A Man's World: Touring Australia

The land that feminism forgot

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

Some couples honeymoon on the Riviera, but Pretty Wife is made of sterner stuff. We flew off to Australia instead, the lost continent of God's species experiments gone poisonously awry. We have friends there-friends with motorcycles and barbecues, good books and glider ratings.

At dawn on a winter morning in New South Wales, the greatest people you wish you knew picked us up. Justin and Gita fed us, coffeed us and introduced us to their shoulder-climbing kittens. They took us up for aerobatic soaring near Camden. They even schlepped us back to the outskirts of Sydney where we picked up a Ducati GT1000 Touring from Fraser Motorcycles, a tri-brand boutique chicer than any SoHo loft.

The bike bellowed, Pretty Wife smiled and we set out west to go south along the Northern Road. Do not attempt to tease sense out of sub-equatorial directions. Even their toilets flush uphill.

The lumpy highway curved deep into the Camden countryside. Strapped with a bagful of jet lag, Pretty Wife clung to my back, drowsing fitfully. Having apparently packed a flu virus in my carry-on, I concentrated on not sneezing into my chin bar. Just as I was musing that Oz roads were a lot like home, a sign reading "SURGERY-BUTCHERY-CHEMIST-NEWS AGENT" reminded me to swerve back into the left lane.

That evening we executed inter-hemispherical trade agreements of laughter and lies, ate traditional Aussie barbecue alongside passion fruit stirred into full cream yoghurt, drank wine and single-malt until we crashed early and slept like the toe-tagged.

We burned one happy riding day along the southern coast and windy Wollongong hills with Lindsay, an old friend met for the first time. Though we lacked for hermetically sealed panniers, solar-powered GPS or even a tank bag, Lindsay didn't hold it against us. He's not Type ADV like that.

Outside the Sydney city limits, one enters a man's world of truckies and tradies, footy and kelpies and other curious diminutives. A land offering essentially two culinary options: Eat at Justin and Gita's house, or stick to meat pies and roasted half-chickens.

Our hosts have lives of their own, so we rolled up maps and coffee packets and a preload spanner in our socks and wandered, un-escorted, north through Penrith and Windsor. At Colo Heights, the outstanding Putty Road leapt into the hills at a sign reading "NEXT FUEL 120 KILOMETERS."

"Carry cash if you don't fancy bushwalking," had been Justin's advice. While I counted out thick $2 coins, Crocodile Dundee's tweaker niece lurched through the door.

"We left firewood all over Putty Road!" she laughed through long, yellow teeth. Indeed, the tall stack of pale-yellow cordwood teetering on their trailer admitted of several gaping holes.

Random cargo distribution is far from Putty's only hazard. Marsupial mega-fauna and meat-peeling boars graze the tender grasses along the road's edge.Snoozing on the warm asphalt after dark, they provide a fabulous variety and quantity of widely distributed road kill.

Decently paved, narrow, twisting, humped, lined with rock faces you can graze your helmet on and riddled with blind spots, Putty Road is a bit like the Isle of Man TT course unbuckled and lashed across the landscape. It requires your full attention.

Turbocharged Subarus and 6-litre Holden utes sport fancy 'roo bars, but full-kit Kenworths and Scanias joust with 120mm bull bars optioned with windshield spatter screens. They go like hell and use the whole road. It keeps the car drivers cautious.

Not bikers, though: Putty Road is bestrewn with motorcycle-specific warning signs, advisories, detailed cornering instructions ... and memorial crosses. Its 150 kilometers of tight curves make for a long ambulance ride to anywhere, but the Putty is a world-class ride and you know how those bloody sportbikers can be!

Here as on the Island or anywhere, the secret is avoiding Mad Sunday. On our winter weekday, we encountered one other rider on the whole lonesome stretch. He didn't wave-it's just not done here. One's clutch hand is offside to oncoming traffic. Riders nod, poke out their inside toe or just mumble along. In this mirror world, only Harley riders wave. Friggin' tourists...

