A year ago I’d never been on a motorbike before, let alone a Harley-Davidson, so it was a surprise that I ended up working on the Harley-Davidson themed TV series HDTV. Even more of a surprise was that I ended up in Broome, W.A, about to embark on a journey of more than six thousand kilometers across the width of Australia all the way to Brisbane, QLD, on the back of a Harley-Davidson Project Rushmore bike riding pillion while holding a camera. The term ‘pillion’ was new to me, and even though I did ask several of the other riders nobody seemed to know where that word came from –for your information “a pillion is a mostly British English term for a secondary pad, cushion, or seat behind the main seat or saddle on a horse, motorcycle, bicycle or moped” (courtesy of Wikipedia), basically the passenger. I’ve done my fair amount of travel but I had no idea of what to expect from a trip like this.
Week one would see the 24 bikes on the trip travel north east of Broome, crossing into the Northern Territory and then heading to Darwin where we had a two-day stop. The first thing I noticed about the group of people who signed up for this long haul was that they were all very friendly, open, and most of all: loved their bikes. One of the great things about this trip Gasoline Alley Harley-Davidson had put together was that the rider’s own bikes were shipped from Brisbane in a custom designed semi-trailer and taken all the way to Broome, the riders then flew in and picked up their bike for the trip back to Brisbane. We had two days to settle in at Broome and it was an odd feeling knowing that we all were just hanging to get onto the bikes and start this epic journey across the land, Broome unfortunately was on borrowed time. We said goodbye to this frontier coastal city by watching the ocean swallow the fiery red sun as it disappeared into a balmy night. In the morning we left, straight after a mandatory coffee of course.
My rider was none other than Paul Hallam, a semi-regular on HDTV and an all round top guy, plus an amazing motorbike rider, there’s no way you can fault any of his skills or the way he handles the bike –never did I feel at all uneasy, even when hanging off the back with a camera! Traveling on a bike is remarkably different to any other way, it’s a full sensory experience. You hear, see, feel, and smell the landscape, from the battering wind at 130kms an hour, to the stench of road kill as you whip past it. Your sensors are soaking in all the experiences around you, and when you’re open to the elements you really feel every part of the road. Although, the smell of a decomposing kangaroo carcass when you’ve got a slight hang over is far from a pleasant experience.
Everywhere we went, every town, every fuel stop, the group of bikes and the riders received much attention and praise. I was constantly surprised with how much interest we gained from local people and fellow travelers, the story of our trip impressing everyone who asked us about it. I never knew that these bikes could bring strangers together for a chat, there were kids sitting on bikes mouths open in awe, tourists and locals alike took photos, and we all shared stories at the fuel pump. Riding a Harley-Davidson proved to be a great icebreaker. Of course the bikes were very impressive looking, glistening in the hot northern Australian sun, and echoing through the long valleys of the Kimberley.
This first week shocked even the most seasoned rider, one of the guys commented that it made him ‘fall in love with Australia again’, and there were many comparisons to America’s Monument Valley. The question of why travel to other places in the world to experience the kind of things Australia already has started to dwell on us. The landscapes of the Kimberley, Lake Argyle, the Devil’s Marbles, Kakadu, and others are truly some of the most impressive sights, its as if the land was designed by giants, and you wouldn’t be shocked to find a dinosaur around the next corner, such was the Jurassic feel of this place. The open plains and towering rock peaks reminded us all of how small we are as individuals in this huge land we call home, and that we’re living in a tiny speck of time, whereas these monsters have ruled for millions of years.
Darwin brought a much needed reprieve from the hundreds of kilometers we were doing a day (approx.. 600 kilometers a day), and gave my behind a chance to recover. The city itself was great, and a lot tidier than I thought it would be. It’s a tropical city with palm trees swaying along the coastline, and military history from world wars scattered through many of its public spaces. The chance to chill out at the Hilton and catch up on some much needed data transferring and camera repair work was much appreciated.
Week two had the trip leaving Darwin early in the morning with a big group ride out from under the Hilton sign, and venturing back down through the Northern Territory, crossing into Queensland, and into Longreach and others before finally finishing at the Gasoline Alley dealership in Brisbane. Week two had a variety of stops and places, and although the distances between stops weren’t as long it actually took us longer (due to the drop in speed limit from 130 to 110/100). The scenery here changed day to day, from endless sky horizons that reminded me of scenes from Kansas U.S.A with dry grass fields stretching far into the distance where they looked to actually meet the clouds, to long periods of shrubbery and forests. The outback gave way to stockman country, which then fell away at the mountains leading into the Brisbane valley. Highlights along this part included the large Qantas jet parked on the outskirts of Longreach, the oldest town in Queensland at Gayndah (and the incredible dinner that Grant and Cindy from Gasoline Alley provided on that night – imported Alaskan King Crab, awesome!), the mysterious fairytale like fog that welcomed us on the last day, and dropping down into an underground gemstone mine in Sapphire. We even managed to convince Paul, who was keen to avoid every waterway in this area of the world, to swim down a small river heated by natural hot springs in Mataranka. Not only was the river warm, it was refreshing, and helped to wash off some of the red dirt that had accumulated on our skin. Paul and I didn’t see any crocodiles in the public swimming spot, with the only danger coming from the very large Golden Orb spiders that sat patiently in giant webs just above the waterline.
The people on this trip became close friends, experiences like these bring people together, and a ride like this is very life affirming. I guess that’s why people buy Harley-Davidson’s and motorbikes, it’s an experience that creates moments in life that define not only what you know about the world, but about who you are. The people who rode with us had their own incredible stories to tell, not just about this trip but other rides, all of them chasing the freedom and dream that owning a Harley-Davidson represents. This trip was for work, and I did a lot of it, filming everything and interviews and chronicling the story so that we can tell it later for HDTV, but it was so much more than just that. I remember watching the world pass by on the back of the bike, Paul just giving it, and I took a moment to soak it all in, the sights and smells and the noise of the engine thundering along below me and I thought ‘this is fuc*king unreal’. Is there any better feeling than that? You know you’re alive, and you’re pretty damn glad to be. I thought, this is freedom, this is life, this is Australia.
Pulling into Gasoline Alley in Brisbane (on a rainy afternoon) was bittersweet, we were under the pump to make sure we got the right camera shots as the armada of bikes and trucks pulled into the dealership together so I didn’t get a chance to reflect on what we’d just done until much later. People hugged and shook hands, there was a real sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride and joy of what everyone had achieved, but there was also a sense of sadness that it was all over, that real life beckoned in the ‘too soon’ future. Not only had we crossed the width of this wide-open country, but there were no accidents, no injuries, and no problems. This was in part to the fantastic work done by the Gasoline Alley crew (who were genuinely great people and did everything they could to look after us all), but also to the dedication of all the riders to not only look after themselves, but each other. These are people who are passionate about life, they take life by the handlebars and give it all and aren’t afraid of a challenge, and the bikes are more than up for it, its what they are built for. You never know how strangers will react when you place a camera in front of them but this group warmed to it very quickly, and really helped me achieve some great material.
I think it hit me the following day after I returned to Melbourne when I really had a chance to think what we’d done: I sat on the back of a Harley for over six thousand kilometers (with a camera!) through some of the most majestic parts of Australia and an area I’d never seen before, that’s freakin’ awesome. My only issue is now, how will I top that?