Off-road encounter



Off-road hero Robert Crick didn’t plan it that way but he and his roadbike went decidedly bush

It started the day before. Heading down the road to Armidale from Grafton, I decided to divert to Dorrigo for the night. There is a back road north of Waterfall Way that turns off the main road just south of Tyringham and comes into Dorrigo through North Dorrigo. The width and surface of this road aren’t as good as Waterfall Way but it’s a nice alternative.

The Dorrigo Hotel, owned by a Ulysses member, was good value. It included garaging for the bike in a lock-up shed.

An 8am start next morning in brilliant sunshine led to a spectacular ride along Waterfall Way to Bellingen. Enjoying an alfresco breakfast in a side street in the motley shade of magnificent trees, one could easily think that an idyllic life would be to have all day alfresco breakfasts every day in Bellingen.

The plan was a simple one: head down the Pacific Highway to Telegraph Point, then “cut the corner” to Wauchope on the Oxley Highway, except that I had added an extra way-point to the GPS to have me come out on the Oxley Highway further west through Beechwood.

All was going to plan, until not far down the Pacific Highway I saw that familiar brown sign indicating a “tourist route” – to Bowraville. Time was not a problem, so it seemed a good diversion.

It was a pleasant, sealed road into Bowraville which is a quaint little town with a wonderfully restored old theatre (“cinema” in today’s terms). It had just hosted the “mobile Sydney film festival” to full audiences.

I asked a passer-by whether there was a back road to Taylors Arm because there wasn’t one on the Hema map. Although a local, the passer-by confessed to not knowing but directed me to the nearby medical centre, where, he said, the receptionist “knew everything”. She gave me detailed directions and assured me that the road “wasn’t too bad” although gravel all the way.

I’m not an off-road rider. I assiduously stick to the bitumen, partly in deference to my unchipped, unscratched and belt-driven BMW F800ST; but also out of respect for my lack of off-road expertise or experience. Perhaps, on this occasion I was seduced by having recently completed a Stay Upright Off-Road Skill Development course. Whatever, I felt committed – and enthused.

There was just one critical, unmarked turn that took me off the initial road and led across a thickly wooded range to eventually come out on the bitumen road that runs from Macksville to Taylors Arm. It was about a 28km stretch of dirt and was easily manageable on the F800ST.

There’s not a lot in Taylors Arm, just a few houses on each side of the road. It is definitely a recognisable hamlet. I say that, because the GPS, Google Earth and Google Maps all have Taylors Arm marked on the site of the smaller hamlet of Upper Taylors Arm. There is one very dominant feature in the middle of the hamlet of Taylors Arm and that’s The Pub with No Beer.

Legend has it that the pub once ran out of beer and local timber cutter and songwriter Gordon Parsons immortalised the story in what became one of Australia’s most famous songs, The Pub with No Beer. In fact, since 1955 it has been a boutique “brewery with no beer”, so does have beer, including that of its own making.

In conversation with some locals enjoying a lunchtime beer on the verandah of the famed pub, I was given directions from Taylors Arm to the Kempsey/Armidale road through Millbank. I was told it was about 20km of gravel and that it was very loose and tight on “this side of the mountain” but much better going down the other side. “The council looks after the other side better than this side” was the forlorn comment.
The first instruction was to proceed to Upper Taylors Arm and make a sharp left-hand turn at the petrol station. That seemed easy enough. Even then I nearly missed the turn because I wasn’t expecting the “petrol station” to be a couple of old, derelict petrol pumps that looked as though they hadn’t seen petrol for 20 years.

The local advice was correct. The road up the mountain was very narrow, tightly twisting and fairly loose-surfaced on the corners. The ride over the mountain was almost entirely in the heavy shade of thick overgrowth. Quite a pleasant ride in that respect but scary enough to keep you fully preoccupied on the task at hand. And, yes, the ride down the other side was noticeably smoother.

While the novelty and challenge were enjoyable, it was still a relief to reach the Kempsey/Armidale road and head back to the Pacific Highway to continue with the original plan.

I hadn’t expected that the next stage would make the earlier gavel road look like the proverbial walk in the park.

