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They did what? – Outback outfit

Len Jones and Alfie Clarke rode an Indian Scout sidecar across the notorious Pindan Sands

It was mid-winter 1926 when Jones and Clarke set out from Broome intent on crossing the Kimberley on their four-year-old Indian Scout. The adventure had commenced back in March when 20-year-old Jones and his 19-year-old mate Will Kennedy departed Sydney on a circumnavigation of Australia. Despite their youth, the pair had already ridden the length and breadth of NSW and Queensland and put over 40,000 miles on the odo of the 600cc Scout, the sidecar of which was crammed with essentials: tent, tools and tuckerbox. With no room in the sidecar they rode tandem, quaintly referred to as ‘dinking’, sharing time behind the handlebars. Before departing Sydney on ‘the big one’ they took the outfit to the notorious Maroubra speedway where they circulated for three hours at speeds up to 65mph (105km/h).

By the end of March they’d ridden to Melbourne but their trials had not yet begun. Passing through Lincoln’s Gap near Port Augusta they crashed badly, Jones suffering a knee injury which put him in hospital for a week. That was the least of their misfortune. Unseasonable rain dumped on them between Nullarbor and Eucla and they took more than four days to travel 210km, continuously scraping the thick ooze from under the drivewheel’s mudguard. Seeking to avoid the mud they ended up in a wombat burrow and wasted hours dragging the overladen outfit from the boghole. Clear of the rain they ran out of food, and when they finally managed to shoot a rabbit it was devoured inside 15 minutes.

They reached Perth in late May where Will Kennedy called it quits and took the train home. But a local lad, Alfred H ‘Alfie’ Clarke, rose to the challenge. Following the cart tracks carved by thousands of wild-eyed gold prospectors, the new team arrived in the pearling centre of Broome enthusing about their high-speed dash up 90 Mile Beach. Both lads were handy mechanics and spent a month in this remote outpost replenishing their finances. Now the pair were about to embark on the most inhibiting section of their odyssey: the Pindan Sands. Almost 130km of undulating soft sand peppered by low gidgee scrub and a region avoided by the local Djaru and Gurundji tribes. For good reason.

Jones later recalled 43 crashes in a 50km stretch. As the monsoon season had long passed they had little trouble getting their ‘wheelbarrow’ across the Fitzroy River, but on the other side they found the Northern Territory was suffering a ‘once in a hundred year drought’. For mile upon mile they passed the carcasses of brumbies that had been shot to preserve the grass for cattle. Crashes went without mention, however, on two occasions they collided with trees large enough to badly damage the Scout. Repairs took three days in Katherine and a week at Mataranka where they converted an old forge into a brazing plant to straighten and repair the front fork. They paid for their food and lodging by overhauling the property manager’s car.

Back in flat, open, cattle country they made good time across the vast Barkly Tableland and then covered the 2100km to Brisbane in seven days, arriving in October. Two weeks later they were welcomed at the Sydney GPO by a large group of Indian MCC members. Despite the efforts of Haigh Miller from the Indian Distributors, the news coverage made little of the fact that Len Jones had ridden 18,500km around the continent. Instead, the press loved the story that each rider had nurtured a baby opossum in their shirt all the way from Mataranka. Cute huh?

Len Jones swore he’d never repeat the trip, not even for one million pounds. Yet less than a year later he was off again, this time on a 4hp Douglas.

By Peter Whitaker