The clutch is on the left; and watch out for that elephant!
I CAN clearly remember learning to ride a motorbike. One of my brothers had bought an old oil-injected two stroke Suzuki, a 1969 TC120 if my memory serves me well, from a friend of a friend.
We lived in suburban country Albany on the south coast of Western Australia, within bike-pushing distance of some trails that eventually connected with West Cape Howe National Park. For anyone with a trail bike, it was a paradise.
But first, I had to learn to ride.
I was not ‘a natural’ on a bike. In fact, I was hopeless. Coordinating clutch hand and throttle-and-brake hand with gear-foot and brake-foot, sometimes all at the same time, trying to remember what gear I was in, while simultaneously maintaining balance and concentrating on the dirt track ahead (watch out for that tree!) was much harder than it looked.
The learning curve was long and steep, and much bark was removed from elbows, trees and knees. Competence — confident competence — did not come quickly.
In August last year, neither Damien Harris nor his partner Jessica Bourke had ever ridden a motorbike. Jessica was standing on a street corner in Geelong one morning, on her way to work, when an advertising banner caught her eye.
It featured a group of people riding Royal Enfields on a dirt track, in some exotic faraway location. The banner was promoting an upcoming ride in the Himalayas, with Nevermind Adventure.
“I thought ‘wow’,” Jess told us. “I’d love to do something like that.”
Fast-forward less than six months, to January 2017. Damien, Jess and a dozen or so others are pulling their Royal Enfields into heavy traffic in Kochi city, southern India, on Day One of a 12-day ride with Nevermind Adventure.
“I thought ‘holy crap! What am I doing!?”
Nevermind boss Matt Natonewski was on the trip too, keeping a watchful eye on his two ‘newbies’.
“The 12-day ride was amazing, and Damien and Jess made it through unscathed as I knew they would,” he says.
“It was a great way to build riding skills. Lots of twisty roads, travelling with experienced riders and tour leaders, and being fully supported by us all the way.”
Both had been to India before, studying to become yoga teachers (as one does), so they knew what to expect in terms of culture and logistics.
But their lack of bike experience added an extra layer of excitement.
“I’d say neither of us would have had more than 15 hours experience on a bike before we got to India,” Damien says.
“But it’s amazing what you can achieve when you take yourself outside your comfort zone.”
Matt met Damien in Nevermind’s Geelong shop, about a week after Jess first noticed that Nevermind banner.
Damien was working as a scaffolder on the Gorgon oil and gas project on Barrow Island, in northern Western Australia, and had some time on his hands.
“He came into the shop and we had a long chat about bikes, travel, and Nevermind,” Matt recalls.
“He really liked the look of my bike, a Royal Enfield 500 Classic Chrome, with a trumpet-like exhaust and clubman bars.
“As he left, he said he would be back after his next swing to Barrow, and would buy my bike. The guy had no licence and no riding experience, so I was pretty sceptical.”
But another couple of weeks passed and, sure enough, Damien walked back in the door; this time with Jess.
Matt continues: “They told me they’d both booked in for their motorcycle licence permit tests and would be needing two bikes. Damien bought my Classic Chrome and Jess ordered a new 350 Classic.
“Then, in December, Damien comes back into the shop and books South India ride for the pair of them and their 10-year-old son Murphy, for January. That was just a month away. I thought they were very gutsy, but there’s nothing like throwing yourself in at the deep end!”
Damien said the notion of learning to ride a bike was not new. “I’ve been into cars more than bikes — I’m currently building a 1928 A-model Ford Roadster pick-up — but I’ve always thought I’d like a bike. This trip to India provided the excuse I needed.”
For Jess, it was thirst for a new challenge.
“I’ve recently retired from roller derby and needed something new,” she said.
“I work in alcohol and drug counselling and I like to have a pastime that’s a bit extreme; something to let off steam.
“The trip to India was brilliant. At the start I remember thinking ‘woo-hoo! This is pretty cool!’
“The food was great, especially if you like curries (laughs), and so was the accommodation. Some of the old hotels were absolutely amazing and even the more basic accommodation was good. We took our own coffee and plunger. That was a good idea …”
Damien says he and Jess thought they would be able to handle riding and also take turns with 10-year-old Murphy as a pillion.
“That wasn’t such a good idea,” he says.
“Murph had a great time, but he spent most of the time with one of the more experienced riders. And there were a couple of spots without wifi. He didn’t like that. (Laughs.)”
Damien believes the Indian adventure fast-tracked his learning.
“There are lots of benefits of a trip like this,” he says.
“Seeing another culture up close was great.
“And all those switch-back corners were just awesome!
“Riding in India taught me so much about riding in almost every type of riding condition.
“I have come back to Australia with a feeling of so much time and space when I’m on the road. I think it would have taken me years to gain that experience riding here in Australia.
“I’d recommend it to anyone, but especially to someone who is still learning how to ride.”