This is a cautionary tale from a rider who really should have known better
It was with a mixture of bravery and stupidity, mostly stupidly, that ignored the golden rule of dirtbike riding. With not much more than the clothes on my back, I headed deep into the Gardens of Stone National Park on KTM’s 2022 1290 Super Adventure R. Alone.
It wasn’t completely stupid. Situated just two and a half hours west of Sydney, I had headed up that way with my wife and her camera to start sniffing around in response to news that the park – and others like it that encompass some of the best adventure-bike riding areas in New South Wales – was slated for closure to recreational vehicle users by the state’s Department of Planning and Environment in cahoots with National Parks and Wildlife Service.
As usual, it had been flogging down with rain in the weeks prior, but I wanted to have a good look around the park, and so had little choice but to venture out in the mud. And mud I sure did find.
The plan, and I use that term loosely, was to head to Ben Bullen around 36km north of Lithgow to check out the Moffit trail, before making our way to the base of the Bicentennial National Trail and Blackfellows Hand Trail at Wolgan Road at Lidsdale, to see the amazing caves and fern-fringed pagoda sandstone formations.
I’ve ridden the trails in around this area many times over the years and, as the better half was driving a lowered Falcon ute, I decided that we’d run with the ‘tarmac to destination’ plan and return at a later, less-waterlogged time to do some real adventuring.
The first part of the plan went pretty smoothly, until we decided to pull up at a rest area on the way to Wolgan Road where I found a trail leading up into the hills. The appeal to follow the trail which I was sure would join the Bicentennial National Trail was greater than my commonsense could handle. And so with absolutely no supplies – not even a drop of water – I waved goodbye to the missus with instructions that I would meet her at the Wolgan Road junction. All that I carried on me was my half-charged phone, the GoPro stuck to my helmet and a small drone.
The trail shot straight up a steep incline and came to a T-intersection with what I thought was a familiar-looking Bicentennial Trail. As it turned out, if I had hung a left, it would have indeed taken me to the Bicentennial Trail, but I didn’t. I hung a right where the trail followed a ridgeline before descending downhill. And as it did, the trail became narrower, very overgrown and very, very muddy. A final steep descent ejected me out onto low-lying marsh-like country. This area was quite open with more kangaroos than there were trees. The trail opened up into twin-track, although it clearly wasn’t well used.
About three kilometres in I came to a bend where a natural spring fed a small creek that crossed the track. Rain or no rain, there were a million ruts from previous vehicles passing through making line selection difficult. I chose the inside line for no other reason that it was the shortest distance to travel to get through. The ground leading up to the crossing was reasonable hard so I could get the pumpkin up to a decent speed to use momentum to get me through. Even so, I barely made it – anyone familiar with the swamps in this area will know the mud will grab hold and pull you under if you don’t push through.
Safely through to the other side, which was boggy but from rain rather than the black stinking mud that comes from a spring, I pushed on for another half an hour or before I came to a firmly locked gate and large sign that read No Trespassing. I checked my phone – no reception. Short of cutting the chain with my teeth or sitting there forever, I had little choice but to backtrack and recross the bog.
The hard-packed earth leading into the bog the first time across wasn’t replicated on this side of it. In fact, the trail immediately before the bog was a good15cm underwater in places, and muddy as hell. Not ‘you’re not going anywhere’ boggy, but slick enough that carrying any meaningful momentum was virtually impossible.
I carried as much pace as I could and aimed for exactly the same spot that I crossed over an hour earlier. And this is where things went pear shaped. The hole I left had filled with more of the filthy black bog and there was an acute step up on the far side of the hole just waiting to stop the KTM’s 21-inch front wheel in its tracks, which it did. With little momentum, the bog grab the KTM and stopped us abruptly enough that I slammed into the tank.
After catching my breath from the hard hit, I climbed off the 1290 Super Adventure R and into the mud. The Kato stood by itself bogged to the bash plate. I tipped it over, spun it around, I even tried to drag it out using the strap off the drone carry bag – all without success.
It’s amazing how well you can punt a 1290 Super Adventure R through the bush, but when you have to lift it off its side a few times in the mud from hell, you quickly realise that a bike weighing 221kg dry – let alone full of liquids and covered on mud – sometimes isn’t the best thing to be lost on.
After an hour or more of trying to get the bike to budge, I was forced to admit defeat. I ripped out my phone to discover I had service, but my battery was getting low. I’ll called Mrs V and spelled out my predicament – there was little she could do apart from head back to the rest stop and wait for help to arrive.
