Posted On 25 May 2024
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This entry is part 24 of 28 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#32


It was a Saturday night at Sydney’s Showground Speedway way back in 1948 which changed it all, and it was very much for the better. It was, as usual, almost a packed house, but one of the unexpected items on the program was the addition of several promotional laps by a large number of motorcycles which differed radically from the skinny, ultra-lightweight Speedway bikes. They were in fact highly-specialised, un-streamlined road-racing machines, which looked extremely impressive, although they were naturally ridden on the slick dirt surface at much slower speeds than the nigh-frantic pace of the races we had already witnessed.

The loud-barking machines, with their trumpet-like open megaphone exhausts, were there to promote the forthcoming road race meeting at Bathurst, which was to be held in a few weeks’ time over the Easter break, from practice on the Thursday prior to several races on Good Friday, with the major events listed for Easter Saturday.

Nobody said it at the time, but the open-wheeler GP car racing events were then scheduled for Easter Sunday and the following Monday, the motorcycles expected to leave the Pit area immediately after Easter Saturday’s races were finished.

As the ‘poor relations’ in motor sport – at least they were in those far-off days – anyone who might have been a bit tardy in packing up and leaving at once on Easter Saturday afternoon was almost hounded out of the dirt surfaced Pit area by the clearly toffee nosed car types, who appeared to think they were God’s Gift to Motor Racing.

As it happened, of course, in view of some very close motorcycle racing for two full days, followed by two days of the high-speed procession which often typifies GP car racing, the car-types were nowhere near as spectacular. In this regard, nothing much has changed over the last sixty and more years, although it must be said that the later V8 Taxi-Cab races do have their own drama, and can be quite a spectacle.

My brothers and I, all of whom were still at school, along with a great school mate of mine, were so smitten by the sights and sounds of those gleaming road race machines that we hot-footed it to Central Station the following day to book our train tickets for the journey over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst.

We had a faint idea where/what Bathurst was, but no blind idea what to expect when we finally arrived there.

We booked our hired, four-man tent and our pushbikes into the Guard’s Van, because we thought that to have our bikes on hand for basic transport might be a Good Idea. In fact it was a smart move which proved to be – for a pleasant change – a Very Good Idea!

We noted the fact that there were two motorcycles stashed in the Van which were sporting racing number plates, and we reckoned the track might be near the station, and that the owner(s) of the two bikes had doubtless arranged for them to be conveyed to the track by a truck of some sort, with us following in their wake. As we were later to discover, one of the bikes was a pre-war 250cc single-cylinder Triumph Tiger 70, which had made an amazingly long, long journey from Western Australia entirely by public transport (!), the other, from Sydney, was a rigid framed 350cc MAC Velocette.

Naturally, we were not to know (how could we?) that the train we were to catch at 7pm on the Thursday prior to Good Friday was the ‘Paper Train’, which always took its own sweet time on the journey as it dropped off bundles of newspapers here and there, as well as the odd one or two papers which were hand-delivered to individuals representing householders and who lived close enough to the railroad tracks to trot across the paddock to pick them up. True!

But what was infinitely worse was the fact that a Migrant Hostel had been built in Bathurst to accommodate the burgeoning migrant population which was even then beginning to make its presence felt. We were also not to know that an influx of new migrants were (was?) to catch the same train as us, and that there were a great many of them as well!

We became very well aware of this as soon as we approached the platform from which the Bathurst train was to depart, because we could hear the loud, excited babble long before we got there to see what the noise was all about.

When we arrived at our platform we were horrified to see it was absolutely jam-packed with a great variety of swarthy looking men, who seemed to be arguing loudly with each other because there were arms and legs flying about all over the place, the men speaking in rapid, stentorian tones, often almost face-to-face. There was not one female to be seen anywhere on that platform.

Of course we couldn’t understand one word any of them were saying,but the men all seemed to know what they were on about, because they were to be seen nodding to one another, occasionally laughing, or gesturing as if to draw imaginary pictures in the air around them. I remember one large,fl orid looking bloke who said something like “Sidderknee” while his mate made an utterance which sounded a bit like “Suddenly”, and which could have meant ‘Sydney’, but the rest was lost in the loud hubbub, as well as in the odd range of foreign languages in which they all spoke.

