The old engine whirred along through the Outback heat, its slight mechanical clatter mixing with the sweet exhaust-note staccato that only a 1940s Harley-Davidson V-twin can make. A faint aroma of heavyweight mineral oil wafted up to the rider, who was settled in a comfortable slouch on his tractor-like seat. The rider looked over his shoulder to confirm the exact position of his fellow riders. Their presence was already apparent by the rising and falling of the exhaust resonance that occurs when motorcycles run in close formation. The sound was like a group of World War I biplanes, out on a mission. This was a mission, too. It was an attempt to ride a group of hand-shift, foot-clutch Harleys on a six-week circuit of the continent of Australia.
Seven days in, the rider, Peter McBride, was approaching an almost Zen-like state as he traversed the subtle changes of the lonely Outback. “I found the whole experience of riding across this area mind-boggling,” he said later. “Scenery-wise it was like traveling through the changing suburbs of a city except this was suburbs of nature. There were fields of rock, then fields of giant anthills. There were fields of low shrubs, then one of taller bushes and trees. I found myself really getting into the spirit of the ride and my motorcycle. At one point I reached a stage of concentration where I imagined how the oil was circulating through the engine and exactly what was going on down there mechanically to keep me mobile.”
Peter was riding across Australia’s far north “gulf country” with fellow vintage Harley enthusiasts Tony Blain, Bill Brice and Bill MacNamara. With around 1,500 miles gone, they had another 8,500 miles and five weeks to go. Tony and Bill B. had cooked up the idea after years of adventures on hand-shift Harleys, including taking a group of 22 racers from Australia to Daytona to campaign their flathead WLAs on the Speedway’s high-speed banks.
After two years of planning the four adventurers rode across Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge on an early spring day and headed north. “The nerves hit me as we rode over the Harbour Bridge,” said Tony later. “As I tapped into third gear I was sure I heard an engine noise. Am I going to have to battle this paranoia for the next 45 days?”
Heavy rain lashed the little group as it negotiated its way through the notorious eastern seaboard traffic to Brisbane. It intensified as they headed up to Cairns in the far north. “It seemed we were racing nature,” Peter said. “Behind us the main roads were being closed by floodwaters. One day I was standing by my bike refueling it when I noticed water pouring off my coat and drowning the ignition coil.”
Everyone from European backpackers on tour busses to Australian grey nomads in campervans has done a lap of Australia. Most consider that the real Australian adventure begins when you head west over the Atherton Tablelands from Cairns into the savannah gulf country to Darwin. “It was great to be out of the humidity of Cairns,” Bill M. admitted, “although we had to get into another process of starting early to get miles under our wheels before the dry heat struck. Believe me, it got hot all right.
“The little bikes were amazing. We’d clock up big miles on them each day then check everything from the spokes to the regulator (it can overcharge the battery on a WLA), but they just kept going. We had some fuel vaporizing issues in the extreme heat, just as we’d had some water in the fuel previously, but that was it.” The same couldn’t be said of some of the modern technology. On the road into Darwin an iPhone failed and the hard drive of one of the team’s laptops died.
The next leg of the trip was a journey of contrasts. Heading south from the tropical green and humidity of Darwin the guys turned west at Katherine, travelling through the “red centre’s” pizza-oven heat to Kununurra, the irrigated food bowl of Western Australia. Then it was through more heat and loneliness to the quirky tourist paradise of Broome, once a chaotic frontier pearl diving town. “The days rolled one into another,” said Bill M. “We’d be up at 5 a.m. packing, leave at 6 a.m. to avoid the heat and knock out 250-400 miles a day at 50-55mph. It got so hot that you couldn’t touch the oil tank (on a WLA the oil tank is part of the gas tank). I got really absorbed in the countryside. I’d always wanted to see boab tree (locals call them the “upside-down” tree as their branches look like the roots of a tree torn out of the ground). We saw hundreds of them.”