That help was coming in the form of my mate Ken and his 4WD ute. I filled him in on the details and even had the presence of mind to send him a dropped pin with my location. By now it was around 2.30pm and with a promise from Ken that he’d be on the road to start the 1.5-hour journey from western Sydney by 3pm – I called Mrs V and turned my phone off to conserve battery.
An hour and half later, I called the wife to see if she had heard from Ken. He hadn’t got away yet but was just about to leave, which would put him here after well dark. It gets cold and dark early in the mountains and without any extra clothing and the weather report suggesting that the mercury would drop below zero overnight, I started to prep a fire.
I collected every piece of dry wood that I could find – which wasn’t a lot in a swamp – but there was enough to keep me warm for an hour or so while I waited for international rescue to arrive from Blacktown.
I’m no stranger to the bush, but my skills aren’t at the level where I can rub two sticks together to make fire. No matches, no lighter, now what? I got my MacGyver on and hatched a plan to fly the drone to Mrs V and get her to stick a lighter to it and then I’d ferry it back. Unfortunately, the Drone ran out of range before it made it to its destination, and I was forced to bring it back and hatch a plan B.
Plan B involved letting the 1290 Super Adventure R idle along for 10 minutes and lighting some dry grass on the header pipe. This worked a treat, but getting close enough to the header pipe meant climbing into the thick black goop and sinking immediately to the top of my Gaerne motocross boots. Of course by the time I had a small flame that I was desperately protecting with both hands, by the time I’d manage to get myself un-bogged from the goop, the flame would go out. I lost count of how many times it took to for that comedy of errors to actually work, but I finally managed to get back to my fireplace and get it lit, where I set up a small makeshift camp to sit and wait.
I’m startled by the thump, thump, thump of a male roo signalling a mob coming from out of the now dark bush. It’s 6pm and with no moon in the sky, it’s pitch black. I turn the phone back on and call Mrs V. It turns out that Ken hadn’t been able to split from work until 5.30pm which, with peak-hour traffic to contend with, would put him here by 7.30pm at the earliest.
Another call at 7.30pm revealed Ken had made it and they were on their way in to winch the big Kato out. Lucky, too. Cos I was out of wood and it was getting cold. My phone was almost flat, but I figured help was almost here and left it on. Fifteen minutes later, Mrs V called to inform me that she and Ken had just got bogged! And that Ken had attempted to winch out, but had failed.
By now it was seriously cold and with the temperature was plummeting. So rightly or wrongly, and possibly because I was dehydrated and not thinking straight, I made the decision to try and walk to where I thought my would-be rescuers should be. Using the torch on my phone wasn’t an option so I was forced to follow the trail as best I could in the dark. I don’t recommend wondering off from your vehicle at night, but with the the potential of freezing to death overnight weighting my decision, I took the chance.
Despite clambering through the scrub in the dark, I somehow managed to get back to the rest area where the Falcon was parked. But how I managed that without passing the stranded HiLux was beyond me. Unbeknownst to me I’d taken a wrong turn in the pitch black which had bypassed the rescue team and fortuitously taken me the rest area.
With rescue team #1 bogged, we resorted to calling another mate with another HiLux to come and winch out me and rescue team #1. Rescue team #2 – also located in Sydney – finally arrived just after 11pm. This HiLux has all the fruit, and its owner Mirko is a very experienced 4WDer, so once rescue team #1 was extracted, we made our way through the bush and mud to where the KTM stood still bogged in the middle of nowhere.
We attached the winch and began pulling it out, but it took a lot of grunt to get it to budge – in fact, it blew a bunch of fuses in the HiLux such was its ferocity – so rescue team #2 were forced to later drive home in silence and with no interior lights. But 12 hours, three muddy blokes, two head-shaking wives and 100 bad decisions later, we drove out of the bush. It was 2am and we still had to get home.
There are so many lessons to be learned in this story, but unfortunately none of them new. It all ended well and Ken, Mirko and I have done a lot of laughing about it since, but the reality is I could have died in the bush that night. I could have plummeted off some cliff in the dark, or simply got lost in the bush in the middle of winter and had to deal with the sub-zero temperatures the best I could.
So, my words of advice, don’t head into the bush alone, and if you do, make sure you have water, a lighter, extra clothing and a fully charged phone. Better still, carry an EPIRB, and understand the limitations of yourself and your bike.