The air around that platform was a bit on the thick side, and seemed to be rent with cigarette smoke allied to a garlic-and-cheap plonk-induced halitosis, while many of these men were to be heard loudly venting their other digestive problems via an alarming array of faintly-amusing, wind-induced sounds. Deep bass belches and loudly trumpeted, wet farts seemed to be going off everywhere, mixed with some tenor like (and infinitely more polite) burps from the more civilized of their number.

An astonishingly large number of vastly differing keys could be heard, which would probably be declared ‘musical’ by today’s very poor standard of ‘pop vocalising’, but most of those odd keys were never in evidence on any sheet music of any song I have ever sung.

Suddenly, there was a loud shuffling of feet, abetted by a series of strangled cheers and foreign curses, as the steam-train – for thus it was, because the electric railway line extended only to Parramatta until 1955, believe it or not – slowly backed into view. Try as we might ( or as dumb as we were),we could not get within a bull’s roar of the edge of the platform, while those who were clever enough to have placed themselves at the far end were opening carriage doors and windows, and launching themselves recklessly inside.

Many of the men were pelting bulging briefcases and small portmanteaux into the train as well, with some of their number assisting those who were half way aboard by belting them across their various backsides with canes or rolled up newspapers. One bloke who tried to jump aboard just in front of me had a .22 rifle strapped sideways across his shoulders for some incomprehensible reason, which severely inhibited his access. He had shoved me brusquely aside as he tried to climb through the narrow window, so I was delighted to see the rifle slip from his shoulder and clatter to the tracks below as he struggled to get aboard. Happily, there was no way known he could have retraced his steps to retrieve the offending firearm, although I did wonder “THE TRAIN’S ENGINE WAS ENVELOPED IN CLOUDS OF STEAM, BUT THEN SO WERE MOST OF US AS EVERYONE – THAT’S EVERYONE NOISILY RELIEVED THEMSELVES FROM POSITIONS BETWEEN THE CARRIAGES, UP AGAINST THE SIDES OF THE CARRIAGES, OR EVEN WHERE THEY STOOD” why he had it with him, and what he thought he was going to do with it when he arrived at his destination.

So there we were, jammed in like sardines in a can far too small for them, standing upright, face-to-face and with nowhere to go. The man I was jammed up against seemed to be pleasant enough, but his nicotine-stained,moth-eaten, lop-sided, moustache was of some concern, as his garlic-and curried prawn breath was. It wasn’t his fault, of course, and he seemed to be apologetic enough, but it was in no way a comfortable experience. Perhaps, as in Shakespeare’s ‘comic relief’, his funny moustache was enough to have me giggling like a schoolgirl not long after we moved slowly away, and it was some time before I was able to settle myself down again. My companion looked at me very sadly, and tried to make soothing noises, which didn’t help at all – in fact, it succeeded in making it a whole lot worse.

But it was to become much worse as the small steam engine struggled to move away with its huge cargo of oddly assorted human beings. It fairly crept out of the station, which brought the thought to mind that it was never, ever going to have enough grunt to carry us safely over the Blue Mountains.

To make matters even worse – if that was possible – it seemed to pull up at every platform and whistle stop from Central to Parramatta, and then, ever slower, to Blacktown and finally into Penrith. I’m sure it stopped, or slowed down, at least ten times during that short journey to drop off bundles of papers.

But at Penrith we stayed, stayed, and stayed some more, as we were shunted off into an un-used siding while we waited for another engine to be hitched to the one we had, hopefully providing enough impetus for us to creep over the Mountains.

We lurched on anew, and still at a snail’s pace, the two engines puffing like mad while struggling to heave a train with its over-loaded human cargo over the ever-steepening rails ahead. Even then, the train stopped at tiny, narrow platforms on very regular occasions over the mountains, which meant it had to shuffle painfully away from a standstill many times o’er. On three occasions, as dawn was breaking, the train slowed down as people – one of whom, a woman in a pink dressing gown, was obscenely shouted at in a variety of languages and obvious gestures – trotted across open fields to dodge rolled-up papers which were hurled at them by the train driver and/or his coal shoveling off-sider.

