We rode under a cloudless sky along the Waterfall Way, a beautiful road through the forested ranges. To our south was the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, and we passed the turnoff but unfortunately didn't go in to see the sensational Wollomombi Falls, Australia's longest single drop falls where the Wollomombi River plummets 220 m over the cliff to the gorge below. Next time, Button! Through wet and dry eucalyptus forest we rode, white bark and silver leaves keeping us company until we passed through the Cathedral Rock National Park with its granite outcrops, including Round Mountain, at 1583 m the highest point of the New England Tablelands.
Just before Ebor we turned into a side road to look at the Ebor Falls, where the Guy Fawkes River drops 115 m over columned basalt rock. We had a thermos coffee and left our eyeprints, and then it was back on the bike towards Dorrigo, the Cunnawarra Range (part of the Great Dividing Range!) to our right, and we emerged from the forest to find ourselves in rich beef and dairying country, the mountains of the New England National Park standing guard to our south. The New England National Park is a world heritage-listed wilderness and its varying habitats reflect its dramatic differences of altitude. Ecosystems range from snow gum woodland and Antarctic beech rainforest to subtropical rainforest, including wet and dry eucalypt forest, subalpine heath and wetlands. More than 500 plant species have been identified in this park.
Juliette rode perfectly content on the back of my bike, the V50 happily purring at an easy 5200 rpm, the sun was on our backs, and we - we were riding high above the rolling hills in the foreground and the steep blue mountains further off. We drank it in, and no liqueur ever tasted sweeter.
We dropped into the former timber township of Dorrigo (on the Dorrigo Plateau), bought petrol, and in passing I showed Juliette the hospital where my mother worked as a physiotherapist two years ago. And then the road dropped again, down the easterly escarpment of the Range through the Dorrigo National Park, the eucalypts now giving way to rainforest. There were some heavy trucks and tourist traffic on this road, but we managed to pass most of them despite the preponderance of double lines, and funally (!) the V50 and Juliette had some bends on which to exercise their love of corners.
In Bellingen we stopped at a craft shop called the Yellow Shed, where I'd bought a keyring two years earlier- a nice shop with nice stock. Bellingen started life as a timber town. The cedar getters went up this river, the Bellinger, just as they did all the other rivers which flow down to the Pacific Coast for 600 kilometres north and south of here, taking the cedars out first and then the hardwoods. Dairying came later when the timber was all but gone, and the next wave of enterprise was the tourists. We contributed to the town's economy by having a thermos coffee on the footpath outside the craft shop. The town did not grow rich on our passage. For us, Bellingen was free.
We crossed the Bellinger River ourselves, with its picnic areas and people swimming in the sunshine, took Wheatly Road past the showground, and then North Bank Road, which follows the north bank (yep!) of the river, until we came to a sign saying "Bridge Closed". I was all for going over the bridge anyway, but some workman was there, so prudence took over and we backtracked a little, still through the magnificent forested country of the Pine Creek State forest, across Pine Creek on a little bridge, dirt roads now... and we popped out of the forest at Bonville and were on the Pacific Highway.
The Pacific Highway runs from Brisbane to Sydney via the coast. It has the potential to be one of my favourite roads, but because it services the most populated part of Australia - the east coast - it's heavily trafficked by local and interstate cars and trucks, and I avoid it where possible. On this expedition we'd be travelling just 15 kilometres of Pacific Highway, because almost as soon as we hit the suburbs of Coffs Harbour we turned off and took the road to Coromba. With Coffs Harbour and the Pacific Ocean just a few kilometres away, we started to climb again - and entered banana country. Naturally we took some photos. Banana trees are Juliette's special trees!
Now we followed the Orara River Valley, through Glenreagh, and then there was a puff of smoke from my left hand exhaust... and the loss of power one associates with something requiring mechanical adjustment.
I had to stop. That's to say, the V50 had to stop.
We pulled over by the roadside. I waited a little while for the engine to cool, and then cleaned the carbys (they were clean) and adjusted the points (they were fine) and checked the timing (which was almost spot-on), and then gave up, and it was back on the bike, but my V50 was not at its happiest. We were, though. I'd never been on this road before, never passed through this country. I was still relishing in the growing bond between Juliette and I, and started to think of the times we'd missed being together, the ordinary times, the "How was your day at school" conversations that we deserved to have had over the past two years while she was living in Brisbane and I was living in Adelaide. Of course we were catching up now on those conversations, but one never does completely - just as one cannot remember all the thoughts you'd have shared with your pillion had conversation been possible in helmets.
But there's companionship in silence, especially when it's a quiet silence, a peaceful silence. I touched Juliette on the leg. I felt close. And I felt her give me a hug.
