I remember as a child on family holidays looking out the passenger window of our old Simca at groups of motorcycles overtaking us on country roads or parked along footpaths in front of weatherboard shops in whatever town we were passing through. I didn't know if they bikie gangs or just groups of friends going on a long ride. They never seemed menacing and would give a wink or smile when they caught you looking at their bikes.
There was always something adventurous about these people. With weathered looks, leather and canvas luggage strapped to their bikes, they had an air of purpose and a destination to reach. It's almost as if they were on a personal quest to some far-flung part of the country. They weren't always young guns out to prove something, often, they were to my eyes older people with nothing to prove. They were just being themselves. Even as a young boy looking through that window, I often thought, that would be a great adventure. The bikes were a far cry from the touring and adventure bikes we have today. Even the riding gear was more in the line of "Whatever will keep me warm and dry shall do".
As realities of life take over, thoughts of adventures are put aside. Not forgotten nor discarded, just placed in the corner of the mind to be revisited at the right time. I found the right time was once the kids were older and no longer dependent on you for everything. And the fact that they began to get grumpy every time I stopped the car to take a photo of something that caught my eye. I had a meeting with myself on how to tackle this urge to have the long-awaited adventure and came to the correct solution. I would need a bike. After extensive research, the best bike available to cater to my needs was the DR650. A couple of modifications, ie. a larger tank, heavier springs in the front forks, windscreen, handguards and luggage rack, the bike will be perfect.
One of the roads I always wanted to travel on was the Bridle Track. This is a stretch of road built by convicts during the Gold Rush of the Central West, NSW. It starts at approximately 18km north of Bathurst on the Duramana Road and ends at Hill End. I had always heard stories about the treacherousness of this road. "It can only be done with a 4x4. It is only wide enough for one car at a time. No one in their right mind would travel on it". Having heard all that, it sounds like a road that should be investigated. Research on the net indicates the road has been closed due to a landslide at Monaghan's Bluff. Pictures show a boulder is blocking the road and part of the road has subsided down the cliff. It is still worth a visit to see what pictures I can get.
A two-day ride is planned to make the trip comfortable with an overnight stay at one of the numerous camping grounds along the Macquarie River. The planned route is Lithgow via Katoomba, Bathurst via Tarana and O'Connell. I wanted to check out some trout fishing spots along the rivers. It is a waste of a ride if you go from A to B without seeing anything except white dots flashing on the bitumen.
The road takes you over rolling hills, through hamlets with their stone buildings, pubs and general stores. The ride through the Blue Mountains isn't as bad as some people make out. It has improved substantially over the years. If you are able to travel during the week, the traffic flows very smoothly. The only criticism I have is that the road now reminds me of travelling through a tunnel. High walls on either side block the scenery. In some respects, it reminds me of playing an arcade car game.
Coming into Medlow Bath, the Hydro Majestic glistens in the midmorning sun. Tradesmen are completing the final touches and should be open very soon. Note to self – will have to bring my wife here for coffee sooner rather than later. Cruising down Mt Victoria Pass, through Hartley and into South Bowenfells, the DR doesn't miss a beat and the roadhouse beckons to stop for coffee and apple pie.
Taking the Lake Lyell turnoff, the sky opens to cloudless blue inviting you to just keep going over the next hill or bend to see what lies beyond. Depending on the time of day, the Tarana Pub is lined with motorcycles along the veranda, along the Fish River fishermen stand midstream casting their flies vying for that prized trout. At O'Connell, Grey Nomads drink tea and eat their sandwiches under the shade of a tree, enjoying their freedom.
Bathurst has grown since the last time I was there. New housing and industrial estates have sprung up and the town has a busy atmosphere. It is no longer just the town with the world's greatest car race. 18 kilometres north of Bathurst along Duramana Road is a nondescript street sign indicating the Bridle Track. A little further along the lane is a larger sign, weathered, rusty and leaning to one side. The word WARNING has faded over time giving the feeling that this is an ancient path that hasn't been used since the early 1900s. It states the Bridle Track starts 16km past this point and unsuitable for buses articulated vehicles and caravans. I'm waiting for someone to place a picture of Gandalf on the sign.
The bitumen road runs up to the Box Range Road junction then changes to gravel climbing into the hills surrounded by drying grass dotted by grazing sheep. An abandoned car left in a paddock has become part of the landscape. Weathered by time, only its exoskeleton remains. Grass now grows in the boot and ghosts stare through the windscreen. A bright light appears on the dusty road, a lone rider approaches, wearing a bush hat and carrying what appears to be a pick and rake strapped to the front rack of his AG bike.
He pulls over to have a chat. It's a funny thing about travelling on a bike. People are inquisitive and like to know where you have been, where you are going and where you have come from. The locals are a good source of information regarding road conditions, alternate routes and things to stop to see. He tells me that the road is blocked at Monaghan's Bluff. You can get through on a thinner bike but you would want some help with manoeuvring past the bolder. It's a long way down if you lose your footing. Some unfortunate guy was airlifted out of there about a year ago. The better campsites are also on the Hill End side of the blockage. The best route to Hill End from here is to go along Box Range Road. It goes through two gates and then meets Turondale Road. It's about 50 km to Hill End.
