Circumnavigating Australia on a Honda VFR1200F

By Trevor Hedge, Photography by Trevor Hedge

It is the dream of every Australian to circumnavigate the continent at least once in his lifetime. And for motorcyclists, the only way to do it is on two wheels. After crossing Oz numerous times on everything from trailbikes to hard-core sportbikes, I decided it was time to do a full "lap."

The point of my departure was the motorcycle Mecca that is Phillip Island, and my chosen steed was a freshly minted Honda VFR1200F. True to form, the heavens above the Island emptied to make for a wet start to the trip. And that theme was to continue for the next 3000 miles...

Day one saw me make a beeline for Hunter Valley, a winery region two hours north of Sydney. Of course I did this via a 700-mile journey through Bairnsdale, Cann River and Cooma rather than slab it up the dreaded Hume Highway. This was to be the modus operandi for the trip, the chosen route favoring interesting roads over highways. Putty, Waterfall, Oxley, Bucketts and Thunderbolts are all heralded words in the motorcyclists’ vernacular and reflect some of the best roads Australia has to offer.

I was not on my Pat Malone this first day, merely one of thousands returning from our annual pilgrimage to the World Superbike races. Thus I crossed paths with motor-cyclists and motorcycles of all ages, shapes and sizes, some somewhat worse for wear after a weekend of camping and partying.

From Phillip Island all the way north to Townsville, the sun rarely broke through the clouds. The incessant rain had taken some of the enjoyment out of the ride and it was time to recharge my batteries. After a relaxing interlude on Magnetic Island, I pointed the VFR west toward the Northern Territory.

After Cloncurry the Barkly Highway cuts through scenic escarpments with rock formations reminiscent of the Kimberley in Western Australia. The road offers few bends but the scenery is pretty enough to make this part of the journey surprisingly enjoyable.

Fittingly, an approaching storm marked my entry into Australia’s Top End. The Northern Territory also ended the constraints of 100 kilometer-per-hour (60 mph) speed limits and welcomed the relative freedom of 130 km/h (80 mph) limits on the highway.

Darwin, the NT capital, certainly puts most Australian cities to shame in the social stakes. A bustling pub scene kicks off every day by lunchtime and continues into the wee hours, the pubs bursting at the seams with locals, tourists and backpackers.

On the flip side, however, there are reminders of those at the bottom end of the socio-economic scale. Passing through Elliott on my way to Darwin, I saw the trademark signs of vandalized public housing, dozens of stray dogs and barefoot aborigines struggling to scratch out a life amidst a fog of substance abuse. It was a depressing sight.

The Town of Katherine abuts the Katherine River and Nitmulik National Park, where I stayed in the comfortable chalet-style accommodations. I booked in for a gorge cruise and knowledgeable guide and boat driver Taffy made the experience thoroughly enjoyable.

I then headed for the Western Australian border via the scenic Victoria River region. Like Texas, Western Australia is big, and so is everything in it. The world’s longest train (up to 4.5 miles and weighing 100,000 tons) and trucks (A-B Quads well over 160 feet and 200 tons) service some of the world’s biggest mining operations. The rate at which mining companies are digging up WA and sending it to China makes me wonder if this is, in fact, a secret plan to combat climate change. Once they have dug enough of it up, inland WA can probably accommodate rising sea levels!

Shortly after passing through the quarantine checkpoint, I turned off the Victoria Highway for the scenic 20-mile journey into Lake Argyle Village, where I checked into a lakeside cabin for the evening and enjoyed the inspiring views. Proprietor Charlie Sharpe was incredibly helpful, and I thoroughly recommend a stop by the lake. Although "lake" is perhaps not an apt descriptor: Argyle is so immense, it’s actually categorized as an "inland sea."

The next morning, Triple J Tours operator Jeff Hayley picked me up from the hotel for another river cruise. Heading out through Lake Kununurra and then following the Ord River right up to the dam wall at Lake Argyle was a memorable experience. For this part of the trip I was powered not by a Honda V-4, but by a trio of 350-horse Yamaha V-8s!

A huge variety of bird species were easily spotted from the boat while marveling at the awesome Kimberley rock formations that border the river. Quite a few freshwater crocodiles were out and about, and one of the biggest decided to take a plunge right next to where Jeff stopped the boat to let us out for a swim. He assured us that "freshies" generally don’t bother people, so we took him for his word and jumped in. Well, it was hot!

I rode out of Kununurra after a few great days exploring the scenic beauty to find life back on the bike hard work. The temperature never dipped below 100 all day, and the radiant heat coming up from the road was even more intense!

