Finke We'll Make It?
Sleepy blasting off towards the Flinders Ranges
The dream was to take in the Finke desert race and then cross the mighty Simpson Desert on the journey home, but for five adventure-craving riders from Northern NSW, Australia, their 7000 kilometre outback escape was in gods hands and they soon found out that not all dreams come true in the land where time is forgotten and each day unfolds just the way it’s meant to!
Words and photos Grant “Goba” O’Brien
Steve “Sleepy” Sleep – The legend from Mooball who loves to move dirt, and stack big rocks. Rides: 09’ KTM690R Enduro.
Rick “Dunny” Dunwell – Builder by day mechanic by night, this old-school warrior from Drake would die without his Kwaka’s. Rides: 83’ KLR650.
Dirk “Diggler” Knur – A ‘she’ll be right mate’ farmer, and ladies man from Drake. Rides: 07’ DR650.
Pete “Grizzly” Adams – Bear Grylls ain’t got nothing on this farmer from Kyogle. Rides: 06’ KTM625.
Grant “Goba” O’Brien – A journo from Wadeville who loves to get his lens out! Rides: 09’ KTM690R Enduro.
From left Dirk, Rick, Sleepy and myself stopped for a breather just outside Broken Hill
It was cold, bloody cold as we rode the final 50kms of our 550km day into Wilcannia, a small town located within the Central Darling Shire in northwestern New South Wales. Some say the name Wilcannia is derived from the Aboriginal term ‘Wild dog’, not that I can verify this to be true.
Entering the town on dusk it sure looked pretty wild with shop windows barred, some boarded up with plywood, and houses with faded paint looking out on to deserted streets.
With the cold chill creeping in all we wanted was fuel, a beer, a feed, and a safe place to pitch a tent.
“Where do we find the local pub and a good place to camp tonight?” asked Sleepy to the service station attendant, who looked back at him oddly with a frown and said, “You ain’t black enough to be visiting the local mate!”
Was he joking or was he serious?
We were too tired to delve further and took his advice to drop by the Bowlo for a Chinese feed before finding a place to camp on the outskirts of town.
A few beers later and with a belly full of MSG we left the Bowlo and I ran into an old digger named Richard on the way out, who liked his bikes and wanted to know where we were heading.
“We’re heading west to the Finke Desert race then into the Simpson Desert”, I told him.
15-minutes later we were like old friends and he handed me a key to the gate of his property 7kms from town that led us to a grass-covered site on the bank of the Darling River.
What a score, don’t you just love that about adventures? You never know what lies around the corner, and how each hour will unfold!
Rick's Kwaka KLR 650 is like no other, and he can ride it like no other!
Three days earlier the five of us took off from Drake with fresh rubber, panniers packed to the brim with food, cookers, spares, clothes, tents and bed mats strapped to our racks, all hell bent on blowing out the cobwebs and signing off from our weekly routines on a two-week adventure ride that would hopefully top up our souls with experiences that would be talked about for years to come.
On the first day I burned a big hole in my tent, yep, packed it too close to my muffler, then lost the rubber seal out of my fuel cap, but it was good to get the karma sorted early as we hit the dirt west of Tenterfield via the granite rock littered rolling hills close to Mt McKenzie, then towards Delungra flying past Tent Hill, Strathbogie, Bukkulla, to our first night of setting up tents – yep I bought a freshie on the way – and diving head-first into the world of unpacking/packing, a chore that I mastered by the 13th day.
Around the campfire that night Sleepy relived his spectacular get-off that nearly ended his adventure in a flash, “I came smoking over a hill down towards one of the causeways and saw the sheet of water covering it so I brushed of some speed and ploughed straight through it, but the front wheel went full lock sideways and I had this bow wave of water fly over the top of me. Then before I knew it the bike went opposite lock the other way, my legs started flapping, and then next second she just pitched me and the bike did a pirouette down the dirt road. I went right, it left! I was pretty pissed off with myself for doing that, but I was happy to get up unscathed and that my Wolfman soft panniers survived with only a slightly bent bracket, yeah I was real happy about that!” he said with a big grin.
