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Mount Augustus – adventure motorbike tour, news, magazine

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Adventure Rider Issue #22

My life was starting to sound like a country-and-western song.

You know the type…

woman trouble, dog deserted me, hole in my shoe and so on? To save me from shooting the sheriff or developing a drinking problem a good mate rocked up with stories of a 4WD trip to Mount Augustus and Tom Price in the mid-west of WA. He’d been stuck on a remote track for days as heavy rain fell, and his description of the spectacular country, along with my understanding rain would mean a wildflower show like no other in six weeks or so, made me decide to cross out some time in my diary.

It was on – a trip to blow away the cobwebs and crap of life.

The author at Chinaman Rock, one of the best campsites on the route.

Pore me

I pored over maps, spoke to old-timers who knew the area, packed my gear, did shakedown overnighters, and then repacked my gear.

It looked as though I’d need a fuel range of around 500km, and I’d need to be self-sufficient for at least three or four days. After my last disaster (issue #18, White Sand To Red Dust) I’d travel with an InReach satellite beacon, along with a system to move the bike if needed: an aluminium pole, parachute cord and a ratchet.

A trip to blow away the cobwebs and crap of life.

Passed indiscretions

Leaving my Busselton home I travelled up to Perth, joining colleague Byron Geneve. We’d travel together for the first few days, then I was on my own.

Light rain, low, steel-grey cloud and chilly temperatures filled the first few days, but weren’t an issue as I knew there was sun and warmth waiting for me further north.

Byron’s back yard is the Perth Hills and it was great following his rear wheel, weaving through the backroads heading north-east. Wheat-belt towns came and went with the crops forming green oceans over the rolling hills. As the wind moved through the landscape it looked so much like a big ocean swell moving around us.

Our overnight stop was the town of Wyalkatchem. Like so many rural towns it was a shadow of its past glory. The highway had passed it by and the main street, wide enough to turn around a wagon pulled by half-a-dozen camels, was empty.

There was no rush hour at 5:00pm and we stopped in the middle of the street to discuss eating options. There turned out to be only one: the pub.

Byron’s pannier clipped my bike as he took off and all I knew was my front wheel rose above my head and the bike swung clockwise as I went down like a bag of spuds.

No damage was done and I was laughing my head off as Byron made lots of apologies. It was a good five minutes before I got off my arse and picked up the bike, and not a single car passed us in that wheatbelt rush hour.

This is what can happen if you travel without your mother to comb your hair before someone takes a pic.

Payne threshold

Morning frost at minus-four degrees greeted us on the second day, and it was to be the norm for the next few nights, along with the temperature never going above 16 degrees during the day.

At least the grey sky gave way to blue.

Heading north to Paynes Find the wheatbelt stopped when we reached the emu-proof fence where the small trees and a carpet of wildflowers replaced the green crops we’d seen yesterday.

Following a well-maintained dirt road, we kept a sensible speed to conserve fuel and that allowed us to have a good look at the passing scenery.

There was no sign anyone had been on the road for a long time, so it was a surprise when we saw a van camped in the middle of the road. It turned out to be a couple keen on the floral show, and they’d seen no need to camp off the road as they hadn’t seen a soul for days.

It was a surprise to find a van camped in the middle of the road.

We ate homemade biscuits and enjoyed a cuppa while we discussed flowers and the large holes bulls had dug in the track. We were clearly in station country.

Late arvo saw us pop out across the road from Paynes Find. Tourists in big vans dawdled along and road trains roared past. It was a step back into the modern world and we bundled our way into the Paynes Find Roadhouse, a place that deserves the support of every traveller. All the money from the tea and coffee they sell goes to the RFDS. I’d like to see Coles Express do that.

A camp was established a few clicks from a windmill, and as the sun sank and the fire warmed us we could hear two bulls fighting at the waterhole. I was a bit wary of bulls fighting nearby, having been hurt by one years ago, and the level of anxiety rose as we hit the tents.

The two bulls walked up the track and propped 20m from us, bellowing and digging up the dirt. Despite my concern I was soon asleep, tired out from a great day on the bike.

Paynes Find Roadhouse. All the money from the tea and coffee they sell goes to the RFDS.

On Cue

Everlasting daisies are a popular tourist draw in this part of WA, and as we’d packed our tents while they were still covered in frost and dew, we unleashed a snow of petals when we unpacked that night. In fact, the white-and-pink petals, as light and fragile as rice paper, found their way into everything from meals to our kit. They’re almost like red desert dust in the way they can penetrate even the tightest-wrapped bundles.

We were in the northern part of the WA goldfields.

The ancient landscape was scarred by old diggings, the occasional ruins and the fenced-off, high-tech modern mine tenements.

