Steve Martin got so badly bitten by the adventure bug there was only one possible cure – a ride to Australia’s northernmost point
Having lived overseas for 12 years of my life, I’ve been blessed to have seen a lot of the world. Most of the travelling was organised by me or my wife and included many miles of Autostrada in Italy, Autobahn in Germany, mountain passes and so on. We’ve seen some crazy places and been to some countries that I never would have imagined visiting before the journey started.
But all that time spent gallivanting around the world has meant I haven’t seen a lot of our own great land. Yes, I’ve seen the dump located next to Sydney Motorsport Park, the beach at Phillip Island and the solidarity of the community of Warwick near Morgan Park Raceway. But there is a whole continent out there that is foreign to me.
Earlier this year Suzuki invited me to the V-Strom launch, taking us north of Cairns to the Daintree and up as far as a little town called Laura. It gave me a taste of life away from the track and rekindled a burning desire I had as a child and ignited a passion for adventure. I kept thinking of going all the way to Cape York, of walking on those soft sands and dipping my toes into our most northern waters. I needed to get to the tip, the very top of Australia, but at that point had no way of making it happen.
So when I received a call from BMW Australia asking if I wanted to join their BMW Safari GS Enduro heading from Cairns to the Tip, there was only one answer.
There were a few demons to address, though. Could I afford the time away? How would my wife cope with me disappearing off the grid? And would I be able to fit into the tight structure needed when nearly 130 fully laden motorcycles are heading north to the same piece of land? Organised holidays – or cattle-class trips as I sometimes call them – have never been my style.
But with the jaunt of a lifetime on offer, these were all demons I was happy to tackle.
Safari is go
At the welcome dinner it was obvious there were plenty of excited souls, and it brought home to me just how big a deal the Safari is.
This year’s event started off in Cairns and the route meandered through a myriad of paths, forests and tracks heading to the northernmost tip of Australia – Cape York. Although that was to be my personal destination after three days of travel, the main group would then take another three days and make their way back down the east coast to finish back at Cairns.
Day 1 of the monumental journey dawned and I donned my new riding gear, which made me look like an adventure virgin. I was gleaming in my new RST Adventure suit, boots and Shoei Hornet helmet. I haven’t looked that shiny for some time and was feeling proud of my new appearance, but it didn’t take long to break in the new gear.
One thing I didn’t expect was the rain. This is supposed to be the dry season in Far North Queensland, but that certainly wasn’t the case on the day of our departure.
The wet was going to make things interesting, especially with close to 150 BMW GS bikes with knobbies fitted heading out of Cairns on the black stuff. It was hair-raising stuff, but thankfully everybody got through with no major dramas, proving how good the safety aids on these bikes are.
Before long we were off road for the first forested section, up Mountain Creek Road. We started to encounter some traffic at this point and the wet roads turning into slick clay made things more exciting than I would have liked so early into the ride. The conditions were difficult, but that was what this experience was all about. It was an adventure, and every good adventure needs to be earned, at least in my book.
It wasn’t long before we got to a clay-covered incline where I spotted a stranded 1200GS that had gone all cowboy and shot up the bank. I pulled over to assist the poor rider. We got him sorted and then the next one along came and pulled the same bucking bronco move. I sorted him out too and decided to get out of there before the next guy skidded to a stop.
With 438km to complete on the first day, fuel was always going to be tight. Stopping sooner rather than later was the key to success, so we made our first stop at Mount Carbine even though we’d only done a hundred kays or so.
I learnt a valuable lesson there. One of the BMW guys, Benno, had just finished filling up and was resting against the trunk of a coconut tree. Lucky he wasn’t one step to the left because a coconut smashed on the ground right at his feet. It brought home to me how dangerous this part of the world can be – if the snakes and crocodiles don’t get you the coconuts will.
We continued on to the Bohr Lookout, located at the highest point overlooking the tablelands, and drank in the majestic vista. Gazing over the open plains really does take your mind back to another time, and that’s the striking part for me – this part of the world is like no other I’ve seen. It’s just so open, with nothing for as far as the eye can see, and yet it’s everything at the same time.
As we continued on the Maytown Road, things started to get serious. It’s a beautiful section of perhaps 80km of sweeping turns sliced into the natural terrain, making the most perfect set of dirt corners for the 1200 to let its hair down. Time got away from me in the best way possible as I slipped into the happy zone, weaving, passing and listening to the incredible bark emitted by my steed.
I pulled over and waited for what seemed like an eternity for my mate Stu, and just enjoyed watching the guys fly by, all displaying the same trance-like state that had overcome me. All ages, all manner of riders, and all models shot past, and it suddenly struck me that I was on my own navigating by myself with no phone reception in the middle of nowhere.
Stu was nowhere to be seen. I kept on waiting and decided to have a sandwich and a drink, but still no Stu. Doctor Steve finally pulled up to wipe away the mud from his goggles and glasses, which had attracted a lot of dust, making it impossible for him to see anything.
We had a good old banter and at that point it didn’t matter about class, jobs or the like. We were just a couple of bike riders and that was a big aspect of the group experience that appealed to me.
Later on, poor Doctor Steve turned out to be one of the unlucky ones. He hit a stretch of sand and came off at about 60km/h, breaking his collarbone. It brought home the fact that it could happen to anyone, and when shit happens up here it’s serious.