The small team headed south from Broome to Perth, another five days of riding covering around 1,500 miles. “We were really motoring by now, but we had a few struggles with severe headwinds and the heat,” said Bill B. “We were sitting at a lonely roadhouse in the pathetic shade of a tiny tree in the late afternoon. Someone came up and told us that it had cooled down to111F so it must have been well into the 120s when we’d been riding. But these old dungers of WLAs were going beautifully.”
The turn left from Perth back toward the eastern coast and home marked the beginning of the end of the trip. But as an indication of the vastness of Australia, the riders still had 15 days and 4,000 miles to go. They rode along the southern coastal cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, the famous barren Nullarbor Plain, then the cropping flatlands of South Australia. After following the spectacular leafy curves of the Great Ocean Road to Victoria’s capital, Melbourne, they followed another coast road home to Sydney. “South of Perth we hit the bends, and after weeks of straight roads initially it was hard to lean the bike over,” Peter said. “It was great riding though the tall trees with branches that join overhead after spending so long in desert-like conditions.”
After weeks of heat and dust the Nullarbor Plain was a different experience. “How many people can say they got rained on crossing the Nullabor?” Peter said. “We did. I had a bit of a moment when a road train passed me. I was off to the side of the tarmac and caught a divot as the truck’s wind blast hit me. It just blew me into the dirt. If this had happened earlier in the trip I would have been a goner, but I felt so at one with the bike by now that instinct took over. I rode out of control in the dirt at 50 mph toward a post then screwed it on to get back up to the road.”
As the group reached Victoria and headed toward the Great Ocean Road, the pastoral countryside and plummeting cold of the southern spring brought home the reality that their trip was in its final stages. “As we hit Melbourne it felt like the trip was over,” said Bill M. “Riding over the Westgate Bridge, where you can look down over the Melbourne skyscrapers, was bumper-to-bumper traffic and I was already missing the long easy riding out in the country.” Eventually the group “turned the corner” of eastern Australia to follow the Pacific Ocean coast up to Sydney, past brilliant white beaches that range from small coves to 12 mile-long stretches of sand. But the guys had done this ride before and were battling the reality that their dream ride was ending. “I felt like it was the end of a dream,” said Bill B. “These days I get as much enjoyment in the workshop as I do riding, but I love big trips and this had been a cracker. I hadn’t been in a car for six weeks. It was what it was like as a young fella, riding all the time.”
“The really hard part was when we made it back to the start at the Sydney Harbour Bridge,” Tony said. “We could have all fueled up again and gone off on another lap. None of the bikes broke down, and none of us felt like we needed to do anything to them to continue. They covered this 10,000-mile trip with ease.”
It may seem surprising that the Harleys were unbreakable but they were designed for steady cruising at 55 mph. These early models are largely unstressed in the engine department for reliability and over-engineered in the chassis and running gear for durability. All the bikes were unexpectedly comfortable to ride, largely due to the tractor-like seat, which supports the upper thighs. The riding position can be adjusted, and the fact that the sprung seatpost moves under suspension means the rider’s lower torso and legs get constant movement, rather than being locked into one position. But there is a lot to think about when you arrive at a corner or intersection. They all have a foot-operated clutch, hand gear-change and a throttle with a non-return spring. It takes time to feel really comfortable on them.
Tony spoke of the vastness of the adventure: “On this trip we rode along all the oceans surrounding Australia (there are seven seas and oceans). For an easterner used to seeing the sun set over the Great Dividing Range, it’s quite an experience to see the sun set over the ocean night after night. They were long days, but I’d do it again in a flash. It’s the smells of the Outback, the change in air pressure like you get sailing out on the ocean, you can only get these on a motorcycle.”
Peter had some words of encouragement for those considering doing a similar trip: “You think you’ve seen all Australia has to offer, but there’s just so much left to do. Go around your own country first before anywhere else in the world.” HB