Day two in East Timor and it’s not the locals giving me the willies but the Indonesians. You see I have to get a visa from their embassy here before I can cross in to West Timor next week, so I went there this morning to apply. “No motorbikes allowed,” said the man on the desk. I showed him the international passport for the bike which said I could take it through but quite clearly his misty eyes had never seen one before. He photocopied it, handed it me back and still said no. But it doens’t matter, the guys at the border will know all about the document and I should have no problem.
After that I had breakfast at an Indian restaurant. Yep, poppadom and mango chutney don’t sound the stuff of AM but the restaurant next to the hostel is awesome. Best curry ever. Last night I had a biryani and a real sweet delicious tea. This morning I had some big puffed up pastry thing with vegetable curry stuffed up it and washed the lot down with banana juice. Delish.
Then I went walking along the sea front, which is like any other except there’s all these vendors selling drinks and crisps and other people chopping up these big hard fruits that aren’t cocunuts or mangos either. Anwers on a postcard please. And while I kept my palm on my pen knife I never felt threatened or intimidated. People either smiled or ignored me. I suppose with all these whities flying around in their UN vehicles we’re no longer a novelty. And I was surprised. There were people playing football on a proper pitch, tennis players on a proper court and shops selling all the electrical gear you could ever want. It’s all quite surprising for a place that our government don’t deem it safe to visit.
Now I’m off back to the hostel, which to get to I have to cross the main road that has all these doorless minibusses and motorbikes hurtling up and down. Chaos, but I’ve not seen anyone flattened so far. Fingers crossed.
First Stage Report – Sydney to Darwin
Sydney to London on a moped. I’m not sure it’s been done but the more I thought about it the more it sounded like a brilliant idea. I was already in Australia, my visa was coming to an end and I already had the bike. I’d bought her off eBay for $1500. It was an old postman’s bike named Dorris and it’s top speed was 75km/h.
Could I really ride it up to Darwin, through Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and home? How long would it take? How much would it cost? And how the hell was I going to make it the 4500 kilometres up to Darwin and catch the boat to East Timor in the two weeks before immigration demanded I be out?
I packed quick and and then rode hard, blazing out of Sydney three days before my birthday with the sky blue and the throttle wide open. For footwear I had Converse, for storage a milk crate, for accommodation no idea. By day one I’d made it to Taree, by day two a nail had made three holes in my inner tube. I’d stopped to buy talcum powder for my already tender bottom and picked up the punctures in the carpark. I had a repair kit but no tyre leavers and that’s like having a tin of beans but no opener. A man named Dave came to my rescue.
Now a pensioner, he’d backpacked from London to Sydney back in the sixties. “Afghanistan was amazing back then,” he grizzled. “Then the fucking Russians ruined the place.” I bought Dave a crate of beer to say thank you and felt bad when his car wouldn’t start and he had to give the beer to the guy who got him going.
I had no more punctures after that, although my engine did blow up on day three. I was north of Brisbane and by chance near a bike shop. Joe, the owner, thought Dorris might make Darwin. “What about England?” I inquired. He looked at me funny. “No chance mate.” I had three options. An engine rebuild, a new engine or a new (old) bike. I was cash-strapped but needing something reliable if I was to take on the Taliban. Joe had a bike the same make and model as Dorris – Honda CT110 if you’re curious – only with long range tank, comfy seat, panniers and brackets bolted everywhere. It was perfect. With time ticking away I bit the bullet, traded in Dorris and renamed the new bike Dot Cotton.
In the morning, somewhere around Fraser Island, me and Dot met George Harrod, a trucker who asked me to bounce up and down on his wrench in an attempt to get his tight wheel nut off. “Can I rent you?” is how he approached me at the petrol pump. I loosened his nut before carrying on up the coast to Rockhampton, a major town from where we’d stop going north and start going west. But there was a problem. It was wet season in the Northern Territories and was told the road up to Darwin had been washed away. The only way around was a 3000 km detour via Adelaide. I’d never make it. We just had to carry on and hope it was repaired in time.
To give us a fighting chance of making the boat I now needed to ride 600 kilometres a day, which at Dot’s pace meant 14 hours in the saddle. My bum ached and I quickly developed throttler’s-wrist. It’s like tennis elbow for bikers. But for the pain I had distraction. Forget Australia’s coastline, the country’s real heart lies inland. Vast empty highways, a huge dome of layered clouds and not another soul in sight. It’s fabulous and enchanting, especally with all the rain teasing out the plants and creating a stunning contrast between the red dirt, green shrub and blue sky. It entertained me all day. Which is just as well, as the only wildlife I saw had all been hit by trucks.
Eventually you reach isolated towns and villages, hundreds of kilometers apart but still aware of each others gossip. And here real Australians live. Not the show ponies from the coast, but the warts and all folk who you felt you could really trust. People like Brody and Sarah, two teachers in Mount Isa who offered me their sofa for the night. They cooked spaghetti bolognaise. It was the first meal I’d eaten with a knife and fork in ten days.
The next morning I woke to good news; the road west was open and if I rode like the wind I might just make the freight ship sailing out of Darwin the day before my visa expired. Miss it and I have to wait a week for the next one. That wasn’t an option. Rain was the main hurdle, with my combat shorts and Converse high-tops offering little protection in ‘the Wet’ as they call it up here. By the time I reached the Barkly Homestead I was drenched, and also surprised, because the most stunning English girl works there, in the middle of nowhere, taking lunch orders from tourists and truckers. Apparently she’d fallen for the homestead owner when she backpacked through and decided to stay. That warmed my heart, if not my hands and feet.
Turning right on to the Stuart Highway for the final leg in to Darwin, I now had two days to cover the last 1000 kays. I rode hour after hour, grateful for the slice of fruit cake a stranger at the roadside gave me and energised by the free cups of coffee the government provide at rest stops. Finally, late Sunday evening, me and Dot Cotton sauntered into Darwin; her with a bald tyre and flickering headlight, me in a frazzled-eyed state with buttocks I could barely sit on. There was no champagne or party girls, just quiet, somber relief. We’d made it. Dot Cotton was on the boat and I was on the plane. Next stop, East Timor.