When the Ulysses AGM was scheduled for Alice Springs in 2014, my brother Alan and I thought it was an opportunity to complete a section of our 2010 round Australia ride. Then we had planned to do the Gibb River Road, but when we got to Derby at the end of May 2010, the road was closed due to rain. So what better than take off from the Alice to Hall Creek on the Tanami Road and travel the Gibb and return to the Stuart Hwy via Two Springs?
I planned to buy a dirt bike for the trip as my Honda VFR800 was unsuitable for the dirt roads we would be travelling, however my cousin’s husband Bob offered his Suzuki DR650 on loan for the trip and saved me the expense. Bob had been using the DR for urban transport but wanted to fix it up for more serious dirt riding duties. He lowered the gearing, up-rated the suspension, fitted a centre stand and a pack rack, a sump bash plate and, as the bike already had a 30L Safari tank, it was all ready to go bush! I used a small set of throw-over panniers for food and dishes, gloves and water proof liners, a sausage bag for sleeping bag and clothes and a Ventura bag for my tools and spares, 5L fuel and water cans and a full air-bed, . My tent was slung across the seat.
Alan had his trusty BMW GS1200 and, after a few concerns about its weight and general wieldiness on dirt roads, he decided to use it. The bike already had raised bars and Pivot Pegs and a full set of crash bars and sump bash plate. Alan added a Scorpion muffler to save weight compared to the original. He invested in a set of Metal Mule off road panniers for his tools and spares, camping stove and pots, food, computer and Gem Spot. He used a sausage bag for clothes and another for his tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat on the rear rack. The last item was a top shelf one from Expedia and he loved it. Alan also had to have two 5L fuel cans as the GS only had a 21L tank.
I kitted myself out with a new RST adventure suit, Bell off-road helmet, Scott goggles and new gloves – oh and a pair of Alpine Star motocross boots. Alan had a well-used BMW adventure suit backed up by an internal padded protector jacket and externally by a Kathmandu Goretex over jacket. He used his existing Arai helmet, boots and gloves.
We had both chosen Hiddenau tyres as they had a good reputation on tar or dirt. I carried spare disc pads, throttle cables and clutch cable. I had the gear lever extended to allow my large Motocross boot to get under to click up through the gears.
So with all this gear and kit we set off for Alice Springs on the 3rd of May for Alan and the 4th May for me. I wanted to stay in Melbourne to watch a footy match between St Kilda and Hawthorn. We met up in Mildura on the 4th. Next stop was the Flinders Ranges where we spent a couple of days at Rawsley Park Station exploring Wilpena Pound. This was the first dirt road for me and the DR and it passed without incident. We were aiming for William Creek via Maree but the weather was looking very wet so we diverted down the Borefield Rd to Woomera after a quick visit to Lake Eyre.
We passed a sculpture park that had this piece made out of two light planes called Plane Henge. Woomera had rockets sprinkled all over town from its hey-day as a space launch site.
We battled the rain up the Stuart Hwy to Coober Pedy which reminded us of the Wild West with opal mines popping up like a rabbit warren. Then we went to Erldunda RH. We met up with a couple of dirt bike riders that had been hit by the rain and were they covered in mud!
Then it was off to Uluru and KataTjuta with the compulsory sunset viewing on the Rock.
We moved onto Kings Canyon and took the Mereenie Loop through Aboriginal Land around the MacDonnell Ranges to Glen Helen and on to Alice Springs for the Ulysses AGM. During the festivities I took the chance to ride out to Hermansberg Mission and Standley Chasm.
As I had to go back to Melbourne for work reasons, we decided to leave our bikes in Alice Springs until August after I had retired. Alan was already retired so he had no problems with this arrangement. We stayed in a builder’s yard owned by the Fior family business while at the AGM arranged through a mutual friend Dick Prisgrove, and it happened that they had shipping containers on site that could be hired out for storage. So on the 18th May we wheeled the two bikes and all our camping and riding gear into the containers and locked up.
The second stage of our trip would be the most challenging as it took in the Tanami Track and the Gibb River Road. We also planned to use the Duncan/Buntine/Buchan Hwy to get back on the Stuart Hwy from Halls Creek. On the 5th August I met up with Alan at the Alice Springs Airport and we left on the 6th for Yuendumu on the Tanami.
