing ale in the Birdsville Hotel I checked into the local camping ground at just on 5pm. The manager and his partner had just taken over a few days earlier for the summer season (in outback centres the business owner/operators tend to fly out to the coast for the 6 months of the quiet season and put in part-time “summer managers”). The “summer managers” are typically grey nomads who have stayed at the camp during their own Round-Australia tour and are looking for a different experience, after one season most have learned enough to realise they don’t wish to repeat the experience. Due to their newness the managers were still very enthusiastic, friendly and helpful. The caravan park itself overlooks the local ‘billabongs’ (cut off meanders of the Diamantina river after it changed its course, and where you can rent canoes) and has plenty of space to accommodate the huge crowds that swell to over 3,000 over the race weekend. I camped 50m away from another pair of grey nomads in a Toyota ‘Troopie. After politely saying hello, I had a brief chat, discovered they had just come up the ‘track and asked them about road conditions. Sadly, the female partner in particular, was quite disparaging about my plans to take a ‘scooter’ down the track and regaled me with all the reasons why I was a fool to attempt it, including horror stories of long and deep water crossings, a muddy track and few vehicles on the outback roads now that the tourist season had ended.

I tried to ignore it but do admit that her words did affect me and left me with a few doubts and an increased level of trepidation, so the following day (my 2nd rest day) I went down to the roadhouse, tourist office and police station for 2nd, 3rd and 4th opinions. Sadly, these were no better - all advice and the daily road condition status report, stated 4WD only, and the police suggested I delay as long as possible so that the road could further dry out..

Now in Birdsville they do have one great feature – a free DIY vehicle hot wash using high pressure water from a local artesian bore. That morning I cleaned all of the preceding days mud from B! and then went over her with a fine tooth comb – oh,oh – why is the rear engine mount bolt sticking 4cms out from the rubber engine mount? Looks like you’ve lost the nut Garry – hmm, well that one on the centre stand looks to be a good fit, and besides there is a cotter pin on the centre stand so you ain’t going to lose that bolt even without a nut on the end. Let’s look at how the rest of the Burgie is holding up – all seems fine so I reckon she’s as ready as she ever will be for the journey down the ‘track. I walked around town and lazed around the billabong for the rest of the afternoon before deciding a sunset ride to Big Red (the tallest dune in the Simpson Desert) would be in order – and likely a good test of what the real ‘track would be like. Big Red is roughly 37km West, and effectively represents the Eastern edge of the Simpson.

Unfortunately, due to flooding you can only get to within 5km of Big Red before the road stops abruptly at water’s edge. This is DEEP water and around 200m wide – directly across the water is Little Red, which the track traverses. Right at the water’s edge were parked two mobile homes. One with a mature lady enjoyed a nice goblet of chilled chardonnay whilst her partner was busy in the galley of the other vehicle preparing the evening meal – what an idyllic scene it was looking west as the sun set over Little Red and a 4WD perched atop it. The mobile home owners directed me to a 12km detour through soft sand to get to Big Red, I decided to attempt it but gave up approx halfway due to being waylaid by a 4WDer who spotted my China – Russia stickers, hailed me to pull over and quizzed me about the Burgie’s travels through foreign climes. With the twilight rapidly encroaching as the sun descended behind the dunes I turned around and headed back to Birdsville and my camp for the evening.

That night I lay awake pondering the next day’s 350km ride down the ‘track to Mungerannie and wondering how bad the road conditions really could be.

Well they were, and they weren’t that bad. It was certainly a lot slower and tougher going than the road into Birdsville had been, particularly in the soft sandy detours around the original route which with the recent rains was now part of a swamp.

Leaving Birdsville at 7am (Qld time – 6.30am SA) it was clear most of the track had dried out quite nicely, as there were lots of hard sand sections with deep tyre tracks baked into the surface where other vehicles had slithered their way along whilst the track was till waterlogged. There were numerous long and deep sections of water where the road passed through what were now small lakes with plenty of waterfowl swimming across the road! Based on what others had told me I knew these sections weren’t too deep and they had lots of gibber on the bottom to provide traction.

I would have much preferred to have had another vehicle following me but alas I saw only 4 other vehicles on the track that day so I was obliged to just give it a go regardless. Now the big concern was not personal – I could easily walk out, albeit somewhat muddier – or even push/drag the Burgie out, but more what would happen when the water was above the CVT intake and exhaust and entered the CVT itself.