A typical night by the fire under a blanket of stars, this time with the ACP Rally crew on a wrecke ride
Like Minded Travellers
Day two was boring, a long haul of a day to knock over some kays on dirt roads with the highlight being a massive cotton field or two.
Day four, after dropping in for a rest at Lake Menindee and visiting the mines in Broken Hill, we blasted west to Yunta after having to change our route because the cocky at Cockburn had no fuel!
This was meant to be though because as we pulled into the Yunta servo at 4pm and started to fuel up three blokes on KTM990’s roared in looking like they’d been at it for weeks on end.
The first rider pulled off his helmet and the face was mighty familiar. He looked at me and I said, ‘Homer’, and he said, “Goba, fancy meeting you guys out here!”
Homer, AKA John Hudson, was out doing his final recce ride for the APC rally with Woodsy and a bloke named Russell. Homer yelled out to his support driver Cliffy to grab a few cartons, and next minute we all blasted off in a northerly direction at 990 pace searching for a campsite for the night.
Sitting around a roaring fire on a sandy creek bed under the stars our group felt for the first time on the ride that our adventure was starting to really fall into place.
Before departing we had made several calls trying to find out whether it was possible to cross the French Line from Dalhousie Springs to Birdsville. No one gave us a clear answer. The manager at Mt Dare told us we could enter from the west, and that once we arrived he’d talk us through it, but sitting around the camp fire with Homer, who’d spent a lot of time in the area sorting out the route for the rally, it dawned on us that our dream of crossing the Simpson might be a lot harder than originally envisaged due to there being so much water in the region!
Homer at that point wasn’t even sure if it was possible, and after the seventh beer our group had devised plans to take in tractor tubes and ropes to build a raft so we could float our way across Ayre Creek just like any true adventurers would. It all sounded like a great idea at the time!
Early next morning the temperature dropped close to zero, which side of it I can’t remember, but our tents were covered in ice and our –5 sleeping bags didn’t do a good job of keeping out the cold, something we got used to.
Homer was on a mission to push on, but before he left he kindly loaded some fresh maps into Dirks GPS with waypoints to help us find our way across the desert if we had to divert off the main track.
Riding through the Flinders Ranges is spectacular!
Into The Void
‘This is what it’s all about’ I thought to myself as we rode with frozen hands towards the heart of the Flinders Ranges via Hawker with the early morning sun waking up the day. Kangaroo’s bounced onto our path, Emus scattered like mad beasts, Eagles took flight from dead carcass’s, and the peaks of the Flinders loomed in the distance like a scene out of Lord Of The Rings.
Lucky we were not Hobbits on foot, and before too long we came closer to the ranges embedded with layers of red/orange coloured rock against a landscape of pale green that blurred by as we navigated our way along dirt roads that twisted around one mountain to the next.
Like the many adventure riders before us we stopped at Razorback Lookout for a majestic photo opportunity. It just draws you in, such an incredible site!
We could have got lost in the Flinders for a few more days, but Finke was calling so we soaked in what the landscape had to offer and made our way to Angorichina Village where we lapped up steaming hot water in what was our first shower in five days. Pew!
Checking Facebook, Twitter, updating websites, texting the wife and family was no longer possible (my smart phone is with Optus) as the following days unfolded on the dreamy ride north.
One of the highlights was camping on Lake Eyre that was barren as the moon. Grizzly Adams decided to leave the campsite that night with his head torch on to see how far he could walk in the hope of finding water, but he returned two hours later with chalk-white muddy Crocks after the lake bed started to give way long before any sign of the lake.
It was cold camping on Lake Eyre, but well worth the experience
William Creek, Oodnadatta, classic places to stop and take in the atmosphere, have a coffee, a beer, talk to locals and travellers about where they’re from and heading too. Our Simpson crossing took another dent when an experienced four-wheel driver told us we had Buckley’s chance of making it through to Birdsville, but we pushed on to Dalhousie Springs with hope of keeping the dream alive!
The run to Dalhousie was epic. Recent rain had moistened the track so dust was not a problem. We detoured around Fogarty Claypan, passed Mt Sarah, turned off at Hamilton, and soaked up the expansiveness of the Witjira National Park until we hit the springs right on dusk.
