Dalgety or drown

If you thought a motorcycle scribe’s life was all beer and skittles … think again, says Lester Morris

A strange assortment of motorcycles left the hallowed precincts of Universal Magazines to escape for the weekend as “representatives” of this worthwhile publication.

The venue was to be the venerable old pub in the sleepy hamlet of Dalgety, where a desperate – or should that be disparate? – group of this nation’s best known (or in some cases, perhaps not so well known) motorcycle journalists were gathered to once again quaff an ale or two to celebrate our many differences and our affiliations to the CHUMPS organisation.

In the event, there were many, many grizzled veterans representing just about every motorcycle magazine in this country and they were all as one, even though they were strong competitors against one another for advertising revenue and the attention of the ever-increasing numbers of enthusiasts who buy their publications.

I confess I had never heard of CHUMPS before the invitation arrived from Peter Thoeming and I afterwards fell to thinking what that acronym could possibly mean. Could it be, thought I, a “Calamitous Huddle of Unkempt Motor-bicycling Personnel?” and I asked Peter’s advice about this. He told me, in the strictest confidence, that no-one had a blind idea what it meant but he thought it could have stood for a “Confederation of Horribly Underpaid Motorcycle Photographers and Scribblers.”

How very apt the latter would be but I am willing to bet there would be a great many variations on these two suggestions were I to ask somebody else from the large group that attended, all of whom rode motorcycles to the event; the machines, like almost everyone who was there, being of all shapes, sizes and persuasions.

I wonder could some of the answers have been, “Oh, yes, well I think it means a “Cantankerous Horde of Unlikely Magazine Purveyors” or perhaps it could be the “Complaining Harpies of Unwarranted Motorcycle Publishers.” Let’s leave it at that, shall we? Yes, please, I hear you shout as one.
There was an assemblage of just eight of us, headed by this magazine’s editor, the highly-steamed Peter Thoeming, driving the touring version of the Can-Am Spyder tricycle, with ace photographer Nick Wood reclining on the Spyder’s office-chair sized “pillion” seat, while Stuart Woodbury humped his considerable bulk onto the saddle of that fire-breathing road-burner the Suzuki Hayabusa, almost dwarfing the machine in the process. From the rear (the only view I ever saw of the Hayabusa on the road) the tail-end looked for all the world like Darth Vader wearing a huge black hump, while coming at you with his tongue out and sporting a pair of rocket launchers in his hands.

Victor Franco rode the semi-chopper Harley-Davidson; that machine of the fat rear tyre with its embracing mudguard, forward-mounted footrests and spindly front end, which proved to be a great touring iron, if apparently a little unwieldy on one or two small reaches of muddy terrain – which of course it had every right to be.

Two of our group were of the female persuasion and they were a pair of charmers who managed, without trying very hard, to divert our attention (or at least, my attention) from some of the more grim-visaged journalists who were there in some numbers.

Those girls shared our small cabin and were a welcome addition to our numbers. Terri Dodd rode her own Cagiva V Raptor, with the baffles happily removed from the pair of upswept mufflers that blew their fumes up my nose once or twice when in close contact in city traffic. Thankfully it never happened on the road but you could sure hear the bike coming and it sounded marvellous for she rode that bike with great skill and loved to wind the thing out. I was so pleased to note she was about my size, for we were the only pair of about that height in the entire pub.

This was her first “decent” ride in a year after crashing her very expensive MV, writing it off and busting a foot while tweaking her hip in the process.

The other girl, Kat Creighton, is a newcomer to motorcycle journalism and the possessor of a quaint girlish giggle and a keen sense of humour. She was riding a trim little GS500 Suzuki, which suited her right down to the ground, so much so that she proved this as the bike slowly subsided to the dirt surface on the Saturday when we were filling our tanks before a sojourn into the countryside for a photo shoot.

The only thing injured, she said with that endearing giggle, was her pride. This was to be her first ride of this length and she proved to be at once a very competent rider and displayed great courage in riding under what we would soon see were the most wretched of riding conditions. She also had a swim in the Snowy River – more of that anon.

