In an effort to find a part of Australia he’s never seen, Damo points the V-Strom west and heads to the NSW outback.
STORY & PHOTOS DAMIEN ASHENHURST
I live in a small town on Lake Macquarie in NSW. Twenty minutes from my house is the city of Newcastle and my backyard is the Hunter Valley.
I can see a mine from my house. My sister lives in a house owned by a mining company. The upper Hunter Valley is full of mines that a lot of my mates have worked in. You’re no doubt getting the idea that, where I live, mining is a big deal.
But it’s also the number-one culprit fingered in the downturn of local economies as the price of coal and iron ore suffers and jobs are cut. It’s no coincidence that the mining downturn came before the drop in dirtbike sales and the effect on the bike industry has been deep.
I wanted to get an idea just how things are across other towns and decided the best way to do that was to pack our project Suzuki V-Strom 1000 and head to other mining areas and see what’s going on.
BRING ON THE ROODAR
With a full complement of Touratech kit fitted to keep the Strom safe and a new set of Pirelli Rally tyres fitted, I packed the Giant Loop Great Basin bag and pointed the bike towards one of the country’s best-known mining towns and the starting point of the company that shaped my hometown in a big way, Broken Hill.
Along the way I made a stop in Cobar, which is where the outback begins in New South Wales. The eight-hour ride there was boring; the stretch from Nyngan in 37-degree heat was one of the shittiest rides I’ve ever done.
But on arrival the heritage of the town was unmistakable and it was worn with pride. The shire is about two-thirds the size of Tasmania but with a population of just under 5000.
Riding in Australia is a game of dodge the kangaroo, wallaby, pig, goat, rabbit and fox. I saw countless ’roo carcasses but, interestingly, not many goats. I hope someday someone will invent the Roodar, a device that can spot and warn you of these suicidal hoppers.
When leaving the next morning the bloke running the caravan park said, “Watch out for kangaroos. We’ve had four bike riders leave here and come back in the meatwagon within an hour.” Sobering advice.
The ride to Broken Hill starts with a dead straight stretch of the Barrier Highway. The V-Strom was so comfortable on the long road stretches and I was surprised how good the Pirellis were, given their aggressive knobby pattern. I stopped at a little odd place called Emmadale for some fuel and then again in Wilcannia, a town that’s seen better days.
It was pretty amazing to make it to Broken Hill. It’s about 15 hours of riding from home and again the upfront mining heritage looked familiar to me.
First, I had a beer. Then I went to the art gallery to see a Pro Hart painting. Then I gave the Touratech and Pirelli gear a workout and spent a couple of hours poking around on some desert trails that I shared at one point with four emus.
In the morning I rode out to Silverton, which is where they shot Mad Max 2 as well as A Town Like Alice and the legendary Razorback movies. On the way there I stopped and did a tour of the Day Dream Mine.
I’m not big on tours as such but this was worth every minute and it truly changed the way I see mining and its place in our country. The mine was established with some controversy in the late 1800s and the conditions the men and children had to work in are just mind-blowing. Life expectancy was short and the work was tough and dangerous. Working by candlelight in shafts two feet high, the miners might advance two feet a day in 12-hour shifts while the eight- to 13-year-olds sorted the valuable deposits until their eyes got too bad to be able to spot the ore and silver etc and they were moved on to hauling rocks instead.
At night the miners slept in tiny rock dugouts with hessian roofs. They slept sitting up so they didn’t choke on their own blood, such was the condition of their lungs. They made little money and often even had to buy their own paper-mâché helmet as the company refused to supply them. These men and children stoked the fire that the economy of this country was built on. Their suffering and toil built many of the towns that stand today and many others that have passed into distant memory as the mines dried up.
I left there with my head spinning and headed to Silverton. Of course, I had a beer at the Silverton Hotel. It’s the third hotel in the town, the first being a tent and the second the actual birthplace of BHP. That burnt down and when the locals were offered a post office or a pub they chose a pub.
The heat was pretty intense and putting my jacket back on was tough but it was time to tick something off the bucket list and head for South Australia. I rode back through Broken Hill and headed for the town of Cockburn, which sits on the border of New South Wales and South Oz. In fact, most of it, including the pub, is over the border so I did what any man would and had a Coopers Pale Ale in South Australia.
I spent the evening back in Broken Hill watching a storm roll in over the town from a vantage point about 20km out. I wondered about the future of the town. That day the news came through that the Arrium mining company was set to cut 600 jobs from one of its iron ore operations in South Australia.
When these companies cut back or die they take communities with them.
What happens when the pit shuts down? The evils of mining are often discussed but to come out here and see how precarious the industry is and how that effects a proud and, in Australian terms, ancient township is startling and something I see happening near my own home.
RESPECT TO THE PIONEERS
Saddling up on the V-Strom for the return leg, I wasn’t so keen about the long road back but it gave me time to reflect. On the fast-approaching Australia Day I was going to celebrate the hard and dangerous work this amazing, insanely massive country was built on. I was going to have a beer or two for the towns that have a shaky future and hope they know they mean a lot to this country and to those of us who can see past our passionfruit lattes.
And with more than 2500km piled on the Suzuki in five days I was going to give it the bath it deserves. The bike was flawless and I’m keen to find some more adventure on it. A coastal run is calling.
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