BY ELISA WIRKALA
The road ahead spanned more miles than I was ready to count. Very few looked a RTW adventure ride like this in the eye without at least a little bit of anxiety tucked away somewhere, and though I’d already covered half the world on motorcycles, I was no exception. Riding up the west coast of Australia to Darwin, and then across SE Asia (and maybe beyond?) was a daunting enough adventure. But as the wheels of the Boeing 737 plane touched down in Perth—a plane manufactured just miles from my Seattle home—I still didn’t even know what motorcycle I’d be riding. I had over $3,000 bucks burning a hole in my pocket from the sale of my 9th bike, a KLR650, which I’d just ridden across North America. It wouldn’t take me too far with the higher prices in Australia, but savings and a small income I received from my Seattle rental house would cover the additional costs, like it had done in the previous four years of world travel.
Pulling up in my rental car to Overlander Adventure Equipment, a shop on the outskirts of Perth dedicated to outfitting all the needs of the intrepid two-wheeled traveler, I was greeted by long-time adventure riders Tamara and Xander Kabat, who I’d met during my previous Sydney to Perth ride on a TU250x. They’d recently opened up shop—the first of its kind in Australia—after having ridden much of the world. It would be thanks to these two that over the course of the next week, I’d find a Suzuki DR650 after a whirlwind bike shopping tour of the area with these two friends.
Had I been on my own like on past legs of the around the world journey, I’d have chosen whatever was available, reliable and cheap. Frugality was my MO. An American Honda Shadow 750, a Chilean Honda CGL125, a British KLE500, and an Australian Super Sherpa 250 had all claimed a few miles of the journey so far, to name a few. Though a mish-mash of bikes and styles, they all had one thing in common: No farkles, no mods. Only a few simple tools, a couple dry bags strapped down with Motonaut’s simple go-anywhere luggage system, Garmont mountaineering boots, a cheap camping kit and a positive attitude. Though a seasoned traveler, I didn’t have the skills nor the patience to turn my fleet into what one might consider more ‘adventure appropriate’. But at the Kabats’ cozy cottage, bike work was suddenly made easy, and I’d have been a fool to turn down their help and expertise. Not only did Xander and Tam have a shop ready to strip a motorbike down to its bare bones, they had the knowledge, too. Sparks went flying, drill went drilling, and simple accessories flew on and off like hot-cakes. Within hours, I had my first well set-up touring machine. I was ready to go.
The Overlander Adventure Equipment duo pointed my wheels in the right direction with a few good suggestions, and off I rolled. Northward, ho! But between my DR and Darwin—the Northern Territory’s gateway to SE Asia—lay 3,000 miles of uninterrupted mystery. I knew virtually nothing of this side of Oz, with only a vague notion of attempting a famous 400-and-some mile dirt road somewhere in a place called the Kimberleys, which to my American ear sounded girly and pleasant.
I called an Aussie friend who’d almost died on it a few years prior. “Dave, think I can do it?” I asked. “Sure you can—you know I think you’re superwoman!” he responded. I didn’t quite know how to phrase the next question, so I decided to shoot from the hip. “But didn’t you almost die on it?” There was a brief pause. “Yeah… but they patched up that corner. You’ll be fine!”
I hadn’t ridden much dirt since my 2014 ride across the Americas on a trusty 125cc Honda, a bulletproof pizza bike that enjoyed careening across sand in Argentina, navigating snowy whiteouts in Peru, skating through mud in Ecuador and outmaneuvering sketchy SUVs in northern Mexico. But with this new DR650, I was pretty confident I’d get the hang of things once again.
After a quick stop (five leisurely days) at Monkey Mia to see wild dolphins come to shore and greet their fans, it was high time I found some dirt. Nearby Wooramel Station proved just the place (a “station” for you non-Aussies is a humungous ranch). Though a cattle ranch, they reserved a lovely tree-lined corner above the dried-up river bed for campers and ‘grey nomads’, the retired population of Australia hauling caravans across the continent in droves. Wooramel, owned by an Aussie with a pension for harebrained 300km/h off-road rallies and his artist wife who gave the place special charm, was also known for the warm springs that bubbled up from the parched earth. Harnessing the power of good old Mama-Nature, they funneled warm water into wide barrels sunk into the ground and lined with native plants where a dusty gal could take a dip, sit back, and enjoy the stars of middle-of-nowhere Australia.
The following day I was set loose in their thousands of acres of land, and given free reign to inadvertently herd cattle into corners (whoops), try not to get lost, and get my bearings in sand on a much bigger motorcycle than little Chilean ‘Baby Bike’. Though there was one small hiccup, overall it was a hell of a day.
Besides getting a lot stuck in a little sand and having to push my bike over to get it out, it was the confidence boost I needed, and appreciated my stay immensely. Though for the record, I didn’t appreciate being later told by an acquaintance that he’d commented, “That’s a big bike for a little girl”. I think he meant “that’s a big bike for a sturdy, capable, grown-up young woman”! (Later on in East Timor and Indonesia, I would often cop compliments from locals on how “big and strong” I clearly was, a stark contrast from the comments of many an Aussie man.)
After two nights, I rolled on north towards Karijini National Park, located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. With its famous series of deep gorges and freezing water, I’d spend three days hiking, running and swimming my way through all those ice cream calories that had gotten me so far. Karijini was a top destination of the 11,000 miles I’d explored on previous forays around Australia, and a worthy reason for any audacious adventurer to come for a visit.
