KEN'S 1951 TRIP ACROSS THE NULLARBOR PLAIN
1951 MOTOR CYCLE TRIP ACROSS THE NULLARBOR
These days a trip on the bitumen highway across the Nullarbor in central Australia is considered “a piece of cake”. However, when I did it in 1951, it was a great adventure for me. I can still hear my father saying – ‘are you sure you know what you are doing’.
Ken ready to leave Perth - April 1951
I was 22 years old and had never been away from home before when my friend Gerry Smith riding a 1950 x 350cc Douglas and myself on a 1948 x 350cc AJS (rigid frame) decided to take the challenge.
Back in those days, the bitumen finished at Southern Cross (WA) and then became a graded dirt track for many hundreds of kilometres before starting again at Port Augusta (SA). (Actual distances were miles then)
We left Perth on 1 April 1951 and spent the first night in an un-used woodcutters tent, which gave some shelter, but the second night near Balladonia we froze as the temperature dropped to zero. We carried one blanket each and 2 ex-army ground sheets, and really had no idea it how cold it could be at night in this location. We had to carry petrol and water on a carry frame behind the rider, as well as clothes and provisions too. The weather was generally fine during the days. The road was graded in places and varied between corrugations and limestone rocks, with lots of potholes and was very dusty. (Bulldust)
I should tell you that the best method of communication in 1951 was to advise the Police in Norseman in which direction you were headed, and they would then telephone the next nearest roadhouse. On reaching the destination roadhouse, the staff would do the same for you when leaving, by informing the next roadhouse and so on. (Could be 150-200 kms)
This explains why the Madura Pass roadhouse proprietor said to me on my arrival, ‘where the bloody hell have you been, I have been waiting for you blokes to arrive for several hours’.
Back to the story, just before Madura we had electrical problems with the Douglas having no lights (due to Lucas - ‘Prince of Darkness’). The Douglas engine was losing power and the exhaust pipes (2) were a glowing red colour in the evening light; so I had to leave Gerry and his Douglas on the side of the road whilst I rode on to get assistance.
During WW2 the Australian Army laid down some bitumen at both Madura Pass and Eucla Pass (only about half a kilometre in length each) to enable trucks to climb the steep slopes of the Hampton Tablelands.
Eucla Pass 1951
The lights on my AJS then failed, but I knew it was only a few more kilometres to the roadhouse. It was then that I realized from the light of the moon that I think I am on a descending bitumen surface. Taking my feet off the foot pegs so that my shoes scraped along the road surface it felt like it too. Help was obtained at the roadhouse, sending a utility vehicle back about 20kms to pick up Gerry and the motorcycle.
Next morning, we both went back to look at the sloping pass. Yes, I was right about it being a bitumen surface, but what I was not aware of in the dark of the previous evening, was that on one side edge it fell away by many metres into a gully, which ran the full length of the Pass to carry away water from the high ground. That frightened the hell out of me, because had I gone off the side of the road in the dark the night before, others might not have found me for days.
We earned our keep for 3 days at the roadhouse, in particular loading and stacking the old ‘long neck’ 26ozs beer bottles (now empty) in crates, which original full bottles had been delivered by trucks to Madura. I have a recollection of 5-dozen bottles to a crate, and the crates were then stacked in a bloody great heap about 1-km away. At that time it was too expensive to return the ‘empties’ to Perth.
When leaving Madura I thought I would send a telegram to my parents on arrival at Eucla to let them know I was at least half way to Adelaide. Imagine my surprise when Mrs. Gurney who ran the Post Office / store in Eucla said, “Sorry the Post Office closed 30 minutes ago”. That was my first awareness of Australian central time, which is still used today, though most Australians never think about it. So I sent telegram next day.
The road from Madura to Eucla had been good, but more problems were to occur with the Douglas motorcycle. Mr. Roy Gurney managed the Old Telegraph Station as a road house / petrol station, then made a good repair to the tension spring of the magneto points system, using an old flat spring from an alarm clock. Gerry and I slept in this historic building for a couple of nights. Unfortunately drift sand from the coastal dunes today covers the Old Telegraph Station and only one chimney is still visible.
WA - SA Boarder (Eucla, WA)
Both bikes experienced punctures, and working on the side of the road I removed the cylinder head from the AJS because I reasoned the engine needed de-coking. No air filter was fitted to AJS motorcycles then.
Trying to make it to Penong in South Australia, it was again after dark and no lights working on either bike. We both had falls trying to follow the lights of a car travelling in front of us. This meant that to keep out of the dust from the car, one of us rode on the right side and the other on the left side of the road. Lifting the bikes upright was heavy work. Quite often a ‘cattle grid’ would loom up in front of us, which narrowed the road. Braking hard, often meant we had to lay the bikes down ‘speedway style’ to stop in time before the grid / fence.
Port Augusta (SA) and the bitumen road at last!!! Riding around the town we came across a very large heavy engineering workshop. Stopping to enquire what kind of work was carried on there, we were told this was the Australian National Railways maintenance depot.
The man on the gate then asked me if I knew another West Australian by the name of Robin Fletcher. Yes, I did know Robin. Well he said he is the only man I know of that left Perth on a similar ride across the Nullarbor with ‘only a packet of biscuits and a water bag for sustenance’. Robin is now a Member of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club too. Another well-known VMCCWA Member is Past President Ernie Serls who also made a similar journey in 1952 on a 500cc twin cylinder Triumph.
I tell most people that while I rode an AJS (all jerks and stops), I knew what BSA stood for. (Bloody sore arse) This motorcycle adventure, Perth to Adelaide, took Gerry and myself ten days.
And I still have the little camera today, which took these photos.
As the often used quote says ‘it is not the destination that is important – its the journey’, and I certainly learned a lot in the month of April 1951.
Ken D. (VMCCWA Member #479)
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