We left Putty Road at Singleton, heading through Gresford to Dungog on scenic roads with craptastic pavement that turned the backward-sloping passenger seat into a $12,000 spanking machine. Comfortably folded onto one of the world's best pilot's seats and with shock spring preload now cranked all the way up, I railed 400 corners in blissful ignorance. By the time we idled into Gloucester the rear turn signal ambers had disintegrated, the back tire was chunking and Pretty Wife looked like she'd interviewed with the dungeon master.

One less click of preload, maybe, and some aftercare. Best wife so far!

Though our travel days were warmer than Seattle's summer, heat escaped quickly into the clear winter nights and I wasn't kicking that airline virus very fast. Slavishly following Pretty Wife's directions, I shambled into the Avon Valley Inn with whitefinger and the shivers. First barfly we encountered cheerfully enquired, "How d'ya' go, mate?" He promptly answered himself, "We go better'n you!

"We're not as cold, eh?" Laughing at his own joke, John turned to interpret the glottal growls of our glowering, one-eyed innkeeper. John's a hooker for the Gloucester Magpies, Avon Valley's local ruggers. Their advance to the semis explained barkeep Dave's displeasured rictus. The house was buying rounds, but we were too chilled for Vic's Bitter.

Small-town pubs also offer rooms and hot food. No lady's loo in the bar-what kind of woman would consort with magpies on the peck?-but there was a fire blazing on the tavern hearth. Parking around back in the beer garden, we climbed a creaky, skeletal staircase to the best room in the house. The wallpaper was peeling and the radiator busted, but the sheets were clean and it was closest to the balcony bathroom.

Sourcing our supper at Blakey's Chicken & Fish shop, we also discovered Cheery Cheer, the world's most optimistic soda pop. Back at the pub, I purged my sniffles into coarse tissues and made shameless recourse to the Civil War survival technique of spooning.

The morning telly told of sharks eating a surfer at a nearby beach and pythons nesting in the roof of a nearby home. Verdict on the shark's lunch? He sure loved to surf. Australians honor a "reasonable man" tradition: If the road is treacherous or sharks are present, there's quite likely a warning sign. After that you're on yer own, mate.

By 0700, One-Eyed Dave was already washing beer glasses. I found him easier to understand in the quiet light of day.

"Stay all righ', then?"

"Couldn't've picked a better spot for our honeymoon."

"Oh, you two are jist married, then? That's luvly." Gripping my hand in both enormous paws, he looked earnestly sideways at me. "The virra best to you both, myte. The missus and me, we've been t'gither 32 years now.

"I dunno what Oi'll do when she's gone. Bist to travel togither, aye?"

Indeed. While celebrated philosopher Winnie the Pooh once observed that "Forever is too good to be true," he also said, "Promise me you'll never forget me, because if I thought you would, I'd never leave."

Packing up the bike, Pretty Wife countered my brekkie proposal with "I want to ride!" That's how we ended up jackhammering up Thunderbolts Way toward Walcha before we'd had our coffee. I blame her entirely.

It was 2 hours before we pulled into the Nowendoc town pump, bottle shop and general store where Jack Sprat's wife incarnate boiled up scalding brownish water and soapy meat pies for us.

Country highways in NSW are optimized for big trailies moving slow or open-class 'tards ridden solo. The GT's sit-up handlebar and neo-standard balance made our front tire skip like a dirtbike skimming whoops, and broasting our chicken strips came at the cost of yet more sadistic pillion punishment. Although Pretty Wife's behind held up better than our turn signals, perhaps we'll get two bikes for our next anniversary getaway.

A solid riding day included kangaroo- gawking stops, lunch in a Uralla chicken-and-fish shop and full-body fever shakes. Despite the warm winter sun, I'd been shivering and spitting like a Chinaman at every stop. Gassing up the bike in Coffs Harbour, Pretty Wife took one look at my blood-spidered eyes and insisted we stop.

"You're tired."

"I'm fine."

"Okay, then I'm tired."

We took Gold Wing Bob up on his offer of a bright, clean room at the Town Centre Hotel and parked 3 feet from our door. Shucking my jacket for stevedoring duties, I grabbed our baggage and promptly fell backward, swiping my bare forearm down the bricks like an eraser cleaning a blackboard.

"My God," said Pretty Wife as I stumbled in with our bag, blood rolling onto the grip. "What happened to your arm?"

