As I came over the crest of the hill, a mist of fine red dust was settling slowly in the baking outback sun. Bits of shattered plastic fairing and the eviscerated contents of Mark's panniers made a chaotic trail through the sand, at the end of which a motorcycle lay on its side at a crazy angle, front end mangled, leaking fuel into the dust. The man himself was flat out at the roadside, a discarded pair of sunglasses and helmet lying nearby. He waved painfully, and I thought: Oh buggerrrrrrrrrr...
Only a few weeks earlier, I had escaped from the Antarctic chill of Melbourne, where I had earned money by working as a vet at the local animal hospital. After a couple of months of wiping up vomit and being intimately concerned with dogs' bottoms, enough was enough, and I felt sufficiently financial to contemplate heading up the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide, then across the Nullarbor plain to Perth. There I would meet up with Mark and Clare, XT600 riders whom I had encountered initially in Asia, and again in Brisbane, at the Duval home for bewildered overlanders. They were planning on travelling some of the great Australian dirt highways, and I hoped to tag along. Safety in numbers was one good reason, but I also enjoyed their company and could spend many happy hours with Mark, blatting on about preload and carburettors and the little numbers on the side of engine oil bottles.
Tanking along the highway out of Melbourne was a liberating experience. There's nothing wrong with the place at all, but after a few months of being stationary I was starting to get twitchy, though this may have been on account of excessive cappucino consumption.
The Great Ocean Road winds up the Eastern side of the Spencer Gulf, and I made pretty slow progress on account of stopping at numerous historical markers and viewpoints. The ghoulish history of this shipwreck-littered coastline made fascinating reading.
This area is also a haven for wildlife, although my knowledge of this is not sufficient for me to give any specifics. There's birds and stuff, y'know? Great.....
The Coorong National Park is a particularly impressive site, which stretches along several hundred kilometres of coastline and consists of a huge salty lagoon, separated from the sea by 500 metres of sandhills.
Sandy tracks lead through these dunes at a number of points, and provided my first opportunity in months to get off-road with the bike. Possibly I should have selected terrain other than a bloody big sandhill for my re-introduction to riding off the bitumen. The great thing about sand is that it is very comfortable and soft, absorbs impact nicely, and allows you to drop the bike on your foot with only minimal damage. Marvellous.
I didn't linger in Adelaide, as I was keen to head further west. I had a brief tour of the place by night, which was enlivened by the sudden failure of my clutch cable, whilst approaching a set of lights on red, in top gear, in the outside lane of a three-lane highway. There are two possible ways of dealing with this situation. Firstly, you can slow calmly to a halt, hit the kill switch, and request help from passers-by using internationally recognized and approved RAC hand signals. As an interesting alternative, you can make a strangled noise that sounds like 'Faaaaaaakkkk!', whilst hurtling out of control through small gaps in three lanes of traffic, mounting the pavement and juddering to a halt, with a considerable laundry bill to look forward to.
In defiance of the normal convention, I had anticipated this eventuality, and smugly replaced the broken item with the spare cable I had carried since leaving home. I left for Port Augusta the following day.
Port Augusta camp site was a bit of a shock - at first I naturally assumed that I had taken a wrong turn, and arrived instead at a secret refugee detention centre. It was only while checking for machine gun nests that I noticed the campsite sign. The height and solidity of the fence surrounding the site is indicative of the local security paranoia.
I was warned by several people to be careful of my valuables, even whilst on the site. The blame for high levels of theft was implicitly laid at the door of the large numbers of Aboriginal people wandering the streets of the town, though few people in official positions openly said so.
One old bloke was less ambiguous when he started chatting to me outside a supermarket.
'Bastards....', he muttered, warning me not to stop under any circumstances if I was flagged down by aboriginals on the highway. Senseless racism? Justified caution? I didn't know at the time. It was in Port Augusta that I briefly made the acquaintance of a pair of bikers on their way to a military reunion in Perth. 'Fish' did most of the talking, while 'Beast', an appropriately bearded giant occasionally rumbled assent or offered brief pearls of wisdom. At first I had Fish down as a typically outspoken and opinionated Aussie male, but quickly came to the conclusion that this was a bit of a smokescreen - his cover was badly blown a few days later when I saw the thick book on the Israel-Palestine conflict which he was wading through. The guys' Moto-Guzzi cruisers could easily outpace my machine on asphalt, even considering the sizeable trailer which Beast was towing, so I wasn't able to travel with them. However, we seemed to naturally end up in the same place every evening for a few beers and a chat. Their stories of life with an artillery regiment in Vietnam were hugely entertaining and probably even mostly true. Meeting up with these two diamond geezers every evening helped to offset the boredom of crossing the Nullarbor...
