To the south of Sydney there are two famous and well-loved biker’s roads; the Royal National Park and Macquarie Pass. Now, I must apologise for people living outside NSW; I have tried to make this web-site very non-specific – things that relate equally no matter where you live. But even for those people outside NSW (and I’ve had readers contact me from Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania!) I’m sure there will be local equivalents of these roads, so you’ll be able to relate to the story here.
Most people will have heard of The Royal National Park, as it is often mentioned in magazine road tests. It’s a 2-lane road that winds it’s way south of Sydney through bushland, with lots of corners to enjoy. Macquarie Pass is just as well-known by locals, if not mentioned as often in the motorcycle mags. Although it is mentioned from time to time, and also gets a mention in RTA leaflets etc. So you've probably heard about it.
“The Pass” as the locals refer to it, is the main road between the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands, and is part of the Illawarra Highway. It’s only 8 km long, but it is 8 km of corners! There are no straights; just a few wriggly bits inbetween more corners. Most of the corners are reasonably sharp, but there are some more open flowing ones too; and all are different. The road surface is good, and so it makes a great biker’s road! I really like riding it! That constant lean-left, lean-right, give it a squirt, ease off, lean-left, lean-right, with the road snaking under the wheels, it’s a very enjoyable ride!
There’s even a good place to go at the top of it. Not far from the top there is the Robertson Pie Shop; which is the Southern Highland’s equivalent of the “Road Warrior” Café to Sydney’s north. On any Saturday or Sunday you’ll usually see an interesting collection of bikes parked there.
The fact that – for me at least - all this can be enjoyed at reasonably low speed makes it even more appealing and makes it feel safer than a road that demands higher speeds to achieve the same level of cornering enjoyment.
Unfortunately though, not everyone treats it quite like this. To ride The Pass quickly is a challenge; and one that many are keen to take on. You’ll even see some checking their watch at each end, timing their run like laps around a race-track. And treating The Pass as a race-track has gained it some notoriety, for what the locals refer to as “the mad motorbikes” that travel it. I said that riding The Pass quickly is a challenge, and I suppose it can be a great adrenaline rush, but if you treat it like this it is also inheritantly dangerous!
The road itself was first opened in 1898, and bears the legacy of the era when it was designed. The road is narrow, and for the most part has no centre-line; although centre-lines have been recently added in a couple of sections (as in the photo above). The corners often have humps or dips in the middle of them, many have a tightening radius, visibility is mostly pretty limited, and there are two extremely tight hair-pins. Most of the road is flanked by a rock or earth bank on one side and a drop (with armco railing) on the other side. So if you do try it a high speed and get it wrong; well, the consequences are potentially very serious!
Weather conditions can create other hazards. Wind can blow leaves, twigs and other debris onto the road. And even if it has rained the previous day, there can still be damp patches in shaded areas. These factors, and the way the road often rises or dips through corners, have brought many riders undone. But perhaps the biggest danger is traffic. On such a narrow winding road other vehicles sometimes don’t keep completely to their side of the road. Trucks though, especially larger ones like semi-trailers, have a particular problem. When negotiating tighter corners it is inevitable that, due to their size and length, they will end up at least partly on the wrong side of the road. (On the hair-pins they have to stop and basically do a 3-point-turn to get around).
Now, all this isn’t really a problem if you ride at a speed appropriate to the conditions, and at a speed that allows you to stop, or at least change line, within the distance you can see. Sadly though, many riders don’t. And often pay the price!
I once saw the aftermath of one such incident. Stopped on the road just before a sharp bend was a car with a bike wedged under the front of it! It wasn’t hard to work out what had happened. The bike had been coming up the pass into a left-hand corner. He’d obviously lost it and slid across the road into the on-coming car. Luckily, all were unhurt. The rider and the occupants of the car were standing around looking rather forlorn, but in answer to my enquiry, assured me they were all okay. Others, however, haven’t been as lucky.
In a 6-month period from August 2004 to February 2005, there were three fatalities. Two of those involved head-on collisions with a truck. In both of those incidents the truck was coming up the pass, the bike going down. Now, to me, that’s an accident that shouldn’t happen! If the truck is coming up hill you know it won’t be going fast, and if the bike is travelling at a sensible speed, it will be able to avoid the truck, even if the truck is encroaching onto the wrong side of the road.
