Falling Down At Tanelorn

Road Tales By Kelly Ashton

Ozbike Podcast

ROCK CONCERTS are great, aren’t they? The bigger the better, I say, and one of the bigger ones I remember was Tanelorn. That was how it was spelt, but it was pronounced ‘Tannel-lawn.’ Bloody hippies. Tanelorn happened over three days in October 1981 and it was a ripper of a place, set in a deep ravine up near Stroud in the Hunter Valley. Oz’s best bands of the time were playing up a storm: Redgum, The Church, Moving Pictures, Kevin Borich Express, Men at Work, Sunnyboys, Broderick Smith’s Big Combo, Midnight Oil, and Split Enz all gave their best, but the only real highlight for me music-wise came late on Saturday night when Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs ripped the place apart with their rock and roll.

But like the Harley adverts say, getting there is sometimes better than being there. And that’s how it was for me; a veritable odyssey before I even heard the first note or banged the first head.

My girl at the time was already at Tanelorn but I had to work the Friday night. She’d left early Friday morning with a load of people: her sister Leelu, her brother Howie, his girl Spindle, a heap of cousins and various assorted mates had all travelled in a convoy to Tanelorn, They’d been warned on the radio adverts that motorcycles and dogs weren’t allowed on the concert site so there was a lot of people crammed into those cars (along with all the beer and Howie’s white Bull Terrier, Boss. 

I had no choice but to travel by bike from Sydney to the Hunter Valley, so when I finished work late Friday night, the John Player Norton was already gassed up, loaded and pointing North. I jumped on and powered into what promised to be a good weekend.

All was going well until the final stretch — along Bucketts Way with about 5 klikks to go before the concert entrance — when I got booked like a bastard. I wasn’t speeding — no way, no how, and I argued the toss with the A-hole of a sergeant to no avail.

Tanelorn program

Then, just half a mile further on, the traffic jam started. And I mean traffic jam. Being on a bike made it better, but dead set, the cars were just lined up and not moving. People were out of their cars and cooking on barbies, drinking bulk piss, partying and dancing. Well, it was an earth-mother style rock concert so there was a fair smattering of goddamned hippies in the jam.

The line of stopped cars snaked on for quite a few more kilometres, before it bent left into a gate and onto a dirt road. The dirt road into the property snaked on for miles, up hill and down mountain. It could’ve been 5 klikks of dirt road, it could’ve been 15; it’s hard to judge on a pitch-black night with a zillion parked cars and even more dancing hippies to dodge.

I finally got to Checkpoint Charlie where the line of cars stopped (or started, it you want to get technical).

There was a gate, a couple of security guards, and a totally clear dirt road meandering up the side of the last mountain before the fabled valley of Tanelorn with its lush green pastures, crystal-clear streams and no alcohol or motorcycles. And speaking of which, about 60 or 70 motorcycles were corralled at Checkpoint Charlie with lots of bikers moping around doing what bikers do best — looking surly and swearing. I parked the Norton and joined in the surliness and swearing like a long-lost brother.

The reason for the corralled bikers and the 15 km traffic jam allegedly lay just over the ridge on the narrow, winding mountain road. Evidently, a tabletop truck carrying a number of partying people as cargo had left the road and tumbled down the cliff. There were wildly varying rumours as to how many people were injured or who was involved, but the road was blocked by the rescue effort, and the only known fact was that the security detail wasn’t letting anyone through to rock concert Heaven.

There were three other facts of which I was keenly aware: Fact One was that thousands of cars and a large group of impatient bikers were being held in abeyance by two slack-jawed private security guards: Fact Two was that the locked gates preventing access to the dirt road leading to the concert site actually had motorcycle-friendly gaps adjacent. Fact Three was no matter how bad the accident scene, a bike can get through.

Without waiting for instructions, I fired up the Norton, threaded gingerly through one of the gates and fishtailed up the dirt road. As is always the case, the first engine to start was a signal for every other biker to dash to his bike, fire up and follow. I knew I could talk my way through any police cordon a whole lot easier if by myself, so I gassed that sucker hard up the dirt road. Looking back to the gates, there were headlights and mayhem everywhere. With everything from big, ugly Harley riders to kids on trail-bikes doing their best to get through the narrow gates. A few hundred yards behind me, the first couple of headlights were already spattering the eucalypts above with flickers of light. 

John Player Norton

The eye-frying twin headlights in the John Player Special fairing were cooking a way through the narrow mountain trail as I pushed ahead. When I got to the accident scene, it was all but clear with just a tow truck and a cop car just off the side of the track. The one cop there was leaning on the back of his car, and if he wanted me to stop, he was going about it the wrong way. It wasn’t one of those manly, shoulders-back/ chin-out/ palm-outstretched “YOU — STOP!” signals, more a friendly, “This must be the pizza” wave and smile. I roared through without waiting for any adjudication, but all the following headlights seemed to get hung up at that point for a while. That breather was just enough to get to the main entrance where I was to show the ticket I didn’t have. 

