I was on my way to do a motorcycle tour of Australia riding some of the best roads and exploring historic gold rush towns in the high plains of the eastern states. An area where outlaws once roamed very similar to the gold rush frontier towns on the other side of the Pacific ocean in the west of North America. This is my rediscovery of a slightly forgotten history.
It had been 10 years and many miles of riding in other countries since I last toured my own country. This absence let me view much from a new light. Appreciate what I overlooked before and realise some aspects of Australian history had started to fade in my mind and seemed unknown to younger generations.
I rented a BMW GS650 from a Brisbane company called Rent this Bike. I chose the BMW purely based on price it being the cheapest I could find in the country at $68 per day based on 13 days rental. (that price no longer available) Not perhaps the first choice of many for touring but having a motorcycle that would be easy to ride on unsealed roads let me detour to anything that took my interest regardless of road surface. If you by chance rent from same place then it is probably simplest to take a car out to the south side location. I took a Uber ride to the shop from my city location and was pleased that it was half the price of a taxi ride. I hope that remains so unlike AirBnB which was great initially but now is more expensive then staying in hotels.
I was going to stay in traditional Aussie pubs this trip where possible. They are the best value for a ride in Australia but you won’t find them on Booking.com or any hotel search engine. However if you arrive in town not too late in the afternoon no need to book ahead for pub stays except maybe a long weekend or a local festival.
Very easy to ride out of a small city like Brisbane, the traffic is nothing compared to Tokyo. I was riding west, deciding to go via Queen Mary falls then on to Stanthorpe via the old Mt Lindsey highway. This used to be a patchwork quilt of tar and pot holes then a long stretch of gravel riding but since I had the G650 I thought perfect chance to revisit this and see how it was now days. The ride to the falls via Lake Moogerah was a peaceful way to start. I stopped at the locality called The Head and was going to try the Condamine River Road. I had always wondered what the scenery was like in the valley floor as apposed to the mountain road above. Being unsealed did not bother me but there is two river/water crossings and I considered it a little foolish to try that not knowing water depths or having even gotten used to the G650 yet.
You will encounter all sorts of wildlife if you visit Australia. Great to be able to enjoy good coffee on a ride again. Price is 3 to 4 times what I pay for a vending machine coffee in Japan but I intend to try indulge in a few things this trip and coffee is one of them. This colourful guy came to join me at The Falls café. The old Mt Lindsey highway (beyond Woodenbong) is now nearly all sealed. 3 small sections unsealed which were very easy to ride. The rest then is very good road, looks almost new in many spots. The mid 30’s heat in Brisbane did not extend much south. As I rode south west to the higher altitude of the Stanthorpe region the temperatures dropped back to mid 20’s which was comfortable in my gore-tex ride gear. I had considered bringing summer gear and if riding just in my home state or Queensland or nearby then I could have done that. But I will never forget the last time I rode south to Victoria and it was bitterly cold just a few weeks different time of year so I brought my gore-tex gear and the liners and my boots and Held lined 3 season gloves. I decided if need be I would buy a cheap mesh jacket. I had lunch in Stanthorpe and then rode to Texas. Good roads either side on my chosen route. Solid highway names out here. Been some good rain by the looks and I was treated to Spring wildflowers. In North America it is deer and in Australia it is kangaroos. Don’t ride from dusk to dawn in this land. I used to think there was nothing at Texas having been told incorrectly when young it was a region name not a town. I once had a girlfriend from Austin Texas USA. I never took her to this place for that reason which is a shame. It is a lovely little country town. You might notice in those last two photos there is a storm brewing in the skies above. Actually it looked like I would soon need to find shelter but I decided to ride on as my route now turned back and to the south so I thought I might get away from it. Nice country roads down to Inverell. I had to stop a couple of times today to clean my visor of bugs. There were 1000’s of butterflies and I had forgotten my V visor clean system so was on the look out for rest areas with water. From Inverell I was on the edge of the rain, showers at times and the temperature plunged down to mid teens. I got to Delungra and the fuel light was on so refueled. The friendly staff at the gas station asked where I was bound for and told me there was a laundry in the caravan park at Bingara if I needed to dry out my gear. Nice folk in the country.