Grizzly couldn’t resist stripping off and dived in into the 36 degree heated water, so we left him there after deciding to return the following day for a taste and rode into the blinding setting sun across gibber country to Mt Dare. We arrived in the dark to find the place pumping thanks to a variety bash that rumbled in an hour or so before us.
Dirk and Pete sharing a beer in the classic outback pub at William Creek
“Even if you did make it through 50 metres of thick claypans Eyre Creek is way to high to even think you could build a raft and float across, and believe me you guys are not the first to think about building a raft!” said Mt Dare’s station manager after we all had a go at the ‘What ifs’ for an hour or so the following morning.
The reality was we all had just enough fuel capacity, 45-litres, thanks to Safari tanks, fuel cells, bladders, to make it across the French Line, but not enough to get to Eyre Creek and then back again if the mission went pear shaped. Plus we didn’t have enough fuel to make Jervois if we tried heading north from Poeppel Corner. What to do?
Deflated Ego’s aside we had a decision to make, and that was where to from Finke?
No one was keen on the Plenty Highway, and at the same time no one was keen to back track thousand’s of kays to tackle the Birdsville Track. The only thing we could all agree on in that moment was to make it to Finke, party on, then see how it all unfolds from there.
One big State to another
Finke ... We Made It!
After eight days sitting on a motorcycle it felt fantastic to peel our arses off our seats and walk a few kays watching men with big balls rocket over sandy whoops for hours on end.
It’s kind of funny though as once you’ve watched, and been blown away by Grabbo race by at break neck speed, it all slowly starts to become a little boring after the top 20 riders have flown by, but that’s outweighed by all the cool people you meet and share stories with long into the night.
KTM’s head honcho Jeff Leisk led his pit-crew of riders out of Finke the next morning so we tagged along so we could get a different perspective of the race as it headed back to Alice.
They were all riding trail bikes and it was all fun and games for us adventure riders loaded to the hilt when we hit the soft sandy tracks leading to the service road that runs besides the race course. Ride em cowboy sprang to mind!
Leisky was on a mission to make the first fuel stop so we cruised at our own pace and pulled over 50kms north of Finke on a rise so we could see the riders come and go off into the distance. The only problem was there was no sign of Rick on his KLR650 so I waited at the turn-off for a good 15-minutes before he came limping along. “Think I’ve done a big-end, or at least broken a piston”, he said after pulling over. “Better strip her down to see what’s going on!”
In that moment our fate was decided, we’re heading to Alice Springs… one way or another!
Rick was gutted his trusty KLR broke down, diagnosis was the gudeon pin slid past the circlip against the bore, faulty piston he fitted before the ride
Rick rolled his shiny 150km old 2011 model KLR650 off Race Motorcycles showroom floor in Alice, thanks to Woody for the ripper deal. He was lucky to have hitched a ride to town thanks to the generosity of a bloke named Allan and his family from Darwin, and he was even luckier he’d taken out NRMA Plus roadside recovery before the ride as his beloved 83 model KLR 650 got shipped direct to his front door in Drake for 150 bucks, bargain, and we only lost a day in the process!
Now we were too far north to think about heading back south so it was a wide-open mission across the Plenty Highway, which nearly ended in tears for Rick and his new ride. He was way out in front of the pack, while I cruised along at the rear, then after 200 clicks of bone shaking rutted dirt road my chain snapped and jammed between the front sprocket and casing. Lucky for me a 4WD pulled over to see if I needed help, and I did in the name of a 27mm socket.
Jim, the fella driving the vehicle said, “I think I just past a mate of yours with his bike on fire 20kms back. It was a Kawasaki.”
‘That could only be Rick’, I said to Jim. ‘Did he look like a bloke stuck in the 70’s?” I asked.
“Yeah and real tanned, bit like the Marlboro Man”, Jim replied. ‘Yep that’s him’, I said, but how did he end up on fire and at the end of the pack I wondered?
20-minutes later Rick rolled up while Jim and I fixed my broken chain. He looked happy to be alive!
‘So what the hell happened back there’, I asked him.
