The ear-splitting sound of a revving engine, the smell of creaking leathers, the rush of the wind in your face and a long, empty road burning into the horizon. The enduring romanticism of the two-wheeled road trip is hard to beat.
It worked for Ernesto "Che" Guevara on his South American odyssey. It was made cool by Peter Fonda in the classic 1969 film Easy Rider. Even Ewan McGregor has jumped on the two-wheeled bandwagon with his recent circumnavigation of the world by motorbike. And getting your kicks on Route 66, so to speak, has never been easier. During a recent visit to Sydney I was given the chance to eschew conventional vehicles and discover whether my biker chick credentials were intact - or, more accurately, whether they existed at all.
Having been raised alongside three sisters and an armada of Barbie dolls, I had long found man's affinity with motorised vehicles bemusing. I had travelled the world. Jumped off cliffs. Climbed mountains. Swum with sharks. (OK, make that large, scary fish.) But shamefully - and to the irritating delight of my mother - I had never been on the back of a motorbike. So what better way to locate my inner biking self than by exploring Sydney on a gleaming Harley-Davidson driven by a card-carrying member of the biking fraternity?
It was a sun-dappled spring morning when I set off for the Rocks area of the city to meet Billy Oscar, the man with a machine apparently as mean as his name. Our plan was to cruise the city sights, head north to the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and visit the affluent Palm Beach peninsula before returning via Sydney's northern beach towns.
The first thing I saw was the nose of a parked Harley-Davidson peeking from around a street corner. I was unable to ignore the rush of pleasure when I noticed that the vehicle in question was a brilliant vermilion: perfect for a novice biker girl. But my excitement gave way to confusion when I set eyes on the rest of my chariot. While the front of the bike was sleek, the back half appeared to have two giant tractor wheels attached.
Billy Oscar, sprawled nonchalantly in his leathers on a nearby bench, his helmet resting by his side, saw the look on my face. "It's a Harley trike," he grinned. "You know, like Billy Connolly's." I hazily recalled how the comedian, not one of my most influential role models, had recently been riding around the Antipodes on a trike. Not quite Peter Fonda, I thought. But there was no time for second thoughts. Having clambered into an oversized leather jacket and helmet provided by Billy, I perched on the raised back seat. The trike gave an ear-splitting roar and we were off.
Thrown back by the force of the engine, I had an overwhelming sensation of speed, combined with a faint feeling of embarrassment as I registered how many tourists and children stopped to stare. At what felt like break-neck speed, we approached one of the most enduring icons of the city: Sydney Harbour Bridge. Its trademark heavy ironwork looped above our heads while framing a picture-perfect vision of the opera house to the right and the city's waterways to the left.
The exhilarating sight disappeared almost as soon as it arrived as Billy speedily cut through the congested streets. I clung on the back of the bike, attempting to acclimatise to the wind that was numbing my face. As the peaceful suburbs slowly gave way to dense woodland, it became clear that the trip was not designed to be informative. "That's where Skippy the kangaroo is from," Billy hollered during one of his more talkative moments as he turned into Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
As we made our way into the park, the deserted road was a motorcyclist's dream. Empty and winding with a blue sky above our heads, the route was lined on both sides by miles of ancient forest scattered with Aboriginal rock engravings. The white, gnarled trees occasionally parted to offer a tantalising glimpse of the Hawkesbury river slicing through the park far below.
With clusters of meandering creeks, sheltered beaches, heathlands and sandstone ridges, it is clear why the national park has become a favourite retreat for Sydneysiders, many of whom idle away the weekends on board the small boats that dot the waterways. We followed the downward spiralling road until we emerged blinking alongside the lapping banks of the river, where a sign of life emerged in the form of a national park check-point.
The park keeper greeted us with a bemused sparkle in his eye. "G'day mate. That's quite something you've got yourself there. In fact, what the hell is it? Did you make it yourself?" Fortunately, despite Billy's leathers, he does not take offence easily and he waxed lyrical about the joys of the trike before we returned to the empty road.
The snapshots continued to fly past, blurred images of tangled trees and waterways merging into one as we gathered speed. Eventually, we pulled over and walked through a cluster of trees. Through the woodland and across the water lay a stunning view of Palm Beach, the northernmost Sydney suburb whose natural beauty has not entirely been eclipsed by its fame as the setting for the soap opera Home and Away.
From our vantage point it appeared to be a spindly stretch of land, with the wide river on the near side and the endless, blue expanse of the Pacific on the other. It was our next destination. After more twists and turns through the forests, we emerged back in the land of traffic lights and cars. Re-entering the realms of civilisation, our eccentric red contraption continued to draw attention. A young girl, her face painted like a tiger, stopped and stared. As I waved, her face crumpled into tears and she buried herself in her mother's skirt.
The contrast between the park and the peninsula was striking. Wild woodland was replaced with flowering trees, as brightly coloured as they were sweetly scented. Opulent, secluded beach-side houses dotted the shores while schoolgirls and surfer boys traipsed lazily along the side of the road.
Stopping for lunch in a peaceful spot, we gazed across the water at the national park woodland that we had driven through a few hours earlier. The break gave me the chance to find out more about Billy. He told me that it was his brother who set up Easyrider 12 years ago, and that they now have around 60 contract Harley-Davidson drivers. And more interestingly, behind it lies a tale of lost love.
When Billy's brother returned from studying medicine in Paris to find that his girlfriend was no longer waiting, he bought a Harley to console himself. "But," said Billy, "everyone kept asking if they could borrow it to visit places around Sydney and that's where he got the idea from. I love the freedom you get from riding a bike on the open road."
While speeding back into town past Sydney's northern beaches I realised that I was beginning to relax. The smell of the trees and the skin-tingling impact of wind on my face were working their magic. It may not be the right mode of transport if you like to stop and savour all the details. But it is an exhilarating alternative to a tour bus. "Lift your head up," shouted Billy, interrupting my reverie. A perfect V-formation of pelicans was flying over us, gliding gently inland towards the trees.
If you want to splash out, try the W Hotel at 6 Cowper Wharf Roadway (00 61 2 9331 9000, www.starwood.com), which has split-level loft rooms from A$455 (£187), room only. The Kirketon at 229 Darlinghurst Road (00 612 9332 2011, www.kirketon.com.au) in Darlinghurst, is a boutique hotel with doubles from A$139 (£57). Eva's Backpackers in Darlinghurst, has dorm beds from A$26 (£11), with breakfast (00 61 2 9358 2185; www.evasbackpackers.com.au).
Easyrider (00 61 2 1300 88 20 65; www.easyrider.com.au) offers a range of road trips costing from A$35 (£14) to A$950 (£383).
Australian Tourist Commission (0191-501 4646 - brochure line; www.australia.com)Reuse content