Wet ride most of the way from here. Shame as this was a nice road but fortunate it was not far to go and I rode out of the rain briefly arriving Bingara which allowed me to check in and get my gear into room before the storm front proper arrived and bucketed down rain for a good hour. Lucky! A few things got wet despite the rain cover over a waterproof bag. No such thing as waterproof but I could hang those items up to dry under the air con while I went for some ‘Aussie pub grub’ The usual fare was on the menu, Chicken Parmigiana, Fish and Chips, Hamburger. I cannot get fish and chips in Japan, i.e. battered style so this is item number two I was going to indulge in on the tour.
Met a bunch of guys, sale reps from New Zealand for big farm equipment company. Seemed to be a nice life to me. Travel the land and stay in pubs at night. I had a few drinks and played some pool (known as billiards rest of the world). Made me think I wish I had done something like that in life. Also made me think did I want to return to my former line of work in Australia stuck in an office listening to bullshit in pointless meetings. I had received some calls from recruitment agencies about jobs in Melbourne so had to think about that along the way south. Todays route 540km.
Next day I had a big pub breakfast. I decided afterwards I better lay off that sort of thing or I would be piling on the weight. This is where I stayed last night, nice room upstairs, bike parked out rear.
I toured the town. Bingara is a old gold mining town, the like of which I will visit all the way south to Victoria. Gold was first discovered in 1851 and is still being found in small quantities today along with sapphires. The road out of town is called the fossickers way, the region being popular for people (mostly grey nomads) who fossick for semi precious stones.
Before leaving I got two items I had forgotten to buy prior to departure. Most important was a can of emergency tyre inflation goop. This is my insurance policy for the ride. I find it goes like this – don’t have it and I will get a flat in the middle of nowhere – have it and I will not get a flat. I used to always bring repair kits but airlines are making it hard to carry compressed air canisters now days.
I also got a micro fibre cloth for cleaning. I already have zip lock plastic bags so run this under the tap and keep in the bag for visor cleaning and washing ride gear end of day. (tip – if you use a cloth like this then grab some strong paper napkins at McDonalds or petrol station somewhere then use these after the cloth for a streak free visor)
Lovely ride south to Barabba on the Fossickers way. Would have loved to been sitting on my FJR instead of the G650 but on a morning like this riding any motorcycle will lift the spirit.
I love towns that are tree lined however that did made historic Barraba difficult to photograph. Beautiful small town, the clock tower erected to the local men who died in WW1 is prominent as I arrive. Gold was found in the 1850’s. There was a shoot out in the Victoria hotel from that era and the bullet holes remain above the bar in the door way however I was there early in morning before trading hours. I rode on south to the town of Manilla. I was attracted just because the name is similar to the capital of the Philippines which I have visited a few times. Could not be more different of course and turned out to be a really interesting place. Exploring the towns old buildings I came across the soldiers memorial and paused to look at all the names of the fallen from such a small rural town. This was the start of my awareness this trip of the huge number of young Australians that died fighting in World War One. Every town from now on I would discover the same and I will talk more about this as the ride progresses.
The other thing that I discovered was Manilla would be my first encounter this tour with Australian bushranger history. The term bushranger is very misleading , these were not forest rangers as the literal translation might suggest but rather outlaws who were armed and roamed the land robbing and sometimes killing. Just like across the Pacific ocean in the wild west of USA, Australia had a ‘wild east’. Gold rushes created boom towns full of hotels/saloons and wild times with few lawmen to police vast areas of land. There was considerable money flowing freely in these places and being transported by stage coach and it was a time when guns were a way of life for hunting so with that came outlaws who robbed people and the stages. It is a fascinating part of Australia’s history that seems hardly known whilst in the USA the same has been the subject of 100’s of movies and songs.