I wondered aloud into the face of my friendly passenger why they didn’t think to deliver the papers by truck, but he just raised his eyebrows, blinked in my face and said nothing. Of course he couldn’t understand any more of what I said to him than I could of what his friends were saying to him. Even with that enormous number of men jam packed into the carriage it was a lonely ride, because I couldn’t see my brothers or school-mate anywhere and thus had no-one to speak (English) to.

Lester Morris

I did hear them on one occasion, as some foreign jackass opened a train window and hung half-out of it and relieve himself, for my brother was heard to shout. “Christ, it’s cold. Hey, sit down here where there is a natural windbreak.” To which my chum from school drily remarked “Oh, and who broke it?”

A small procession of other men began, as best they could, to noisily relieve themselves out of that train window, while a couple of other windows were coldly opened nearby to allow others to gleefully indulge in the same pursuit.

For the most part they seemed to be fairly successful, except for the occasional lurch round unexpected corners or over rough level crossings;

it’s called ‘getting your own back’, while accidentally anointing several others.

At long last that shocking train journey ended when we pulled into Bathurst station at 8am on Good Friday, that awful journey taking more than twelve (12) grim hours! The doors quickly burst open and everyone fell out of the carriages; one or two fl at on their backs, one or two face down, where they were naturally trodden upon or stumbled over, but all of us at last able to fl ex cramped arms and legs and to gulp in the life-enhancing, freezing, crystal clear air.

The train’s engine was enveloped in clouds of steam, but then so were most of us as everyone – that’s everyone – noisily relieved themselves from positions between the carriages, up against the sides of the carriages, or even where they stood. It was a grossly awful spectacle, if an absolutely essential one, which seemed to raise the ire of the busy station master who was running about all over the place, shouting hopelessly at everyone.

We repaired to the Guard’s Van to collect our bikes, to discover that the owners of the two race machines had enjoyed a far more leisurely trip, sleeping for most of that long journey within the confines of the van, one of them settling very comfortably upon our tent.

The strangest thing about those two men was that neither of them had arranged for anyone to meet them, which meant they had to wheel their motorcycles the two miles or so out to the track, which we of course helped them to do. The Velocette owner – whose name, from memory, was Robertson – had a large suitcase and smaller toolbox perched upon the bike’s single saddle and rubber rear-guard pad. But the rider of the Tiger 70 (who carried everything he needed within a large ex-Army haversack) was to tell us a marvelous story about his journey across the continent from Perth by train(s) as we walked along, as each of us proudly took turns in wheeling one or the other of the machines along; our own bikes held by other pushbike riders.

We marveled at the incredible story of the man who booked himself and his bike across the Nation many, many years before the one-gauge line from Perth to Sydney, being conveyed for much of his trip in a variety of Guards Vans. He and his bike went from Perth to Kalgoorlie, to change trains for Port Augusta, to join another train into Adelaide, yet another train to Melbourne, another to Albury, to change yet again for the journey to Sydney, and again from Sydney to Bathurst!

That was a total of seven (7) trains he had to catch on his five-day long journey from Perth to Bathurst, and he had to do the same thing all over again to get back home!! If ever there was a Gold Medal on hand to be awarded for Sheer Guts and Rampant Enthusiasm, that bloke should have been given a sugar-bag full of them!

As it happened, he rode to a very high place in the 250cc Lightweight event – fourth or fifth from memory – and finished high in the placings in the 350cc Junior Club man’s event as well.

I trust it made his arduous trip well worthwhile – he said afterward that it did, as he made the journey back to Sydney with us within the relative comfort of a half-empty, second-class carriage. I foolishly asked him how he might have felt had his engine blown up within five minutes of firing it up for practice, but he said nothing as he smiled and stared dreamily out of the carriage window.

Clearly, he had enjoyed the whole exercise, and what a wonderful adventure that parlous journey must have been; what skill and ingenuity he showed in organizing it, and what enormous courage, not to mention determination, he displayed in bringing it all to fruition! I often wonder what his friends, family and neighbors thought of him when he’d told them what he had planned to do.

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