Arriving at Hill End, it is a step back in time. The pub and general store look as they do in John Vander's paintings. Plaques of Brett Whitley's painting of the town plan and Russel Drysdale's painting of a church are on footpaths. With what is left of the town, it is hard to imagine this was a thriving town in the 1800's full of the noise of machines, the sound of miners in pubs and of horses clomping along the streets. The town has submitted a petition to have the Bridle Track repaired as it attracted 4x4s and thus tourists bringing money to the town. A new sign marks the beginning of the Bridle Track. It warns of poor road conditions and caution should be taken along the road. The road is blocked 19km ahead.
Snaking down the mountain between gum trees, long shadows fall across the road making it harder to see potholes. Wild goats scamper off the road and into the brush. This land is only good for goats. Stopping to take in the view of the valley below, you have to admire the determination of the miners 100 years ago carrying their worldly possessions with a dream of making their fortune. The road is peaceful now. Back then it would have been alive with the noise of clanking metal pots, clomping of hooves and voices of miners telling stories of how they have a plan to "make it big".
Turon Crossing Reserve is the first campground along the river. A few campers are scattered along the river. Tents are up, firewood collected and happy campers relax in their chairs watching the river for trout jumping out of the water to catch insects. One couple I spoke with tell me they come to the same spot every year. The fishing has always been good. Unfortunately, this year there seems to be more carp than trout in the river. There are a number of camping grounds along the Bridle Track. It is a matter of having a look to see what looks comfortable. I settle on a site off the track, Mary Flynn Reserve, 10Km from Hill End. The river here is more like a series of large waterholes and the air is alive with sounds of birds and insects. Sitting by the waterhole having a beer, I look for ripples and shadows in the water's surface. An occasional splash is heard to the other end of the waterhole. I return with the rod and metal lure. After a few casts in the direction of the ripples, a solid bite is taken and flash of gold flies into the air. It is only a carp but it was a decent size and gave a reasonable fight. Being a carp, it was duly disposed of.
As the sun begins to set behind the hills, a meal is cooked and washed down with a couple of beers that had been kept cool in the river. Travelling light, you can still camp with a certain amount of comfort. There is a certain peacefulness you can get when camping in a secluded spot. You become attuned to the sounds around you. The breeze rustling leaves, thumping of a kangaroo through the scrub, the sound of birds and insects in the air. Some people are afraid of being alone and isolated. Maybe they have watched too many horror movies, maybe they are afraid of their own thoughts or maybe they discover they have no thoughts. Regardless, it is relaxing watching the sky change colour and stars appear one by one until the heavens are a mass of sparkling dots. Travelling alone tests your independence, to rely solely on yourself for everything from repairing a flat tire to keeping yourself company in the middle of nowhere can be a challenge for many people. For others, it is a preferred method of travel. It's not anti-social, it's just being self-reliant.
The morning rays light up the roof of the tent and feral goats can be heard close by. The sky is a clear blue and a slight breeze rustles leaves in the trees. Down at the waterhole, a platypus is spied duck diving on the opposite bank chasing its breakfast. I'm the only one camped here overnight and have the whole area to myself. It is very peaceful sitting on the bank eating breakfast without a radio squawking or voices from a TV telling you what tragedies had occurred overnight in whatever part of the world. Ahhh, the serenity. One of the things that struck me while exploring the campground was the lack of litter. There are a number of old campfires but no garbage bins and hardly any garbage left anywhere. It just goes to show, the people that come to these places respect the area and take their garbage with them. I wish this would happen closer to home.
Having packed up camp, the track beckons, following the Macquarie River, it narrows to just over a car and a half wide. When a 4x4 comes in the opposite direction, I realise this track is much easier to do on two wheels instead of four. The track is a combination of gravel, bits of sand, mud and occasionally littered with tennis ball sized rocks to dodge. You would only tackle this track in the dry. There isn't much margin for error due to the track hugging the cliff faces, it's a long way down if you are unfortunate. A second sign and a dirt mound and barricade are found at a clearing surrounded by a couple of dwellings.
The sign simply states – Use extreme caution, one lane only, sound horn on bends and no stopping. There is no Gandalf telling me not to pass, so I ride over the dirt mound and continue. The track is becoming overgrown and you have to duck under the occasional low lying branch. Rusty signs on the cliff face tell you where passing bays are and where to honk your horn. Erosion is beginning to take its toll on the track. In places, the track is crumbling and covered with loose rocks. I keep close to the cliff wall as barricades have fallen off the road around some bends. Riding slowly, seeing how bends on the road have been held up by rocks all placed by hand , backfilled and compacted, you realise this was an engineering feat for the day. It was built through necessity and necessity found a way to build it. It's doubtful if it would ever get funding to build it today.
At Monaghan's Bluff, the track stops again at a dirt mound and a boulder near a bend a little further. Part of the track has slid down the hillside. There is not much room between the cliff face and edge of the road. Seventy metres below, a wreck of a car lays on its roof near the river. There is only a narrow gap between the boulder and cliff face and my bike would not get through with its panniers. Instead, it is time to brew a cup of tea and take in the view. This really is a magnificent ride and not too far from Sydney.
I wonder if this was the place the bike riders I saw as a child, would ride along on their adventures with their dusty luggage and mud-splattered bikes. I wonder if their adventures were the same, days in the saddle and nights under stars, learning of places that aren't on a big map and listening to people's stories. I wonder if their quest wasn't to find some mysterious crystal that will save the world but to find themselves and discover what they are capable of and what the world has to offer.