The older I get the more like my dad I am becoming. This is my excuse for taking a tram ride on what purports to be a motorcycle tour of South West Australia. The other reason I am riding the Pemberton to Northcliffe tram is that it has a roof and should, if all goes well, give me a chance to dry out before I ride back to Augusta for the night. My Dri-Rider mesh suit does an awesome job of keeping me cool. It’s not quite so good at keeping me warm when the rain is blowing in sheets. Is this normal for the time of year, I ask the cheerful man in the car park who commented on the bike, looked at the black cloud heading towards us and suggested that I’d better get my rain gear on. No, he says.
Didn’t think so.
I book my ticket in the Pemberton Railway Station, which is stuffed with tram-related souvenirs and presided over by a stern-looking lady. Did I need her to look after my helmet, she asked, unexpectedly helpful.
I decline her offer, as I’ve spent five miunutes shuffling all the things in my top-box around so that I can squash it shut on my lid and soggy gloves, but I’m glad she made it, as she’s proved yet again why Australia is such a fantastic place to ride motorcycles.
The tram has a roof, wooden seats and PVC sheets for windows. The woman in front of me insists on pulling the sheets down to keep the flies off her. She has, she informs the carriage, been bitten to pieces. The flies just love her. I haven’t seen any flies today. They’d be doing well to avoid getting hammered out of the sky by the force of the rain. Having the windows down keeps the occasional rain off but means that the rest of the time we can’t really see the forest which we’re travelling through and on which the driver is giving us a commentary.
The woman, who sounds like she comes from Manchester, has booked 8 seats: for herself, her partner and what looks like daughter, son-in-law and numerous children. They are spread out over 10. The tram driver asks her to sit next to her husband instead of having a double seat each. “Oh, I can’t,” she says. “There isn’t enough room on these seats.”
It is true that the seats are close together and were designed more with practicality in mind than comfort. I’m squished sideways, but I’m a tall person and have my bike boots on. She’s about five foot two. Her feet don’t even touch the ground.
I brought three books with me on this trip: Lois on the Loose, my Secret Santa present from work. Sam Manicom’s Under Asian Skies, for Australia tips. And Old Man on a Bike, Simon Gandolfi’s book about riding a C90 to Ushuaia, in case I did manage to get hold of a postie bike. Gandolfi, on his trip, had brought Paul Theroux’s account of making the same journey by train, The Old Patagonian Express. He wonders the same thing that I did when I read it. How is it, he asks, that Theroux has never met anyone that he likes while travelling?
I have to be less judgemental of Paul Theroux now, because I don’t like this woman on the seat in front of me.
But that’s OK, because she doesn’t like anything.
She complains very loudly about the lack of shopping in Pemberton. She and her family are staying in a forest lodge. To me, that sounds idyllic. To her, it’s a denial of her favourite hobby. Now, this may only be my first visit to Australia but even I can guess that coming to Pemberton for retail therapy would be rather like travelling to Dubai for a spot of swinging.
She doesn’t like trees very much. The driver loves them. He tells us all about the karri, and the marri, and the snotty gobble, and about how hard it is to clear a forest with hand tools, and about how you choose where to put the axe so that the tree falls in the direction you want it to. Or I think that’s what he’s talking about. I can’t be entirely sure because she kept up a running commentary of her own. The flies. The uncomfy seat. The lack of shopping. The price of cheese. She wishes the driver would stop talking. She rolls her eyes at every new piece of information. She predicts with some confidence that she will be sick when the tram reverses direction but the seats don’t turn round.
She irritates me. She is in this beautiful town, being talked through amazing forest by someone who could not be any more passionate about the trees and the people who worked them, and she can’t see past her own petty obsessions. Then I realise with some horror that I am no better than she is. For two days I’ve been whinging on Twitter and on Facebook about how I’m feeling lonely and tired and not enjoying myself as much as I’d thought I would.
I stop judging her and start judging myself. She says there are no shops. I’ve passed craft centres and cellar doors and tourist traps. She’s just not looking hard enough. I say that I’m feeling lonely when I could easily call any of the Blue Knights, or my brother, or I could just walk downstairs in the youth hostel, make a pot of tea and find someone to talk with. Just like the Lady of the Flies, I am surrounded by opportunities to enjoy myself but am wilfully looking the other way. The stupid thing is, this is a lesson I have already learned once. When I was 18 I went to university, and I knew then that the odds of someone knocking on my door and saying “Hey, we heard there was a super-fun party person here that we just had to get to know” were slim. If I wanted to be a super-fun party person then I had to go out and track down the opportunities to make that true. If I want to be an adventurous solo travelling person who has conversations that make for interesting anecdotes in blogs like this one, then I need to start acting like one.
I am mortified. I decide that I will ride back to Augusta, take a day off to be a tourist, and learn how to talk to people again. I’d like to say that after this moment of epiphany I rode home in the sunshine but that would be a lie. I rode about half the way in sunshine and the rest in freezing rain. Thank god for hot showers. They probably didn’t have them in Pemberton either…