The outlaw know as Captain Thunderbolt (alias Fred Ward) frequented Manilla in 1865, taking two horses from Lloyd’s station and committing a series of robberies on the Barraba road. In 1867 he robbed the Tamworth mail stage coach 3 km from Manilla. He then proceeded to a hotel in Manilla and started a drinking session. At Veness’s store and hotel he then robbed everyone. The police arrived but he escaped. I decided to vary from my route slightly to ride some more unsealed roads to cut across to the Oxley highway. Wide open plains.
Only a few buildings left in rural Somerton, the village seems abandoned. I was getting confused with time, the state I was in had daylight saving time, my GPS was still on different country time zone and the bike clock was on Brisbane time zone. I decided to stop for lunch in Gunnedah based on my internal clock saying time for lunch. More healthy options …
In 1866 Captain Thunderbolt robbed patrons of the Carroll hotel here then proceeded to have a drinking party in the hotel until troopers arrived and a gun battle took place and he again escaped. It is a very historic town but being larger has lots of cars and people going about their busy lives thus is not so inviting to wander around so I moved on.
This was first time to tour in my home country using a GPS. I took it out one time before just as a test run for overseas but this trip I had it do the navigation for me which while not really needed just meant one less thing to worry about and also good estimate of my ETA along the way so I could fool around stopping to take photos randomly along the way (most of which never make it into the blog) then as the day wears on see that I need to do less of that and cover more miles as the arrival time on the GPS gets later. And so in Coonabaraban (below) looking at the GPS I decided I had enough time to do a detour out to the Warrumbungle range to visit the Siding Spring observatory. Besides being curious about the ranges I had been seeing these signs along the way. The largest virtual solar system drive. Probably the only one too haha. It gives an idea how far apart the planets are. I had to ride on and see the rest of the solar system… The ride out is superb. The planets whizzed by as a blasted along getting closer to the observatory – well whizzed and blasted are terms I use loosely. The BMW G650 (LAMS version) only has 34hp. Yes I was touring on what is the BMW’s learner bike. I went for the cheapest rental and figured long as it still had some torque of a 650 single then it would be ok. More about that later.
After one more climb I arrived at the observatory. I had not checked the opening times and unfortunately arrived with insufficient time to tour inside but I was glad I decided to detour there anyway as it had been a very scenic ride with plenty of curves. South from Coonabaraban I was riding on the Warrumbungle’s way beside the Castlereagh river. I stopped at Binnaway for some refreshments. Once a thriving railway town now there was just the local general store open. I tried an Aussie drink, not sure what it was but did the trick. Being the only person on the main street I felt a long way from Tokyo. Big skies riding south from Binnaway were just amazing. After so many rides in Japan where the skies are low I had forgotten what this looked like. All onboard photos this ride come from my new GoPro Hero Session 5 which I will review later on the blog. I stopped at Leadville, the name seemed interesting but besides this church nothing much left.
There is an expression in Australia ‘beyond the black stump’ which can mean a long way off or remote. As I left Leadville I was on the Black Stump Way, so was I now riding beyond it?
Vast land out here. You may note my yellow cleaning cloth wedged into the screen. There were SO many bugs I started leaving the damp cloth there in between stops to wipe them off while moving. (this was not a great success as wind dries out the cloth too quick)
Tonight I was staying at Gulgong. The town on the old Australian $10 note (pre introduction of plastic notes) It’s a well preserved 19th century gold mining town. 15,000kg of gold was mined from Red Hill where the town lies in the 10 years from 1870 to 1880. Today that is wealth beyond imagination so I can presume that also was true back then. It is reported that in the towns heyday it featured a opera house and female performers could have small gold nuggets thrown into their laps! You can see some of the street fronts from the old 10 dollar note as you walk around. Above 1872 and still there today 2016. My hotel for tonight below. Todays route 450km (plus side trip to Warrumbungles)
I had some fantastic local wine last night (which I unfortunately did not record in the Vivino wine rating app I use to tell you) more fruit driven then the usual Australian Shiraz. I could have spent the day visiting the many wineries in the Mudgee region but it was a nice cool morning with clear skies that invited me to ride on. My next destinations were Hill End and Sofala. I just looked at the map and decided to take the back road rather then the highway south and was pleased to find this was a tourist route. (make sure you fuel up as no services) Lovely riding along the way to historic town of Hill End. Nice small mountain range in route that I failed to capture with the Hero 5 Session, the first of many times this trip I thought it was recording but it actually was not. It has a tiny screen that I cannot read while also riding. I wish it had a colour LED like the Polaroid Cube which showed red when recording and green in standby. The air notably cooler now as I was up on part of the Australian eastern high plains. Hill End town was very interesting. 870m above sea level, gold was first discovered there in 1851 but it took another 20 years before big finds of gold were being produced then in 1872 it hit the headlines when the worlds largest specimen of reef gold was found. Holtermanns nugget weighed 286kg and in the week it was found alone 700kg of gold was mined. Hill End at one stage had up 27 hotels and the mining strip was called the richest quarter mile on earth.
