BY LEIGH WILKINS
“I can’t do it,” the voice sobbed from the other end of the phone. “I ran off the end of the track and into the trees.”
My partner Megan was undertaking her motorcycle Learners Permit test. I was battling a range of emotions. Empathy was losing a serious conflict with selfish delight. I knew that this could be the point where I was not going to lose my freedom of riding a bike on my own, to travel solo.
A self-confessed hater of motorcycles, Megan had surprised me a few weeks earlier announcing she was going to get her licence and travel long distances overland with me. The announcement came with a jolt, sucking the breath out of me. How could this be? She had never shown any desire to ride, let alone cover great distances, and now came this news. I would no longer be able to travel freely, without care, without worrying whether someone else was alright.
“You’ll be ok,” I reassured her. “Just look where you are going, not where you have been. Relax.”
Liar, I thought to myself. I didn’t really want this to happen. I needed Megan to fail the test. I needed her not to ride a bike. Selfish bastard!
That conversation seemed like a lifetime ago. Later on, as I looked up from my hospital bed, I could see the terror in Megan’s eyes, tears pooling on the lower lids. What had I done? What was I putting her through? Again…
“Hey, check out this bone”, I smiled through the pain. I heard a gasp. Another presence. It was our friend Ali. I looked at her and saw the horror in her eyes. The dam wall that was Megan’s lower eyelids broke. The tears flowed.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry,” I tried to reassure her. “I’m the one in pain, you should see how I have to go to the loo.”
This broke the ice. The girls laughed. I felt better about the situation yet wondered whether this would change Megan’s mind about travelling by bike.
Two days earlier she’d been looking down at me, while I’d writhed in pain and yet had been unable to feel my right leg. Something had gone seriously wrong. She’d come across me, buried beneath my BMW F800GS in the middle of the Western Australian desert. In pain, shock and drifting in and out of consciousness an action plan had been put in place, an emergency beacon activated, and I was evacuated from the remote location.
This was the second time in 18 months that I had tortured the person I love more than life itself with my recklessness. I was supposed to be the protector, looking after the novice rider. I’d failed. Again.
Within the space of my two accidents, both very similar, both my fault, I’d come to realize a few things. Megan and I had returned to the scene of my first accident completing a sort of round trip of the eastern half of Australia. We’d taken on dense bushland, open farm roads, and rocky coastal tracks but nothing had prepared me for getting back into the desert.
The initial reintroduction to the varied deserts of the Australian interior had been a ‘short’ track that lies between the small city of Alice Springs and the natural feature of Kings Canyon. The road, the Larapinta Drive, forming part of the Mereenie Loop, is around 150km of corrugated sand with numerous bulldust (fesh fesh) holes thrown in. Terrified, I followed Megan’s progress, fighting concern for myself and whether I could do this along with the knowledge that perhaps a similar fate as mine would befall her.
A few hours later we both laughed as we made our way back onto a sealed road. “Bitch! Bitch!”, we cackled at each other.
“We’re back on the bitch!” This became our new catchcry for anytime we came off a rough track and back onto smooth bitumen. My concerns were fading. I was regaining my confidence of riding on tracks that many wouldn’t attempt in a four wheeled vehicle. Megan was proving to me that she was more than capable of riding those tracks, too.
“You ride that?”, became a common question as we camped a few nights at Kings Canyon. Tourists from all sorts of countries were surprised to see ‘a girl’ riding a bike like the GS. I’d sit back and listen to the comments, a warm feeling of pride always creeping over me.
Several days later we’d traveled south, across the border between the Northern Territory to South Australia, to an area that many consider to be the most remote and inhospitable part of the Australian continent. We were refueling at the Marla roadhouse ready to hit the Oodnadatta Track. Over 600 kilometers of desert track that changes conditions in the blink of an eye. I was apprehensive, Megan seemed strangely excited. We rode into the unknown.
Subconsciously I had forced Megan to ride ahead of me, wanting to watch her progress while selfishly getting her to gauge the conditions of the track. My apprehension grew as I worried about both.
For hours we rode across gibber plain, rocky outcrops and sandy wash aways. My confidence was continuing to build to pre-accident levels, no doubt helped by the site of Megan’s bike skipping through the rougher patches like a goat on the side of a mountain. She was riding soft, letting the bike do the work, and it was a joy to be following her. In many ways, I was learning from her, as if I was pushing aside my bad habits. I couldn’t help but think to something I’d read years earlier: the reasons females don’t make good Formula One racers.
