IN RESPONSE to Sandy’s yell I turned off the freeway too early, dropping off its shoulder and down through a tight right turn onto a battered old road that ran parallel to the bright new freeway for a couple of kilometres before hooking up to form a junction with the exit we should have taken.
My heart skipped a beat when I realised I was on the old road, the Hume, Highway 31, made famous by aged marathon runner Cliff Young but etched into the memory of just about every rider I knew. And there it was again, stretching away in front of me: undulating, shiny and pockmarked; trying to be straight but failing shakily.
My eyes narrowed, partly in response to the westering sun, in part resuming the slow scan for potholes and heat-formed ridges and bumps that had been part of every ride I made along it We swung left, past the pub and out into the country. It was just four o’clock now and we were on for an early finish at the motel we’d booked. We hadn’t put in a long day but 550km now produces as many aches in me as the full length of the Hume once did.
The road works arrived quickly – the familiar yellow sign, the familiar absence of human activity, and then three 50-metre-long strips of gravel when the tar had been ripped up. Beyond the last of these was a slowly settling cloud of dust with a white B-double emerging from it, still some distance in front of us but going hard. The road narrowed now and began working its way through steepening farm country, falling away to rich pasture in the valley to our left, climbing into woodland on our right, its undergrowth stripped almost clean by meandering sheep.
We caught the truck quickly as it lumbered slowly from the valley floor, its driver trying hard to preserve dearly won momentum by working the gearbox. Parallel ridges running across the uphill lane and a succession of patched holes marked this stretch as hard work for laden trucks, and the road is beginning to fail under their repeated onslaught.
A succession of medium-radiused bends now, swinging left and right between rock-crowned ridges that would have been fun with a little more speed and much better visibility.
And then we’re over the crest and running down between vast fields of newly harvested wheat, its gold turning to bronze and ochre as the shadows lengthen.
There’s no overtaking lane the but road runs arrow-straight and clear for long enough and we’re soon past the B-double (B-triples on freeways soon? Wonderful.), heading through a long but narrowing oasis of open country. It soon becomes clear just how much truckies like this road. It’s little used by other traffic yet serves as a useful shortcut between the freeway that links our most populous cities with a major rail junction not far over the horizon. In quick succession another B-double, a laden logging truck and a couple of lighter vehicles bustle past from out of the west.
Back to 50km/h to ease through a village now, no more than half a dozen houses, the inevitable memorial hall and couple of smallholdings, one of them apparently derelict. And then, just beyond the 100km/h sign, another smallholding, this one dotted with decrepit railway wagons, the youngest of them 80 or more years old.
We’re on the homeward run now with the road angling upward to pass the low shoulder of a knoll crowning another small ridge. From the crest we see a thin, straggling line of white and brick buildings a few kilometres distant. We run through a dramatic avenue of ghost gums, their trunks showing pink in the fading light, twisting up and fanning out into impossible hands shrouded in green.
Soon the evidence of human habitation, of work, thickens of either side of the road. A farm machinery lot next to a kitchen warehouse, then a small brick place devoted to cylinder head work. But that one looks forgotten, its ancient sign writing faded and peeling.
Who, beyond the racing community, has need of such services these days?
The speed limit drops from 100km/h to 80, and now to 60. Houses begin to appear. A fruit barn next, a fire station, and finally the Railway Hotel with the obligatory Harley parked out front. We cross the Olympic Way and turn left into town – and there’s the motel, a dozen or so buildings the other side of a level crossing. As we approach the arms of the crossing arc downward to the accompaniment of flashing lights and warning bells.
Three slabs of diesel-electric power rumble slowly through the crossing, rakes of grain hoppers in tow. Time to ease the backside off the seat, stretch the shoulders. And then we’re on our way again, changing up to third before indicating left and swinging onto the motel forecourt.
We get off, stretch our legs and look around. Autumn in New South Wales.