As dusk rose we entered South Grafton, then across the wide Clarence River into Grafton itself.
With its tributaries the Nymboida, the Orara, the Mann, and the Coldstream, the Clarence River (known to Europeans as the 'Big River' until 1840) is the largest river system on the northern NSW coast. Draining over two million hectares it contains over 100 islands, including Susan Island which lies between Grafton and South Grafton. An escaped convict named Richard Craig who'd been hiding in the area emerged on the coast at a what was then the small settlement of Macquarie Harbour (now Port Macquarie) in the 1830's and spoke of a "Big River" he had seen with cedar growing on its banks. A Sydney businessman heard these stories and sent a schooner called the Susan to bring a load of timber back. The Susan, after which this island was named, was the first European boat to enter the Clarence.
We pulled up on the northern riverbank in the shadow of the Crown Hotel. On the fertile south side of the river dairy cows made milk between plots of sugarcane.
It was time to sus out what was wrong with the bike.
Juliette scooted off to buy us fish and chips. I backed the V50 onto the boat ramp and splashed Clarence River water over the engine, cooling it so I could get to work on its innards. We had the fish and chips and potato cakes (delicious), and a beer as I remember, and then I took off the tappet covers and spark plugs.
One exhaust valve had zero clearance.
This was not good. I reset the tappets to their proper clearance, took it for a test drive up and down the main street, and it ran just fine. Success!
We were about to get going, because the light had got going, when out of the darkness, which was coming, came a million bats. Well, probably not a million, really, but bloody shitloads anyway. They came out of the west... a stream of bats, bats flapping their batwings, one or two dropping down to the water to lap a drink, their huge wings so un-birdlike. These bats roost on Susan Island, and locals reckon it's the biggest bat colony in Eastern Australia. I've seen big bat colonies in my time, even big colonies of ordinary-sized bats, and this colony is right up there. For a quarter of an hour - no, longer - the air was filled with them in the thousands and thousands. From west to east they flew, following the course of the river. A lot of fruit was going to be eaten tonight. This show was spectacular for us, and at this time of year it happens at this hour every night. But I wouldn't have the same feeling of awe if I was a farmer or fruit-grower in the region. I'd noticed orchards on the road south of Grafton and had wondered why they were covered with mesh curtains strung on 10 metre-high supporting poles. Now I knew. What an effort, what an expense, to keep these bats out.
These are the so-called flying-foxes. Unlike other bats which hunt flying insects which they find using an animal version of sonar, and which have small eyes, the flying-foxes use their night vision and hunt by sight and smell. Their favourite diet is actually eucalypt blossom, but the bats do raid orchards and crops. More than 100,000 roost on Susan Island, and while we couldn't see them close enough to identify which species it was, their behaviour suggested it was probably the Little Red Flying-fox (pteropus scapulatus) which lives in this area and forms these camps in November and December.
This is not the same species as the swarms of flying-foxes Juliette and I had once seen on the bridge at Church of England Grammar School, or that we'd seen from the canoe on the Brisbane River. That species' range extends from Shark Bay in Western Australia across the top of the continent and down the Queensland coast from Cape York to the NSW border... but not as far south as this. That's the Black Flying-fox (Pteropus alecto) which is bigger... and blacker... than the little red one.
The Little Red Flying-fox does overlap its territory with the Grey-headed Flying-fox, which is about the same length, but which is ... greyer... than the Little Red, at least about the head.
But they do roost together, red and grey. Every night, at this time of year, camps such as this one on Susan Island disperse around dusk, and orderly columns stream away to the feeding areas. Occasionally we saw an individual flying off in another direction. These were the scouts, who lead other flying-foxes to new feeding areas because flying foxes appear to lead another to ripening fruit. (Some orchardists take advantage of this behaviour by poisoning the fruit at the edge of the orchard kill the scouts before they can return to the camp and communicate their discovery to the other 99,999 bats.)
Like other flying-foxes, but unlike other bats, the Little Red Flying-fox has a relatively short digestive tract. They crush food against a ridged palate in the top of their mouth with their tongue and with their blade-like molars, and the fibrous pulp is spat out after the liquid has been swallowed. Only the juice, nectar, pollen, and small seeds are ingested, and the swift passage through the gut makes flying-foxes efficient (and significant) dispersers of seeds.
We watched in wonder as the stream flew overhead, and by then it was dark. So, the V50 running properly again, it was time to head off and start searching for our own camp for the night.
We'd seen a lot this day. We'd passed from tableland where it frosts in winter, through rainforest and eucalyptus forest, seen granite gorges and waterfalls carved through basalt, we'd gone down the Great Dividing Range and seen the banana plantations of the sub-tropical coast.
That's a lot of memories in one day. And a lot to think of, as we lay down for the night to sleep.