Chapter one of book one...
the weird thing that happened
and how the books got their name!
Sunday 21st April 2013
We’d had such fun! Don and I had met three years earlier through the Ulysses Motorcycle Club – their motto is “Grow Old Disgracefully” – and we decided to travel to the National meeting together. The car and trailer carried all our camping equipment, while Don’s pride and joy, a BMW 1150cc motorbike retired from active Police duty, provided the sight-seeing transport while we were there. I phoned my husband Jim to let him know we were on our way, then we farewelled 3000 members of the Ulysses Club after the week-long gathering at Maryborough, Queensland and started the 1300km drive back home to Sydney.
The journey up had gone well. Two days of Don riding the bike most of the day, with me following five minutes behind in the car. I’d owned several motorbikes (including the one I’d left back home in the garage) and I really wanted to spend some time each day holding handlebars instead of a steering wheel, but technically I was too short to ride the BMW safely. I could handle a large road bike just fine when riding, but I couldn’t hold this particular bike upright when I stopped. My tiptoes could only just reach the ground. Without a roadside curb to put one foot on, if I tried to lean the 250kg enough to get my heeled boot on the road, the bike would have slipped from my hands and ended up dropped and scratched on the tarmac.
However, I did manage a ninety-minute session in the saddle each day thanks to our ingenious if not completely legal solution. Riding off was the easy part. When the time came for a break, I’d slow down for the car to catch up and then signal with my hand. Don would drive past me, pull over, and then stand ready for me to arrive. With great concentration I’d ride to a stop, placing the front tyre between Don’s knees as his hands reached forward to grip under the handlebars left and right. Our faces always split into a grin as movement ceased and our eyes looked up from our respective waist-high targets to meet so close, everyone uninjured, and I would slip elegantly sideways down from the seat and engage the bike stand. Job well done!
We’d travelled up via the coast road and decided to head back via the inland route. Two days of 650km, with an overnight in Moree where my family had lived in generations past. I had plenty of childhood memories to enjoy, and I dearly wanted a natural hot water jet massage at night in the outdoor concrete pools, mineral vapour wafting soothingly under the vivid outback stars.
We reached Goondiwindi on the Queensland border just before sunset. The remaining 130km to Moree I knew quite well, and I also knew it was a very bad time of day to travel them. There were a few streets of houses in Boggabilla just after leaving Goondiwindi, otherwise it was more than 100km of flat and well-maintained single lane highway with only the occasional turn off to access a few crop and livestock private properties.
The quickly approaching evening was perfect. Dry clear skies, a moderate temperature, no wind, and I was alert and relaxed after the freedom of a very pleasant drive in the car earlier in the day. My great aunt had given me driving lessons as a youngster on this road. I knew kangaroos were a big problem in the area at dusk and for a couple of hours afterwards, but the risk of meeting a stray kangaroo wasn’t enough to prevent me pushing on, one last stint, to sink happily into the Moree baths.
We’d purposely chosen to have our break once we’d been through Goondiwindi town itself (I didn’t dare handle the bike at any intersections) and after refuelling both bodies and machines, it was only a minute or two before I could feel the rush of air pushing back against me. The street signs announced the highway speed limit at 110km. It felt great to be back on the bike again.
As daylight faded quickly to night, I tested a couple of cars until I found one happy to have me riding their driver’s side rear taillight. We knew the BMW headlights were woefully inadequate. No problem in the city, or on a lit highway, but out here with only the moon and stars, the high beam just didn’t cut it.
Thankfully the car I settled in behind seemed to understand what I was doing. They didn’t wave me past, just kept a constant 120km speed as I piggy-backed off their high beam. I was easily able to scan the road ahead over the car roof as we raced through the cool evening.
I was ridiculously close, just over one car length, but I needed the vision more than I needed the space.
Should a kangaroo come to the side of the road ahead I would see it early in the car’s lights, preferably before the car driver did, as my only focus was safely riding the bike. Sitting comfortably in the cocoon of a car, maybe listening to the radio or taking a sip of water, is nothing like the experience of being astride an engine and petrol tank mounted on two wheels, rushing through the smells, temperatures and sounds that hit you as the bike speeds along the country road. If the driver braked suddenly then my escape route was only a slight nudge to the right - I was already almost on the road’s centre line, tucked in behind the car’s rear right-hand brake light - and I figured that with the instinct of reflex I’d quickly be in the oncoming lane and able to avoid hitting the car in front.
Everything was going well.
After maybe twenty minutes of almost no vehicles, a road train rumbled towards us.
