This entry is part 29 of 30 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#25


Did I ever claim to be the sharpest chisel in the toolbox? I don’t think so. I like, however, to think of myself as someone who learns from his mistakes.

Case in point.

Some (maaany) years ago, I was the proud owner of a WLA Harley Davidson. Here’s a tip – when they were the prime transport for a lot of people, courtesy of Johnno’s in Redfern who sold them for four hundred bucks each, painted to your taste, nobody called them “Wallas”. Referring to them by that vaguely derogatory term brands you as someone who “wasn’t there”, the ultimate dismissal. Okay? Never say I don’t do anything for you.

This was one of five WLAs that I have owned during my life and for my sins.

It was not the one that crushed the rear bumper of the taxi down at White Bay without sustaining any damage to its front mudguard, far less its front forks. Neither was it the one that put the conrod through the sump down in whatever that dump in Victoria was (and is, I suppose) called. It was the one that had the panniers fitted to it. By me.

Normally, WLAs have leather panniers which are fitted with a bar equipped with bolts that slot into the holes providentially available on the bike’s rear carrier. My bike did not have these rather spiffy leather items, but I had a pair of top-loading panniers made by a bloke in Parramatta whose name I forget. These were good, strong items which had come off the same Ducati which had in its turn been fitted with the leather panniers originally from the WLA.

Without giving the problem much thought, I drilled holes in the fibreglass boxes, being careful to fi ll in the existing mounting holes with – if I remember correctly – muffler putty.

Well, I had some of it lying around, and I could cover it with muffler tape.

Tough stuff. The top loaders bolted straight on then, and I stood back with a feeling of utterly unrealistic achievement. But I didn’t know just how unrealistic it was, of course.

With my tent strapped to the top of the carrier, and the sleeping bag on top of that, the panniers took all the other gear I needed for a weekend trip out to Newnes. That included the food for our little group of three; even if I do say so myself, I’ve always been the go-to for cooking on camping trips.

That’s mainly due to the fact that I like to eat, and I like to eat good food. The offerings produced by many of my friends definitely didn’t meet the “good” requirement, and often failed the “food” one as well. My Huevos Rancheros, for example, although they were more than a little different from the originals, were welcomed with open mouths around any campfire where I’ve ever offered them. And I know that The Frog doesn’t agree that my Pot au Feu is, indeed, entitled to that name – but he eats it with every sign of pleasure when I make it.

So there we were on our way into Newnes, on a road that was dirt and nowhere near as well looked after as the current one. It featured potholes in all their glory, including some monsters; and the light was such that it was not easy to spot them.

Inevitably I hit one of the big ones.

Now the word “suspension” is not normally applied to Harley-Davidson WLAs. They do in fact have some, at the front. This consists of a spring and a friction screw damper. I’m not sure if that’s the technical term, but who cares? It doesn’t work. The bike is a “hardtail”, which means that there is no suspension at all on the back – unless you count the spring under the seat.

This can be worse than useless; I recall a mate falling off his bike because he was laughing so hard after I’d hit a pothole and my “arse was higher than your head, mate” while I desperately clung to the handlebar.

So here I am on the way into Newnes, carrying my survival gear and food for three. I hit that pothole, the bike does a passable imitation of a seriously pissed-off bucking bronco and I see a wondrous sight in my mirrors.

As the rear of the bike bounces back up from the pothole, the contents of the panniers rip off the lids and keep going. A perfectly pannier-shaped column of food, clothes, tools and much more flies upward from each pannier, capped by the torn-off lid.

The columns only last a second or so, then they disintegrate and my belongings are spread over a sizeable patch of the Newnes road. I get a major wobble up as I laugh madly; fortunately WLAs are inherently stable, so I come to a stop without falling over.

But you know what, the half dozen eggs I had in a kind of clip-together plastic holder (available from all good camping shops) remained unbroken.

And I learned never to attach hard luggage to an unsprung motorcycle frame.

A win-win all round, really.

Peter “The Bear” Thoeming

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