KLE 500 – Beautiful Betsy

Back in the 2004 I was asked if I wanted to take my KLE 500 for a ride to visit the crash site of Beautiful Betsy, an American Liberator bomber which crashed near Gladstone in 1945.  The plane had only been found recently and, once the remains of the crew had been found and removed, and the crash zone photographed and catalogued, it was opened to the public. 

Yep, I was in. 

Betsy File Photo

After registering our vehicles at the National Parks office in town, we sailed forth a week later one sunny Sunday morning.

The ride up the Kroombit Range was fantastic, and the KLE was running like a train.  I had road/trail tyres on, and had deflated them a little to handle the dirt tracks.  One of the mates was on a Honda 500 road bike, so I figured the KLE was definitely going to handle whatever came our way.

Near the top of the range the road got a little narrower and steeper.  Long drops into the thickly wooded valleys below gave us an extra thrill.  The scenery changed from sparse, dry brown hills, to lush, green, mountainous terrain, dotted with flowing creeks lined with thick growths of ferns, staghorns and blackboys.  Along this road we now rode in single file with the support truck bringing up the rear. 

At the top of the range we passed by the camp grounds, and the rangers station.  The road was much better and we started to speed up.  It was fun, right up until I came to a ‘Y’ shaped fork in the road, and my front tyre started to let go in the thick layer of loose gravel.  I snaked all over the road, only just managing to keep upright, and just as I was about take out the large gum tree right in the middle of the intersection, the tyres grabbed and flung me hard to the left and around the tree.  I slowed down, my heart was jammed at the back of my throat, and pumping harder than a honeymooning Spaniard.  The bloke who had been riding behind me came alongside and yelled, “Mate!  How did you do that?!  You’re a *&%^ing Legend!” 

No.  I was the luckiest bastard on the trail that day, because my dirt riding skills are pretty ordinary… ordinarily. 

The last obstacle to get to the crash site was a long hill covered (for some insane reason) in sand.  2nd gear, flat.  The poor bugger behind me knew all about it as he got covered in a huge rooster tail of sand on my scramble to the top, I ripped the clutch in just in time to avoid launching through the small carpark like Evil Knievel on a bad day.

The crash site is a quick stroll through the silent scrub, and every noise we made seemed to be amplified in the stillness.  The plane was a mangled wreck, having more or less hit the only large rock jutting out of the side of the hill.  I reckon the poor buggers on board wouldn’t even know they’re dead.  The impact was so great that the plane bent in half, the tail flipping over the cockpit, and the four engines ripped off the wings ploughing nearly a hundred metres through the scrub, the propellors (each blade nearly 6 feet long) flung off in different directions. 

We took some snaps, had a bit of a snoop round, then sat in silence, each of us thinking our own thoughts, when suddenly a sound not like a cannon shot startled us out of our daydreams.  It was a large branch snapping off a nearby iron bark.  The perils of the Australian bush…     

Afterwards we made our way back to the bikes, and agreed that we would ride to the Kroombit Tops lookout, refuel from the containers in the 4wd, then make our way down to Ubobo on the southern track.  No worries. 

We set off and immediately split up, the good riders shooting ahead, sideways round the bends at a good rate of knots.  My bike was taking corners sideways as well, even at slower speeds, and on a couple of occasions I actually had the bike under control… damn tyres!

I ended up slowing right down, because the odds were pretty good that I was going to kiss the gravel if I kept pushing my luck.  I found some of the group and the lookout at the same time, just as I flicked over to my reserve fuel setting.  We waited for ages, and every now and then could hear bikes in the distance, sometimes revving hard.  Because I had the larger tank it was agreed that I should go back a little way to try and find them.  Just as I kicked the old girl over they turned up. 

The Kroombit Tops lookout is amazing.  The platform juts out over a high cliff face, and the first time I looked down I thought my guts were going to drop out of my arse.  Once I convinced myself that the deck was sturdy enough to support all of us I started to enjoy the amazing view (unfortunately not one of my damned photos turned out… guess I’ll have to go up again!)