Alan had arranged with a couple of mates in Sydney to make up external panniers to carry his fuel cans. These were held in two external canvas bags slung over the panniers. They worked well, but there would be no lane splitting with Alan’s set up as he was as wide as a car! We met Noah in Tilmouth Wells on the way to the Off Centre Rally in Drysdale River in the Kimberley. Noah was a world traveller and had visited 42 countries on his KTM. He also rode extremely fast on the dirt and blasted past us.
The sign shows the start of the Tanami and its open and a long way to Halls Creek. We had planned three bush camping stops; Granites Gold Mine, WA Border and Wolfe Creek and had the fuel and water to get us to Billiluna 650 kms along the track.
Our stay at Yuendumu was less than encouraging. The accommodation was primitive, the art gallery was closed and we heard about a BWM rider who had crashed on the Tanami the week before and broken his neck and was in intensive care in the Alice Springs hospital. The Tanami was everything we had heard it was; corrugated, sometimes loose sand sometimes rough gravel, straight and pretty boring scenery-wise. It was never boring to ride. I eventually got over the 80 kph barrier and the DR would happily pull that speed all day with the occasional burst through the sandy sections. Alan found the GS a bit of a handful because of the weight. However we had to concentrate very hard on our riding to keep upright and both nearly came to grief many times. We found the bush camping quite pleasant and the freeze-dried meals were great and very easy to make- just add boiling water. Getting a clear area in the spinifex to put up our tents was difficult some nights, and a friendly grader operator offered to clear a site for us on the WA border!
We stopped in Balgo for fuel instead of Billiluna as they had a 24 hr fuel bowser and we were concerned about the timing as it was Saturday morning. We needn’t have worried as the clocks went back 90 minutes when we crossed the border. While we waited for the shop to open we chatted to the locals and found them a friendly helpful bunch. We stocked up on food and water and headed to the art gallery which was opened especially for me to pick a painting. Balgo was a 35kms detour off the Tanami and we needed to press on to get to Wolfe Creek before dark. The track to Wolfe Creek was really corrugated but worse very sandy. I had to keep the DR pinned to get through the worse sections but Alan didn’t fare as well and he binned the GS in the deep sand. That was it and we turned around and headed for Halls Creek instead. We encountered some of the worse sections of the Tanami with deep sand and ruts, but battled through until we had to stop due to the light fading. We were in the rolling hills near Halls Creek and enjoyed a sunset casting long shadows across the treed landscape – quite a contrast to the flat semi desert of the last two days.
We shouted ourselves a bit of luxury in Halls Creek at the Best Western Motel, which was very comfortable, had cold beer and a fine restaurant. The next stop would be the Bungle Bungle campground 100 kms up the road. We planned 2 nights there with one in the Purunulu NP. It was only 50kms into the park, but this was in fact where we had the most problems due to a new challenge – creek crossings! Going in we found the crossing deeper than they looked and Alan’s GS1200 was flooded on one. I had to pull him out and he stripped the crash bars off it and took out the plugs. After drying everything out the bike started and we headed off to the NP. We planned to go around this crossing on the way back.
The Bungle Bungles were stunning and we visited Echidna Chasm and Cathedral Gorge. We met a rider on a Honda Deauville who was crossing the same creeks and riding on the same rough roads as us – on road tyres! He didn’t hang about either – made us look a bit piss weak.
The return trip was even more dramatic than the one out. Firstly I spread my stuff all over the road by forgetting to zip up the Ventura pack. After retrieving it with the help of a friendly 4WDriver we headed to the crossing that caught Alan out on the way in. I turned off the road and crossed the creek using a sand bar with no problems. Alan’s GS being wider had to negotiate a tree stump and instead of firm sand found deep mud! I went off to find a 4WD with a winch and was lucky to meet Will and Michelle who agreed to help. But on the way back to Alan I fell off a submerged concrete weir wall into 4 ft of water and drowned the DR and nearly myself. I was left to dry out the Suzuki and Alan was successfully pulled out – backwards. I had to leave the DR in the bush and hitch a lift back to camp as I had flattened my battery trying to restart the DR. The next day I came back and once I emptied the water trapped in the exhaust system, I got the bike started.
We headed off for the Gibb RR and planned to stay at El Questro, a resort at the northern end of the track. We were a little late but luckily the road into El Questro was sealed except for the last 16 kms, which had a couple of the dreaded river crossings. We walked the crossings before attempting to cross this time. Alan got stuck on the one on the Pentecost River as the boulders were quite big.
