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Two hills


Every gang of kids has its ultimate challenge, right? The legendary achievement that’s guaranteed to put you head and shoulders above the mob, ensuring your name would be known to generations of local kids who grow up in your footsteps. Maybe it was the night-time swim through shark infested waters to the rock a mile from shore or scaling the clock tower to attach a pair of knickers to the lightning rod.

For us Woy Woy kids it was Bull’s Hill With No Brakes. To take the brakes off our pushbikes then make the winding, roller-coaster descent from Horsefield Ridge to Correa Bay, culminating in the hairpin turn across the bridge over Woy Woy Creek.

I never did it of course. It was obvious suicide. We all knew the name of the guy who had successfully done it, though we weren’t sure if it was twenty or fifty years ago and there was fierce dispute as to whether he had cheated and how he may have done so. The kid who tried it among my cohort was Michael Strong. But he was under particular pressure on account of being a redheaded ratbag. He didn’t make it, but incredibly he walked away with only cuts, bruises and some nasty abrasions.

While I never had the guts to go down Bull’s Hill without brakes I did fantasise about it a lot. And I practiced. I would pedal, puff and sweat my way up the asphalt ascent a dozen times in a row to come careening and skidding down, pushing my feeble nerve to its limit before clutching the brakes to avoid imminent catastrophe with tree, railing or precipice. I think we all practiced from time to time but never together. To do so would have revealed to each other how far we were from being ready to attempt the real thing.

Then came the day Michael Strong announced he was going to do it. He would take front and back brakes off his red Speedwell Dragster and go down all the way from the top. We weren’t terribly surprised. We’d long ago concluded he was insane.

There’s three sharp curves between the ridge and the inlet and I’d only ever rounded the first one without braking but Strongie was the best rider among us and we agreed that if anyone could get around the second corner on a brake-less bike it would be him. But no-one could make that last hairpin. So that’s where we stood to watch his final moments.

He didn’t disappoint. Much.

Most of his epic ride was hidden from sight to all but the crows and kookaburras but when he came into view he was weaving backwards and forwards across the relatively straight stretch of steeply descending road in a desperate attempt to shed some of his breakneck speed. Twice he raised a plume of dust by veering off the tarmac into the dirt, a maneuver that certainly would have ended in disaster if I had tried it. But now he was approaching the 150 degree turn across the creek and could not possibly make it. He would hit the bridge railing at better than thirty miles an hour. He’d probably be killed. But Strongie knew that too so he didn’t even try. As the road leveled out and swung hard to the left he swerved right through a patch of weeds, catapulting off a curved rock and somersaulting into the fetid mangroves at the edge of the creek. His bright blood on the dark swamp mud was spectacular to behold but he didn’t cry. Michael Strong never cried.

Fast forward about twenty years and I’m traveling around India with my girlfriend Laura on the back of a Royal Enfield Bullet 350. The 1940s designed single-cylinder four-stroke British motorcycle was still being manufactured in India well into the 70s, with somewhat modified Indian versions continuing for decades later – perhaps to this day for all I know. A feature of this classic design was the foot operated rear drum brake, connected to the pedal with a steel rod of perhaps 70mm diameter. It was a very important feature as the front brake was so close to useless as to serve only to maneuver for parking.

I’d recently had the bike serviced in Mysore and was surprised to see the mechanic had changed the brake configuration so that the drum lever was now at a steeper angle than it had been, with the connecting rod making a much more acute angle with it. However the change seemed to allow better control of brake pressure, particularly when stopping hard from the effective maximum speed of 80km/h (the limitation being set as much by road conditions as by the bike itself)  so I had no reason to complain.

I don’t recall the name of the lone peak that rises from a flat plain in central Tamil Nadu but the view from the top was irresistible so Laura and I leaned left and right through the seventeen signposted and numbered switchback turns that wove up the mountainside to where we enjoyed a picnic in a breezy, dry grove of eucalyptus that could easily have been one of the roadside stops of my homeland.

If the overloaded Bullet had struggled up the hill it was doing it easier on the way down, just idling along in third with me gently braking into the sharp corners and smoothly easing into the short straights between them. Until corner number sixteen. That’s when I heard the clunk and the brake pedal fell loosely under my foot.

“No brakes!!” I yelled to Laura and her hands and knees dug tightly into me as we swung across the wrong side of the road, rear wheel skidding closer to the low railing separating us from a drop of over fifty feet. Then we were out of the corner and heading down a steep straight, me kicking the bike back to first to try to get what braking I could from the engine. I already had the front brake handle pulled all the way in, for what little good it might do. Then the last corner was upon us.

This was a right hander with a short drop into a boulder strewn gully to the left and we were still going way too fast. I was able to use ruts in the road to hold a line that would otherwise have been impossible until finally we leaned too far and the pannier brace and footpeg touched the road, bouncing us out of the rut, off the road and into the metre or two of unfenced soft shoulder separating us from the drop. But the loose dirt was to be our saviour. Skidding and counter-steering the heavily laden Enfield as if it was a dirt bike I finally slowed it enough to bring it under control and back to the tarmac, though it was another hundred metres or so before I pulled to a stop.

Laura and I were standing by the bike, hearts pounding, staring at the snapped brake rod, too stunned to speak when – as always happens when I’m in trouble by an Indian roadside – a brahmin came puttering by on a motor scooter. It would inevitably emerge that it was his duty to help me. This cheery, bespectacled man in his white dhoti came beaming over to us, doubtless as pleased as punch for the opportunity to aid foreigners in distress. Then he looked at the brake rod. His jaw dropped. He looked at the road twisting back up the side of the mountain. He looked at us. “The Gods are most certainly looking after you”.

Thoughtful gods indeed, to have put Bull’s Hill so close to my childhood home. The perfect spot to practice for the day I would save two lives.

From → autobiography

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