The GPS alerted me to the turnoff just south of Telegraph Point that headed inland through Pembrooke. Somewhere further along the road there was a sign that clearly pointed to Wauchope and the Oxley Highway. However, the plan was to continue through Beechwood and join the Oxley Highway shortly after that. At the time, this plan still seemed eminently sensible.

It started to come unstuck when I reached a fork in the road. A sign clearly pointed to the Oxley Highway but, suspiciously, pointed to the right fork, when instinct suggested I should take the left fork. The GPS also indicated the left fork. I went with the sign rather than the GPS.

Reconstructing it later, I confirmed that both the Hema and Google maps, as well as Mapsource in the GPS had a road going fairly directly across the Hastings River to the Oxley Highway from that infamous fork. However, Google Earth suggests there is no bridge over the Hastings River on that road, notwithstanding the maps! This might explain why a makeshift sign clearly pointed to the Oxley Highway along the right-hand fork.
In contrast to the surface of the earlier gravel roads of the day, which tended to be mostly dirt, the road that I had just launched myself on was much heavier and larger-stone gravel and, consequently, much looser overall but especially on the corners.

The road wound its way seemingly endlessly through lush green pasture and past farmhouses set well back from the road. After what seemed an inordinate time of coping with this winding, loose gravel road, I felt desperate to spot somebody near their farmhouse that I could consult. But not a single soul was to be seen. Somewhat consolingly, however, the farmhouses showed signs of being occupied, at least, at some time during the day.

After about 20km, which seemed incredibly longer, I came across a lone farmer doing some fencing reasonably close to the road. He seemed delighted to have an excuse to down tools and come and talk. Quite possibly, I was the only person he had seen that day. He was certainly the only person I had seen since embarking on the gravel road.

I asked, with obvious desperation in my voice, if I would ever get to the Oxley Highway. He seemed to give a hesitant, even sympathetic “yes”, but quickly added, “It’s as far away as you have already travelled”. He offered, not very convincingly, the logical conclusion that I might as well keep going. His lack of conviction seemed to imply that it was still a practicable option, at this stage, to turn back.

That became more evident when he added, “the road ahead gets worse as it crosses that mountain”, pointing up to a quite high, thickly wooded range. He added, reassuringly, “but you’ll be okay, if you just take it easy”. He then offered further consolation by saying that, once I got down the other side, the terrain flattened out considerably.

I felt he almost delivered the coup de grace, when, after pondering for a while and looking somewhat askance at the now very dusty F800ST, he finally commented, “you’re very brave doing it on that bike”. For some reason, I sensed “brave” wasn’t the word he had in mind. It certainly wasn’t the word I had in mind.

Buoyed a little by my encounter with the lone farmer – perhaps only because it took the edge off the loneliness I had been feeling – I set out to tackle “the mountain”.

The farmer was right. The road got considerably worse. What had been a clearly discernible road up until then fast deteriorated into two barely discernible wheel tracks. Inevitably, I found myself having to jump from one to the other, as erosion or large rocks impeded my path. At times, the “road” got quite steep but that didn’t stop it continuing to twist its way to the top of the mountain. The ride down was a mix of turns and longer, steep, straight stretches. There was no relief from having to move from one wheel track to the other, at times, to choose the lesser of two obstacles. There were a few times when I felt my stomach churn as the bike moved sideways, as though both wheels were sliding simultaneously.

Eventually, I emerged from the wooded hillside to find the two wheel tracks morphing into a more discernible, single-lane road. Farmhouses reappeared. And it did get a bit smoother, which allowed for a slightly more relaxed trip until I finally met a bitumen road.

A left turn onto the bitumen road soon brought me to the Hastings River and a magnificent, if somewhat deteriorated, suspension bridge that looked as though it should be on the heritage list – and may well be. It was just another kilometre or two to the Oxley Highway.

To think the key objective of the whole day’s ride had been to position myself at the east end of the Oxley Highway to enjoy one of the top 100 motorcycle rides up the highway to Walcha and here I was, finally there, in mid-afternoon, after what felt a full day’s tiring riding.

I didn’t let that detract from the enjoyment of the run-up the Oxley, with a stretch of 70 to 80km of unrelenting twists and turns and ups and downs.

Walcha was a very welcome stop that night.