The Nullarbor Plain is a vast expanse of flatland, short on trees and big on scrubby prickly vegetation which discourages bush camping for all but the most thick skinned.
The plain starts properly a few hundred kilometres west of Port Augusta, and yawns tediously on for some thousand kilometres until the town of Norseman in Western Australia.
It's big, I remembered Ken telling me months earlier. The maps showed me exactly how big it was, and the guide books reinforced its bigness, until there could be no doubt in anyone's mind that the Nullarbor was, really, quite big.
But this is the whole point about Australia. You can look at the maps and crunch the numbers and think that you understand the scale of the place - but until you actually ride across the damn thing, you dont really appreciate the sheer vastness of this continent.
In summary, I would like to convey the following: it's big.
And that's all I have to say about that.
Connor in the red center, Australia
From Port Augusta I found a 300km stretch of dirt road heading West, which cut out a section of asphalt, but beyond this there was no escape from the mindless tedium of the blacktop, broken only intermittently by a pneumatic battering from a passing road train. The novelty of this soon wore off. Listening to the walkman was out of the question on account of the wind blast, and doing the crossword in the newspaper was difficult because it kept flying up and smacking me in the face. (That's a joke, mum, ok? I don't really do the crossword while I'm riding the bike. Mostly I just watch the television...)
The monotony was broken only by playing the waving game. Lots of people wave at you on the Nullarbor highway, but the competitors vary greatly in their level of professionalism. First time tourists in rented camper vans overdo the enthusiasm and frankly look a bit isn't-this-jolly-exciting amateurish. People towing caravans are barely higher up the evolutionary scale, and hardly even rate a wave.
4WD drivers are a bit more nicely understated, and you can exchange a brief moment of mutual respect for a fellow denizen of desert trails, even if the nearest either of you get to off- roading is parking on your gravelled driveway at home.
The highest in the pecking order are the drivers of battered utes, who tend to raise one laconic finger from the steering wheel in a she'll-be-right-mate sort of way. Beardy Outlaw biker guys on Harleys are generally too cool to wave. Or maybe they are unable to, concerned that if they let go the bars for an instant they will get blown clean off the back.
Catching up with Mark and Clare in Perth was great. We had to camp at the local overpriced caravan park while they sorted the bikes out, and I had a few mechanical tasks to attend to myself. We were aided and abetted by several local bike shops - most notably, the guys at Highway Yamaha in Midland, who saw me peering through the glass after closing time on a Saturday and insisted on inviting me in to supply the parts I needed, even offering me a beer while they sorted things out. A few days later they helicoiled my dodgy sump plug, which has been on the verge of stripping out for some time, charging very reasonably for the work
- thanks, fellas.
Respect also to the the 'Bike Doctor' (Tyre City), who seem to have a genuine concern and empathy for mechanical pain, let us use some bits of equipment from their workshop, and sorted us out with the best priced tyres we could find.
The most worrying episode was when I decided to grease my suspension bearings and linkages - just as a last minute job, you understand. When am I going to learn that every time you open a can of worms, it's often just the tip of the iceberg, and you can find yourself stuck on a sticky wicket, up a gum tree, until the cows come home...
The ever-helpful bike doctor loaned me a a grease gun to do the job, and things were going fine until I took a rubber cover off the side of the swing arm to grease the pro-link pivot bolt. I saw something loose rattling around in there, and reached in to pull out.....the sheered off end of the bolt, half a dozen threads with the nut still on it. Oh dear....the remainder of the bolt was still in the swingarm, but could be pushed out the other side with ease. Tears came to my eyes at the thought of this bolt working itself loose at speed on a corrugated dirt road. After trolling round a number of wreckers (riding Clare's XT), I finally found a place with a tenere swing arm. The vital bolt was, however, missing. Damn. Sorting through the dusty pile again, I came upon another XT swingarm, and the bolt was.....intact! Great! The wrecker put his rattle gun on the nut to undo it for me.
Clink.......the nut, complete with the last half dozen threads of the bolt sheered off in exactly the same place as mine.
I looked round for something alcoholic, and was contemplating a quick swig of brake fluid when: 'Hang on', says the bloke, 'I'm sure I saw another swingarm here somewhere.'