I moved away from the centre line and closer to my left-hand edge of the road. I fixed my eyes downward on the bumper bar of the car ahead so I wouldn’t be dazzled by the truck lights, and I waited for the inevitable buffet blast of wind and noise as the prime mover plus two trailers – 120 feet long and three stories high – passed by in a roar with its load of livestock cargo.
The same instant the huge truck front came alongside the car, it provided extra illumination on the awful sight of a kangaroo hopping in from my side of the road to land directly between me and the car that I was so closely following.
I only remember one thought.
To go right was to go under the dozens of wheels on the road train, and there’s no coming back from that.
When I saw the kangaroo land between me and the car, in a split second I was aware of several things:
First, I believed I was definitely coming off the bike. Even if the kangaroo kept moving, took another hop onwards towards the road train, I still felt sure I was going to hit it.
The animal was positioned perfectly right in front of me, 10 metres or 30 feet at most, and I was travelling at 120km per hour.
Obviously, I didn’t do the following calculations at the time! But here they are now, laying out clearly what a driver’s or rider’s instinct would tell anyone in the same situation as me.
120 km per hour
2 km per minute
1 km per 30 seconds
100m per 3 seconds
30m per second
And I only had 10m. One third of one second.
The dusty grey-brown roo was facing sideways, at least a metre wide from nose to tail, and directly in front of me.
My bike was just over half a metre wide.
This ain’t gonna end well…
Second, I knew I had all the safety gear on. Full face helmet, leather boots and padded gloves, thick Kevlar jeans, riding jacket with hard insert protector pads. The road was flat and in good condition, with only thinly bushed surrounds and very few trees. I believed I’d likely survive with probably some broken bones, lots of bruising and a maybe a couple of days in hospital.
I’d come off my bike twice before and I was pretty good at sliding until I came to a stop, wherever that may be.
I “knew” these two things – I was definitely going to come off, but reassuringly I had all the right safety clothing on – and the only conscious thought I remember was a simple “Go left.”
The next thing I remember, I was alone on the highway.
I was riding the bike.
I felt very calm and alert at the same time, a lovely peaceful mixture, like when you awake well-rested after a long sleep.
Slowly this feeling morphed into a dull but growing uneasiness, as I remembered about the kangaroo. I looked at the road ahead, then behind in the rear vision mirrors, then ahead again. No car lights, no traffic, nothing. Just the usual dim outline of driving a bush road at night.
I glanced down and noted the speedometer showing 60km an hour. The first stab of panic caught in my throat. I wiggled my fingers and toes to check I could, and to check that it felt normal while I did it. Just keep going, let it pass…
I then looked down at my torso, to check that my tummy was still where it should be, that I still had a whole body and there wasn’t a kangaroo sized mess of flesh to slam me back into a reality that I wasn’t somehow currently able to comprehend.
It was like I had two brains operating.
One brain was insisting that shock was right now protecting me, but slowly I probably would become fully conscious and realise some terrible truth that I was not yet able to deal with. The other brain was calm and saying “You’re doing 60km in the dark with a crappy headlight, on a road with a 110km speed limit. Better go a bit faster, don’t you think?”
I deliberately breathed, and reassured myself. I breathed again. The cooling night air drew closer and I started to shake a little. The ancient dusty dry scrubby bush I was still rushing past felt dismissive and immune to my rising vulnerability. My thoughts started to race, and a slight tremble washed through my body, hot and cold in waves. Instinct. Aah, here comes the adrenaline. Again.
My logical self knew I should get off the bike, as something very unusual, significant, had happened. I was now hyper-aware, and I really couldn’t trust myself. Maybe I’d had a blackout, or brain bleed, or who knows what...
But I also knew I had no chance of stopping this particular bike without dropping it. So if it turned out that I was completely ok and just standing by the side of the road next to a fallen over and damaged bike when Don came driving past, then I’d have to cope with Don being upset at the cost of repairs, with me feeling stupid for dropping the bike in the middle of nowhere, and maybe for no good reason. What just happened? The adrenaline surged again.
It was probably another 20 or 30 minutes to the outskirts of Moree. Best I just concentrate on riding and staying upright.
I remember being amazed that I was in the correct gear for 60 km an hour, as I tested the state of the machine – brakes, revs, acceleration. I shifted up two more gears, deliberately, logically, and forced myself to stay calm and ride along at a conservative 95 km an hour through the lonely black night until I reached Moree.