But the highlight of my 35 day, 3,000 mile ride across the western half of Australia was, without a doubt, the famed “they-patched-up-that-corner” Gibb River Road. Over the many days and miles it would take to reach this celebrated outback 4-wheel drive track, I’d meet only a handful of other motorcycle travelers: Two old guys on Harleys. A young hippie on a CBR250R doing a similar Perth to Darwin route, only faster and on pavement. Julie Jasper, a solo Aussie woman touring around Australia on a 1942 Indian Scout, and a man on a shiny new Africa Twin, also riding solo around Australia. I asked of his intentions toward the acclaimed Gibb without revealing my own, to which he responded, “Oh no, too risky to do alone”.
Ten days later, I rolled to a stop as the pavement gave way to red corrugated earth, and dropped my tire pressure. I asked myself again if I was prepared, going over a mental check-list of the most important items: Chocolate. Emergency cash. GPS SPOT device. Food. Full 30 liter tank of fuel. Oil. Tools. Pump. Spare parts. Spare chocolate. Check, check, check… I was feeling daunted, so I did what I always did, and reminded myself of the golden rule: “Take it day by day”, I whispered. “If it’s terrible, turn around tomorrow and take the highway to Darwin”. But I knew if I didn’t give myself the opportunity to explore—to push my own limits—I’d never have gotten to where I was today, and would have missed some of life’s most rewarding, though sometimes challenging, experiences.
Wiggling my leg between the dry bag I used as a back rest and my tank bag, I threw my weight to the opposite side of the bike, the only way my stubby legs and 5’6 frame could get it off its kick-stand. Taking a deep breath, I started up the bike and slammed up and down the corrugations at 25mph, quickly remembering that speed would be my friend and opening up the throttle.
“I” became “we”: me and my trusty bike.
Over the course of the next 100 miles, I’d thank my lucky stars for having been so well prepared in the harrowing conditions of the Andes on an ill-equipped pizza delivery bike. It had been an unseasonably wet year in the Kimberleys, but we reveled in it. By day two we were virtually flying. I was a grinning madman, having to remind myself to slow down… take it easy… “This is real life, not a video game. “The consequences are real!” I’d say, reminding myself to keep sharp as a tack as the bike gobbled up the tough track with abandon at over 85km/h. I’d shout into my helmet, “Eyes up, eyes up, girl!” during the trickiest of patches, my inner coach getting us through unscathed.
The DR650 karate-kicked through sand, pirouetted around boulders, and only gave me a few minor heart attacks in deeper gravel. It snorkeled through thigh-high water like a crocodile, only taking one inopportune nap when we got stage fright as an audience looked on during one particularly challenging crossing (which we’d crossed alone just fine the previous evening). And when it came time to actually cross the man-eating crocodile-infested Pentecost River (the widest of all) I had one very sleepless night before reminding myself to trust the bike to do its job.
We camped under the stars every night and raced down miles and miles of extra off shooting tracks to find stunning red gorges to feast our eyes on, ploughing through deep, soaking streams. And while the bike cooled, I ran and hiked and swam, the cold-water plunges slowing my heart rate and bringing the world into clear, calm focus; the crystalline waters reclaiming the red dirt that layered my neck and face.
And so together we rode 500 miles of dirt along the Gibb River Road, the most rewarding experience I’ve had since hiking the 500 mile Camino de Santiago trek across Spain in 2008. And leaving that road felt akin to leaving the Camino. I no longer felt trepidation or fear for the long road ahead. But I did feel sad that 500 miles of the Gibb couldn’t have been 1,000, or 10,000. But so when one road comes to an end, our wheels find a new track, and I reminded myself of the many Gibb River Roads that awaited discovery in Asia.
Northward ho, friends! And stay tuned.
*This journey has been an extra-special one, so a special thanks needs to go out to all the people I met, and especially to Tam and Xander Kabat at Overlander Adventure Equipment for their friendship and help in uniting me with my new-to-me 2009 Suzuki DR650, affectionately referred to as “Big Boyfriend”, though my real boyfriend may take qualms with that name. To Pete in Perth, who sold me that great bike, though it hurt him to see it go. To Claire and Julia, two amazing girls in a cool old Troop Carrier, with whom I got to spend a few easy days. To Dandelion, for his sage wisdom and Camino spirit. To the Read family, Mark, and his grown children Dan and Darcy, for their wonderful companionship at each campground along the way, for carrying my extra food ahead so my pannier rack didn’t snap on those tough corrugations, and for never mansplaining (oh, and for helping me get my bike out of that river!). To four year old Edward and his older brothers, for their friendship, knowledge of crocodile safety (“stick a stick down its throat! They don’t like that”), and making me laugh so hard I cried. To Jax Kennedy, for some much needed girl-time and great conversation in Darwin. To David Upton, for his constant encouragement and support. To Simon Mykolajenko and McCullough Suzuki, for helping me gather spare parts. To Rev’It, for the awesome new gear that’s just arrived, as I realized how inappropriate my old gear had become for those hot climes. And to my Real Boyfriend, Tom, for having patience with a girlfriend who always wants to be on the dusty road. You’re all what makes the road worth riding!