Sure enough, we found one off a 93 Tenere. The bloke applies the rattle gun c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y, and I shut my eyes - success, the bolt comes away, and I get mobile again, for 15 bucks.
Be this a warning to other XT owners, check under that funny little rubber cover TODAY, this seems to be a weak spot in the XT pro-link system.
My lasting impressions of Perth? Traffic lights and respiratory infection.
Perth is a city massively over endowed with atrociously phased traffic lights - Perhaps the council managed to pick up a job lot of the things at a knock down price, but I think the instruction manual must have fallen out of the packet.
Possibly we were also in something of a poor humour, as Mark and I had both picked up a nasty dose of flu, and spent our days hacking and harrumphing, manufacturing in our sinuses a substance very similar to that green stuff you put in your tyres to prevent punctures.
I had been experiencing some problems with vision in bright sunlight recently, exacerbated because I had been heading continually due west, straight into the early afternoon and evening sun. In fact, my helmet visor was so scratched and crazed that I became effectively blind from midday onwards. Either I had to develop some sort of sophisticated bat-like sonar, or buy a new visor. I decided to try the visor thing first. Unfortunately, nobody makes replacements for my type of helmet, and on closer inspection it was clear that the helmet itself had seen better days.
The manual says, on the subject of replacement: replace your helmet every few years, or when it starts to look like the surface of the moon, whichever is sooner. Dropping your helmet on hard concrete surfaces or down flights of stairs is bad for it. So is inadvertently kicking it across the car park, sitting on it, and rubbing gravel into the visor. Pakistani landslides are bad for your helmet....
I had read enough - it was time for a new helmet.
I tried numerous models, initially beguiled by the idea of an open face design, but felt too exposed. Eventually I settled on the moto-cross design, on account of the large peak which shields you from the afternoon sun, and a pair of orange tinted goggles which make clouds look really cool, even if you do feel a bit like Jacques Cousteau wearing the things.
A week elapsed before we were ready for the road again. Mark and I snuffled and wheezed our pneumonic way to Calgoorlie, whilst Clare obsessively imbibed heroic quantities of vitamin C to ward off the bugs.
No grog in Australia
Wedge tailed eagles are a common sight along this highway, attracted by the large amounts of roadkill scattered along the verges. They see it as a kind of an outback version of meals on wheels. These beautiful, powerful birds are reluctant to take flight as you approach, since flying after dinner makes them feel a bit sick. For this reason, they represent a major traffic hazard - lumbering slowly into the air at the very last second, and crossing your path at head-height like feathered heinkel bombers with serious indigestion. Hitting one of these things would not be pleasant, as they are about the size of your average Golden Retriever, and equipped with nasty hooky beak and claws. Nature really kicks ass in the Outback.
The art of gold prospecting is alive and well in the red dust of the Calgoorlie gold fields. Although commercial mines occupy a fair proportion of the area, there is still plenty of scope for individuals to go scratching around in the dirt with metal detectors. The excitement of this occupation is infectious, and we aaaahed appreciatively when an energetic 70-year-old lady showed us her most recent find, a 6 ounce nugget. Cold and heavy in the palm of your hand, you could see the attraction of this glistening metal, and understand the dreams of avarice which led the early pioneers to suffer the hardships of the desert in search of it. In the light of the human obsession with gold, the universal appeal of that other golden substance, beer, is easily understood.
Tyres were waiting for us at Laverton, the last town reachable by bitumen road, Mitas EO-7 (rear), with a claw pattern which we considered adequate for propulsion, whilst our aggressive Dunlop D606 knobblies (front) should be excellent for steering in any deep loose sand or dust. We were ready for the dirt of the Central Outback Highway, also known (loosely) as the Great Desert Road, also known (incorrectly) as the Gun Barrel. Take your pick...
Well, we had been warned many times of the fierce and unfriendly Aboriginal people who were presumably supposed to leap out of the bush and make off with our valuables. However, mobs of alcohol-swilling, petrol sniffing thieves failed to materialize, and indeed have yet to feature in our travels in Australia. What did appear through the midday heat and dust was a stranded Aboriginal family with a broken down vehicle in the middle of nowhere. It seemed they were on the way to a family funeral in Warakurna and had run out of petrol. Initially, we regarded they guy's request for petrol with a bit of suspicion (see 'recreational substances' below), but he appeared to be on the level - although it has to be said that when you start flagging motorcyclists down in the desert asking for fuel, you really have a problem. We worked out by an ingenious mathematical system known as guessing that we could probably spare 5 litres of fuel (which was enough to get him back to the last roadhouse) and poured the requisite amount into the tank. We donated also a couple of litres of water, as we were carrying enough to float the QE2, and a cigarette. The guy shook our hands, and said that he was sorry to hear about the Queen Mum. Thanks, mate.
