If they reckon it can’t be done, trust a bloke on two wheels to give it a crack
Back in the mid-1970s, with the inaugural Katherine Carnival imminent, riding mates John Pfitzner and Lofty Evans found themselves at a meeting hosted by carnival organiser Sylvia Wolfe. Sylvia was casting about for ideas that would provide some novel excitement for tourists visiting the Northern Territory other than the standard bull-riding and camp-drafting demonstrations.
Possibly John and Lofty had had a beer or two when they suggested they could put on a show by riding a bike under the Katherine River. Impossible said the committee, but John – who’d done some scuba diving while sandblasting the insides of oil tankers in Norway – told Lofty ‘you get the bike and I’ll do the rest.’
Lofty, the local bike dealer, had nothing suitable in his shop, but Hans Van Santen, the Darwin Yamaha dealer, had a demo TY250D trials bike in stock. John and Lofty agreed this would be ideal for negotiating the boulders in the riverbed and set about waterproofing the Yamaha.
Waterproofing was one thing, getting a fuel mix that would work underwater, even with a five-metre snorkel, was another. After much experimentation, one explosion, one fire and one complete engine rebuild, he and John settled on the alcohol-based racing fuel they used in their racebikes.
It worked. The final test of the rebuilt machine took place in the swimming pool of Sylvia Wolfe’s Pine Tree Motel. Perhaps way past bedtime was not ideal but it was one of those occasions when forgiveness was easier to obtain than permission. And as Sylvia was one of the organisers of the upcoming Katherine Carnival, forgiveness was forthcoming.
Come the day of the Carnival, John managed to ride halfway across the Katherine riverbed before hitting a submerged refrigerator that had been dumped. This happened at the same time water had been forced down the throttle cable, stalling the bike – at four metres deep the water pressure was double that of the pressure in the motel’s swimming pool.
Incredibly, John managed to kick the submerged bike into life and make it to the opposite bank. Perhaps the crew never believed he’d make it that far, as it appears no one had scoped out an easy exit line. On the opposite bank, John faced a two-metre rock ledge. Spectators managed him and the bike over the ledge but in the melee the snorkel took on five litres of water, drowning the bike.
Ten minutes of hand cranking, a new spark plug plus a fresh dose of fuel and John – knowing how to now dodge the sunken fridge – made the return run without incident. Somehow, news of this amazing stunt made it all the way across the Pacific and the boys were contacted by the popular American TV show Art Baker’s You Asked For It.
John still had his scuba gear and Lofty still had the Yammie and, needless to say, the re-enactment proved just as spectacular as the original stunt…
Words Peter Whitaker + Photography AMCN archives