The boom however did not last and the town shrank rapidly and now is a ghost town of sorts fortunately preserved by the National Parks and Wildlife service. I did a walk around, many buildings have gone but photos of what was in every spot is presented. In what must be a rare thing they were all photographed in the boom times by a professional hired by Holtermann who spent some of his fortune documenting the Australian gold rush towns. 3500 glass plate negatives were found one day in a garden shed in the suburb of Chatswood, these turned out to be the Holtermann collection that fortunately survived and document life in those times across Australia. Yesterday and today – Hill End, New South Wales, Australia If not interested in the history of the region then I have another reason for you to visit. The road from Hill End south that was gravel is now all sealed. It is an incredibly good ride with a mix of undulating road with sweepers then a brand new section of tighter corners. Terrific fun. I stopped to take a photo of this pool of water next to the road and then got a surprise as a red belly black snake slithered by. Got to remember I am back in the land of things that will bite you although probably would not have gotten past my TCX boots. I stopped next at Sofala. Australia’s oldest surviving gold town. Little more then two streets yet it has a interesting look to it. I had a very aussie lunch at the general store which was claiming to have the best burgers in the area – but with nothing else in the area then … anyway it was huge and very good washed down with a Kirks olde stoney ginger beer – which doesn’t seem to taste of ginger anymore to me.
Leaving Sofala I rode south and bypassed Bathurst. There is a lot to see there but I had decided on this trip to avoid cities as much as possible and thus not visit it this time nor go to the famous street race circuit which I have ridden previously. I followed the rail line on what was probably the main route before the Mid Western highway and this was a lovely ride. Pub and one shop town Newbridge. Would have loved to spend a while with a cold beer under that beautiful big tree but alas I had to keep moving as still some way to go today. Looking at these photos you may get the impression Australia is green but actually I am presenting you the Australia that happens maybe once a year (or two years) after some really good rain has fallen. Usually is it straw yellow/brownish landscapes that are prevalent with just strips of green along river banks and around lakes. I was really enjoying getting to see this as despite having travelled the eastern states extensively when young seeing it green like this is quite rare.
I seemed to have entered a heat pocket as I rode south off the Mid Western highway on the Reg Hailstone way and stopped at another interesting old gold mining town called Woodstock to remove my liner and change to summer mesh gloves. From Bathurst I was in the region that the notorious outlaw Ben Hall and his gang used to roam.
From left to right: Henry Manns (hanged), Alex Fordyce (Sentenced to death commuted to life), John Gilbert (shot dead), Frank Gardiner (exiled to the USA), Daniel Charters (informer), John Bow (Sentenced to death commuted to life), Ben Hall (shot dead); Sitting: John O’Meally (shot dead)
Ben Hall and his various associates carried out many audacious raids across New South Wales, from Bathurst to Forbes, south to Gundagai and east to Goulburn including the largest robbery in Australia’s history of the Lachlan Gold escort coach stealing £14,000 in cash and gold, enough to make them all rich as millionaires in those days if they had managed to keep it. The Felons Apprehension Act was approved by the Parliament of New South Wales in 1865 declaring Hall and his comrades outlaws, meaning that they and other bushrangers would be “outside the law” and could be killed by anyone at any time without warning. Or in other terms ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ and a huge bounty was placed on their heads.
