Old Man and the Three.
Old Man and the Three
Taking postie bikes where no posties have gone before
Written by Duncan Menge
The night is dark. The road is rocky. And I can’t help thinking about how far the drop is to my right as my front tire bounces from rock to rock. Then, without time to respond, my heavily laden KTM is pointing over the edge. The headlight illuminates nothing but the dark void yawning below. On the brakes but it’s too late. I drop the bike just as the front wheel sails over the edge and it lands awkwardly on a fragile fairing. In all my six months of riding I’ve never seen roads like this. As I struggle to pull the bike back up, I reflect on my situation.
Any novice rider who finds themselves on a rocky trail, at night, and led by a couple of experienced riders hell-bent on self destruction will know what I mean when I talk about a Baptism of Fire. The fire I endured for the week of the 2008 Alpine Rally was in the wake of three postie bikes that my companions ride. As they howled through the forest like red Indians, I trailed on and tried to comprehend why on earth you’d choose to ride a CT110 rather than, well, anything else.
“Because anything else is too easy”, was the usual response to that question. But as I watched them pass big, purpose built bikes on the shifty dirt roads of the Australian Alps, nothing looked easier. No clutch, sappy power and awkward handling are the usual hallmarks of an over-laden Postie, so there had to be more to it than that.
I find the red barons waiting at a place called Dubbo Flat. It’s a muddy paddock with deep ruts and slippery grass.
“That road is like liquid Teflon.” I say to a helmeted figure in the darkness after dropping my bike next to the creek. That’s the third time tonight already. A wry, knowing chuckle suggests they know something I don’t about where we’re going.
For the next seven days I’ll be riding through the Victorian Alpine National Park with Paul and Josh Evans and Ben Rollison. Josh and his Old Man have been riding all their life, their names familiar to many that attend the Alpine Rally. Josh maintains he is the youngest ever to attend the Rally, though that claim is widely disputed. Piloting the third Postie is Ben, Josh’s business partner. Together they run a commercial photographic studio in Sydney. The three of them aim to take their posties where no postie has gone before.
After four and a half hours of gruelling fire trails, we make camp at the Coolamine Homestead, off Long Plain Road in deep south NSW. Getting a bike through the gate with full pannier bags is a bit like threading a camel through a needle’s eye, so we scouted around for a break in the fence to do our best Steve McQueen impersonation. In the thick darkness of night this stunt isn’t going to be easy, but somehow we manage. Exhausted I sprawl out in front of our campfire and try to make more sense of this whole postie-bike thing.
“So, apart from making everything harder, why else do you ride them?” I ask, throwing another log on the fire.
“Well,” Josh responds, “I’ve been riding fast bikes all my life. Riding ten-tenths of my ability, and sometimes more. If I push myself any further I’ll just end up dead…or with no licence. I wanted a new challenge, to see if I could push these bikes to their limit and do everything the big GS’s do. And keep my licence at the same time, since flat out on one of these things is barely 80 kph. Well that, and Ben here challenged me to do it”
For now this sounds good enough for me, and after a meal of re-constituted Thai chilli chicken, I gaze up to the stars and breathe a sigh of relief that the first day is over
On our second day we make a late start, which is further delayed by Josh’s first flat tire. This gives us a rare opportunity to boil the Billy for a quick cup of tea and enjoy the surrounds of Currango Homestead. Nice place to break down, we remark to Josh, who, over the next week on our rally, shaves down the time to fix a flat tire to a meagre 20 minutes. But our schedule requires that we cross the Murray at Tom Groggin that afternoon and our dilly-dallying around cuts our first day too short. The next best place to stop for that night, then, would have to be Bradley’s Hut.
After what seemed to be countless miles of fire trails and amazing countryside, we arrive at Cabramurra to fill up on fuel and booze. There is no snow on the ground as we cruise into town, which we’re grateful for later, but with out it the place feels a bit empty.