After a cool morning ride our track popped us out across the road from Yalgoo, a very small community offering little other than a mid-morning ice cream and some very nice-tasting tap water.

Another vermin-proof fence made a pathway to the Dalgaranga Meteorite Crater, an impressive hole in the otherwise flat scrub country. This is the youngest meteorite crater in the world. A basketball-sized bit of space rock hit when Jesus was still in shorts – roughly 2000 years ago.

Broken dreams dotted the landscape.

What was just as amazing was that someone actually found it while mustering stock, seeing as the scrubby bush restricts vision to less than a 100m most of the time. Halfway to the meteorite site, small, flat-topped hills studded the country and carpets of wildflowers stretched up the slopes, stopping at the rocky buttress near the top of each hill.

Our morning cuppa was on an outcrop called Chinaman Rock, one of the best campsites I saw on the trip, although it was too early for us to stop.

In the afternoon we came across an abandoned station homestead. The empty home and outbuildings were a testament to decades of trying to scratch a living from the dry, ancient land.

Zig-zagging through the numerous tracks which seemed to lead from one abandoned mine to the next, the devastation to the environment was a shock to the senses. Massive mine structures were abandoned among piles of scrap and heaped tailings jutted out of the landscape. Nothing grew on these man-made hills.

The town of Cue came into view in the afternoon, and it was a derelict environment. It looked like every metre had been ripped up and mined. The highlight was largest road sign in the west.

The rocks were sharp out there.

Grid lock up

North of Cue was to be our last camp together. In the morning Byron would head back to work and I’d push on alone,and once again a shower of petals covered everything as we unpacked.

Despite being several hundred metres from the road, every road train pushing through the night sounded as though it was coming right through our tents. Still, it was better than bulls fighting nearby.

Packing up in the frost again it wasn’t long before we parted ways. A small pang of dread came over me as I watched Byron head south, and this wasn’t helped as I stalled the bike making my own departure.

A short fang along the blacktop took me to Meekatharra for fuel, coffee and water. Then it was a left turn onto the
Meeka-Carnarvon Road.

The first 100km or so were very good, then it became just okay. The carpets of wildflowers had given way to just a scattering of colour here and there and the country looked heavily grazed.

Very little grew under the scrub, despite it looking wet. In fact I couldn’t have trav-elled this area at a better time.

There was enough damp to keep dust down to acceptable levels, yet it wasn’t so wet that I could feel the wheels slipping and sliding.

It was here the cattle-grid roulette started.

The grids were about 10km to 20km apart, and each was built up higher than the road. As you approached there was no way of telling if it was made up of two, three or four sections. Each section had a gap bigger than the front wheel, so it was kind of important to know. It meant each grid involved slowing down, standing on the ’pegs for a better view, then making a quick decision to keep going straight or rapidly change the angle of attack.

I never got used to the heart-stopping second between my eyes taking in the grid layout and my reaction time.

Mount Augustus is the biggest rock in the world – twice the size of Uluru – and glowed red as the sun shone through the thin scrub.

Canine country

The only traffic I saw on this section was someone on a 1200GS heading south. He warned me about the sharp rocks ahead and it was good advice. A dozen or so clicks further on I found another traveller – yes two in 350km! – sitting in the middle of the track with his car doors open and a tyre beside the front wheel.

I stopped to offer a hand.

Old-timer Norm was missing most of his teeth – dentures are optional when changing tyres out there – and didn’t see the irony when he described the rocks on this track as being ‘sharper than a mother-in-law’s tongue!’ Mount Gould homestead, an abandoned police station and lockup, were the backdrop for my camp that night. Sitting beside the start of the Murchison River, the old cop shop was set up 100 years ago to deal with locals helping themselves to sheep.

Sheep country has given way to cattle now, largely because of the increase in wild dogs.

Cattle-grid roulette. Get your front wheel caught in that gap and you lose

Country comfort

I was travelling through channel country towards Mount Augustus, and every 100m or so the dirt road would suddenly drop into a washaway. Despite travelling at a sensible speed, many caught me by surprise. Loose sand, river rocks or hard rock, each was different.

It seemed like I spent hours braking hard, sliding down into the washaway, then either bouncing over the rocks or floun-dering in the sand before accelerating my way up the other side. There must have been hundreds before I got to the base of Mount Augustus late in the afternoon.

I’d been told Mount Augustus is the biggest rock in the world – twice the size of Uluru – but all I saw was a big hill covered in scrub as I was approached from the shaded eastern side. It wasn’t until sunrise the next morning I had a glimpse of the immensity of the stone.

It glowed red as the sun shone through the thin scrub cover and was a most impressive sight from the comfort of my tent.

Byron Geneve and his KTM seemed made for the terrain.