Unlike many bushrangers of the era, Hall was not directly responsible for any deaths, although several of his associates were. One of his gang was shot dead in Binalong just south of Woodstock and one of his gang was buried in the Woodstock cemetery. Ben Hall was shot dead near Forbes that lies just a little to the west by police in May 1865 aged 27. Frank Gardiner spent time in jail then was later exiled from Australia and wound up in California where he purchased the Twilight Star Saloon in San Francisco and by all accounts prospered. Next a terrific bit of road climbing a range south towards the Wyangla dam. And then some dirt to get to a eagle nest lookout. Quite some view. More great riding south from the dam with huge boulders, lots of sheep and blazing sunshine. This old church a long way out of town caught my eye. Sitting all by itself on a pretty hill with wild flowers. I then found a sign at its driveway showing it was for sale and had been fully renovated inside. I let my mind play with the idea of living here and thought it might be a bit lonely – but then then I am living on the fringe of a metropolis of 31 million yet know nobody, I wonder how much it went for… I passed through Boorowa with no intention to stop but I had to take a look around such a pretty town. Boorowa was another town frequented by Ben Hall and his gang who held up a store one day just to update their clothing. It is also deeply connected to Ireland. It’s church of St Patrick’s is the first Roman Catholic Church built west of the Great Dividing Range and has stained glass windows from 1881 which also includes an image of Daniel O’Connel, liberator of Ireland.
I had just missed the annual “Running of the Sheep” which is like the running of the bulls in Pamplona but instead with soft fluffy sheep . This part of the state of New South Wales seems overflowing with interesting places. I had considered visiting the nearby town of Young and would have if the cherries the town is famous for were in season. Maybe next time. Below, ANZAC memorial Boorowa. Nice ride then into Yass on the Lachlan Valley way. Below my home for the night dates back to 1881. Nice rural town Yass. Good size and great feel. I really liked it and once again started to wish I had more time on this ride. I did not think I would be enjoying the inland regions so much. Main street and I find the war memorial hall at the heart of town and the list of names is so long. This just one section. The end of WW1 was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918. Most Australians should know this is Armistice day. But lately I start to wonder. Tonight on the 11th of November my Facebook feed is full of posts from younger Australians about Mr Trump winning the US election, another countries choice that is none of their business and nothing about the real significance of the day.
Australia in World War One, from a population of fewer than five million sent 416,809 men to fight. That is a staggering number for a fledgling nation to field. Of these men over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. I have been seeing memorials in every single town I pass through and it really brings it home how much affect this had to every community in the country. Todays route 427km.
Some rain overnight but the next morning it looked fine. Today I was going to ride a road I had wanted to visit for 10 years Yass to Tumut via Wee Jasper. Some nice curves along the way and lovely scenery helped by all the rain the country has had recently. I cannot recall ever seeing a photo of this region green like this. A series of signs with interesting verse were posted along the way. It started to get cloudy as I got closer to the mountains. The road and scenery however continued to be excellent. Make sure you fuel up at Yass, the shop and petrol at Wee Jasper is closed up. Then it’s time to ride some dirt. The G650 has a number of faults but riding it off the tar is one of it’s better points. I had no problems despite a few initial slippery bits from the rain overnight. If in doubt ride on the stones rather than anything that looks like clay. Quite cold up the top of the range, back on the high plains on my way towards Tumut. I had the grip heaters on for the first time this ride and my jacket liner installed and was so glad I brought my Gore-tex gear. There is a sealed road option about 30km out of Tumut and some farmers have sealed sections of road so the total dirt you need ride is by my estimate less then 30km but I rode the dirt route the full distance as by now I was feeling confident on it and thought why not, who knows when I might pass this way again. Nice riding in these high plains just me and the cows. The over night rain meant I had easy no dust road surface. Very peaceful. I had lunch in Tumut to rest and warm up then rode on south to Batlow the apple growing centre of Australia and on to Tumbarumba. This road I previously underrated considerably and will revise on the other part of the blog. Not only is a a great ride but very scenic. Tumbarumba is one of the districts the outlaw Mad Dog Morgan operated in and where he shot and killed a trooper which lead to a bounty of £1000 dead or alive (A huge sum of money at the time). Dan Morgan, one of various aliases he used, had no hesitation to shoot people and had been involved in numerous armed hold ups and shoot outs. He eventually was cornered by police and armed vigilantes and shot north of Wangaratta.