After a short period of time I began to see a light far up ahead. I checked the rear vision mirror, but still nothing there. I looked forward again at the white light. It quickly became recognisable as the stream of two headlights, pointing the way as a car swung ninety degrees off the road and presumably into a dirt road leading to a property off the highway. The lights filtered and flickered as it passed through trees, and then I lost sight of it.
Ok. So there’s another car out here, just too far ahead for me to see the dark red colour and comparatively dull glow of their rear lights. Breathe. Keep riding. I clearly remember the size and appearance of those headlights, the first reassuring sign of a fellow traveller I saw after being left on the highway alone.
I checked the relative proportions a couple of weeks later back in Sydney. Driving through Neutral Bay in very light traffic late at night, I was joining the on-ramp to cross the Harbour Bridge when I observed the cars far up ahead. Watching them as they crossed the actual bridge, I matched them to the size of the car that turned off the road after the kangaroo incident, and then used my car’s mileage gauge to measure the distance before I got to the same place on the bridge. It was around three kilometres.
My best estimate is that the car I saw turning off after the kangaroo was about four kilometres ahead of me. That’s two minutes at 120km an hour…
Eventually I began to come close to Moree.
Thankfully my rear vision mirrors started to show the headlights of a car approaching from behind. I’d had no oncoming traffic, nor following traffic, for many minutes, but that really wasn’t unusual for this stretch of road. It was a great relief to see the first car up ahead in the distance when it pulled off to the side road, and it was an even greater relief to see this new car come up behind me. I hoped it was Don, but it didn’t really matter at that stage!
By the time Moree township was clearly in sight, it was also clear that it was indeed Don behind me, and I signalled to him that I wanted to get off the bike. He duly overtook me and drove ahead to find a place to stop and be ready to catch me.
I’m guessing that the kangaroo incident happened about halfway along the Goondiwindi to Moree road, once you’ve gone through Boggabilla. So that would be around 60km or 30 minutes into my journey, and the same distance travelled afterwards to reach Moree.
I started to slow the bike down, hoping and looking forward to having this journey anchoring itself back into a known reality I could easily understand. Now that I had arrived on the outskirts of this large regional town of 8,000 people, with a police station and a hospital and traffic lights and a main street that had more than just a handful of shops…
Now that I was “safe”, I was starting to freak out.
With Don holding the bike steady, I lifted my helmet visor and started a garbled tumble of words.
“Oh my god you’ll never believe what happened, a bloody kangaroo came out BETWEEN me and the car I was following, just as a big road train came past, I can’t believe I’m still on the bike, it was like I blacked out and I’ve got no idea what actually happened, I know I should have pulled over but I couldn’t because I would have dropped the bike for sure…”
But I realised Don wasn’t listening at all. His voice was raised as loudly as mine, with his own crazy story to share.
“Where were you? What the hell happened? I was driving along happily, had my foot up resting on the centre console to stretch my lower back, singing my head off to the radio. The next thing I know, the song’s changed, you’ve vanished, there’s nobody around for miles and I’m thinking bloody hell did I just nod off? But that doesn’t work because I was singing really loudly at the time so how could I fall asleep?
…There were no other cars on the road, and then suddenly there was this white nondescript truck I came up behind, no writing on it or anything, it was there really quickly and I don’t remember approaching it but I do remember thinking I might run up the back of it, it just sort of turned up, you know?
…Next thing this huge bastard of a road train came the other way, the road train seemed super loud and heavy and it really shocked me, it sort of woke me up somehow, and I knew I had to really concentrate or something serious, like if I didn’t focus, I’d end up in real trouble…
…BUT then I don’t even remember overtaking the white truck, it was just gone, vanished! And I was alone again and really starting to get freaked out, none of it makes any sense, I kept looking for you on the side of the road and wondered if I’d already driven past and missed you, started to really worry about you, wow I was so glad to finally catch up to the bike…”
Slowly we pieced together a stunning realisation. We had both experienced something highly unusual, perhaps unexplainable, and likely at exactly the same time.
I started to feel upset, confused, overwhelmed.
Tears beginning to form, I asked Don to stop talking and just ride the bike to the caravan park while I drove the car behind so we could finally come to a stop for the night. I got into my swimmers and soaked in the hot thermal pools for a while.
Aching and exhausted, I fell into bed and slept deeply.
Next morning the aches were still there.
Stepping out of the shower and standing in front of the mirror above the hand basin, I noticed some bruising starting to come up around my chest, tracing the edges of my central rib cage. Also between my thighs. My lower back hurt too, along with my wrists, shoulders and neck.
All very consistent with sliding forward and hitting the petrol tank hard, while emergency braking at high speed.