Riding 1800 Miles of Australian Outback

Jacob shuffled his feet, gave the group of bikes and riders loaded on the ferry a furtive glance and returned his gaze to the deceptively placid waters of the croc-infested Jardine River. A loose-limbed Aboriginal with curly, black hair and dark sunglasses, Jacob is the operator of the Jardine River Ferry. He had already kept it open an hour after the scheduled closing time and his impatience was beginning to show. The lean frame and quick eyes of tour guide Dave Gibson were also carrying some tension. The tour's chase truck, a customized Toyota four-wheel-drive, was more than an hour late. Ten off-road bikes and riders were loaded on the ferry, waiting to cross the Jardine and join tour leader Warwick Schuberg at Punsand Bay. The camping gear, food, gas and drinks had been loaded on the missing Toyota. A hot shower, our clean clothes and Warwick were waiting on the other side. With the light fading, the crocs hungry and Jacob about to shut down, Dave had to make a call.

"Unload the bikes," he said, "We'll spend the night here. I'm taking an XR400 and going after Matt." Jacob could go home and we would have to catch up with Warwick in the morning.

Fellow American Mark Frederick and I grabbed the remaining XRs, a 400 and a 650, to join Dave. We couldn't let Dave travel bush track alone, particularly in the dark. Besides, after riding 1500 miles of open track, we were eager to ride the technical stuff one more time.

The section of trail we would be retracing was sandy two-track dotted with four-foot-deep washouts, wicked deep sand ruts and vicious corrugations. Following Dave down that rugged Outback track with the XR650R barking beneath me and the moon rising over the rain forest of Cape York, I had found the Australian adventure I was seeking. I only hoped that our other tour guide, Matt Cooley, had not found more than he was looking for, stranded on the Telegraph Track in the fading Australian twilight.

The journey began more than 1500 miles earlier, in Alice Springs, a dusty, little tourist town in the center of Australia. Ten riders signed up to ride with Warwick Schuberg, the charismatic owner of Stay Upright, across more than 1800 miles of Australian Outback. The tour cut 1200 miles east of Alice to the rain-forested mountains of the east coast and continued another 600 miles north to Cape York, the northernmost point in Australia. About 200 miles of the trip was bitumen (paved road). The rest was all dirt, ranging from wide, hard, red dirt roads crossing vast expanses of flat Outback to washed-out sand tracks threading through the rain forests of the Cape.

On the patio near our hotel swimming pool outside in Alice Springs, Warwick described the trip ahead to the recently assembled group of riders. He explained that being careful was more than just smart, it was vital in the Outback. The only medical help out there is the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a dedicated group of doctors who fly light planes. Stay Upright carries a satellite phone, but it may be hours before a doctor can be summoned. The riding would not be overly technical, but speeds would be high, the days long and obstacles--kangaroos, potholes, washouts and so on--come up fast. "The Outback can bite you," Warwick warned.

The first day of the ride, the tour departed Alice to cross the MacDonnell Range and out into the Outback. After about 90 minutes of pavement, we turned onto the Sandover Highway, perhaps the longest, straightest, dustiest road on earth. Australians refer to the Outback as GAFA, which is short for the "Great Australian F@#!-All." The name derives from the fact that there just isn't much out there. Bear in mind that Australia is about the size of the continental U.S., yet it has only 18 million people with the population clustered on the southern coast. The rest of the country is, well, empty.

Between the last beer stop at Camooweal and the windswept pub that is the Gregory Downs Hotel lies 130 billiard table flat miles of gray dirt, spinifex grass, termite mounds and the occasional gum tree. Crossing this ocean of nothing drives home the sheer emptiness of this part of the world. Average rainfall is less than three inches per year and the population is effectively zero.

Most of the few hardy souls who brave the heat and dust to forge a living in this nameless region of GAFA work in the mines, live in Aboriginal communities or run ranches. At a windmill pumping water to a raised cistern, a rancher tells us he is 50 miles from his home and is still on his own land. His cattle ranch covers 5000 square miles.