El Questro is a resort run by Delaware North – the same company the runs the Yosemite NP in California and is expensive and tailored for well-heeled tourists – not us. We splashed out on one excursion for a boat ride down the Chamberlain Gorge which turned out to be spectacular. In the wet season this gorge can fill up with raging water, but this day it was calm and beautiful. We were entertained by our guides and they did a few tricks with the local Baramundi and Angler fish. We saw large freshwater crocs sunning themselves on the banks.
After a few restful days we girded our loins to take on the big Pentecost River crossing about 50 kms away on the Gibb RR. We bumped into Noah again coming towards El Questro to have a spa at the hot Zebedee Springs. We asked him how the river crossing was and he said it was no problem at all, which sort of reassured us. We passed another motorcycle on the way down to the Pentecost riding two up on a V Strom. The young lady on the back was wearing shorts and a tank top! They said the crossing was OK too which I got more confidence from that the crazy Noah. When we got to the Pentecost there were a few 4WD’s waiting to cross and one agreed take Alan’s luggage to make it easier for him. They also took snaps of our attempts just in case we were attacked by crocodiles – the big nasty saltwater variety.
After emptying water out of my boots we headed off to Ellenbrae Station, looking forward to its famous Devonshire teas. Karen did us proud and the accommodation was pretty good too. Ellenbrae is a 4,000 sq km cattle station owned by the Grollo family from Melbourne. The tourist part is separate from the cattle part which is run by a woman manager. They have 4,000 head on the station. Feeling pretty good about the Gibbs so far we headed off for Mt Barnett RH and some very difficult road conditions followed by a brand new section that was like the Monash Fwy. In fact the section after the Drysdale River turn off was the worst of the trip so far: sandy and twisty so that the high speed you had to use to carry you over the ruts meant you had to negotiate the bends at high speed also. Anyway we survived and arrived at Mt Barnet Roadhouse in one piece.
Mt Barnet is a community run RH but the aboriginal settlement is off-limits to travellers. We had booked two cabins and after unloading the bikes Alan noticed that my back tyre was flat. I had a puncture. We couldn’t get the tyre off the rim even with two sets of tyre levers and were in a bit of a pickle. I walked up to the RH to make a call for emergency assistance when I noticed a small flyer for “Over the Range” tyre service 30kms down the road! I gave them a call and Neville told me if I hitched a ride to his place he could take off the tyre and fit my spare tube the next morning (Monday). What a stroke of luck to have the only tyre service on the GRR so close! Neville added that he had never tried a motorcycle tyre before, but he was sure it would be easy.
So bright and early the next day I walked out to the main road with my rear wheel under my arm and the spare tube in my bag. I got a lift with Jeff, who told me later that he wasn’t really allowed to give lifts in the company 4WD. Neville soon had the tyre off and then I discovered that the spare tube was an 18 in one not a 17 in to suit the rim. We stuffed it in any way and Neville patched the old tube which I took with me just in case. He also found the culprit for my puncture, a thin piece of wire about 2 cm long. I hitched another ride back to Mt Barnett and joined Alan at 10 am for a Big Brekkie which was very good having been up since 6 am. I refitted the wheel and we set off for Manning Gorge about 7 km away.
The gorge was a brisk 45 minute walk from the carpark and we were warned not to leave too late or we would be caught by darkness. It was quite hot in the afternoon and we stopped to have a drink and admire the scenery several times before we got to the Gorge. It was worth the walk and I had a very pleasant swim in the deep pool under a waterfall. We took a “selfie” on the way back partly because we felt that we had really achieved something to get this far and soon we would be back on the bitumen. We had planned to turn off and camp the night at Winjanna Gorge, but being honest we both decided that we had had enough of the dirt riding and were worried that road back to Fitzroy Crossing past Tunnel Creek would be very rough and stony and maybe we’d get another puncture. The driver who gave me a lift back to Mt Barnett RH after the puncture was fixed had destroyed a rim on the road and had to go back to Derby to get a new wheel. To cap it all I lost one of my runners off the back of the bike and it would have been impossible for me to walk any distance in my motocross boots which were as stiff as ski boots. We passed a lone walker coming the other way pulling a small trolley with his stuff on it – amazing! On the last section of dirt Alan nearly hit a cow that ran across the road after I had passed it. This was the first time this had happened on the dirt. I often wondered what would happen if the cows took off as I blasted past them over the sandy sections with no hope of slowing down.
