Michael Wilkins with the cycle that took him on a life-changing ride around Australia. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

Michael Wilkins with the cycle that took him on a life-changing ride around Australia. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

Originally published in the Illawarra Mercury Weekender, Saturday January 21 2012

Journey of change

Raising money for cancer research by riding a motorbike around Australia changed Michael Wilkins’ life, writes WILLIAM VERITY.

IT’S MORE THAN A YEAR SINCE Michael Wilkins returned from his motorbike ride around Australia, but there is still emotion in his voice when he talks about it.

‘‘It was difficult readjusting when I returned,’’ he said. ‘‘In fact, I still haven’t. We all had to face that fact that we had to get back in the harness and work for a living.

‘‘But once you’ve been out there and you’ve done something like that, and enjoyed it so much, it’s just really hard to get back into a routine. It’s changed a lot of things.’’

It can be like that when you finally live a dream you’ve had for 20 years. Things are never the same again. Now, there’s a sense of a restlessness that has awakened in Wilkins, a mine engineer from Farmborough Heights, a sense that there’s a part of his spirit still wandering outback Australia.

Born in Oberon, Wilkins had owned trail bikes as a young man and then moved to Wollongong and owned a bike to commute to work at the Port Kembla steelworks. Then children came along, a mortgage, a sales job with a car, and he became heavily involved in the Tech Waratahs Rugby Club, eventually serving as president for six years.

‘‘There just wasn’t enough recreation time, so I kept the bike in the garage for many years and ended up giving it to my daughter,’’ Wilkins said.

Fast forward to his early 50s, with both rugby career and marriage finished, and Wilkins bought an old 600cc road bike, followed by a more serious – and brand new – Honda dual-purpose. He bought it for adventure travel that never happened but ended up using it for weekend road trips. Now back on a bike, he heard about an opportunity to ride around Australia in just 33 days and raise money for children with cancer.

‘‘I was at work, grinding my way through the day,’’ Wilkins, 62, wrote in a book, A Lap for the Little Ones, about his ride published late last year.

‘‘Restless and uninspired, mentally sifting and drifting through all the place I would rather be. There were many.

‘‘I opened an email and the newsletter jumped out. Within a few moments, I realised that I was being offered an opportunity too good to pass up.’’

The offer came from the StevenWalter Foundation, which has raised funds for childhood cancers since Steven lost his life in 2000 after a seven-year battle with the disease. The foundation’s mainstay is the annual Snowy Ride, a four-day motorcycle bonanza around the Snowy Mountains that now attracts more than 3000 riders and has raised more than $3 million. Organisers hoped to raise $150,000 from the first ride around Australia, in October 2010, but ended up raising more than twice that figure after 70 generous people on 50 bikes took part.

‘‘We had everyone froma truck driver from Cooma to a barrister who represents the navy in the high court – they were from all walks of life,’’ Wilkins said.

‘‘The common thread was the enjoyment of motorcycling and the belief in what the charity does.’’

Although Wilkins had visited the major cities, he had never experienced the Australia that lies outside the city limits, and the experience for him proved as large as the landscape.

‘‘I was surprised by the vastness of it,’’ he said.

‘‘I knew it was there, but to be there on the back of a motorbike, the vastness is much more impressive and imposing than driving across in a car. In a car, you are insulated fromit where on a motorbike you can see it, hear it, smell it and taste it.

‘‘Some people say it’s boring, monotonous and flat but it’s not. It’s amazingly different from one section to another. The scenery changes, the animals change, the weather changes of course.

‘‘It depends on how you look at the scrubby desert – if you look beyond it, it’s not at all boring. ‘Nobody ever complained about being bored.’’

Wilkins memories of that ride include sharing the road with brumbies and camels, dealing with turbulent sprays of water from road trains on wet roads and the gloom at Esperance when the group realised they were heading not west nor south, but east and homewards. Just as special as the scenery was the companionship. Riders have already attended two reunions with a third planned, and Wilkins refers to his ‘‘69 new friends’’.

‘‘Riding a motorbike is an individual thing while you are on the road, but the enjoyment is sharing the experience with other people,’’ Wilkins said.

‘‘You can do a day ride and stop for lunch and the talk is about the ride and what we saw. It’s not about other things so it takes you away from your work, your worries and your mortgage.

‘‘You get out there and talk motorcycling, scenery and what’s actually happening at that moment.’’

In the last chapter of A Lap for the Little Ones, Wilkins writes about the last day of the trip, when police outriders escorted them into Thredbo and the final destination.

‘‘People … lined the street and with car horns blaring, flags waving and plenty of generous applause and cheering gave us a send-off on our final leg that we will remember always,’’ Wilkins wrote. Then came time for the final parting.

‘‘There was a courtyard full of handshakes, hugs, tears, back slapping and promises to keep in touch,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Grown men hugged and cried. The girls wept and clung to their men and to each other. It was over, it was all over.’’

The experience was so good that a similar ride is planned for May 2013, and Wilkins has already put his name down for it, despite having to find five weeks holiday and about $8000 in costs.

‘‘I will go into it realising that it won’t be as good as the first one,’’ he said. ‘‘I hope I will be able to give some encouragement, maybe even some leadership, for those attempting the ride for the first time.’’ ■

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