Gear selector

Two days of rest and a good going-over the bike on lovely grass was well earned.

I was amazed how little maintenance was needed once the chain and filters were cleaned. Modern bikes stand up amazingly to the hammering we give them.

By now the frosty mornings were gone, although the morning easterly off the desert was cutting cold. As a station manager had said, “It’s a lazy wind. It can’t be bothered going around you. It just goes right through you.”

Camped at the base of Mount Augustus I was aware I’d entered the domain of the traveller as opposed to the tourist.

Out there people look out for one another, stop on the side of the track for a yarn and make a cuppa for dirty bike riders.

When someone turned up with several flat tyres, many hands saw the job done in no time. The rocks are sharp out there, and they went through the tread of two 4WD tyres.

Morning saw me leave for Ashburton Downs Station then Tom Price on a track that had more doglegs and turns than any other route I’d travelled. The going was slow and sharp rocks were a heart-stopper on many occasions. I swear they were out to slash my tyres (I heard them talking to me). Several times I pulled up thinking my tyre was flat, only to find my mind was playing tricks on me. The track twisted and turned, crossed creeks,then doubled back to get over a rocky outcrop. I was in third gear all morning.

Rocks sharper than a mother-in-law’s tongue.

Show us your willy, Willy

One of my spare fuel containers had sprung a leak. I didn’t lose much but it just goes to show that softdrink bottles are only good for softdrink.

A flat-topped hill gave the chance for a little wide-open running, but halfway across I realised I was on a dirt airstrip.

I headed back down to deal with more low-speed turns, washaways and deep ruts.

Just after lunch I entered my first patch of flat, gibber country. You really do get the feeling that this continent is millions of years old when you see such barren lands covered with little but weathered, black rocks. A dust cloud appeared on my left, and what I thought would be the first traffic of the day turned out to be just a willy-willy cutting through the rocky ground. Several hawks flew in its updraft, I presume to catch insects pulled into the air.

The strength of these little tornadoes became apparent a few hours later as one snuck up behind me while I was picking my way along the track.

It almost took me off the bike and pushed dust everywhere.

Once again the landscape I traversed slowly turned into the classic north-west vista: blood-red rocks, spinifex and the odd white-trunked gum tree.

Flat-topped hills rose up either side of the track.

How do those white gums stay so clean and white? Everything else is covered in a fine layer of red dust, but not them.

Dune bug

Night saw me sitting by the fire for longer than normal. I wasn’t driven into my sleeping bag by the cold, though Tom Price and the Karijini were ahead and are some of the highest – thus the coldest – bits of land in WA.

Having lost some fuel from my leaking container it was with an empty tank and a prayer I reached the next town. It was nice to have a shower, sleep in a bed for the first time in a week and enjoy a drink cooled by refrigeration.

At this point it was time to turn around and head in a south-easterly direction for home.

The Little Sandy Desert was a little sandy, and once again a lazy cold wind cut through everything.

Past Newman I hit the dirt again and was glad to get my knobbies off the blacktop. A left turn saw me head to Wiluna, passing Well Two of the Cannning Stock Route. While the roads were good, a few bulldust holes meant it was no road to let your guard down on.

I rode back into tourist country.

Gone were the travellers of the outback. Now I was seeing blinged-up 4WDs showing no regard for someone on a bike. A shower of dust and stones became the norm.

Travelling south through Leinster, Leonora and Menzies I found small settlements lost in a land of big sand dunes, spinifex, flies and heat. For the first time in weeks I stood up on the ’pegs to get a better airflow and reduce the engine heat on my legs.

My last stop before the big city of Kalgoorlie was the wonderful metal sculptures located in a salt lake 20km from Menzies. I camped overlooking the figures and they appeared to hover above the white salt lake bathed in moonlight.

Mines punctured the land-scape and historic stone ruins broke up the regularity of the dunes through which the road cut its path.

Petal to the metal

By this stage I was desperate for chain oil, having used cooking oil for two days, and Kalgoorlie had all a traveller would ever need and more.

The call of home was strong after being on the road for weeks, so after a catch up with friends over a counter meal I was itching to get moving.

Within an hour the open woodlands of the Kalgoorlie area gave way to the wheatbelt, and the occasional fleck of a yellow canola flower gave an indication of the time that had passed since I was last there.

With the sun in my face I pushed on westward; Southern Cross, Hyden, Wagin – by nightfall I was home, the cobwebs well and truly blown away. I’d covered just over 4000km with more than 3000km of it off road. Seeing the best wildflower show in years had been the icing on the cake, although the country I travelled through would’ve been amazing even in a dry year.

Two weeks later I was still finding everlasting daisy petals falling out of my hair when I took off my helmet after the commute to work.

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