The sun is setting now, and as we leave, a tarmac serpentine stretches out before us, weaving through the hills and dams of the Cabramurra area. The Posties motors weren’t exactly gutsy, so in keeping with the spirit of the highway, I gunned it and left the others behind. Truth be known though, if the other’s weren’t on posties there’s no way I could keep up. And there’s only one thing worse than a learner rider on these roads, and that’s a rider who’s just got his full licence. As I pull back the reigns of my over-powered motard, and manage to get my stomach back where it’s supposed to be, the others catch up and we check the temperature. It’s –4 degrees and cold enough for fingers to snap straight off.
The sun has completely disappeared by the time we reached Bradley’s Hut, which is by now bathed in the soft tones of the snowy mountains twilight. All day I marvelled at the landscape and the great roads and at how they were all empty of other motorcyclists.
Paul, the oldest member of our group, is a GS owner with an undampend sense of adventure and flickers’ with the rebellious spirit of his childhood. As the smoke of the Bradley’s hut fire burns our eyes and fills the room with a thick gloom, I comment that I am honoured to have his company. It seems, out of all his old riding buddies he would rather ride with us young blokes, and on a postie at that. His response surprises me: “The difference between all those guys and you is that you’re here. My old friends are more likely to be sitting in front of their flat-screen TV’s with their slippers on, rather than being here and getting into it.” As right now I’m unable to breathe, I can see the appeal…
When the sun rises and we coax our sore bodies into action, thoughts of staying at home vaporise along with the frost on the road. Through the biting cold we press on, and soon we’re basking in the morning sun of our highway freedom.
Today we were headed for our most dreaded river crossing, Tom Groggin. But there is a lot more water between here and there. When I say water, I mean 65 meters of it in the shape of the longest river crossing any of us were to encounter this week.
Crossing large bodies of water on any bike is cause for trepidation. Crossing a puddle on a postie is usually enough to make your heart stop, let alone your bike. As we approach we see clearly what are fondly known as “lucky stones” lining the bottom of the river. These greasy, smooth stones make falling over in the drink easy. Somehow I volunteer to go first. This way, the others can gauge how deep the water is. The KTM cruises over without a hitch, but after touching down safely on the other side, I cast my eye across the waters to see all manner of panic. The others see how deep the water is and realise it will engulf their carbies in a wave of motor-killing liquid. As the boys literally reach for their fishing waders, our dream of crossing more water during the week seems to almost fade.
Anyone who denies the phrase “you get what you pay for” is a pure and hopeless optimist. Those waders the postie pirates have donned, only last for one river crossing. And even then poor old Paul has sustained a wet foot that stays with him the rest of the week. Well then, what do you expect for $20 bucks?
Josh experiments with his choke setting as he crosses the river, trying to get just the right water/fuel mixture to get across without stalling. After some tinkering it actually works, but as he paddles and splashes about trying to kick-start, I see why being able to ride the clutch is such an asset. If these guys were after a challenge they sure found it.
Following this watery adventure, we finally come the greatly anticipated ford crossing at Tom Groggin. At this time of year the water level is unpredictable and it is sure to be chilly. As we approach the water’s edge the Postie-bikes squirm in dread of yet another splashdown. Kindly, the water level is quite low. Ben, though, ever keen to get the messy stuff done with early, heads straight in and finds himself in the deepest section of riverbed. Ah yes, the old “didn’t check the depth first” trick. Gets ‘em every time. With further splashing around and another torn wader, Ben’s step-through is on the other side. Not before Josh has time to overtake him, though, and is the first of our band to cross from NSW to Victoria. After more boots are filled with the ice-cold snowmelt my companions are eager to press on and build a sock-cooking fire. We had previously aimed for a campsite near Pinnibar, but the sight of a hut nearby on the map quickly changed our tune. The plan was subject to one small detail: is the road open? Luckily the snow had held off for long enough and our route is clear. Now we hope the dark clouds massing above us are only for show, and that we make it to the next solid building before they open and sweep us off the mountain.
The night descends, and is unlike the trail we follow, which ascends so steep and continuous, we thought we’d meet God.
The little red bikes are no match for these roads, and they inch up the clay and rocks at a struggle I can’t bear to watch. The 640-Single powering the KTM makes it easy for me, so I ride ahead and ponder the worth of making life hard with an underpowered bike.