The Gate Nazi stood boldly in front of me. “Forty dollars, Sir!” he barked. “Place your motorcycle over there in the bike parking compound, Sir!” he added for effect. 

I was mesmerised by the black uniforms of the Gate Nazis, the pants tucked into the paratrooper boots and the sexy, pistol-grip billy-clubs they were all carrying. ‘Hmmm,’ I thought. ‘They’re new. I wonder how much they hurt compared to the old ones?’

Just then, the words spoken at me by the man blocking my way began to sink in… “Forty friggin’ dollars?” I yelped. “You can buy two slabs of beer for that!”

“If you don’t like it, Sir,” he barked, “You can turn around and go home, Sir.”

I don’t know about you, but to my mind, the number of times a person calls you ‘Sir’ is directly proportional to the intensity of the dislike he feels for whoever he is calling ‘Sir’, so I figured Gate Nazi had taken an intense dislike to Little Ol’ Me.

“I think I will,” I muttered quietly as I rolled the bike forward down the hill a few inches.

Gate Nazi stood his ground, puffed up and put a steady hand on the pistol-grip billy-club. “Back up and go home if you don’t want to pay, Sir!” he commanded.

“I haven’t got reverse gear, mate,” I said testily. “I’ll have to do a U-turn and you’re standing in the way.”

“Oh, sorry, mate,” he said in a much more friendly manner as he stepped aside. “There you go!”

“Sayonara, sucker!” I yelled as I gunned the mighty Norton through the gates, through the hordes of wandering hippies and past the ‘No Vehicles Beyond This Point’ sign.

No matter how fit the arrogant bastard was, he couldn’t out-accelerate a swerving Norton so I was home and hosed and inside the acreage of Tanelorn.

Tanelorn crowd

And that is where the real problems started. I couldn’t find my girl or my gang… or my beer. With no familiar bikes or cars to spy, there was nought but a sea of tents — and there were thousands of the bastards. 

The music on the main stage some miles away was not happening; it must’ve been late for the music to be turned off at a rock concert so large. 

Eerily, it was pretty quiet for a campsite containing tens of thousands of people. The official figures were 28,000 paying customers. (Oh, okay, 27,999) and the sheer size of that crowd was keeping me from my beer. 

I concocted a brilliant plan. Seeing as I had the only motorcycle on site, and a Norton has a fairly distinctive note, surely if I rode through the campsites, my girl would come bursting out of one of the tents once she heard the bass drone of the mighty Norton — especially if that Norton was given a cheeky little blip of the throttle while passing anonymous tents. After riding through about 50 campsites, and garnering about 37 ‘Shut ups’ and 44 ‘Fuck offs’, I realised I’d be quarantined from my girl and my beer until at least daylight. 

I parked the Norton next to a fence and got ready to kip down beside it. I was tonguing for a beer, but so bloody dry, a drink of water would’ve done. I searched high and low for any moisture to no avail. I was just about to lay down next to bike when: kerashh-clankle-ting! I knew that sound. It was the sound of the entire contents of a slab of beer falling out the bottom flaps onto the ground. The frightening sound was immediately followed by an official proclamation: “We camp here!” 

I approached the group of blokes who were now ripping the scabs of some of the spilled cans and hooking in. “Can I buy a beer off you?” I asked politely. “A bloke’s dying of thirst.”

“Naw, fuck off. You can’t buy beer from us,” came the stern reply. “You can have one for free — get this into ya!”

Turns out this group of blokes (from Shortland, if memory serves) had abandoned their cars at the back end of the traffic jam and the eight of so of them had walked the whole way carrying a slab of beer each and not much else. It was surprising the cartons lasted that long, and most of them had at least one broken thong stuck in the back pocket of their jeans.

I partied with these top blokes for ages, and the beers were free. Their main claim to fame was they were all at the Star Hotel riot and they were good mates with the bloke who was the subject of that award-winning press photograph of the Newcastle bloke dancing beside the blazing cop car outside the pub that Cold Chisel sang about. 

I kept wanting to kip out, but they liked my jokes and were paying one can per good joke. Ah well, it’s a living. 

By morning, I was well and truly elephant’s trunk, and I bumped into my mate Chester. Seeing how he had his Triple with him, it turns out you could get your motorcycle in if you went about it the right way. I wonder what Gate Nazi would’ve said to the major Sydney patch club who had all managed to get their bikes in.

