Keith Austin conquers his nerves to become a king of the road.
Imagine you've just come across a long, empty stretch of road in country New South Wales (somewhere between Goulburn and Bathurst if you must know) that's rocket straight and undulating like a wave that would make Kelly Slater swoon. And now imagine you're sitting astride 1690ccs of Harley-Davidson Road King; what do you do?
Well, if the police ever ask, we tootled along it just under the speed limit.
This road also ends in a cool right-hand bend that sweeps up onto a hill that was made for motorbikes. Enter the corner just right, hit the gas, feel the beast under you swallow up the bitumen and it's like flying. Born to Run or what?
And to think I was nervous about all this; just the previous morning I'd never even swung a leg over a Harley-Davidson, let alone ridden one.
The Harley, after all, is an icon – and one with a rebellious history thanks to movies like The Wild One and Easy Rider. The outlaw mystique was an image that motorcycle gangs took to heart – and the Harley that they took to riding. Oddly enough, whereas motorcycle gang violence in the late 1960s supposedly hurt Harley sales, the new hit TV show, Sons of Anarchy, is said to have done the opposite.
All that quite apart, let's be honest, the main appeal is that they look so damn cool. The sleek lines, the 1950s classic retro styling, the insouciant riding position, the wide handlebars and that sexy low engine rumble – the Harley-Davidson is sex on wheels.
But it's not cheap; a brand new Harley Road King, for instance, will set you back about $32,000. Which was another reason I was nervous about taking off into NSW on one for a few days; that's a lot of bike to drop.
So, the next best thing to owning one is hiring one. Which is why a group of us with serious Harley envy end up one Monday morning at the EagleRider Australia HQ on Parramatta Road in Burwood, where owners Will and Santina Keith have set up shop.
After sorting out the administration details we are given a sheet of paper which sets out the dos and don'ts and tips for travelling in a group. These include riding in a staggered formation, bikes alternating to the left and right of a lane with 2-3 seconds between riders in the same lane. This is because, says Will Keith in his native Louisiana accent, the vast majority of accidents with hire bikes consist of riders crashing in to each other.
There's also a set of 14 basic group hand signals for such things as slowing down, refreshment stop, speeding up and, oddly, "I need a comfort stop", which consists of forearm extended, fist clenched with a short up and down motion. There is, of course, a 15th signal, which is waving both arms in the air in a panicked sideways motion: this means you have lost control and are going over a cliff.
Having memorised absolutely none of this I am ready to hit the road. Or not. The trepidation of earlier is still there as we swagger/wobble out into the morning traffic, trying to get the feel for the clutch, the acceleration, steering and braking as we wend our way towards Wollongong through the Royal National Park.
It is certainly a testing time for Will Keith, who jokingly says it's the slowest he's ever been through the twisting roads of the park. Keith, 57, has been a Harley-Davidson Motor Company man for most of his life – both as a rider, mechanic and as an employee of the Harley company itself in the US.
It was on a trip to Australia 10 years ago that Keith and his partner, Santina, decided to stay and take advantage of the climate, the natural beauty and bike-friendly highways. And in December last year they finally set up EagleRider Australia – the Down Under arm of one of the world's biggest motorbike rental companies.
And this December they'll be offering the first of a series of week-long NSW Country Escape tours, taking in Hill End (BBQ and bonfire), Orange, Bathurst, Parkes and Dubbo.
We, on the other hand, are taking a round-trip from Sydney to Goulburn, Bathurst, Katoomba and back via Bells Line of Road to get a feel for the Harley-Davidson experience.
The black Road King 2013 model FLHR that the Keiths have suggested for someone of my size and experience (I usually ride a 1200cc BMW cruiser) is a thing of beauty and is, you begin to realise after six or so hours in the saddle, a bit like riding your favourite armchair. On the third day, after I swapped bikes with another rider whose coccyx had taken a hammering on the smaller 1200cc Sportster, he was heard to sigh: "All this thing needs is a doona."