I sit on my saddle with the engine off and look at the steely fingers of dead trees reach for the sky. For all the talk of rebellion that goes with riding a bike, the true rebels are those who really go off the map. They try something different; they’re the alternative to the alternative. I can hear the tiny four-strokes whine like insects as they struggle up to meet me. They’re as ugly in their tone as Sid Vicious. These bikes are to adventure riding what the Sex Pistols were to music. These bikes are punk.
The rain pours down outside Davies Plain Hut and the dry firewood crackles effortlessly in the stone hearth. This is our third night together and we can’t help notice Ben’s meals don’t exactly show much variation. Usually a can of baked beans is thrust into the coals, and following that, a can of soup. Sometimes the other way round.
We huddle next to the fire, trying to dry everything and talk like pirates. And women wonder what we talk about. Ben’s been practicing: “Arr, that fire be very fiery, and the beer be rather beery. Arr, these baked beans be puttin’ hairs on me chest. Arr.” If anyone were to approach our hut just then, I don’t know who’d be more scared.
The next day, morning didn’t quite break as much as blink on like an old strip light. Covering everything is a thick cloud, which only thickens as we ascended to new heights, creating a moody and dark atmosphere over the Davies Plain. Soon we are at what we determine to be the top of some mountain, and we feel as though we’re in a world only Tim Burton could dream up. Gnarly trees and thick woods surround the trail, as is a silence that could make your ears ring. We press on, however, and just when I think I’ve seen the steepest roads ever, Josh captains us onward to yet another. Which we don’t have a problem with, of course, but I get the feeling Josh likes a struggle. Especially when our road turns into a forest.
Normally, if a road hasn’t been used for a while and is over-grown, you’d turn around and find another way through. Right? Well not these guys. On our map it showed it to be perfectly serviceable, and what’s more it led directly where we wanted to go. While Josh and the Old Man walk ahead to look for a way through, Ben and I sit on a log and consider our options. As any great adventurer would do in a moment like this, Ben cracks open a beer. Arr, I like the cut of your jib…
Soon we find ourselves surrounded by forest with only a hint of road leading off into the trees. The more logs that cross our path and the darker the clouds above, the more likely it seems we will have to camp right here for the night. Little by little we make headway, moving logs and finding ways around them. While Ben and Josh heave yet another log out of the way, I keep thinking about the hut that waits for us at the end of this turmoil. And then, just when we can see the nice, smooth road that joins ours further down the track, we hit the big one. The “big” one is a log about as big as, well, a really big tree, and it lay across the road, blocking us from going on.
Is this it? Will we have to turn back? None of us want to, of course, since we just spent the last two hours travelling only a few hundred meters. Without the proper tools though, there is no way we can cut through. The way around is blocked too, but with a much smaller log. It’s still too big to move but not too big to go over. In a flash of determined know-how and make-do, I grab some rotting logs and place them alongside it. “What the hell are you doing?” the others ask.
“If we can’t go around, we’ll go over.” I explain as I thump another log into place. And soon, before us is a dodgy ramp either side of the log allowing a daring rider to launch himself over the top and down the other side. Somehow, again, I’m volunteered to go first. Was it bravado that spurred me on? Not really. Just pure and simple hatred for this horrible place. When these guys invited me for a ride, I didn’t expect to have to make my own road. Soon though, we look back on our achievement and laugh. See? You can go anywhere on a Postie.
When I say there is a hut waiting for us at the end of our ordeal, well, there is and there isn’t. The hut we find is in good repair all right. Too good. It’s actually occupied by a drover. Not wanting to bother him and his 57 dogs, we keep riding and find a nice little campsite at Limestone, near a stream with firewood and everything. It’s a shame really, since we could’ve made camp before sundown, which would’ve been a first. Over another campfire, the socks are stretched and the stories unfold. Paul’s stories mainly. If you ever get a chance, ask Paul about masturbating dogs. But that’s a whole other story…
Still want soup for dinner, Ben?
