On the road crossing Australia’s Nullarbor Plain, in the effective middle of the limestone desert and a dozen or so kilometres from Nullarbor Station, I lost sight of an important headlight in my mirrors. It belonged to the first Honda CX500 Turbo in the country. My technical editor Grant and I were running a comparison between the Yamaha XJ650 Turbo I was riding – also the first in the country — and the now apparently missing Honda, across Australia.

In the white corner, Honda’s CX contender. (Photo Honda)

I turned back, and when I found the CX, Grant was on his knees next to it. He was poking into the space behind the side cover he had removed. We checked everything we could, given the limited tool kit, without success. Grant even connected power directly to the fuel pump. No luck.

In the silver corner, Yamaha’s XJ contender. Photo Yamaha.

Don’t laugh. Sometimes the simplest answers are the best. I recall having a defective fuel pump on a Yamaha enduro of some kind and ‘fixing’ the problem by connecting the pipe from the fuel tank directly to the carburetor, simply bypassing the pump. That got me home over several hundred kilometres.

The Nullarbor starts in the top left corner of this map, at Ceduna.

We were alone because Geoff who had been supposed to come with us had blown up his BMW back in Victoria somewhere, but I carried a length of parachute cord in those days because breakdowns were much more common than they are now. With its help I towed the Honda into Nullarbor Station. This consisted of a petrol station, a basic roadhouse and some equally basic motel-type units out the back – plus a public phone. No cellphones in the early 1980s. I rang the home of Honda’s General Manager. It was a Saturday and he was playing golf. I rang the golf club and asked them to get him to call me back when he came off the links.

“Where are you?” was his first question when I’d told him the problem. When I said South Australia, he told me he’d get a mechanic up from Honda’s state branch in Adelaide.

“We are a thousand kilometres from Adelaide,” I said.

It is quite easy to find yourself a thousand kilometres from anywhere in Australia.

“Can you get a thousand kilometres from Adelaide and still be in South Australia?” I assured him you could, and he asked if I could get home. We had packed light and could manage to get back two up on the Yamaha, so I said yes. “Leave the bike there. I’ll get it picked up,” he replied. We made arrangements for that with the station manager, booked a room since it was getting dark, and retired to the roadhouse for beers.

After about the fifth one, Grant turned to me. “You know what I would do if I was Honda?” he said apprehensively. “Remember this is the first Turbo in Australia. The publicity will kill sales. If I was Honda, I’d call in an air strike on this place tonight. Wipe out the evidence.”

I scoffed, but after another five beers or so I started to get worried too. The idea must have played on my mind, because I woke up in the morning face down in the dirt, halfway between the roadhouse and the motel units. Obviously I had decided at some point that it would be safer outside in case a Japanese fighter-bomber strafed the place during the night.

We filled up and loaded the XJ650 and turned back east. You know how troubles rarely arise by themselves? It’s usually a combination of things. In this case it was the small fuel tank of the Yamaha, the shortage of petrol stations not only out on the Nullarbor but even closer to civilization, and the day of the week. Being a religious sort of place – Adelaide was and is known as ‘the City of Churches’ – a lot of businesses closed on Sundays. Among those businesses were some of the few petrol stations.

It does rain out in the Australian desert, but only every few years.

When we ran out in the middle of nowhere, we tried to wave someone down to beg, borrow or buy some fuel. Have you ever noticed that people who do not want to see you will whip their head around at the last moment so they’re looking in the other direction? I saw a lot of that from drivers of cars with and without caravans over the next hour or so. Nobody stopped.

Until a ragged-looking old Ford Falcon pulled up. A dozen or so Aboriginal kids in football jerseys exploded out of it and started running around. They had apparently played a match that morning and were on their way home. The driver, a middle-aged Aboriginal bloke, wasn’t fazed by our problem. “Yeah,” he said, “no worries. I’ve got spare petrol. Have you got a hose?”

It seemed the spare petrol was in the Falcon’s tank. We didn’t have any means of syphoning some out. Our would-be saviour shrugged. “I’ll send someone back from home,” he said. We shook hands all round, he shooed his quicksilver passengers back into the car and took off. A hundred metres away he pulled up again, got out, picked something up from the side of the road and came back. He’d found a length of garden hose.

“Lush growth” after that rare rainfall.

With the Yamaha’s tank full he reluctantly accepted five bucks in payment, we all said “Good onya,” and went our separate ways. All good, except for the CX. It turned out that no truck crosses the Nullarbor with any spare space; the trip is too expensive for that kind of waste. So nobody would pick the bike up. The manager at Nullarbor eventually slung it into his trailer with the empty kegs when he was going to get beer from Ceduna, and it made it back to Honda in Melbourne by rail.

The trip was not kind to it. When I looked at it in the workshop, I thought it had been in a high-speed tumble down the road. The problem had been the computer, but the episode didn’t seem to dent sales noticeably.

(Photos The Bear except as indicated)

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