The Harley Riders With a Taste for Tea and Apple Strudel

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Julia Bergin, a reporter based in the Northern Territory.

Ron Noll was known for riding his Harley-Davidson motorbike in flip-flops, or thongs as they are known here, preferring the ventilation and comfort of the hassle-free footwear in the Central Australian desert heat.

But on Sunday morning, he rolled into a gas station in Alice Springs dressed in heavy-duty boots. Mr. Noll reluctantly acknowledged to an amused circle of riders that he’d made a “necessary change” in the interest of safety.

The four riders — Mr. Noll, Richard Blom, Daniel Bowman and Marcia Fels — are part of the local Harley Owners Group, whose total membership runs to about 25. They were all wearing denim, leather and, yes, boots. This loose uniform was completed with an outer leather vest emblazoned with a Harley eagle-and-wheel insignia.

Their outfits may have suggested the stereotype of a menacing bike gang. But their preference of tea and apple strudel was a sign that this club had no appetite for flouting the law.

The two patches on the back of their Harley vests confirmed this. One more patch would have signaled that they were in an outlaw gang, like the Hells Angels, Bandidos or Comancheros. In Australia, these are known as MCs, or motorcycle clubs. Mr. Noll and his fellow riders belong to a separate category: SMC, or social motorcycle club. In short, they’re simply motorcycle enthusiasts.

After covering about 130 kilometers (80 miles) in an hour, the Alice Springs H.O.G. stopped at the Kata Anga Tea Rooms in the Indigenous community of Ntaria, also known as Hermannsburg, southwest of Alice Springs. There, over a cuppa, they talked about the perils lying in wait for social clubs that don’t stay in their lanes and respect the unspoken rules of local biker culture.

The best way to stay out of trouble, Mr. Noll said wryly, is to do “as little as possible.”

While there are no outlaw MCs based in Central Australia, they can still exert influence in the region.

According to the Alice Springs riders, another social club recently tried to move into South Australia and ended up trespassing on a well-known MC’s territory. As a result, they say, it was forcibly shut down, or “patched over” in biker slang.

“If you’re in their territory, what they do is they come up, they go to your clubhouse, and they’ll say, ‘Give us your keys. You’ve got one choice, you walk out the door, you leave your bikes here, we’re taking you over,’” Mr. Blom said in between mouthfuls of apple strudel.

That was an example of a social club that wanted to “try gangster on,” said Shannon Althouse, a former leader of the Darwin Rebels club who served seven years in prison for attempted murder. (Mr. Althouse, who was not at the tea shop, is now a youth coach for the Arrernte Community Boxing Academy in Alice Springs.)

Mr. Blom said far too many riders were influenced by movies that encourage violence, hierarchy and general gang culture — as well as poor riding practice.

“You get these biker movies, even in ‘Wild Hogs,’ where they’ve got four bikes riding two and two together,” he said. “You should never ride level like that, because when a crow or an eagle or a bird hits you in the face, you’re going to react.” That could lead to carnage, he said — a swerve, a collision, someone being run off the road.

Mr. Bowman agreed. “It’s dangerous, but they do it,” he said. “The MC group that came through Alice the year before last — the Mongols — they all rode side-by-side.”

The Alice Springs H.O.G. rides in a staggered formation. The person up front, the “road captain” — chosen entirely on the basis of whose bike has cruise control — is on the right side of the road, followed at a distance behind by someone on the left side, and so on. This gives everyone an unobstructed view and the space to react quickly if they have to.

The group has a rule against “leery behavior” on the roads, and Mr. Blom says it takes punishment very seriously, meting out a fine of five Australian dollars (about $3.25) for anyone who dares to pass the road captain.

“Ron always pays $100 up front at the beginning of the year,” Mr. Blom, the road captain for this ride, said of Mr. Noll, the rider who preferred flip-flops.

Mr. Noll had his reasons. “No way I’m waiting for you lot at the end of a ride,” he said, quietly.

Now here are our stories of the week.

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