Did he then turn the car round to go back to the last fuel stop? 'Course not. Why waste perfectly good fuel? Instead, he used our 5 litres to get another few kilometers up the track, and sat down to wait again for another fill-up from a passing motorist (at around 6 vehicles a day, he must have had a long wait).
We were told about this by the staff at the next roadhouse - (believe me, when it comes to information transfer, nothing is faster or more efficient than the bush telegraph).
I was suitably impressed - this attitude either represents 'She'll be right', or 'I don't give a stuff.' Either way, I applaud it.
A couple of days later, we happened across another stranded party, marching through the heat back towards the nearest community: no petrol, no food, no water. One of us rode back to the roadhouse to organise a lift for these guys, whilst they sat down in the shade and did serious damage to our supplies of Ry-Vita crackers. Another succesful mission for the Aboriginal Rescue Service (ARSe). I thought indiginous people were supposed to be able to survive for days in the desert on food from the land? Since when did Ry-Vita constitute authentic Bush Tucker?
'Seek local advice' is the standard recommendation when planning to travel on Outback dirt roads. After extensive research, I have formed the opinion that this piece of advice isn't worth a pair of dingo's kidneys (a view which was to prove strangely prophetic at a later date...).
Local people do not spend their lives battering up and down dirt roads
- they travel on the asphalt. They're not stupid.
In the unlikely event that you meet someone who, for whatever masochistic reasons, does habitually travel on dirt, they normally do it much more sensibly in a vehicle with lots of wheels, i.e. more than two. They have no conception whatsoever of the requirements of motorcycles: an excellent smooth dirt road in a 4 wheel drive is, to a biker, a sandy rutted nightmare of Brobdingnagian proportions.
'Hey, this is a sandy rutted nightmare of Brobdingnagian proportions,' said Clare (See? Told you ), as we slithered shakily to a halt somewhere between Tjukayirla and Warakurna. Reports that this section of road was 'mainly gravel' had proved to be wildly inaccurate. Either that, or the Australian word for 'gravel' does not translate well into English. Perhaps we should have asked 'Does the road have many deep soft sections of that powdery substance you get on the beach?', to which the answer would have been, 'Oh yeah, there's shitloads of that stuff'. Communication, I guess, is mostly about asking the right questions...
In summary, we spent a considerable amount of the day singing the fukkinell song (the lyrics of which will be familiar to most dirt riders).
The seriously laid-back manager of the roadhouse in Warakurna had at least a partial explanation for why this stretch of road had transformed itself into a replica of Bondi Beach.
Road works were taking place which required the removal of the gravel surface in a lot of areas, and sand had been laid prior to replacement of the gravel. Presumably we had happened along at just the wrong time, but I didn't feel that this completely explained the extensive stretches of simulated coastline that we had ploughed through.
The take home message is: conditions on dirt roads change throughout the year, weekly, and from one minute to the next. Local knowledge is at best hazy, and at worst dangerously misleading. All you can rely on is that you cannot rely on anything at all. You have been warned, here is your bucket and spade, ice creams are available by the promenade. Thank you.
Road houses like the one at Warakurna seem to be a major focus for Aboriginal community members, as there is a constant stream of utes and clapped out
2WD panel vans rolling up throughout the day. These vehicles disgorge numerous passengers who besiege the staff behind the counter in a frenzy of pie and pop buying, while the driver fills up the tank - diesel or avgas only, as unleaded petrol constitutes a recreational substance round here and is banned for this reason. That bored with life, I don't want to be...
The passengers wander around chatting and increasing their cholesterol levels with Mrs Mac's famous beef pies- however, conversations at petrol stops tend to get abruptly cut short, mid-sentence, as the guys you are talking to abruptly run off.
The reason for this is nothing to do with impoliteness, but stems from the lack of any advance warning of departure. The accepted practice appears to be for the driver to suddenly leap into the ute and floor the accelerator, whilst the passengers break off whatever they are doing and leg it frantically after the departing vehicle in a flurry or pie wrappers and empty pop bottles, piling into the back as it wheelspins out of the gate. This sort of procedure is probably intended to encourage sharp reflexes and promote fitness.