“Well I pulled in to grab some fuel at Harts Range and you guys rode by. Then 80kms later I was riding along and looked across at the silhouette of my bike on the dirt road and could see my straps were flapping on my right side pannier. Then when I looked down at the pannier there was one-foot flames coming off it so I slammed the brakes on and jumped off the bike. I stood there for a second or two thinking about how to best put the flames out, like I couldn’t get the straps off to take the pannier right off so I was thinking what to do. The only thing I could think of was to stick my hand inside to pull everything out, which I did. As everything fell out on to the ground I booted it away from the bike. It didn’t take long for my gloves to start burning so I picked up a half burnt sloppy Joe, put it out, then used it to put the fire out on my bike. After that I rolled a smoke and Jim pulled up in his 4WD saying, ‘I see you lost a bit of gear mate?’ And I said, yeah, look at me faarkin pannier smouldering on the ground, and he just laughed! I couldn’t believe it, a brand new bike and the things on bloody fire!”
It was fun riding the KTM690R on the Finke Desert race track, even with all that extra weight!
Keeping The Dream Alive
We found ourselves in a pickle two days later after a stopover at Jervois, and Boulia. On the map I could see a dotted line starting at Edkins Creek in the Diamantina that headed west to Connemarra, which had adventure written all over it and was a more direct route to our destination Stonehenge, but do you think we could find the entrance? Nope!
I then decided to pop in to the Davenport Downs station to ask for guidance, and 15-minutes later rode back out with a rough map and directions.
Should we risk it was the question. With limited fuel we would have been buggered if we took a wrong turn, but with all of us feeling like it was our last chance for a pure adventure fix before b-lining it home so we decided to go for it.
Our first hour went according to plan, we found the graded dirt road after the creek, we crossed through the gate that led us out of the Davenport property into the next, found the spring fed dam with the old steel tank, but then after a while the track disappeared just like the station managers thought it might!
Not wanting to give up so easily we forged on through a few old gates in an Easterly direction, because that’s the direction we needed to head.
Rick leads the way aboard his new KLR650
Tracks appeared then disappeared just as quick, and with the sun dropping fast our confidence started to slide.
At the top of a range we stopped to see if we could see any tracks in the distance, and Dirk pulled out his GPS to get an accurate straight-line direction to Stonehenge. The general consensus was ‘even if there’s no tracks we should eventually get there if we follow the pink line right?’
We rode on for another hour through virgin-like terrain, no cattle in sight, and tracks appeared to give us hope we were on the right path, and then they faded.
After a while we found a fence, then a gate that led to an outback herders camp with two old caravans and a shelter that had satellite dishes on the roof. From there we found a clear dirt road heading East that agreed with Dirk’s pink line, and 45-minutes later we arrived at Connemarra on dusk, still a long way short of Stonehenge.
Connemarra didn’t do it for us so we pushed on into the dark, a mission that ended up being the craziest experience we encountered on the whole ride.
Fuelled on by adrenalin and the thought of a cold schooner and pub meal at the end Sleepy and I led the charge out front side by side with our 690 headlights lucky to light up the dirt road more than 30-feet ahead of us.
Kangaroos bounced at us with one ending its life on my bashplate as we set the pace at 80km an hour. Wild boars ran across our front wheels out of nowhere, and at one point a big white Owl sat right in the middle of the road and didn’t budge as we flew either side straight past it.
The biggest scare came towards the end of our 170km journey from Connemarra in pitch-black darkness when a moving mass with four legs appeared in an instant, yep, a herd of huge steers walked onto the road right in front of us and at 80km per hour our fate was really in gods hands as we swerved, braked, and then somehow accelerated through them.
One of the most rewarding beers I've ever had!
‘Did all that really just happen’, I asked Sleepy with eyes wide open when we eventually arrived at Stonehenge pub at 9pm. And with the sound of three motorcycles closing in he looked at me with glazed eyes and said, “Don’t know about you mate, but I’m feeling pretty lucky to be walking right now. Let’s grab a beer, it’s my shout!”
That beer was one of the best we’ve ever tasted, and as for the Simpson Desert … We’ll be back!