From the Blog

Postcards from the road Pt5

A few days ago I reported to you from The BEND Motorsport Park in South Australia. Now I’m home and I thought I’d expand a little on the MotoStars Rd3 at that venue and, more specifically, on the trip there and back. When the round at Tailem Bend was first announced my memory immediately jumped back 60 years to the days when we were living in SA and our yearly trip back to Sydney so that dad could attend OAC’s annual conference. It was almost a thousand miles one-way back then and some of the roads we tavelled weren’t even sealed. We travelled in a little Commer panel van, mum and dad in the front and us two boys in the back on a mattress on which all four of us slept each night. No seat belts, not even any seats.

So, with memories of just how far South Australia is away from here, the idea of making a ride of it was quickly dismissed. Hours and hours of droning along boring, dead flat, dead straight roads while destroying a perfectly good back tyre just wasn’t on the menu. Clearly, the most efficient was was to take the car and do the trip in comfort. But then the expense factors had to be considered and, on balance, it was always going to be the cheapest option to take the van. Good performance, good fuel consumption and carrying your own accommodation with you is a pretty convincing argument.

The next step was to convince Helena that she should come with me. For the Port Macquarie round she did so but was stuck at the track for three days and that didn’t work out very well. But the idea of having her company for the long boring trip (and, believe me, it was both long and for the most part boring) was a very attractive proposition. Fate came to the rescue of course with the revelation that the MotoStars events were going to be held AT NIGHT, under lights on the go-kart track. This would free up our days to do some exploring and make a much more appealing case.

Once that was decided we determined that we’d do the trip down in two days, around 600km per day and take our time coming home, taking three or four days to do so and doing the tourist thing along the way. And that’s what we did. Did it work out well? Heck, yes, it did. So, here’s a potted history of our MotoStars trip/holiday.

We left on Wednesday morning and stopped whenever we wanted to. This was no poker run with eyes firmly fixed on the clock. No, we bought some sunglasses at Gundagai because Helena had left hers at home. We dropped in to the SES headquarters at Wagga and visited one of Helena’s old work colleagues who she hasn’t seen for a few years and we finally made it into Hay in time to set up camp in the Sandy Point free camp reserve right on the edge of the Murrumbidgee River.

The river level is artificially inflated because of a weir upstream of the town but it sure was nice to see plenty of water in it. Like most free camps in areas affected by drought there wasn’t much green grass to be seen (none, actually) but the amenities were excellent and the neighbours were quiet and we awoke refreshed on Thursday morning ready to resume our odyssey. We needed to be because the roads are long, straight and the surroundings pretty featureless once you get that far west and it can mess with your head. As noted, the drought is biting hard in the rural areas and the paddocks are bare of vegetation of any kind, rocks and boulders and a few scrubby trees being the rule rather than the exception. Our rural friends are doing it very tough. Distances between centres are long and, with nothing to relieve the boredom, they seem to take forever to complete. Another good reason for us to travel together, lively conversation sure helps pass the time.

Once again we rolled into Tailem Bend before dark and, after exploring the town and getting directions, we high-tailed it out to the track. I have already covered the story about the track itself so I won’t go into that again. A little bird getting a drink out of a tap in town was a sad sign that there isn’t much natural water available around at the moment.

As noted the facilities at the Big 4 caravan park are outstanding so we made sure we enjoyed them as much as we could. On Friday morning I went over to the track and swanned around, checking out the scene while Helena broke out her art supplies and did some sketching. In the late afternoon I went on down to the go-kart track and commentated on the first night of the MotoStars meeting. Commentating at night is my thing, I do it every fortnight at the local speedway but cars are bigger (much) and easier to identify at night time and I really struggled to do my job properly in the gloom.

After another great night’s sleep we decided that we’d go do some exploring. I wasn’t needed at the track till 1600 so we put our camping stuff away and hit the road. The local bakery in town is outstanding and that was our first stop. Tailem Bend in right on the Murray River (hence the “bend” moniker) so we decided we’d explore the river a bit. A local map suggested that there was a little town called Wellington 20 or so k’s out of town and there was a ferry there that crossed the river. Seemed like a good idea and it was. On the other side of the river was the obligatory road sign telling distances to the next towns. I was stunned to see that the town of Starthalbyn was only 50kms away. Stunned because I had always thought that it was up in the Barossa Valley, but it seems I was wrong. So, Strathalbyn it had to be. Why? Because the town was the birth place of my all-time Australian motorcycle road racing hero, Ken Blake. And I knew that a memorial in his honour had recently been unveiled in the town so going to see it was a no-brainer.

