"HARLEY-Davidson bikes. Those are definitely the distinctive sounds of the world famous motorcycle engines. Judging by the din, there must be quite a lot of the big bikes outside," remarks Cheryl Warren as she lands a large wagyu beef burger in front of me.
When quizzed about the sudden arrival of the big bikes, the Jamberoo Pub owner explains that the town that shares the same first name with her establishment is a popular stop-over for bikers when they travel along the scenic southern coast of New South Wales.
"Jamberoo Pub, built in 1857, is one of Australia's best kept secrets. Apart from great food and exceptional tap beer, people visit us to marvel at our outstanding sports memorabilia collection that adorns almost every inch of this building. What’s more, we’re only a two-hour drive away from Sydney, just the right distance for a weekend escape," elaborates Warren while I make quick work of my delicious meal.
Acting on her suggestion, I head outside to have a quick look while she prepares my dessert. "Come back in 15 minutes and your last course will be here waiting," she hollers while reminding me not to be intimidated by the scene outside.
The scene that greets me on the verandah is reminiscent of huge American bike rallies seen on TV. Apart from the scores of leather-jacketed bikers enjoying their drinks and a bite or two, there are motorbikes of every shape and size parked neatly in rows along Allowrie Street that fronts the pub.
Warren is right. I’m greeted with smiles at every turn. Before long, I find myself striking up a conversation with a burly gentleman by the name of Steve Melchior who’d just finished his first pint and was about to go indoors for second helpings.
We eventually end up at my table and Melchior begins telling me about the motorcycle tours that he specially tailors for people who have never been on big bikes but are interested to feel the wind against their faces and smell the surroundings in its unadulterated form while enjoying the sights and sounds without the physical constraints of a car.
In between mouthfuls of delicious Kiama Pines Gelato, I listen in awe as Melchior fills me in on his life-long passion for motorcycles, especially those with the Harley-Davidson badge. The man, who loves nothing better than the wind whistling through his handle-bar moustache, unabashedly professes that his profession of choice is the best a person can ever hope for.
Grinning broadly, Melchior confides that he has never had any regrets since the day he swapped an engineering maintenance job at Qantas eight years ago to turn his passion into a career. He likes nothing better than chauffeuring guests on one of his beloved trikes, sidecars or solo motorcycles and embarking on spectacularly scenic journeys that cover places like the Lawrence Hargrave Drive linking Royal National Park with Wollongong.
‘Just Cruisin' Motorcycle Tours also specialise in showcasing the beautiful Illawara coastline, including the majestic Sea Cliff Bridge and the meandering Grand Pacific Drive. Give it a try! Who knows, you might be one of the lucky few to see whales and dolphins playfully swimming in the nearby waters," suggests Melchior, before breaking into a delighted grin when I decide to take him up on his offer.
Before parting ways, we make plans to meet bright and early the next day in Wollongong, a picturesque seaside city just a little more than 32 kilometres north of Jamberoo. Melchior suggests that we breakfast at Diggies before starting our ride.
"Diggies is a local institution on North Wollongong Beach that serves restaurant quality food in a relaxed cafe setting. Views of the glittering Pacific Ocean from our table will give you a foretaste of what’s in store for the rest of the morning," quips Melchior before racing off to catch up with the rest of his mates.
The next morning sees us joining early bird joggers, surfers and strollers for a superb breakfast spread aptly called The Big One. Melchior, who lives by the mantra of starting each day with a good meal, insists that all the crispy chats, avocado, sausage, bacon, roast tomato and mushies on sourdough toast with eggs must disappear from our plates before commencing the tour.
During the course of our meal, Melchior catches me off guard when he relates a near-death experience both he and his partner Shelley Daniew had while travelling across the United States during the early days of Just Cruisin' Motorcycle Tours.
Known then as Just Cruisin' Harley Tours, the company specialised in the sale of camper trailers that could be towed behind motorbikes. At that time, Melchior felt that the best plan to promote his fledgling business was to ship a bike and trailer across the Pacific Ocean and spend six weeks riding through nine states while trying his best to tap into the world's largest economy.
"It wasn’t easy going right from the start. We had to wait five days upon arrival in Los Angeles for customs clearance. Then for the next 14,000 kilometres, Daniew and I experienced every weather condition imaginable. The weather extremes began on the first day when we experienced the first of many desert storms while travelling from Las Vegas to Utah in 43-degree heat," recalls Melchior.
Soon after, the couple was hit by a rainstorm that was so heavy that they couldn’t see the road in front or behind them. At Colorado Springs, they rode up the 4,300m Pikes Peak only to be greeted by hail as well as snow.