When a map states there are steep sections on the road, you can believe it. The road that now stretches before us climbs higher and faster than any we have seen. I don’t think the road makers years ago knew how to make switchbacks. They simply went straight up. And so do we. This section is the only one I stall on, and Josh’s hotted up Postie is so hot it starts to cook itself, seizing the automatic clutch. The rutted surface threatens to swallow the distracted rider and the clay mimics a snakes and ladders board game as it allies with gravity. Further up the road we come across and equally steep section, this time leading straight down, which is quickly followed by yet another river crossing. This one takes us all by surprise as to how deep it is and almost covers the panniers on my bike. But with a little coughing and spluttering and a quick drain of the carbie on Paul’s Postie, we’re away once again.
You must be thinking all this up and down business must be leading somewhere. And you’d be right. Back near Tom Groggin, after camping next to the hottest fire near I think I’ve ever cooked up, we set ourselves our biggest task yet; the peak of Mt. Pinnibar. Climbing to the summit of that 1780 metre mountain is Australia’s highest road. Also climbing to summit of that mountain is Australia’s highest Postie bike.
Whatever we may have endured before this moment has been but an entrée to fore this main course. It’s a 1200 metre climb from our camp to the top, and after fortifying ourselves with a double ration of muesli bars, we take the mountain head on. The map states “very steep sections” are ahead. No matter. The signs on the roadside say, “dry weather track only”. No matter. This is our day. Upward and onward we go. And on. And Up. And on. And soon, after bikes have overheated and tires have clawed at the ground till they’re almost shredded from their rims, the Old Man navigates the first Postie bike to the top of Mt Pinnibar. Quickly he’s Joined by Josh and Ben, their bikes’ blazing chassis contrasting against the unending blue sky in a pose of resplendent triumph.
And then we went down again.
The following day we arrive at Brindabella for the 2008 Alpine Rally. The 39th of it’s kind; it’s one of the rare years that it doesn’t rain. As we roll into camp, the little red bikes attract some attention, as does the amount of dirt on them. More and more riders arrive, some so at-one with their bikes it’s hard to see where the bike ends and the man begins. I soon question what I’ve gotten myself into. Fires flair up in pits throughout the bush. Laughter and toothless smiles echo in the mist. Headers glow as bikes rev and smoke in the darkness. I wonder where all the young folk are. Surely this is one scene out of Mad Max no one would want to miss. I find out later that most riders here are over 35. Maybe the younger generation aren’t familiar with Mel Gibson’s early work. Or maybe they’re too comfortable in front of their flat-screen TV’s to care what happens in the real world.
I’m sitting in front of a fire, eating soup-like lasagne. Seems pretty normal to me. Then again, so does not washing for a week. But only here does that seem normal.
Talk about getting away from it all. I suppose everyone rides for different reasons and freedom and escapism are usually centre to most of those. And so is the sense of adventure. I have seen no one display this more than the three guys next to me who came here on bikes designed to do little more than deliver letters (and in this case, lettuce). Were these intrepid riders pioneers, or in fact pirates who have hijacked a world where only BMW’s and KTM’s dare venture? Whether some say they belong out here or not, what I saw were bikes, helmed by a new breed of adventurers. These astronauts in black leather steered their step-through steeds through the highest roads in Australia. And they did it with the same spirit found at the bottom of a bottle sipped on by the early bike riders, those who were looked upon by society as out-casts and rebels. But they did all anyway, because they could.
The last night of our journey had us endure a cacophony of snores that rang about the tents in surround sound. In the morning I was happy to roll up my Thermarest for the last time. But even if my body ached for a real bed, I’d happily do it all again. Even if we waited for Josh to repair no less than four flat tires during the week, and even though I lost my Jerry-can, thanks to failing Andy Strapz (yeah, thanks Andy). So would Josh, who told me not to trust a full Jerry with Velcro, and so would Ben who lost shoes and various other things due to bad packing, which we picked up behind him on the road, and who’s malnourished body yearns for a real meal. And so, too, would Paul, who’s never before pulled so many monos as he rode up a mountain. And just then, when I’d almost forgotten what women look like, and the smell of my unwashed body made my nose want to commit suicide, we turned our noble steeds to the hills once more, and headed home.