As I went to enter the long and deepish water crossing I first had to traverse some wheel ruts through the mud, where unfortunately the gibber base had been pushed away by previous vehicles and replaced with pure slop. I gently paddled my way through whilst applying just enough power to keep moving forward – suddenly the rear wheel slid sideways and before I knew it B1 was going down. I stepped off to hold her up but in the slippery mud she just kept slipping down – right on top of my leg. So here I am, no one else to assist, sitting in a mud pool with my foot trapped underneath the bodywork. First thing is to get my foot out, second thing is to try and bring B1 back upright – easier said than done when she just slides sideways every time I try and raise her. Eventually I got her upright and then set myself the target of getting through 200m of muddy water that was who knows how deep. As it turned out, it was around 40cm deep and I could hear the flatulent exhaust struggling to maintain breathing efficiency as the water tried to enter. In these sections I knew I had to keep going regardless as any stop would definitely mean considerable water entry to the CVT and consequent Pulley Position Sensor failure – the CVT had a small drain plug and could handle small amounts of water without too much problems but complete submersion – as I had experienced previously – would have much more dire consequences. So there I went trying to hold a constant speed of around 25kmh, with a bow wave drenching me from head to toe and B1 threatening to buck me off as it bounced and jumped over the uneven base.

The above exercise was repeated at least 15-20 times that day, fortunately as I gained experience my confidence levels raised accordingly and by the end of the day I was plunging in without even first reccie-ing the crossings.

However, … there is always a however……., the last major mud hole crossing 25km out from Mungerannie – my destination that day - was the one that finally brought me unstuck. It was a 70m long section of heavily rutted thick sloppy mud and I made the same mistake as the day previously – rather than ride straight through it I chose to take the driest path. The reason for this was simple – if for any reason I did stop / get bogged, whilst crossing then my CVT would be filled with this mud – a situation even less preferable than having the CVT full of water - and I would need to tear the CVT down to remove all the slop, not something I fancied in the middle of nowhere.

So I elected to follow the wheel ruts left by trucks. The problem with this was that the wheel ruts were deep – around 35cm - and relatively narrow. I got halfway through when B1’s lower fairing simply jammed themselves against the walls of the rut and lo and behold to use a Rolls Royce’ism, B1 “failed to proceed”. Ok I thought, I’ll simply kick down the one of the rut walls so she won’t hang up. First task was to park the Burgie upright, which meant pushing her over on her left so that she could rest against the taller rut wall – easier said than done as B1 preferred to lay down her right side directly into the slop. Next was to take off my helmet, jacket and gloves as I was by now sweating tremendously in the late afternoon sun. Now to kick down the rut walls – ok, done. Finally to get B1 started and moving again – well she started fine, and I assisted the motor by slowly pushed her forward into the deeper goop with the muddy slop oozing over the top of my boots.

I managed to move her forward around 5m before B1 again lost traction and by which time I was once again exhausted. Usually what was left of my energy I propped B1 up against the wall of the rut again and went to sit down to recover my energies for a second attempt. 15 minutes later I was ready but what is that I spot in the distance? – two FWDs coming down the track from Birdsville and bearing knights in shiny armour!

After surveying the scene, one of the drivers reluctantly agreed to assist (quite understandably, he really wasn’t that keen in stepping out of his air-conditioned luxury cabin and into the hot, stinking ooze) and gave me a push to get B1 moving again. This time I got a further 10 metres before she once again lost traction and span her rear wheel in vain. Ok, another 5 minute rest and I was ready to sit astride B1 and with one final push she was free and I bucked and hopped through the remaining 15 metres of goop onto dry ground.

The final 25km into Mungerannie went smoothly and quickly, and it was sight for sore eyes to see my first man-made structure for 350km.

To say I had well and truly worked up a thirst would be quite and understatement, so immediately on arrival it was straight in to the bar and two cans of VB followed each other in quick succession down my throat.

Feeling a little more refreshed, I paid for my campsite and went to set up my tent by the lagoon which is fed by an artesian bore. There is a natural pool you can swim or luxuriate in - with its high sulphur content it’s a little smelly – and very hot (around 75C), but you can vary the temperature by mixing the cool lagoon and hot bore water. The birdlife here is prolific with hordes of swirling, screeching parrots and gentle sedate waterfowl, including pelicans, paddling peacefully around. A very relaxing night was had indeed, which put me in good stead for Thursday’s riding.

As I only had 250km more of the Birdsville track to go I decided to take a relaxed approach and it was close to 8am by the time I was all packed up and ready to hit the road again. By comparison with the previous day the first 60kms of riding was an absolute breeze with a nice hard packed surface that you could easily maintain 100kmh on, and minimal water crossings / bog holes. On the advice of the Mungerannie hotel manager I rode past the ferry detour sign and continued on another 8km to Coopers Creek. The track gently disappeared into the waters whilst the small hillocks that bordered the track continued out into the water in much the same manner as the silt arms of the Mitchell River in the Gippsland Lakes – quite a surreal picture.

Once back at the ferry detour turnoff the track became very soft, sandy and corrugated – the conditions I hate most to ride on. – for the rest of the way to the ferry.

At the ferry the Burgie was able to fit behind a LandCruiser and it was a quick crossing. The ferry operators were a great pair of blokes but they have clearly been given some grief by the powers-that-be though, as they are most officious about ensuring you wear a life jacket during the crossing.