"At that point, it dawned upon us that travelling in North America was no breeze. Our plan to mix business with pleasure during the trip was in shambles," quips Melchior before adding that both he and his partner had no idea that Mother Nature had something worse in store for them just around the corner.
Just the day before Melchior was about to realise a dream of ascending into Harley heaven with more than 500,000 bikers from across the United States, a frightening event almost took him to the real place.
The old saying of ignorance is bliss caught the couple unprepared after they visited the home of Buffalo Bill in Cody, Wyoming and were trying to reach Sturgis before nightfall for its famous bike week. When they realised they couldn’t make it,
Melchior and Daniew decided to pull into an RV park in Gillette.
They were relaxing and enjoying the cool night air after a hot day on the road, when the gentle breeze stopped abruptly and was replaced by an eerie silence. Moments later, the quietness was shattered by loud noises.
"We were sitting outside our camper having a quiet drink when sirens and a loudspeaker began blaring," recalls Melchior, continuing: “A severe rainstorm with strong gales started so we went into the camper to wait it out. After it passed, I went to the local shop to buy supplies and asked what all the noise was about. I was dumbstruck when told that it was a tornado alert for residents to find solid hiding places!"
BACK TO STURGIS
Walking me to his bike, Melchior claims that the scary experience hasn’t deterred him from visiting America again.
He shares: “I’m thinking about doing it again next year for the 30th anniversary of Sturgis Bike Week when more than one million people are expected to transform the small town of 6,900 people into a true Harley city."
Helping me to put on an ex-Police leather jacket, Melchior reveals that my experience today would be made extra special — we’d be riding his recently purchased German manufactured BOOM trike.
"Trikes provide greater stability and with its 1.6 litre Ford engine, I can easily coax this machine to cruising speed within seconds. This bike will be shipped out to the United States within a few months and I’ll be on it when I ride into Sturgis this year!" declares Melchior happily before commencing his last minute safety checks.
Right from the word go, the experience of being chauffeured on a trike going at the top end of the legal speed limit is really beyond words. Exhilarating, electrifying and thrilling are the closest I can find in my vocabulary!
Our journey takes us through the southern reaches of the Royal National Park with its shaded pockets of lush rainforest.
Also Australia's oldest national park, this place prides itself on its breath-taking views from Bald Hill, site of a memorial to pioneering aviator Lawrence Hargrave who experimented with flying box-kites and other flying machines here in the 19th century.
Today, the area is popular with tandem hang gliding and paragliding enthusiasts.
Just a couple of minutes south is the jewel in the region's crown — the Sea Cliff Bridge. This man-made marvel meanders like a large serpent for 665 metres, jutting out over rocky platforms and the waters of the ocean. Today, this feat of engineering is a far safer alternative to the previous cliff-hugging single lane highway that was regularly closed by rock falls and landslides.
BIKER TURNS NATURE GUIDE
On the southern side, we park and jump off the trike for a leisurely walk across a section of the bridge. At this juncture, Melchior sets aside his leather-jacketed macho image and turns nature guide.
Pointing to scores of birds roosting on an exposed cliff wall, he shares that the Sea Cliff Bridge serves as a great lookout for a wide variety of birds such as cormorants, little penguins, white-bellied sea-eagles, sooty oyster catchers and Australian pelicans.
This part of the Illawara coast is also world famous for petrels, gannets and albatrosses. These rare birds are particularly visible during winter and early spring when the strong on-shore currents bring in a seasonal feast of giant cuttlefish.
Apart from birds, people also frequent the Sea Cliff Bridge with hopes of seeing migratory whales, dolphins and seals. Melchior explains that humpbacks migrate north along the east coast in June and July annually and return in October and November.
During their northward migration to their breeding grounds in warmer waters, the cetaceans swim close to the coast and can be seen easily from the Sea Cliff Bridge. On their return journey south, the whales and their calves travel further out at sea at a much slower pace.
Before returning to the trike for our return journey to Wollongong, Melchior shares: “Other whale species that can sometimes be seen from here include short and long-finned pilot whales, minke whales and blue southern right whales. Rarer sightings that have been reported include those of killer whales and blue whales."
With the thrill of riding brought down a notch during the return trip, I actually find myself appreciating more things on the Grand Pacific Drive and the Illawarra escarpment. Also going at a much slower speed than earlier, Melchior takes some time to point out several dramatic cliff faces and spectacular lookouts along the way.
The costal views, however, remain just as mesmerising as before. Together with the Sea Cliff Bridge, they make my ride with Melchior a truly memorable experience. All these wouldn’t have been possible had I not crossed paths with him at the historic Jamberoo Pub.
For details, go to www.justcruisintours.com.au