Mike Grant rode yet another Suzuki, the resplendent, larger GS650, which seemed to fit him like a glove, excessively tall though he is. Well, he seems excessively tall to me but then so does almost everyone else. Of course he socialised with us all and accompanied Kat in her Snowy River swim but he stayed at the pub and rode off alone when the festivities were over and the rest of us came home on the Sunday.

John Arens was our “sweep” rider who kept tabs on all of us from behind, his Yamaha Diversion festooned with several large bags that otherwise could not be accommodated, these encumbrances apparently making not a blind bit of difference to the handling of a machine that he flung about often enough with some abandon, exceedingly wet though the roads were for much of the trip.

My mount was the new SH300i Honda scooter, which would appear to the uninitiated to be little more than the poor relation but this maxi-scooter was one lightweight fighter that punched well and truly above its weight as it bent the knee to nobody on the open road. It proved to be a revelation in its firm, sporty suspension – which was never evident in the city traffic – its startling acceleration and its great handling. Top speed would assuredly be well above the legal 110km/h touring speed, at which speed it was happy to cruise all day but with plenty of grunt left if and when needed.

There is a very steep hill on the Hume Highway just after the Mittagong turn-off and it is at once steep and apparently never ending. That “little” scooter hit the base of the hill at the legal limit and flew up the gradient with contemptuous ease, leaping to the breast of that hill considerably quicker than it was going at the bottom and with plenty of movement left in the twistgrip. It was at once a surprise and a delight.

Stuart could have been forgiven if that Hayabusa had been seen howling off at any time while covering us all in a liberal dusting of powdered rubber in the process, its front wheel pawing the air, its smoke-enshrouded rear wheel waving about like a King Charles Spaniel’s feathered tail at dinner time but scribes to this magazine don’t ride like that on test machines, or if they do they are never photographed in this pursuit. Besides which, we were essentially riding in convoy, though it must be admitted he couldn’t help himself from time to time as he deliberately held back and then howled past us, his left hand resting contemptuously on his knee.

It was hot and sunny in Sydney when we left the office but of course I had taken the precaution of wearing my old waxed cotton Belstaff (the “Greasies” as they are so accurately called) jacket and stashing the matching trousers in that handy top box. After all, there could be some showers in the Southern Highlands: that was always on the cards. Some showers did I say? Read on, dear reader, and weep with us.

It began to rain at about Queanbeyan, so we all pulled up and donned an astonishing variety of wet weather gear, the Bear pointing with some pride at his very fetching, prototype one-piece ensemble, made in New Zealand but never released because it was apparently much too expensive to enjoy any commercial success. “Never leaks a drop,” he announced smugly as he climbed back onto the Spyder.

The “road” into Tarago, and out of it, was little more than a tar-sealed motocross track, which tested the Honda’s suspension but it coped with this excursion from the more refined Hume Highway surprisingly well and we pressed on at some pace. It continued to rain once we joined the Monaro Highway into Cooma, then along the Snowy Mountains Highway through Jindabyne and finally into Dalgety. From then on it rained, or sprinkled lightly, for the entire time we were in Dalgety.

After the accommodation had been organised, and the girls knew they were sharing our cabin, Terri called out as I went to ring my wife, “Hey, don’t forget to tell her you’ll be sleeping with two girls tonight. Ha! Ha!” Oh, yes, very droll indeed, so I mentioned that, and Lyn thought it highly amusing; I still wonder why she would think that. Friday night was a quiet one at the pub where we had dinner as Saturday night was the time for the somewhat unofficial festivities, so we crept into our (own) beds bright and early.

I ducked over to the pub for a late breakfast at about 9.30am and advised the publican there would be four of us; Nick the photographer, the two girls, Terri and Kat, who were just coming into view up the road apace and myself. The publican suggested scrambled eggs and bacon with tomato and then asked, in all innocence, “Would you like a small sausage?”

