Born (again) to Ride
For the first ten minutes I knew I was going to die. These was no doubt about it. I had not been on a real motorcycle for 20 years (OK, 25 if you really have to be truthful) and here I was riding down a four lane highway in Melbourne, Australia.
I might as well slam into that truck now, I thought. Let's just wipe out on the next corner and go skidding under something. Go for the concrete abutment it may be quicker. It occurred to me that my life had been a good one, even if it was about to made shorter than I had hoped.
If I'm making you too nervous, let me tell you now that in my 12 days on the bike, none of those things did happen. I returned the machine with 3,500 new kilometers on it - safely. But don't let that spoil my story for you, because lots did happen.
One of the greatest things happened at about the eleventh minute. I was at a stoplight, feeling terrified. As I sat astride the bike I felt my right hand twist the throttle. I did not mean to do that. Some unknown force was revving the engine just to hear and feel it. Then my thighs held the machine a little tighter so that they could pick up the changes in the vibration and get more of a feel for how it was running. My buttocks clenched slightly and moved a bit from side to side hefting the weight and balance of the brand new, bright yellow monster I was straddling. It was as if a different person - a biker - had inflated himself inside the Nervous Nellie shell of myself.
Nervous Nellie was relegated to spectator status then and there, along for the ride but not in charge. The reconstituted biker (is he the biker I was in my 20s?) took over. It was an event as real and irresistible as the rising of the sun, the changing of the seasons and the turning of the tide.
The intersection where it happened is engraved on my mind's eye and if I win the lottery I'll go back and pay for an historical plaque to be erected on the site with the above description on it.
For the next 12 days I led a schizophrenic existence on that shiny, powerful, great looking bike. A more or less normal me, and this biker guy co-habited my body and mind as long as I had the key to the machine. It was a great trip. The best.
Maybe you want to know how a middle-aged, former biker got to be on a new BMW in Melbourne in the first place. Well, I had a trip arranged to Australia ( a place I've known and loved for most of my life) and a friend in the publishing business arranged for me to test drive a BMW motorcycle - so I put the two together and, varoom, it's a bike trip.
The bike was a modern classic: a BMW Funduro. A great big dirt bike (650cc). I had it fitted with hard panniers, and road tires. The single cylinder engine (that's right !) an engineering marvel made by a subsidiary of Bombardier, so there's a Canadian connection. You can easily get it going well over any speed limit, but it's at the lower range that the torque snaps your head back when you open it up. Pulling away from a stop light, you can make the road runner in the cartoons look like an elderly pedestrian. Zero to whatever-you-like in less time than you've spent reading this sentence. Or even this sentence.
The first 24 hours of the bike trip set the tone completely and beautifully. To get to Tassie (you have to call it Tassie, everyone does) I took the overnight ferry, the Spirit of Tasmania. A well named ship. The island of Tasmania is comfortable, clean, happy and everybody talks to you. The boat is like that too. That first day I met Jacinta, Bill and Mitch. They were also on bikes. Bikers have carte blanche permission to talk to other bikers. Before the sun came up we had a de facto bike gang. Bill and Mitch are long time friends, farmers from the mainland. Like me, they were on a week-long bike tour of Tassie. Jacinta, well, she was riding with Mitch and that's all I'd better say about that.
We bonded. I enjoyed their company throughout the week, and on parting seven days later, we pledged that the gang would reunite.
The gang was impressed with "my" bike, and it sure was a shiny, hot-looking item. They were also impressed that within 45 seconds of arriving in Tassie, I was in the arms of a stunning, long-haired beauty. I was impressed too. It was my friend Melody from Bali and Brisbane, who upon hearing that I was going to tour Tassie on a bike, phoned up the Tasmanian Motorcycle Hire and arranged to do the same. Her husband, Sean, was there as well and I hugged him next.
We biked around Tassie together and separately. Through pastoral scenery of the north, the high forests, down through the dunes to the west coast village of Strahan on the first day.
The very best day of biking was the one between Strahan and Hobart. The weather was perfect, that helped, the road was good, and most of the day was spent in the World Heritage forest. Dense gum forests, tapering off to natural meadows. Dark ominous lakes sparkling in the sun, huge old twisted trees with their bark peeling the way eucalypts always do, but looking as if they had a permanent sunburn and not enough leaves on their branches to shield themselves from the sun at high noon. Views of bald mountains and lush rivers and a few old homesteads, some that have made it and some that have not.
On a motorcycle you lean into a corner never knowing what you will hit on the other side. Sometimes it's the hot blast of a dry open field, sometimes you ride into the surprising cool, sweet air that hangs around streams, sometimes it's a long view that does not know where to stop. I would have been happy to turn around and made the same ride the next day, and the next, and the next.
In Hobart our bike gang grew again. We visited the famous Salamanca market on Saturday morning and then, though an introduction, made a rendezvous with a guy called Fabian Dixon. We thought "Fabian" was not an auspicious name for a biker. We were wrong.
Fabian had charitably offered to go riding with me for half a day, thinking that I might be getting lonely touring by myself. When I phoned him to confirm the rendezvous I asked if my little group could come too. Although he seemed hesitant at first, he was not.
Fabian Dixon is a lawyer. Not just any lawyer, one of the country's top guys. A former head of the Australian Bar, now a sought-after family and criminal lawyer (and yes, he allowed that the two do sometimes mix.) During the week he's wearing the black robe and grey wig that the former colony still requires of its barristers. Saturday morning he was wearing black leathers and sitting astride a noisy Harley-Davidson.
Mitch and Fabian swapped bikes for a stretch, Fabian advised Bill on a potential speeding ticket, Fabian fed us crayfish and salad at a seaside cottage and had us over to his house for champagne later that night. That day, the world was clearly divided between the have bikes and the have-not bikes. Being solidly in the "have" category, we loved it.
In the remaining days of biking through Tassie by myself or with the gang, I never did completely relax on the motorcycle. Being terrified is probably a great safety precaution, and I wanted to stay alive to see the island and ride a few days on the mainland. Tassie is a model of the success of small scale tourism. There are great little hospitality enterprises: idiosyncratic restaurants, Kate's Berry Farm with amazing ice cream, stone cottages by the sea at Prymont, pubs that serve cold, cold beer and great Australian wine. Everyone speaks (a version of) English and is happy to see you.
At the north end of the island, on our last day together, we toured one of the great rural estates, Brickenden, which is open to the public and is owned by a family with which Bill has some connection. We were not out of place in out biking gear talking to Mrs. Archer in the formal garden or with her son grading wool in the 150 year old wool shed.
Tasmania looks so small on a world map, I had been sure that a week would be more than enough. Nowhere near. I had another few days on the bike on the mainland, it was good, but not the same as the time with the gang. I'll go back to Tassie, for sure. I will also reconvene the bike gang. Motorcycling is still as dangerous as our mothers said it was, but for me, any time I have on this earth after that terrified ten minutes is a bonus and I don't want to spend it all without some new adrenalin in my veins.