I might never get another chance to see the Cape, so I needed to ride smart.
After Stu finally turned up, we needed to dash to Laura for more fuel. We were not far from Koolburra Station, our destination for the night’s camping and frivolities, so heading 20km in the wrong direction to get fuel after a long day in the saddle was not what I had wanted.
However, Laura is like a little oasis, and with a can of Coke to wash the dust away and my Rallye X brimmed with fuel, I was ready for the final push on the bulldust-ridden main road north to the camp.
We only had 60km to go but it wasn’t long before we came across a group trying to bump-start an old air-cooled GS1200. Unfortunately, this guy had fallen over earlier in the day and filled his airbox with oil, which then pumped into the cylinders, creating a hydraulic lock. When he hit the electric start, it sheared the starter gear from its shaft, so the only way to get him underway was to push-start this beast in the sand. Easier said than done, and unfortunately a fail. Luckily for him, though, another unfortunate soul had crashed on the same model and couldn’t continue, so he was able to borrow the starter motor and get back on the trail.
Pulling in to Koolburra that night I had a great feeling of satisfaction. I’d done more than 450km, mostly off road, and I’d stayed in one piece. One thing’s for sure, there was no partying that night. I think a lot of people were feeling knackered.
The long haul
I was one of the lucky ones with a cabin to sleep in, which was very welcome. Most of the guys slept in tents and I’m guessing had less rest than myself.
Breakfast was laid on at the station with a great spread of pretty much anything you wanted, as long as it was meat. There was even hot coffee, which was a godsend because there aren’t many Macca’s takeaways around that area.
Hitting the road again made me realise how dramatically the scenery can change. From the twisty mountains of the Great Divide, we moved on to a flatter but forested fire trail that gave great diversity and mixed things up, never letting you rest or giving you a moment to think you’ve had enough. Roy Kunda (Cape York Motorcycle Adventures) had overseen the marking of the trail, so we had nothing to fear – he knows the region like the back of his hand and has been running tours for more than 20 years.
After the long first leg, Day 2 was a simple 300km run up to the Archer River Roadhouse, where we would stay overnight on the banks of the mighty river. To get there we took open fire trails that suited my Rallye X to a tee. The group I was riding with were really honking, making short work of the open trails and rewriting in my mind the rule of staying away from so-called cattle class events. Less than two days in and I was a convert.
I arrived at Coen in time for lunch. There were plenty of places to eat, but the Sexchange Hotel – it was just called the Exchange until some drunken plumbers put up the ‘S’ in 1976 – seemed like the place to be so I pulled up a chair for a bite and, more importantly, a drink. It’s so important to keep the fluids up in these hot and arid places.
After Coen, it was a straight run up the Peninsula Developmental Road toward our camp for the night.
The Archer River is an amazing place that is impassable in the wet season, with floodwaters metres high blocking the way. But in the dry season it’s a beautiful oasis. At one point there were 30 or 40 guys sitting in the river just relaxing, telling yarns and drinking nice cold beers.
Observing these guys, who had come together from all over Australia to ride their BMWs, made me realise that I was hooked on the idea and grasped why the Safari is so successful.
Another early night for me, though, because the next day was the one I’d been waiting most of my life for – the final push to the Cape. It would be a long day in the saddle.
There were two routes available. A reasonably straightforward run up the highway was taken by a few riders, but most of us had come to test our reserves, so we chose the harder Old Telegraph Road that started about 200km from our overnight digs.
It’s a deeply rutted two-lane sand track and boy was it tough. It started off quite innocuous, but got harder and harder. I’m lucky to have a background of trials riding to fall back on, but a few riders got stuck.
My group came across a guy who had just been riding too fast for the conditions and needed medical assistance. It wasn’t anything too serious, but an ambulance was called and I spent about an hour directing traffic around the scene. I gave my water to the injured rider and by the time I got back on my bike I was virtually ready to pass out. Once again it brought home the stark reality of the outback, and the implications if things go wrong.
I rode the rest of the track as slowly and carefully as possible, but was really looking forward to getting to Fruit Bat Falls, an unexpected oasis in the middle of nowhere. As it’s safe to swim there, I jumped in boots and all, and could easily have stayed there for the rest of the day. But I still had about 200km to go. At least my refreshed body was once again firing on all four cylinders.
There were so many different and varied sights on the way to the Tip that it would have been easy to spend a week doing that last stint, but I was drawn like a magnet heading north.
We arrived at Punsand Bay camping resort at dusk, just 20km from my final destination. That last step would be taken next morning at daybreak.
I slept lightly that night and started thinking of my childhood, and a question suddenly emerged from my subconscious. Why was it so critically important for me to make it to the Tip?
I realised it was more than just a destination – it was personal. I remembered that a close friend had been there, someone I had looked up to and was no longer with us. That was a lightbulb moment and made the last short stretch in the morning an emotional experience.
Heading off before the rest of the crowd had even woken, my mate Stu and I headed to the Tip together, taking it nice and easy. We rode up at sunrise and were the only ones there.
I can’t express what a feeling it was to arrive at the most northern tip of our great land. There’s not much to it physically – a rusty old sign stuck into a rock – but the aura the place gives off means so
Without the Safari and without the help of BMW getting me there I would still have some unanswered questions to deal with, but this year’s GS Safari Enduro cured my fear of organised tours and put one massive tick on my bucket list.
Test: Steve Martin