"I hit the wall."

We had a whale-watching trip scheduled in the morning, but Pretty Wife woke up feeling dutiful.

"C'mon, it's your turn. Let's go see the whales like we said."

"What about more roads for your story?"

"We've been 1500 clicks at high speed," I said. "I promised you a couple of slow days. Besides, you know you're wiped out."

Her eyes snapped blue blazes. "I'm fine!"

"Well, I'm whipped." I blew my nose, picked up my Arai and shuffled toward the bike.

"And I've got the keys."

Doffing gear at the boatman's office, we joined Captain Steve on The Spirit of Coffs Harbour. Two pods of whales with calves disported themselves around the sun-soaked boat, breaching and rolling and flipping their tails. Whales, like thunderstorms and mountain ranges, remind us why the word "awesome" should really only be applied to nature. Headed back to port with squadrons of dolphins roistering in our bow wave, I took Pretty Wife's hand and tried to clear my sinuses enough for a kiss.

"Doing all right?" I asked her. I don't think she knew she was bouncing up and down, just a little.

"Whales! We saw whales!"

I blinked crusty eyes. "But is this okay for our..."

"Whales!" Nothing can cure what ails me like a smile that sparkles like wave tops in the sun.

Over a fish lunch to express our solidarity with marine mammals, we penciled in an extra road loop recommended by our skipper. When he's not driving the boat, Steve and his hottie English Breakfast Wife (both in their mid-50s) charge down two-lane roads on their Ducati 1098S. They insisted we sample Lower Bucca Road through forested Nana Glen, then north to Grafton where we hairpinned left onto Armidale Road. Thinking ahead to our pie-shop plans later, Pretty Wife skipped lunch. It was only a couple of inches on the map.

Racing improves the steed, and great roads are the titans that spawn godlike tracks. Kenny Roberts' American racing advantage was dirt-track experience. Troy Bayliss and Casey Stoner cut their teeth on roads like Armidale, and that's why Steve and I get to ride bikes like the 1098S and GT1000.

Pitting to gas, peruse the pleasantly gossipy Dundurrabin newspaper and wash down ibuprofen with Bundaberg ginger beer, we chatted with the general store's proprietress and caravaner Kevin outside Tyringham Store.

"How did you get all the way out here?" The lady of the store stared at Pretty Wife. "Are you all right, luv?"

"Ah, we git a lot of bikes heah since the road was pived," Kevin said, squinting through a half-century of crusted red Northern Territory sun damage. "Those Ameerican things-whad'ye call those?-they come through heah tin at a toim."

"I think she's okay ... you mean Harleys?"

"I'm fine, but I don't want to ride in the dark again tonight."

"Yeh, those." He spat in the dust. "Theey're not a maotorsoicle. Theey're a loif-stoil."

I blushed a deep Ducati red, complete with pink undercoat.

Fredo's Pies was on our itinerary, but we had detoured an extra 220 kilometers for our Grafton loop. I was confident at the first sign, showing Kempsey 110 kilometers down the road when we were punting along at a briskly scofflaw 130 per, but Pacific Highway is no U.S.-style interstate.

The next sign I read announced "KEMPSEY 60" just as we entered a 50-kph town, then slowed for a construction zone marked at 40. Crossing Columbatti Creek at Clybucca, Pretty Wife pounded at the particularly efficacious spot on my torn rotator cuff to signal her urgent requirement for dialog.

"Ow!"

"I'm cold, I'm tired and this seat is killing me."

"I know, sweetie."

"You promised to get me to Fredo's."

"Yes, I did."

"It's getting late. What if they're closed?"

What to say? That Kempsey had proven asymptotical, seeming almost to recede as we approached?

In a full-face helmet, no one knows if you're crying and it's not their business, anyway. During four cold days over the road, wearing a camera pack and living out of her half of a messenger bag, I hadn't heard a single snivel, but now she couldn't stop her shoulders from shaking.

There was nowhere to go but onward. Ten minutes later, she pounded my shoulder (same damn spot!) and I hooked a wobbly right-hand U-turn.