We stopped in Derby at the same camp ground, West Kimberley Lodge we used in 2010 and I rode into town and bought a pair of Dunlop Volleys and a six pack of beer. There was a really good camp kitchen and laundry in the campground and we used both for a bit of luxury after the challenges of the Gibb River Road. We set off the next day for Halls Creek through Fitzroy Crossing and had also abandoned the idea of riding east on the Duncan/Buntine/ Buchan Hwys. My rear tyre was on the way out and Kununurra was the nearest big town that had a motorcycle shop with replacement tyres. We passed the end of the Tanami Road on the way to Halls Creek which completed a 1,800km loop since we were last there 10 days before. So after a night at the Kimberley Hotel in Halls Creek we headed on to Kununurra to a very nice cabin beside the Ord River. Before we left Halls Creek we met Brouggy who was cycling to Fitzroy Crossing. He had more luggage than we had!
I checked into All Gear Motorcycles in Kununurra to get a new rear tyre fitted to the DR. There were few to choose from as the OCR bikes on their way home had cleaned them out the week before. I ended up with Metzler Tourance.
While we relaxed having a beer outside our cabin in Kunurra Alan worked out we had 3,000 kms to cover in the next 10 days to get to our Niece’s farm in Chinchilla. That 10 days was a bit of a blur as we stopped in Katherine, Dunmurra, Three Ways, Mt Isa, Winton, Longreach, Charleville then Chinchilla. We spent a couple of nights in Three ways so we could investigate Tennant Creek and a couple of days in Mt Isa but it was long days in the saddle and the DR650’s so called seat was mighty uncomfortable. I spent more time standing on the pegs on this part of the trip than on the dirt roads.
We met Dave and Rod on DR Suzukis at Timber Creek. Rod was a novice like me on a 650 but had had a fall near Booroloola and was finding dirt riding a challenge, so I tried to encourage him. The memorial was to Rev John Flynn of Flying Doctor fame and the Nicolas in the pink shirt was walking his way around Australia after having done the same in Japan and New Zealand crazy!!
Craig and Steve were riding KTM 950/990 reconnoitring a charity ride next year. These bikes were capable of 200km on the dirt but 120km was the preferred cruising speed. Alan and I could only stand in awe! We had to dress up like Gitmo refugees for the mine tour in Mt Isa and in Winton instead of Dinosaurs we saw a travelling band of international folk musicians playing instruments from their home in the Royal Open Air Theatre – one of the few left in Queensland.
We passed a few giant trucks on their way to the mines. The drought affected paddocks lined the roadside and the road kill was horrific as the roos were desperately trying to find some grass alongside the bitumen. This memorial was for a singing shearer – not much to shear now.
We visited the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach and had an interesting tour of the Jumbo Jet they had. It was quite an effort to land the plane at the Longreach airport given the runway was 1 km short of what was usually used.
We saw a very amusing show at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame were Lochie did all sorts of tricks with his long-suffering horse. Charleville is famous for its Space Centre but we were more interested in watch the MotoGP practice from Silverstone in the Corones Hotel which had a classic Queensland pub bar.
The next day as we approached Roma, the evidence of the CSG industry became evident and wells such as this one were visible from the road.
Last time we were in Roma in 2010 every farm had an anti CSG sign on the fence.
We spent a very pleasant 2 nights with Daniel and Frances Prentice and their family on their property outside Chinchilla. Daniel is a mechanic and had some oil for Alan to do an engine oil change on the GS. We finally split up outside Brisbane at Blacksoil RH. I was going to Wooloowin to return the DR to its owner and Alan was heading to Rochdale to his nieces for lunch and then south to Sydney. I had ridden 10,500 kms and Alan added another 2,000 kms to that. We had thoroughly enjoyed our adventure even with the tribulations of the Bungle Bungles. I was never fully confident with the dirt riding and Alan found the heavy GS a bit of a handful, but we persevered and any competent rider could do the same trip as long as they were prepared for the unexpected! The DR650 was a really easy bike to ride and I can see why it has continued to be the best bike for independent adventure riders.