I told him I had asked the girls that same question earlier the previous night (not true of course) but I said they didn’t want to know about it. He thought that was very funny, as did the few fellows lounging about on the pub verandah. I must ask Lyn why she also thought it so amusing when I announced I would be sleeping with two girls. Maybe she knows something I don’t?

I chatted to several of the men from other magazines while I waited and discovered to my surprise that they had all read either one thing or another of the pieces I had written over the decades, which I confess I found at once pleasing and somewhat embarrassing.

Later that day young Kat decided to have a swim in the Snowy, which ran just behind our cabin and she was joined by Onno as the pair frolicked and splashed about. I wondered aloud if there were any crocodiles in the Snowy, or even a man-eating Murray Cod or two which had lost their way a bit but they told me to settle down or go away and boil my bum.

Terri and I sat by the water’s edge on a small man-made beach but then soon became bored and strolled away to admire a stand of gigantic poplar trees just up from the water’s edge. We wandered along through the grass, picking up twigs, kicking at the leaves and generally discussing nothing of any importance. I mentioned to the barman that afternoon the fact that two of our number had enjoyed a splash in that iconic river and he said “just as well it wasn’t a stinking hot summer day, otherwise you would have to fight your way through all the tiger snakes!”

Tiger snakes! Did he say tiger snakes? Oh, yes, tiger snakes, one of which had bitten a local girl twice which resulted in her spending four months in Westmead Hospital and which subsequently left her with permanent liver and kidney problems! Whew, how lucky were we that the weather was not conducive to the local fauna, otherwise either or both of us may well have gone home – or, worse still, to hospital – earlier than planned.

And then, after a sumptuous meal in the well-filled dining room, the festivities began that Saturday night with a welcome to all from the somewhat relaxed Grant Roff, the naming or shaming of those who couldn’t be there, or who were concerned they would melt if they were rained upon at some point during their journey to and from this historic place.

This was followed by a toast to absent friends and a very solemn standing toast to the late and sadly lamented Peter Smith. Various magazine staff were asked to identify themselves and members of their group and I was pleased to note that the young group from Rapid, an independent publication not supported by a major publisher, was given special notice and encouraged to keep up the good work.

Peter handed out some show bags of ARR goodies and was then asked to introduce his small party, which he proceeded to do, then embarrassed me by a lengthy intro that resulted in a hearty round of spontaneous applause. He claimed that my material had been read, and at some length, by everybody in that room and that I was looked upon with some respect. I’m not too sure about all that but I must say I shall be forever humbled by the words he spoke and the reception they engendered.

I was then forced to again tell the story of that shocking accident I had way back in 1981 when I dropped the KPZ1100 Kawasaki into an invisible bomb crater and was pitched headlong up the road in close company with a machine seemingly hell-bound on writing me off as it destroyed itself ahead of me (and sometimes alongside me!) by “executing a series of hideous cartwheels” as one of the riders with me was later to write. It was a “Bike of the Year” story for Two Wheels and one of the other riders on that trip was none other than that magazine’s editor, Peter Thoeming himself, upon whose machine I was conveyed to the local doctor’s office before being taken to Windsor Hospital and, finally, Parramatta Hospital.

It was a great and informal weekend, particularly as I was in the company of so many wonderful people, mostly men of course, who had spent a great deal of their time and energy writing about and photographing motorcycles, riding them just about everywhere this side of the moon and then publishing the resultant material in any one of about 20 different, specialist publications.

I will forever cherish that weekend as a highlight in my life but that memory could have been well and truly soured by what awaited us on that trip home.

That night it pelted with rain, which was all but deafening on the roof of that womb-like cabin, but our ever-optimistic mentor suggested it probably would rain itself out and we should thus enjoy a dry ride home. He could never have been more wrong!

The rain had eased somewhat by the time we moved out at 8.30am and it remained light enough for the first hour or so, but as we turned off onto one of those rough, bitumen-surfaced back roads it began to rain ever harder and continued until we pulled into Cooma for brunch.