I was so glad I went. The sculpture in the park across the road from the Robin Hood Hotel, Kenny’s favourite watering hole, is spectacular by anyone’s measure, being made entirely of scrap metal parts and tools.

I can’t even begin to imagine how many hours it must have taken to complete, it truly is amazing piece of art (more pictures in the gallery below). I’m so glad I went, it really is a fitting tribute to Starhalbyn’s favourite son and one of my heroes. On the way we passed through the wine-making town of Langhorne Creek. If you get the chance to go there, make sure you do so. What a beautiful town.

We got back in time for me to catch the shuttle over to the track and do my commentary thing for the Saturday night races. The lighting was the same but it did seem a little easier second time around, though I wouldn’t like to have to do it often. As always, the racing was superb, I am continually amazed at the skills and professionalism of these little MotoStars kids, they are the best.

I slept like a top on Saturday night and we broke camp early and got on the road home. The plan was to head north-east to the Grampians, I was anxious to show Helena the little town of Hall’s Gap where I had stayed on a motorcycle tour with my late friend Hilary Morton some ten years ago. We endured hours of drought-ravaged scenery to get there and passed through the appropriately-named Bordertown along the way. The town gets a big tick from me for their town sign, very clever, I thought.

We passed through Horsham, of Kevin Magee fame and got to Hall’s Gap late in the afternoon. Hall’s Gap was just as pretty as I remembered it to be and a stay overnight at the Boroughs Huts free camp in the national park was just the ticket after a long day on the road. We had the place practically to ourselves and the scenery was just superb. Highly recommended.

Getting home was always going to be about stopping and smelling the roses so we had to take a short detour and see the famous Elephant’s Hide rock formations.

On the road out to McKenzies Falls, the formation is spectacular by anyone’s measure. A gigantic hillside covered with solidified lava from an ancient volcanic eruption, it truly is an awesome sight.

Onwards and upwards, we stayed on a north-easterly bearing, heading for our intended next night’s stop, the historic river port town of Echuca. Now we have been there before and I have also passed through on several motorcycle tours but this time the plan was to sample the tourist life just a little more. A visit to the local tourist information stall informed us of a couple of free camp sites right on the river 10k’s or so out of town. We chose Bett’s Beach mainly because it was the first one we came to and we weren’t disappointed. A campsite right on the edge of the river overlooking the bend in the Murray. #1.

The view was spectacular at nightfall and equally so at dawn.

We reluctantly broke camp and headed into town to sample Echuca’s main delight, a paddle boat cruise. As noted, I’ve been to Echuca lots of times but never been on the river so on Tuesday we changed all that. A one hour cruise on the Pride of the Murray paddle boat complete with coffee, scones and jam and cream? Yes, I can heartily recommend that.

Oh, and while we were there, a local classic car club pulled up at the wharf precinct. All old Cadillacs, very nice.

We were in no hurry and still hadn’t really decided where to go from there but a quick message to an old mate and a favourable reply meant that we were heading east again, along the Murray River to the little town of Howlong, the Centre of the Universe. Why, you may ask? Because Howlong is the home of of multi Australian superbike champion, Robbie Phillis. Now you guys know me well enough to know that I don’t drop names or big note myself about stuff but I can say with some pride that Robbie and I have been friends for over 40 years and it sure was great to see the old Catholic church that he has renovated into a wonderfully comfortable home and see a little sample of his racing memorabilia.

Yeah, I know, I should have smiled. We spent a lot more time at Robbie’s than what I had planned so staying at Albury, close by, was now the go. After a delicious dinner ($20 for a flame grilled steak – where can you get that these days?) we pulled in to Albury Showground and settled in for the night. Now as free camps go, country showgrounds aren’t the most salubrious but they are cheap and there’s always plenty of room. So we passed the night in comfort and quiet yet again and hit the road early for the last leg of the journey.

Breakfast at the Holbrook Bakery meant that we actually had to get OFF the freeway, but traditions are traditions and this is one of the best ones. The grind up Highway 31 doesn’t get any better no matter how many times you do it but at least we had the joy of seeing green pastures and full dams the further north we drove. We pulled into home mid-afternoon on Wednesday, 2920kms on the odometer and the satisfaction meter totally “off the scale”. A necessary responsibility taken care of and a wonderful road trip into the bargain. The Child Bride is the best possible travel companion and I wouldn’t have done it without her.

Check out the gallery below for more pics from the trip.