The article, compiled by sports psychologists, stated that females have an inbuilt mechanism that prevents untoward risk. Essentially, women are better drivers than men, and therefore don’t take the risks required to race at the top level. I’d always thought that this was rather sexist, a little patronising, yet now I was seeing a version of it firsthand, an affinity with the machine, a respect for both bike and conditions. I laughed to myself as I thought how many times she had told me to slow down. “Is the reward worth the risk?”, she’d always question.
After three days of riding, we’d reached the end of the Oodnadatta Track. The whole time we’d been tailed by a family from South Africa in a Toyota Landcruiser. At every stop the two young children would run to Megan as if she was some sort of god that respect must be paid too. I’d look on and smile. I was just a bloke, riding motorbikes is what we do, but Megan was a girl inspiring these kids to believe they could do whatever they wanted. We were both touched when they each gave us a drawing depicting us both riding through the desert, Megan large and mighty, while I was drawn small and at the rear.
Recovering from my accident, many things began to change in my life. I’d begun to build a greater respect for the things around me. Not the materialistic things but those that are much more important: the people, the environment, the experiences. This became even more apparent during a recent ride into the high country of my home state of Victoria.
On my own, on unknown tracks, the plan had been to ride a sort of shortcut through the mountainous area between home and the small town of Bright, the location for the Adventure Travel Film Festival. The day had begun well. The weather was perfect, if not a little too hot. The riding was fabulous, through steep mountainsides and deep valleys. I’d find myself at the bottom of a steep hill, looking skyward, trying to find the perfect path to the summit. The track was broken into three sections, each much steeper than the one before it.
Climbing forward, the bike and I easily reached the end of the first section and continued to the second. Nearing the top, the bike suddenly broke traction. The rear wheel had slipped into a mud laden wheel rut. Forward momentum had ceased. As I grabbed the front brake, the bike immediately began sliding backwards. Stalling the engine to lock the rear wheel had little effect and the bike continued picking up pace, sliding backwards down the hill. I was out of control and prepared for a spill.
No sooner had I thought about it, the bike threw me off and down the hill. Landing on my previously broken shoulder I looked back towards the bike and realised that the handlebars had dug into the soft earth and had catapulted the bike into a barrel roll, coming straight for me. I scrambled clear just as it came down on my legs. It stopped, pinning me below its massive weight.
I lay head down the hill wondering what to do. This wasn’t a track often used. A calm came over me, and strangely I heard a voice say, “risk and reward”. I laughed to myself and was able to move the bike enough to get my bruised but undamaged legs out.
Risk and reward, indeed. The voice of reason, the voice of Megan, had spoken to me. In the stifling heat, I was able to right the bike and decided to head back about 20 kilometres to an area that would make a good camp for the night. Exhaustion was taking its toll, and I dropped the bike twice more en route to my camping spot.
Sitting beside the fire, my camp set up, felt weird. I felt cold. Alone. I’d never felt so alone in my life. Not lonely, just alone. Vulnerable.
Staring at the fire, I realized I wanted Megan with me. No- I needed Megan with me. I needed the companionship, the joy of being able to share the experiences with someone I care about. I needed Megan to call me an idiot while we laughed about taking on the hill.
Over the past 18 months I’d come to realize that travelling by bike on your own is special, but travelling by bike with your partner is wondrous. Yes, it does mean having to worry about someone else. It often means having to do most things twice as the dynamics change. Planning for two and being considerate of someone else becomes a priority, as it should with all relationships. I’d discovered that these things all add to the experience, to the adventure, and the world becomes a little more intriguing when you share it with someone. Everything I experienced, we experienced. I now experienced things I’d never considered before.
I thought back to those kids on the Oodnadatta Track, looking forward to seeing Megan each day, wanting to hear tales from the ‘great explorer’, or the mother in another travelling family who secretly yearned to travel by bike. They were inspired.
Writing this piece, I’d come to realize that I have often found myself smiling unintentionally when I see a female ride out of the bush or out of the desert. Covered in mud, dust, sweaty and exhausted. I look on. Always wanting to offer help, not needing to offer help. Cloaked in our riding gear, on bikes of differing sorts, we all become equals. There for all, sharing experiences, inspiring each other. I’m inspired!
Thank you to all Women Adventure Riders for making the overland experience just a little more extraordinary.
©Copyright Leigh Wilkins, 2017
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