Oh yes, a word on Avgas. I mentioned that it is available in the Outback as an alternative to Unleaded petrol, as it is either impossible or inadvisable to sniff it. If you don't fancy using this substance in your bike, you could perhaps take a jerry can of fuel with you, to get you across the unleaded-free area (or the ununleaded area, as it is known in the local dialect. I think...). Unfortunately, the carrying of filled jerry cans is forbidden, as a full can of unleaded can be sold to an addict for around
400 bucks. So you are basically obliged to use the Avgas whether you like it or not. This left us with one minor query to clear up. What the hell is Avgas?
--- That's aviation fuel, right? Since when did we start putting aeroplane fuel in motorcycles? My Yamaha has, on occasion, taken flight through the air, but never for very long and it's not a process I enjoy too much.
We resorted to 'seeking local advice'. Oh dear....
Local intelligence had it that avgas was pure aviation fuel. Or fifty percent aviation fuel mixed with normal unleaded, or mostly unleaded with a little bit of aviation fuel, depending on who we asked. Our bikes would either definately run on Avgas, definately NOT run on Avgas, or probably be OK but I think your fuel hoses might melt. The octane rating would be higher, or perhaps lower, and the engine would:
a) Run a little worse than normal, b) Run a little better than normal or c) Be irretrievably stuffed, don't even try it.
We thanked our various sources kindly, and put the Avgas in the tanks. Here is the definative answer: We don't know what it is, but it works just fine. There, that wasn't so dificult now was it?
The final section of road links up with a bitumen highway which starts at the Olgas, heads East to Uluru (Ayers Rock to the politically incorrect), and ultimately ends up at the Stuart Highway and Alice Springs. The final day on dirt was going well, Mark had sorted out a problem with Clare's air filter and the bikes were humming along over the last few kilometers of dirt before the highway. We normally ride a few hundred metres apart to avoid the dust cloud created by the rider ahead - the standard protocol is for the lead rider to cover 20 miles, then stop and wait. If a few minutes elapse with no sign of the others, the lead rider turns back to check on them.
So it was that Clare returned to find Mark lying winded, but apparently not badly hurt, at the roadside. I was attacking his battered fairing with tyre levers in an attempt to bend it straight enough to allow the bike to be steered off the road.
At first we thought that the slightly pained expression on Mark's face was solely a result of seeing some Paddy git abusing his bike with a tyre lever, but it soon became apparent that more serious internal damage was likely. We needed an ambulance. What we got was almost as good - a German named Ronnie in a camper van, flagged down on the asphalt road, gamely drove the short distance on dirt to pick Mark up and take him to the medical post at the Ayers rock resort, 60 km distant.
We never had a chance to properly thank Ronnie at the time of the accident, so I'll do so now. While I'm on the subject: Thank you also Ross, the doctor at the Ayers Rock clinic, who realized that something more serious than a bit of bruising was going on, and had Mark flown to Alice Springs hospital. Thanks to the good and worthy Flying Doctor Service, who performed this transfer quickly and efficiently. Thanks to the staff at the Ayers Rock Campground, who couldn't do enough to help Clare and I with the salvage of Mark's bike and subsequent transport to Alice Springs after the man himself had been flown out. In particular, the fella with the beard (you know who you are), and Traci in the office, who in addition to being awesomely efficient and genuinely concerned, is also something of a babe. Thanks also to the doctors and nurses at Alice hospital for their excellent care. And just as an aside, thanks to Mark, who was more concerned about my health than his own - picture this, there we were by the side of the road, covered in red dust, Mark was in excruciating pain from a ruptured kidney (for it was this, we subsequently found out, was the problem), and I was trying to make inane conversation to pass the time while we waited for help. 'How's your flu coming along?' I'd asked. Stupid, I know, but there you go. Mark appeared to give this due consideration through blurry waves of pain.
'Fine thanks,' he says, 'How do you feel yourself?'
After a few days in hospital in Alice, Mark was enduring the various necessary poking and prodding and assorted tubes with more equanimity than I think I would be able to muster. Finally, the decision was made to fly him to a specialist Urology department at the hospital in Adelaide, where doctors whose whole lives revolve around urine would sort the problem out. I'll report on how things turn out, (that is providing Mark doesn't mind me handing out bulletins on the functioning of his waterworks).
Meanwhile I am Northward bound in the direction of Cairns, where I will have to put on a thin veneer of respectability for a few months veterinary work. Yes, it's the 'W' word again. Cheers for now - Connor.
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