After short rests at Stanwell Tops Lookout, a drive across the wonderfully wave-like Sea Cliff Bridge, another stop at the aptly-named Sublime Lookout above Austinmer, we break for lunch at Bulli Beach Café (I can vouch for the Vietnamese pork belly baguette) and then head off inland towards the Southern Highlands.
To do this we have to negotiate the twists and turns of Mount Murray, following tight corners and switchbacks through Macquarie Pass and up across the summit, 780 metres above sea level. It's certainly a lesson for anyone still getting used to a new motorbike but we all make it safely and then enjoy the run down the other side as the Illawarra Highway (A48) straightens out and plunges into the flatter, rolling green hills of the Southern Highlands.
Suddenly there are well-fed cattle here and there, sheep too, and before long we are pulling up outside the award-winning Burrawang Village Hotel, too late for lunch but in time for afternoon tea with homemade cakes, coffee, tea and ice-cream (not drinking and driving is the first Tip For Safe Riding on the aforementioned safety sheet).
The rest of the afternoon is taken up with the 85km, one-hour run straight to Goulburn. Heading directly west, we are treated to gorgeous gold and fading blue light show as the setting sun, unhindered by clouds, paints the landscape, lighting up the occasional stand of ghost gums with eerie fire.
That night we are booked into the Best Western Centretown motel, which has recently joined up with the Harley Owners' Group and advertises itself as a Rider-Friendly hotel. For HOG members this means a 10 per cent discount throughout Australia and New Zealand. At Centretown, and 49 other Rider-Friendly hotels, it also means you get a towel for your bike, access to a cleaning station and onsite parking.
The next day we set off at 9am, heading north towards Bathurst, where we will be taking a turn around Mount Panorama before heading east again to Katoomba. It's a trip that takes us past Abercrombie River National Park, Kanangra-Boyd National Park and Vulcan State Forest.
As we leave, what threatened to be a sunny day turns silvery, blustery and cold as patchy clouds close in. Riding in formation out of Goulburn, we arouse the attention first of human onlookers and then of curious cows and gaggles of galahs who seem furious at our passing.
Soon, though, the dairy animals and their manicured fields give way to more rugged climes. This is a country of sweeping roads and glorious vistas, of creeks and rivers and sheltered gullies where gums, stringybarks, banksia and eucalypts erupt from the rocky landscape. Above us birds of prey hover patiently.
It's where a simple bend in the road can bring with it the rush of a river, the warm smell of wood, the piney, minty aroma of eucalypt or the sweet, sickly smell of a decomposing marsupial at the side of the road (or, in a first for most of us, the body of a very large pig).
"Was it feral?" asked someone when we stopped shortly after spotting it.
"Bloody livid, I would have thought," said some joker.
At the top of our climb through the low ranges before Oberon, we discover later from the support car, it was a mere 11degrees C. It's at times like those that I appreciate my full-face helmet. The good thing is that Will Keith's prediction of yesterday, that today all the nerves will be behind us, seems to have come true.
The six-speed Road King is a powerful machine, perfect for cruising, with ABS brakes, and is surprisingly easy to handle for such a large motorbike. It also has a huge petrol tank. When we stop in Bathurst to refuel Will Keith laughs and says: "This is why they call them Road Kings – six gallons [22 litres] of petrol and smooth enough to go to sleep on."
The next day we swap bikes and I ride the smaller Sportster back to Sydney via Bells Line of Road – a trip chock full of graceful bends that has Keith again praising just how far we have come on these classic bikes; we are falling naturally into the staggered formation and are leaning into corners rather than just steering into them.
Back in Sydney a couple of hours later I'm looking at "my" Road King with different eyes: is $27,000 (for a second-hand bike like this one) too much for a dream ride? Possibly, but it's nice to know you can rent the dream for a day or two.
Keith Austin travelled courtesy of EagleRider Australia, Best Western and Destination NSW.
EagleRider Australia runs three guided tours and several self-drive tours. The seven-day, 1069-km Country NSW Escape has departure dates in December, February and March, starting at $2591 per person including hotel accommodation, late model motorcycle rental, unlimited kilometres, fuel and oil, welcome and farewell dinners, tour leader and support vehicle. Daily (24 hour) hire starts at $205. See eaglerider.com.au.