Real world ride


Rocket Man

A Rocket to Woomera sounds like coals to Newcastle, but there is method in the Bear’s madness…

There’s a blue rocket made of steel up on a stand in Woomera’s rocket park, so I thought that it was pretty much the logical place to take a blue (and mainly steel) Rocket III Touring on a proving trip in real Australian conditions.

That sounds a bit tenuous, does it? Well, how about this: I’ve wanted to see Woomera for quite a long time and a Rocket was available, so it wasn’t too hard to sell the idea to The Powers That Be. Better? Closer to the truth, possibly.

The town of Woomera was established in the year I was born (look it up) to act as a dormitory for the Woomera Prohibited Area. At 127,000 square kilometres, it’s the largest weapons testing area in the world.

The V1 and V2 rockets fired at the United Kingdom in World War II put the wind up the Poms and made them decide that they needed to do their own rocket research, but as one history puts it “the density of population in the UK made it difficult to establish a test facility in the UK”. Ha ha. Australia was the next best choice, especially with anglophile Bob Menzies in charge.

Woomera was used from the 1950s on for joint Australia and United Kingdom weapons and aerospace testing and later also housed the American-run Nurrungar satellite ground station. Subsequently, it was home to an infamous immigrant detention centre, since moved closer to Port Augusta.

That’s where I was going.

Hot time
“It’s summer,” said my Sensible Side. “Check the web for the weather.” Unfortunately, my SS said this after I’d made the arrangements. The Rocket was waiting for me at Peter Stevens in Adelaide, my tickets had been booked and I’d even arranged some accommodation.

“The temperature will be 45 degrees,” I said to my SS after checking the web. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” She said nothing, just gave me The Look.

The Rocket Touring looks a little daunting, but nothing like, say, a GoldWing. It isn’t as intimidating once you’re aboard, either. Part of the reason for that would have to be the low centre of gravity, but the fact that you’re not actually surrounded by fairing would help, too.

Adelaide traffic is not much of a problem at the worst of times and the only difficulty I found was that the front brake didn’t really respond all that strongly to its pleasantly wide lever. It’s not vague, just takes a strong pull. And while we’re on the subject of strong pulls, the 209Nm the triple produces allows you to pull away in style.

The clutch is relatively light and the five-speed gearbox is as slick as anything I’ve sampled. Mind you, later on the open road I would have liked another gear — an overdrive for those relaxed, loping, long runs for which the Rocket is ideal. It’s also a bit disappointing that the bike is so quiet, even quieter than the standard Rocket. All that power and no glory!

Manoeuvring the Touring without the engine is pretty much impossible, but once it’s moving it is as easy as — traffic, tram lines and occasional suicidal pedestrians caused no sweat. I wouldn’t like to have it fall over on me (or even next to me); it’s true, the bigger they are the harder they are to pick up.

As I headed north I did begin to sweat a little, but that wasn’t anything to do with the bike’s behaviour. It was that 45-degree day starting to assert itself. The narrower 180 rear tyre means that the Touring actually handles more sweetly than its naked brother. The low screen fitted to my bike was a bit too low for me and my helmet rattled and whistled in the disturbed air stream. I’d get the higher screen.

Forget the fuel gauge, which moves in fits and starts and tells you nothing useful. Once you hit “reserve” the trip meter will count down the distance remaining, but even that’s not reliable — it was telling me that I only had 30km left when the 22-litre tank took only 18 litres to fill. Ah well, better pessimistic than the other way — you wouldn’t want to have to push this baby!

Give ’em curry

My overnight stop in Port Augusta was uneventful except for the excellent beef vindaloo at the Standpipe Restaurant (part of the Standpipe Motel). It wasn’t as hot as the waitress reckoned, but it was most flavourful.

Other impression of the bike? Let’s see. The panniers suffer for their beauty: they look wonderful and smooth on the outside but that leaves locks and other intrusions on the inside, robbing space and making them more difficult to load. You get a lot of attention from everyone on the road. Someone even took a photo of me as I passed their car. And the heel part of the heel-and-toe gear change is a bit too far away from the toe part, even with my size 10s.

Just after dawn I turned out of the motel driveway and took the Stuart Highway north. Woomera was waiting 180km away through the still-cool but warming air. Eventually, as the air heated up, I began to feel it and emptied my Camelback pretty keenly; but although a fair bit of heat came up from the engine I didn’t really feel that it was adding unduly to the problem.

There’s nothing quite like a nice, long desert run to establish how comfortable a bike is. With nothing much to distract you, every little niggle becomes obvious. Fortunately, the Touring is well-served by its ergonomics. You are rather locked into one position by the deeply moulded seat, but it’s comfortable there. The bike just kind of inhaled the road, breathed it out again and then I was there.

Despite the optimistic tourist literature that insists that “Woomera is a very active and vibrant town”, it actually seemed a bit quiet to me, with many of the houses and other buildings closed up and seemingly empty. The Missile Park, which features missiles and rockets tested at Woomera, is fascinating and the heritage centre and museum in an elderly Nissen hut is kind of interesting. The museum is open from 9.30am to 4.30pm from March to November and supposedly closed December to February, but it was open in early January.

The mounted rockets, missiles and bombs outside include a Black Arrow, a large rocket that was launched four times from June 1969 to October 1972. Its fourth launch put a Prospero satellite into orbit, one of only two satellites to ever be launched from Woomera.

There’s also a slightly daggy-looking British Meteor Mark 7 jet that was used against German V1 rockets and a Canberra bomber that looks rather more deadly in the metal than in pictures. One of the famous Jindivik pilotless target aircraft keeps them company along with an Ikara, an Australian-developed anti-submarine weapon. Its flight trials were conducted here in the 1960s, but you’d have to wonder where they found a submarine to practice on.

I headed back out to the Stuart Highway and Spud’s Roadhouse, where I filled the bike and my Camelback before turning south again into the by now palpable heat to return to Port Augusta and Adelaide.

Conclusions? The Triumph Rocket III Tourer is the goods for long trips. I’d be happy to go anywhere (on tar) on this bike, for any length of time. And Woomera is definitely worth a look, but perhaps not the 1200km round trip from Adelaide — especially not in summer.

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