To cross these vast expanses, Stay Upright relies on one or two custom-fitted four-wheel-drive support vehicles to carry camping gear, food, fuel and water. In the evening, the leader pulls the tour aside to camp for the night. The guides build a big fire, toss us cold beer from an electric cooler and cook "tucker" (food) over the fire. With a long day behind them, riders crawl in to sleeping bags in tents and "swags" (Australian bedrolls).

On the fifth and final day of the Alice-to-Cairns leg of the trip, the hot red dust of the Outback folded up into rocky escarpments and slowly gave way to the rolling green hills, deep volcanic lakes and weathered farms of the Atherton Tablelands. Winding down from Atherton to the east coast is the Gillies Highway, a savage little stretch of road that curls back upon itself with hairpins, sweepers and switchbacks. After testing the limits of knobbies on this adrenaline-pumping stretch of road, we have four days in the city of Cairns to rest up and explore the Great Barrier Reef and the area's beaches and rain forests before beginning the second leg of our excursion.

The next leg is a six-day trip covering about 600 miles, traveling up to Australia's northeastern corner, Cape York. Known simply as the Cape, this part of Australia is incredibly diverse and amazingly remote. The coast is reminiscent of Hawaii, with green mountains rimming the shore, stunning white-sand beaches and gorgeous blue-green water. Much of the tour follows the coast, snaking through the rain forest and popping out to offer stunning views. Parts of the tour cross flat, dusty spinifex-grass-covered plains. The final destination is The Tip, a jagged strip of rock that is the northernmost point of Australia.

Driving to Cape York's tip is no small undertaking. The paved road ends about 60 miles north of Cairns. After that, the track turns into a potholed, baked-hard, bone-jarring stretch of dirt known as the Peninsula Development Road. The drive to the very top takes at least four days, a serious four-wheel-drive vehicle and a skilled driver. Paradise, Australia-style, is a rough place. The most difficult part of this ride is the Old Telegraph Track. The track, built in the 1940s to string a telegraph cable to the Cape, is a rough, sandy road that features deep sand, river crossings, plenty of twists and turns and a couple of challenging climbs.

The Telegraph Track ends at the Jardine River Ferry. Somewhere on the last 31 miles of that section, Matt and the chase truck had run afoul. So Dave, Mark and I were pounding back along that section as the day turned to night, hoping to find Matt around the next bend.

About 22 miles in, we came upon the truck parked along the track. Matt was leaning against the back of the truck. "Where the hell have you been?" he said with a grin. "We got work to do." The trailer hitch had sheered off the box of the trailer in a deep sand wash, tipping the trailer on its side and scattering jerry cans of fuel, five-gallon water bottles, spare tires, swags and a BMW 650 across the track. Matt had picked up what he could, but it would take the four of us to hide the bike, drag the gear off the road and move the trailer for retrieval later.

By the time we finished, the slender crescent moon and the XRs were the only sources of light. With goggles filthy with dust, the visibility was low. Even riding at a modest 40 to 50 mph, we only had time to gas it and jump obstacles rather than avoid them. Hammering over washouts and hacking through deep sand washes in the dark of an Australian rain forest, we made our way through the last leg of the Telegraph Track.

When we made it to camp, a fire was blazing and the beer cooler was open. Dave grilled steaks and sausages and boiled potatoes. We wolfed down half-raw steak and guzzled cold brew at the bottom of the world, 500 miles away from anything resembling civilization. Crocs growled from the river that night, daring us to try a crossing.

The next day, Jacob's ferry took us across the Jardine, the crocs nowhere to be seen. By lunchtime, we rode into our last campsite at Punsand Bay. The final destination, Cape York, was only about 12 miles of riding away. The first two miles are deep, treacherous sand, perhaps the trip's most difficult riding. After that last bit of trail, all that stands between the riders and the top of Australia is a mile-long hike up Pijinka, the raw block of rock on the top of Cape York. Standing on the tip, you can dip your toes in the surf with New Guinea a mere 70 miles to the north and the Far East just another hop away. After the Cape, a lonesome stretch of beach open to off-road vehicles is a seven-mile ride away. With the Coral Sea breaking on one side and the rain-forested slopes of the Carnegie Range on the other, we carved that barren strip of sand into shreds.