The boys were whooping it up in town for it was the Vietnam Veteran Motorcycle Club’s annual run and there were Harleys everywhere. The famous East End Café, with its walls decorated by numerous photographs of all manner of motorcycles, was doing a roaring trade but most of the guys had been fed and were soon to roar off, so we found a couple of tables without too much trouble.

We pulled into the local Shell servo for a fill-up and then we were on our way again, this time into some very serious rain as heavy clouds were roiling overhead and there was no sign of it letting up. Sure enough it soon began to really bucket down, the rain beating on our waterproofs and slashing onto our well-streaked helmet visors, the roads by no means impassable but awash here and there with small streams of water. So we sped on at undiminished pace, the little Honda giving an astonishingly good account of itself, behaving under these grim circumstances with grace and impeccable manners. Sure that bike moved about a little, as you would expect, but so did everything else this side of the Can-Am Spyder.

The nearer we got to Queanbeyan the worse it became, which I would not have thought possible, and the worse the visibility grew until all I could see ahead were three shapeless bundles and three small pin-points of red tail lights, which belonged to the Spyder, the Hayabusa and Terri on the Cagiva, while behind some pin points of white light showed the others were there and probably feeling just as unhappy.

There were not many cars on the road but the few that went past in the opposite direction had their wipers operating at double speed! The occasional truck approached, with bow waves of water that belted us (or at least they belted me) like slammed safe doors. It was at once exhilarating and more than a little scary but we pressed on as best we could, still cracking along at speeds of between 90 to 110km/h.

Up ahead a sign warned of road works ahead so we all backed off to be confronted by a patch of dirt road about 100 meters long, the surface just a few centimetres of butter-like clay. Terri fought her Cagiva as it swerved about underneath her and I felt she was close to losing it but she held it well and emerged from the morass unscathed, while shaking her head sadly at the incident.

Victor pulled up alongside on the Harley, the machine clearly not happy with the slippery surface but he managed to ride through the sludge without dropping the bike, although it was no easy task. I couldn’t see how young Kat was faring but for some reason the Honda scooter skimmed across the lot with little more than a shake of its head. Be assured it had nothing to do with the skill of the machine’s rider!

The traffic in Queanbeyan was almost at a standstill and we crawled through town to discover that a large tree had been uprooted and was sprawled halfway across the road. We trickled on a little further until we cleared the worst of the traffic, whereupon Peter pulled over and asked whether we should press on to Goulburn or wait there awhile in the hope of a break in the weather. Of course we decided to keep going because we were all wet enough and an enforced stop would mean peeling off our gear and then having to put it all back on again. Not a nice prospect!

So away we went, the rain set in even heavier than before, belting us mercilessly like a large whip with about a thousand leather thongs attached. We thundered back through Tarago, then on to Goulburn where we stopped for another fill-up and this time an empty-out as well. We all grumbled about the fact that our first-rate waterproof gear could not expect to hold the weather at bay and there were leaks beginning to show up here and there. Even Peter’s prototype one-piecer had sprung a leak somewhere, which upset him a bit and brought a grim smile to my well-moistened lips.

It had been incident-free through Tarago, although it was still pouring pick-handles, the wash from passing trucks slamming into us with the force of a fire fighter’s hose on full blast, but the run to Sydney from Goulburn was almost a relief, even if the rain continued unabated. But, as usual, once the Southern Highlands were behind us the rain eased and then mercifully stopped entirely as the air began to warm up again.

It was giant relief when we pulled into the car park at Universal once again, that shocking ride home was assuredly the worst ride ever for each of us. The only ride I can compare it to was that Queen’s Birthday ride to Junee in 1959 – which has been recorded in an earlier issue of this magazine – but if memory serves me well, this was a great deal worse.

And then, as if to add insult to injury, as we all peeled off our sodden waterproof gear and examined the crotches of our damp jeans (nothing could have been expected to keep that torrent out entirely) our mentor was heard to sigh deeply and say “How about that? You take them out for a ride and they can’t control themselves.”