Amazingly enough, I managed to set the fuel-economy record for the trip in these stifling conditions: 181 miles from 3.6 gallons for 50.3 miles per gallon. At the rate the VFR was sipping unleaded along this stretch, it would have gone nearly 250 miles on its 4.9-gallon tank, though 185 miles is more realistically attainable.

After covering 700 miles for the day, I spent the night in Broome, where it only went down to 90 degrees overnight. And after getting underway at 7 a.m., it didn’t take too long for the 100-degree barrier to be cracked again. I continued my sojourn south as far as Port Hedland before turning inland past Karijini National Park and onto Newman.

I stopped at Kumarina Roadhouse for fuel, and thought I would treat myself to breakfast. After scarfing my food over the morning paper, I walked back outside to be greeted by traffic backed up on either side. In the short time I had been inside, the property had been cut off by flash floods!

Only around 2 feet in depth, the flood waters would have been no problem for the VFR had it not been for the incredible speed of the torrent flowing across the road. After half an hour passed things didn’t seem to be getting any better, and with more weather closing in a few large trucks decided to try their luck. I watched as the first two went through heading south, and then waited for one to inch across from the opposite direction so I could use the wheels of the truck to break some of the strength of the flow as I crossed in the other lane. Plenty of steering and body language were needed to keep the Honda upright, but I made it through unscathed.

The excitement wasn’t over yet, however, as the run south toward Perth means lots of animals to keep you on your toes. Joining the normal assortment of cattle, sheep and kangaroos were goats, camels and that pea-brained species of stupid bird: the emu.

And it was an emu that provided me with my biggest chest-thumping moment. Previous experience had taught me that emus change direction so quickly, they seem to defy the laws of physics. So when presented with a 6-foot-tall adult bird running alongside the highway, I performed a full emergency stop. The emu crossed the road about 100 feet in front of me, but bearing down on the unsuspecting bird from the opposite direction was a huge truck. I gripped the VFR tightly between my knees and went into a full-race crouch to brace for the impact. The emu escaped the truck’s ’roo-bar by fractions of an inch, I breathed a sigh of relief and the truck driver gave me the thumbs-up as a signal of my (and the bird’s) fortunate escape.

As I neared the northern outskirts of Perth, thunder and lightning broke loose with fury. Friends had told me to bring the rain with me as the Western Australian capital was experiencing its hottest and driest start to the year ever. They now call me a rain god...

I headed south from Perth via one of my favorite old weekend haunts, the Quindanning Hotel, before continuing south to Albany, then following the coast to Esperance, readying for the final trek east via the Nullarbor Plains.

With three days off in the Hunter Valley, the same in Townsville, a weekend in Darwin and a few days exploring Kununurra and Lake Argyle, I had a 2:1 mix of on- and off-bike adventures. Around 10 days off the bike exploring and 15 days on the bike for a total of 10,000 miles.

As with any trip, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Wrong turns, a flat tire, record flooding and stifling heat made the trek quite the test of man and machine. On reflection, the best time of the year to undertake such a journey is August through September. That’s out of the wet season, and friendlier temperatures make for more pleasant conditions. That time of year also coincides with the amazing wildflower season in Western Australia.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing...

VFR vs. Oz

Honda’s Latest V-4 Is One Very Favorable Ride

After 15 days and 10,000 miles on a VFR1200F, I’ve got a few observations about Honda’s newest sport-tourer.

The outstanding highlights are the VFR’s comfort and balance. With the optional screen extension there is absolutely zero turbulence at any speed. Likewise, my posterior judged the seat as one of the best in motorcycling.

Balance and feel are superb. The VFR shrinks around you and has great front-end feel, combined with steering precision unmatched by any other bike close to its size. Little effort is required to change direction, and despite its heft the VFR steers better than many sportbikes of only a few years ago.

I can’t heap the same praise on the rear suspension, though. I had no complaints on smooth roads, but the shock struggles to control the too-soft spring once the roads turn bumpy. Like most sporting motorcycles, the VFR is better suited for one-person duty sans luggage.

The brakes offer great stopping power with good feel. But I think the ABS mapping leaves a little to be desired. The intervention starts too early, and could actually increase your stopping distance on an uneven surface. Honda needs to poach BMW’s software!

The V-4 motor seemed to get stronger as the odometer rolled on. My seat-of-the-pants dyno reckons there’s an honest 150 bhp at the rear tire, and that the bike will crack 10-second quarter-miles with ease. Dial up 8500 rpm on the tach, feed in the progressive clutch and the VFR gets off the line extremely well.

The VFR1200F is not an ST1300 replacement. It’s much more sporting, and can’t match its big brother for two-up touring comfort. The VFR should be seen as more of a CBR1100XX successor—a well-rounded sport-tourer straddling those two classes more evenly than most.

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By Trevor Hedge
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