I am relieved to be through with trees. In the end they freaked me out a little. Endless, ancient and crowding in on me with no respect for my personal space. I am happier when I can see the sky. Riding north from Albany to return the bike to Colin in Rockingham, it isn’t too long before I am back under beautiful, blazing blue.
Just north of Mount Barker, a sign for “Peeling with Feeling Shearing Services” marks my return to wheat and sheep country. I have a day to cover 400km – 250 miles in old money. I have been allowing myself to be nervous about making the distance but it’s far less than I cover in a day on an end-to-end or with Graham on the Old Farts Tour, and if I really screw it up I have dispensation to return the bike on Tuesday morning.
Because I am making good time, and the riding is easy, I allow myself a detour to Wagin to see the Big Ram. And maybe an iced coffee. It has been too cold for those in the south and I am in withdrawal.
My route to Wagin is via the Kojonup-Katanning Road. It is straight, like a cartoon, and black, like beauty. A silver pipe runs on my right, carrying water to the wheatbelt, and looking like an opportunity for malice in a Bond movie. I want to stop on the centre line and take a photo. I can see for miles in front and behind me. There should be plenty of time to pose the bike, take the picture and nip back to the verge. But fear of having to explain to Colin why his bike has been flattened into roadkill by an invisible road train forces me to compromise.
I also have to compromise on my plan to avoid the highway for as long as possible. Filling up in Narrogin I ask the pump attendant at the garage if he can point me at the start of the Wandering-Narrogin Road. I’m out of luck, he tells me. The bridge is down at Pumphrey and there’s a 25km detour via gravel. Unless I fancy myself as the next Steve McQueen. We look at the bike, and at me, and at the bike, and I ask him to point me back towards the Albany Highway instead. If I hadn’t had a chat with him I would have had to spend a long time backtracking. The universe is rewarding me for being sociable.
My reward to myself is a stop at what looks to be an excellent tourist trap. The Williams Woolshed held out the offer of a sheepy souvenir or two to come with me on future travels. I used to travel accompanied by a moose, but he went AWOL on a trip to Glasgow to see Def Leppard and talk about road safety. Since then I’ve tried a Highland Cow and a small dog from the Ducati factory, but they’re just not the same.
The Woolshed has a range of upmarket booths selling art objects and kitchen things, a restaurant which is packed, and a shop selling a range of spectacularly unattractive jumpers. This leaves me a choice between Ugg boots, which I can’t fit on the bike, and can’t really afford, or a teatowel. I have a look round the Shearers’ Yarn gallery to postpone the decision.
I know a very small amount about sheepshearing. I know that you do it in two-hour runs. I know that you need to know whether someone used straight combs or pulled ones before you offer to buy him a pint. And I know that wrestling sheep gives you flat knuckles.
But I want to know what it feels like to stand in a sling and shear a sheep every three minutes until the bell rings as part of a shearing team that works hard and plays harder. What it sounds like. Is it noisy? It must surely be, with machines to drive the shears, and sheep stamping around, but is it a place where people shout and banter, or can you only get the job done by keeping your head down and concentrating?
The Woolshed does its best. It’s got a display of equipment, and some posters about union rates and wool prices, and a copy of a newspaper interview with an old boy who talks about trying to do better than the bloke next to you, while playing fair – shearing the first sheep you pick, not picking the easiest ones to shear – but it’s terribly solemn and quiet. Which I suspect may be the exact opposite of how a shearing shed really is.
I don’t buy a souvenir in the end. All the cuddly sheep seem to have been shipped in from China.