We limped through the deep sand and rocks back to the camp at Punsand Bay. Our ride truly finished, we sat on the beach and watched the sun set over the Arafura Sea.

Special thanks to Alpinestars, Moose, MSR, Stay Upright Adventure Tours and BMW.

•Dirt riding through possibly the remotest part of Australia
•Stream crossings
•Wheelies in downtown Cairns (Australian XRs, DRs, etc. are street-legal)
•Technical riding on the Old Telegraph Track
•Playing roadracer on the Gillies Highway
•Great "bush tucker" (camp food)
•Trailside riding instruction
•Camping in the Outback

•Outback roads on the straight side •Break a leg and spend hours waiting for the Royal Flying Doctor
•Some of the bikes are Suzuki DR650s (zzzzzz)
•Australian red dust--takes weeks to scrub off
•'Roo dodging
•Tour leader Warwick's taste in music (don't crash out--you'll have to ride with him!)

1. Coal-cooked lamb stew
2. Foil-roasted blue salmon
3. Chicken 'n' apricots over rice
4. Grilled bangers (sausage) and steak
5. Fire-roasted meat sauce over rotini pasta

•Two pairs of goggles (clear and tinted lenses)
•Goggle cleaning kit
•Two pairs of riding pants
•Two or three jerseys
•Padded Lycra shorts, like Moose's Sahara
Skins or bicycling shorts (yer bum is going to take a pounding, mate!)
•Two pairs of gloves
•Riding jacket (light, stuffable is best)
•Chest protector or body armor
•Good-quality knee pads (cheesy ones dig in on long trips)
•MX socks (again, the good stuff is worth the money)
•Multitool (yeah, they have tools, but one of these always helps)
•Camera and film (great scenery, mate)
•Fanny pack, medium to small
•Bandanna to tie around face if dust gets bad (and it does)
•Small shop towel
•Pants (long pants with zip-off legs work best)
•A couple of T-shirts
•A decent shirt for nights on the town
•Toothbrush and toothpaste
•Shower gel
•Flashlight (Petzl headlights rock)
•Insect repellent
•Small soft-sided gear bag
•Drink system, the bigger the better

Australians speak English, but they shorten it, twist it and make it their own. Here are a few of their favorites.
Aggro: aggravation
Full noise: WFO
Fully cooked brekkie: hot breakfast with the works--bacon, beans, eggs, grilled tomato, potatoes and toast
Mate: friend, pal
No worries: think Bronx and fuhgeddaboudit ("Thanks for the beer, mate." "No worries.")
Right: all right ("Howzit goin', mate?" "I'm right, mate.")
Rock show: a mess, circus ("With the Olympics in town, mate, Sydney is a freakin' rock show.")
Sami: sandwich
Seppo, Yank: American

•Snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef
•Backpack Cape Tribulation
•Waterfall tours of Mungalli Falls
•Whitewater rafting

1. Sunset Tavern (open-air bar on beach, great grilled Barramundi)
2. The Lion's Den Hotel (walls covered with interesting patron graffiti, open-air, authentic Okkers bellying up)
3. Sexchange Hotel (makes the list just for the name)
4. Club Hotel (awesome beer signs, old photos, wacky newspaper clippings and truck crash photos on wall)
5. The Burketown Pub (brags it's "Australia's greatest Outback hotel")
6. Gregory Downs Motel (cool old bar stools, great signs, remote)

1. P.J. O'Briens (lotsa ladies, great draft beer, decent bands)
2. The Cock and Bull (loud, lively Irish pub)
3. Tropics (yeah, it's a nightclub, but the scenery is incredible!)
4. The Pier (harbor on one side, lights of Cairns on the other)
5. Verdi's (a bit upscale, but they have fabulous Boddington's Ale on tap)

1. Coopers Sparking Ale (yeasty, potent, tasty)
2. Coopers Green (no yeast, just slightly less potent and tasty)
3. Resch's Real Bitter
4. Touhey's Old
5. Victoria Bitters (VB)

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