Fredo's Pies & Ice Creams, a tiny roadside storefront, has awards plastered over every square centimeter of wall. Sunshine had given way to brisk winter darkness, and they were mopping up for the morrow when we walked through the door into bright lights and the smell of hot food.

Snuggling together in the lone plastic chair, we socked away rich steak-and-onion and kangaroo pies, a beef-and-veg pasty and a sausage roll. Then we found a hotel and visited the local Wooly's for a jug of creamy milk and a lamington for anniversary dessert, plus breakfast goodies.

At the fuel station, a guy about my age in head-to-foot leathers advised Pretty Wife, "Don't take too much wind, luv. They'll tax you for it."

Pretty Wife pointed. "He's my windshield."

"Oi." He grinned. "You're jist using him for his body, then."

With that, he leapt into a Mad Max Holden coupe complete with whining supercharger and screamed off into the night at precisely the speed limit, politely signaling each lane change.

The next morning I was still whupped, but my fever had broken. We shared a slow, sweet breakfast of hot buttered crumpets, oranges and coffee sachets.

Pretty Wife looked out the window at our bike and brushed the last wind through her sable hair.

"My whole head's ringing," she said. "It's not my ears. It's my head."

It was mutual. The GT1000's windshield constantly turbulated my noggin with furious wallaby kicks. It's the first bike I've flatly refused to ride above town speeds without earplugs. Must be getting old.

The Duck was torquey good fun, though, handsome and comfortable for solo day trips. Some goodies in a magnetic tank bag might have made it a touch less wheelie-happy. With the Ducati Luggage Rack Bag ($180), it would even make a great weekender-for one. On any Ducati short of the new Multistrada, however, two-up forays over bumptious ribbons of road are exercises in passenger forbearance.

Still, Pretty Wife suited up to ride and stood by the bike, tapping her Lady Daytonas. In 2300 kilometers of riding we'd accomplished nearly everything on our list, from whale watching and pub stays to nature hikes and friendly visits. Everything except the relaxing beach time I hadpromised back in the States before we wrote that check for airfare.

"Hurry up," she said. "We need to get to the museum."

With that, he leapt into a Mad Max Holden coupe complete with whining supercharger and screamed off into the night at precisely the speed limit, politely signaling each lane change.

The next morning I was still whupped, but my fever had broken. We shared a slow, sweet breakfast of hot buttered crumpets, oranges and coffee sachets.

Pretty Wife looked out the window at our bike and brushed the last wind through her sable hair.

"My whole head's ringing," she said. "It's not my ears. It's my head."

It was mutual. The GT1000's windshield constantly turbulated my noggin with furious wallaby kicks. It's the first bike I've flatly refused to ride above town speeds without earplugs. Must be getting old.

The Duck was torquey good fun, though, handsome and comfortable for solo day trips. Some goodies in a magnetic tank bag might have made it a touch less wheelie-happy. With the Ducati Luggage Rack Bag ($180), it would even make a great weekender-for one. On any Ducati short of the new Multistrada, however, two-up forays over bumptious ribbons of road are exercises in passenger forbearance.

Still, Pretty Wife suited up to ride and stood by the bike, tapping her Lady Daytonas. In 2300 kilometers of riding we'd accomplished nearly everything on our list, from whale watching and pub stays to nature hikes and friendly visits. Everything except the relaxing beach time I had promised back in the States before we wrote that check for airfare.

"Hurry up," she said. "We need to get to the museum."

And with that we were off, not to the promised relaxing beach but to Nabiac, home of Brian Kelleher's lore-bespangled National Motorcycle Museum.

Practically skipping into the bike barn, I grabbed her Nikon and babbled a firm promise to lash through it in 20 minutes. Walking slowly out half an hour later, I handed over the camera.

"Your eyes are shining."

"There are bikes in there I've never even heard of."

Pretty Wife turned to the counter man. "I'll need a ticket, too. We're gonna be here a while."

Best wife ever, and why she puts up with me I'll never know. Making Pretty Wife wait three years for a honeymoon, then dragging her along on a minimalist motorcycle trip was fairly self-indulgent. Skewing our trip toward bikes, beer and barbecue in the land that feminism forgot could be construed as callous. But nothing expresses the depth of my selfishness more than this:

"Please, God, let her live one day longer than me."

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