Then I found my girl and the rest of the mob, and no, it seems their campsite didn’t get a Norton visit a few hours earlier.

Now, I’d just done a 15-hour shift driving a taxi, then a short blast from Sydney to the Hunter Valley riding the Norton, then a major drinking session with some Newcastle lads who didn’t like pikers who’d refuse an offered beer. I wasn’t half as drink as what some thinkle peep I was, but the sun was up and the new day was just starting. If I wanted my own beer, I’d have to double Howie on the Norton a couple of kays over to where his girlfriend’s car was parked. The ride over was fine; the ride back was not. See, Howie decided to bring his dog Boss, plus the three slabs of beer Boss was minding in Spindle’s car — all in the one trip. The beer from the Boys from Shortland had given me way too much confidence in my own ability. “Fine,” I said.

The John Player Norton is supposed to be a single-seater race replica, but I’d hacked away some of the ducktail and converted it to an almost two-seater. My seven-stone girlfriend was a perfect fit; her brother Howie wasn’t. Add to that three slabs of Tooheys, some camera gear and a Bull Terrier, and, well, you get the picture. Boss Dog wasn’t just a pup either, but one of those Brick Shithouse Bullies. We wobbled off down the rocky track with the human/ canine/ beer load shifting dangerously and Howie had brought everything except his sense of humour. “Be careful,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “The downhill, rocky sections are my favourite!”

We also made our way magnificently up the slippery hill climb, over the giant man-made plateau of red clay. 

Howie was saying: “Watch it, careful of those people, lookout!” and just generally carrying on like an old moll.

“Don’t worry, Howie — swerving around hippies is my favourite part!”

Then Howie got really serious: “Watch out for the wet clay,” he admonished. “It’s really slippery.” 

The red clay patch, recently aided by the heavy rain, was about 200 metres long and 100 metres wide, and looked unavoidable. 

“Don’t worry,” I shouted over my left shoulder. “The red clay is my favourite part. 

We hit the clay at a fair clip and immediately slewed savagely to the left, corrected, overcorrected, undercorrected, and even incorrectly corrected a number of times well before we were at the halfway point. Boss was growling, Howie was howling and I was giggling like a buffoon; that bloody bike just wasn’t doing what I was telling it to do. 

“Don’t you dare crash!” Howie threatened.

There were a number of factors contributed to what occurred next. Two slabs of Tooheys on the tank of the Norton put the centre of gravity way too high. Another slab and a squirming Bull Terrier wedged between me and a whingeing pillion didn’t help matters. Another couple of very graceful swerves, and one final dash to the end of the slippery clay saw the Norton, the rider, the two pillions and the three cases of beer all fall down. The mighty Norton thankfully fell in the soft, squishy mud, so did the beer, so did the Boss dog and so did Howie. In fact, the only component to fall on the dry dirt was me! 

Howie said some words that even I’d never heard before. He called me some nasty names and picked up his muddy self, his muddy dog and the slabs of beer as I gingerly tippy-toed into the quagmire and picked up the bike. 

Wow, I’d never seen Howie that angry, and as he was pretty good at Tai Kwan Do, I did as little as possible to upset him further. And laughing at the red clay mud all over him and his dog wasn’t helping. Neither were the cheers and jeers of hundreds of hippie onlookers. Why can’t there be large crowds present on the odd occasion I do something cool, rather than something dumb?

I managed to get the bike started again, whereupon Howie swore some more and told me he’d be riding and for me to get on the back and carry his muddy dog against my clean clothes. I was trying so hard not to laugh. You know that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the centurions were trying to hold it together while Pontius Pilate lisped on about ‘his vewwy good fwiend Biggus Dickus?’ Well, that’s how hard it was not to laugh. I meekly sat on the back of my own bike while Howie got us back to the campsite.

The rest of the weekend was a blur. Billy Thorpe absolutely creamed it giving one of those performances you know you’ll never forget.

Billy Thorpe playing

I was only becoming aware of my surroundings when we finally hit the freeway. From about Ourimbah onwards, the traffic was bloody well stopped again. Same deal as before, except it was the entire freeway at a total standstill. The only thing moving was the hordes of marauding motorcycles lane-splitting for the entire length of the freeway. Once again, at the head of the jam, literally hundreds and hundreds of bikes were pulled up and corralled. There was an LPG tanker leaking at the weighbridge at the old Berowra tollgates and the cops (real cops, this time) were not letting anyone through.

And once again, I got to stand around in the dark, swear and look surly with a whole load of bikers. Funnily enough, quite a few were ‘me old mates’ from Checkpoint Charlie on the way into Tanelorn. None of them could remember much about the concert either but they all agreed Billy Thorpe was the best.

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