Once across the water it was another rough corrugated ride back to where the ferry detour joined the main track, then a fairly smooth surface all the way to Marree as a lot of the track had either been, or was in the process of being, graded. This graded surface was not the best for the Burgie though as B1’s small front wheel tends to dig in as soon as the surface is either loose or soft, so speeds were kept well down. In addition, there were still quite a few corrugations and chopped up areas, which caused the Burgie’s back-end to hop out and give me a few heart-stopping moments.

I thought the hopping out was a little odd, however, especially the way it caused bump steer in the ruts, and initially I thought must have a flat tyre, but then realised I must have spun a rear wheel bearing again – a result of the hammering the rear wheel was taking on the corrugations. The bearing was definitely gone, but not too bad especially later when I got back on the bitumen - as it was, it got me all the way back to home (another 1,500km) but only just, as the whole bearing had disintegrated apart from the inner and outer shells. In addition, the corrugations had caused the frame - fairing mounts to crack again. Now with a spun wheel bearing and a loose fairing I decided to drop my speed and take things a little easier, doing this though I noticed something unusual – the Burgie was running hot, much hotter than it usually would in such conditions, even with the relatively high inland SA temperatures we were experiencing. Each time I stopped I noticed the radiator fan would continue operating for a minute or so – hmm, that’s strange I thought?

Now things got even more interesting. When I reached Marree (the beginning of the Oodnadatta track) I pulled up to the general store to ask if they had a mechanic shop (to help with replacement of the wheel bearings – I was carrying spare bearings but realised I would need a puller to get the old ones out as tapping them out would not be achievable if the inner and outer races had separated). Alas the nearest workshop was 110km further South in Copley.

I walked back out to the pump forecourt where B1 was parked and saw a small pool of oil on the ground directly under B1. Looking underneath I realised the transmission drain plug had departed somewhere up the track and I was running with no oil in the transmission – I now had an explanation of why B1 was running a bit hotter than usual with no lubrication for the transmission (Note: at this point it is important to explain that the transmission in the Burgie is not likely a regular transmission. It is simply a set of two cogs acting as a reduction ratio from the clutch output to the gear driven final drive). There was nowhere I could buy a replacement fine metric bolt in Marree and decided to risk riding slowly South whilst stopping frequently to avoid further overheating. I got as far as Lyndhurst (turnoff for the Strezlecki track to Innamincka) when I thought I should fill up with fuel. I figured just for the hell of it I’d ask the store owner whether she sold drain plugs and before I knew it she directed me to her husband who was sitting enjoying a few quiet ones in the workshop out the back. Turns out he had a full workshop out there but had let the mechanic go due to the intermittent and irregular business requirements in a small town like Lyndhurst. Anyways, this gentleman (Neil) was great, made me feel right at home and suggested we use an old spark plug as makeshift drain plug as sparkplugs came in fine metric pitch sizes. He offered up ½ a dozen old plugs, one of which was a perfect fit. I put that in, bought a litre of oil from Neil, pumped in 350ml to the transmission, threw the rest in the engine and Bob was most definitely the avuncular old fella he is known to be, from that point forwards. I am sure Neil would also let me use his workshop to replace the rear wheel bearing but decided I had already troubled him enough and did not want to take advantage of his hospitality and overstay my welcome.

From there it was a fairly straightforward ride down to Copley (a town with a sad and disenfranchised indigenous population), via Leigh Creek coal mine to check into the local caravan park and then into the local pub (named the Leigh Creek Hotel but situated in Copley – yes, there is a history to why this is so) to take advantage of their huge Thursday $12 schnitzel specials.

Friday it was a straightforward run down the bitumen past the Flinders Ranges, and across many sections of flood damaged roads, to Hawker (gateway to the Flinders Ranges) and Quorn – at which pint the heavens opened. I pressed on to Pt Augusta and walked into the tourist Office dripping and not even removing my helmet or gloves. They directed me to the local caravan park where that night I elected to rent a cabin rather than erecting my tent.

Saturday, another wet ride South to Adelaide and a downtown backpackers where the majority of guests were dressed up a zombies for an early Halloween celebration.

Sunday morning was also damp and I raced up Mt Barkley only to overtake 25 postie bikes taking part in the ‘Male Bag’ ride for prostate cancer research.

Crossing the border at Border Town I felt and heard further grumbles from the rear end as the bearing further collapsed and the balls started to pulverise themselves. I then took it fairly slowly the rest of the way back to Melbourne arriving home late afternoon.

The total ride distance was just over 5,700km (or approx 3,600 miles) over 10 days of riding (and two rest days), averaging 570km per day.

B1 has been cleaned washed, her vital fluids replaced and her rear wheel replaced with the spare I have – given the damage to the hub caused by the bearing failures in Kazakhstan and Marree I think it is time to retire it. The fairing mounts have been welded I have also swapped out a few of the badly damaged body panels with spares which I found on eBay.

B1 is all ready for her next trip, the question now is where? Why do I keep hearing that little bird whispering Oodnadatta Track and Gun Barrel Highway?