View from platform at Kroombit Tops

View from platform at Kroombit Tops

The trip back down the range was an eye-opener.  Tyres, half dirt, half road (useless on both) were not meant for this type of riding.  The downhills were steep, and the corners so sharp that they almost turned inside out.  The drop offs on the side of the range were almost vertical so that if you were to go over, you’d be killed for certain… and no-one would ever know, or be able to find you in the thick undergrowth of ferns at the bottom of those tree filled cliffs.  

Only once did I come close to crashing.  The road had widened, and the grade was smoothing out, so I picked up the pace.  I was the 2nd last bike, with only the Honda roadie and the 4wd waaay behind me.  The others, were waaay in front, so I thought I’d try and catch up.

Fun!  I was having a ball, almost the perfect riding day.  I hammered toward a sharp corner and noticed that the dirt track was full of long and deep grooved skid marks, looking up I saw why, the corner was so tight that if you took it at any speed greater than, say, 5 kph, you would almost certainly go over the edge into the heavily wooded valley below. 

I clearly remember three things about that moment:  1.  I was yelling at the top of my lungs (in the bush, only the trees can hear you scream), 2.  The KLE’s brakes, suspension and steering worked magnificently, as I took the turn almost laying down, and 3. As time slowed down, I recall thinking over and over, “F*#* I’m dead!!”

My luck held.  It is the only time I have ever scraped the footpegs on my bike, my left leg was stretched so far out from the bike that I must have looked like a land born water skier.  It certainly felt like my hip was popping out of its socket.  I still have no idea how the hell I got round that bend.    My hair turned grey that day… or possibly the next day… look, it was around that time anyway 🙂

The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful for me from that point on.  At a greatly reduced speed I got to enjoy the surroundings and magnificent views over the tops of the trees, and at the bottom of the range I passed through a timber cutters camp, before blasting through a knee deep flowing creek.  The only thing that would have made it more enjoyable was if I’d carried more bottles of water.  The creek at the camp was the last one I went through, and I wished that I got off and had a drink.  As it was, by the time I rode into Ubobo, I was parched, and not a little disappointed to discover that the shop was shut (it always is/was on Sundays).  Fortunately the water tank out the back was working, so I gulped down a few mouthfuls before riding off. 

Some of the better riders (all of them except for me and Mr. Honda) returned from wherever it was they’d been riding, and we stopped and chatted for a bit.  They were going to go back to see how Mr. Honda and the 4wd were going.  It was suggested that I should keep going as I’d only slow them down… cheeky buggers!  So I rode forth on my own, not that it really mattered much, I was pretty familiar with this stretch of road now.

From Ubobo, I rode onward to Nagoorin, then checked out an old camping spot, it was full of campers, and the ground was strewn with empty bottles, dirty nappies and litter (good onya morons!). 

Disgusted, I returned to the road and cruised homewards in a reflective frame of mind.  Much of this area is not controlled by the National Parks mob, and that is a good and bad thing.  Good, because when you want to go camping you don’t have some Hitler in uniform ordering you about (like they did in every camp ground around Brisbane that I visited).  And, Bad, because idiots being idiots, will turn any good camping spot into an open sewer, just because they can, which ruins it for everbody.  Surely there must be some compromise?  Shoot all the idiots perhaps?  Where to start…   

I arrived home just after dark, feeling weary, but exhilerated.  My bike was covered in dust, as was I, but only one of us was going to be washed that night… me (in case you were wondering).  The next day I caught up with some of the boys.  The bloke on the Honda had a hell of a time coming down the range apparently.  Thanks to his road tyres, and shocking state of the tracks, he spent more time crashing than he did riding.  Fortunately the support truck was behind the poor bastard to help on each occasion!

I’m hoping to take my family up to see the plane again soon, and will look at hiring a 4wd for the day/weekend.  Should be a blast, and this time I’ll make sure I get some better photos from the lookout… oh yes, and take plenty of water!

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