At the end of 2005, a meeting was held at the Robertson Pie Shop to discuss safety issues on the pass. Representatives from the police, the RTA, the Motorcycle Council of NSW, and other interested parties, such as the Illawarra Riders Association and the Macquarie Pass Safety Group were in attendance. Being interested in any action to help our safety, especially on a favourite piece of road, I went along too. By the time I got there all the speeches were over, but I did get to talk to a representative from the Motorcycle Council and got given several hand-outs. One of those was a brochure prepared by the Macquarie Pass Safety Group. It had some good advice, and also some rather chilling statistics.
In a five-year period to the end of 2005, there had been over 142 crashes involving motorcycles. (And that’s only the ones they knew about. There would be many others where a bike went down but no-one was hurt, and the bike was picked up and went on it’s way without any report to the authorities). Five riders had been killed, and many more seriously injured.
To look further into the statistics, all those killed were aged between 30 and 45. All were male. 80% of crashes occurred on bends (no surprise there!), and 71% involved excessive speed for the conditions (again, no real surprise!). In 42% of crashes the rider simply ran off the road. 41% were head-on collisions with another vehicle. 64% occurred on weekends, with those split fairly evenly between Saturday and Sunday; although 4 of the 5 fatalities had occurred on a Sunday.
Then in October 2006 came the news that another rider had been killed on the pass. Another Sunday, and another head-on with a truck. The truck again coming up the pass, the bike going down. It happened on a section of road where the corners were particularly sharp. The truck, a semi-trailer, was reportedly towards the middle of the road, but I was told by a reliable witness that there was enough room to have driven a car past on the inside of the truck. Another case of a rider going way too quick, committed to a racing-line through a corner only to be confronted by a huge obstacle right on the exit-line? Well, as I write this investigations are still under-way, but there were reliable reports that the rider had been seen travelling at high speed and executing some very risky overtaking manoeuvers along the road before the pass. Apparently he was spotted by police, who began to take chase but had to let him go.
This latest incident again happened on a Sunday, but unusually, the rider was 59 years old; significantly older than the other riders killed. You tend to think of older riders as being “more mature” and not riding irresponsibly, but there is more to the subject of older riders than that. (And you can check out a new article on this, “Age And The Art Of Motorcycle Riding” under the “Comments” section).
A couple of weeks later, on the 28th of October, there was another meeting held at the Robertson Pie shop, with the same groups represented. A new pamphlet was handed out. It was basically the same as the previous year’s, but with one more statistic in the list of those killed. One more statistic which really shouldn’t have happened!
The statistics make for scary reading, but I still feel quite safe riding the pass. As I said at the first meeting, the only thing that worries me is meeting one of those 71% of riders who have an accident by going too fast for the conditions. For example, what if I had been where that car was that I saw with the bike wedged under it? If it had been me that the wayward rider slid into rather than that car, then I could have been seriously hurt!
I do worry about cars too. The last time I rode down there I met an aging Commodore coming around the corner towards me with it’s tyres squealing. That sort of thing has happened once or twice before, but I haven’t had any close calls because of it. And the fact remains that, despite the occasional car losing it and going over the edge or into a bank, the most common cause of riders being hurt is the riders themselves!
Now, I understand it is easy to make mistakes. For example, it’s easy to misjudge a corner; especially on this road, if you’re not totally familiar with it. Or other things; such as one occasion when I was startled by a car suddenly appearing around a corner and, although there was no real danger, stupidly hit the brakes. But these sort of things don’t cause problems if you’re travelling at a sensible speed. And that’s what it comes down to really; speed! Speed and ability. Especially on a road like this, you have to leave a lot of both in reserve.
The photo on the left shows a memorial to one of the previous riders who died on this road. It should also stand as a reminder to all riders of the potential dangers that await those who don't treat the road with the respect it requires.
On the Illawarra Riders Association web-site, they ask that “members not exceed their skill level or treat the public road as a race track at any time”. If everyone followed that advice, Macquarie Pass would remain a safe and enjoyable place to ride, and there would be no need for a new brochure with one more statistic added!  
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