Next I was riding the Murray River road which was a favourite last time I toured and proved to again be terrific enjoyment, both scenic and fun. I took a break by the side of the upper reaches of Lake Hume with a drink I picked up back in Walwa when I had to detour for fuel. The BMW G650 is claimed to get 400km per tank but I get the reserve light on at 230/240km every time no matter how I ride. Not having a fuel gauge on a near new bike is very cheap design. This LAMS version is rather underpowered so to maintain 100kph on roads like the above can mean holding the throttle near wide open in top gear or changing down to 4th gear if there is a head wind. I like to work an engine as apposed to having one you rarely can access but this bike might be taking that idea a little too far.
A six speed box would make a world of difference as the 5 speed was a poor match ratio wise for Aussie roads and poor quality often jumping out of gear at the lights or between 4th and 5th. Well I was in no hurry so it did not really matter and with the bike happier at 85/90kph then 100/110kph I was in no risk of speeding fines. Next I rode over to the Murray Valley highway via Granya road. I had missed this road last time here and wow what a ride. Not long at just 13 km but a fantastic bit of tar with lots of tight smooth corners. Odd thing about the G650 is it struggles on highway yet on this road it was sensational. In lower gears using all it’s revs it gets along much better. It corners like on rails, more confident than many bikes I have ridden. And this was on Metzeler Tourance tyres yet I easy caught up to guys on sports bikes I had waved past at the bottom of the range. It is a strange package this bike. You’ll have to take my word on it that Granya Mountain road is great – it looks (above/below) like most every other aussie riding road. That is something I noted while riding this tour that I could take a picture of a road in one area and insert it as any one of another roads and nobody would be the wiser as much of the riding roads look the same in Australia. So I tended not to take so many ‘road’ photos like I used to. On the Murray Valley highway next and what a perfect afternoon. Todays lookout detour – overlooking the town of Tallangatta that was completely relocated to avoid being flooded when the dam was built. I was in the state of Victoria now and continuing my tour of former gold mining towns. I took a scenic route via Allan’s Flat and stopped at Yackandandah for a coffee. Tonight I stay in Beechworth a rich town in the gold rush days and an area where one of the most famous Australian outlaws Ned Kelly used to frequent. It was rather cool in the evening, I needed a jacket and noted it was 36 degrees back in Brisbane but the next day in Beechworth was forecast 10 degrees maximum and rain. I had planned to ride up to Falls Creek and Mt Buffalo tomorrow but that was in doubt now. Not much I could do so I continued my battered fish and chip calorie extravaganza.
Todays route 383km. I woke up the next day and it was 8 degrees and raining steady. Back to bed. I was staying two nights so today simply became a rest day and while disappointed it was good timing to happen this day. I slept in late and did all my washing. I had to decide if I was going to visit the kings of the gold rush, towns like Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine. For while the gold found in NSW was huge it was nothing to the extraordinary amount of gold that was found in the Victorian gold fields.
People were obtaining gold the equivalent of $100,000 a day just simple panning by the side of streams in the early stages of the Victorian gold rush in what was the richest gold fields then found on earth. Billions of dollars in todays money of gold was discovered. The population soared from 75,000 to 540,000, people from all over the world seeking their fortune. The transportation of prisoners from UK stopped as it was seen as a reward to send people to Victoria. Melbourne became the second richest city in the British Empire after London. Well I shall see what the weather brings tomorrow. Join me then in part two of this tour down under.