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Crossing the Katherine River Underwater


A first hand account by Lofty Evans

It all started in a motorcycle workshop in 4th Street, Gino Chillis shed.  Trying with great success to see the back of the fridge shelf, with a few of the local revheads, Ken Callanan, (Pommie), Dave Hindley, (AKA Eveready, but that’s another story), Brian Bader, Phil Boyle, and some others whom I cannot recall.  When Sylvia Wolfe from The Pinetree Motel behind the workshop in 3rd Street entered and made me think that I was in the shit over excessive noise from the motorcycles as we were preparing them for an upcoming race meeting.

However, it turned out that Sylvia was the main organiser for a planned Katherine Carnival about May and needed more activities to amuse the crowds expected.

In those days, Katherine people were an adventurous bunch and made their own fun, no matter how outrageous it may have been.  So downing a few more drops of the stewed hops, and after much discussion, I suggested we ride a motorcycle across the river, or rather under it.


 Then some bright spark with no imagination said “you can’t do it”.  Well that was enough to stir the pot.  The first thing to organise was a bike.  There was a selection of approximately 12 on the floor, new Hondas, Yamahas & Suzukis but I could not get a supplier to OK such a project.  Then Hans Van Santen from Darwin Yamaha said he had a Yamaha TY250D in stock.  A quick trip to Darwin, (they all were before 130kph) and return with a now pre-delivered and soon to be demonstrator.

As the river at the time was expected to be 14 ft deep (4.2 meters) scuba gear was called for.  Enter John Pfitzner, an insurance salesman in Katherine with the equipment and know how as he had worked in European waters previously.

Many hours of water proofing, testing and still more water proofing, it came time to try the real thing.  Enter knots crossing, freezing cold and pitch dark, scaring the sight see-ers, I still haven’t figured out what can be seen at that time of night in a panel van.

The test itself went off without a hitch although only at a depth of 6 ft, (2 meters).  Thinking we had got it licked, I still wanted to improve on the setup.  Dragging out my old fuel formula book,(from previous racing escapades), we mixed one up with water, shaken vigorously, and poured off the fuel once separated and dipped the spark plug in the water/fuel residue and plugged it into the high tension lead of the engine without installing the plug back into the motor.

One kick and it burst into flames.


All in the workshop yelled “Lets try it” so after draining all the normal fuel from the bike and carbie, we poured approximately one litre into it.

Bugger, it won’t start.  Kick, kick, kick, choke, choke, choke, BROOOOM, but won’t idle, more throttle, then the motor really started to rev, and wouldn’t stop!!

Disconnect spark plug, disconnect magneto, all to no avail.  By this time most of the assistants had bolted out the door as the motor was revving waaaay over its designed limit.  The only way to stop the thing was to choke the air intake, ok, hand will do, on the end of 20 feet of intake pipe.  The bruise in palm of hand was there for 5 days.

One Yamaha TY250D Diesel motorbike.

Disassemble engine, replace piston, rings, pin bearings and clips, just like new.

One more test run needed, but not at Knotts Crossing. (To bloody cold).  As it happened, new houses were being built opposite the workshop, enter 1 borrowed builders plank, the nearest water, and warm at that was in Sylvias motel swimming pool.  Eleven PM seemed like the perfect time.  It took her about 2 weeks to forgive us for that, after polluting her pool.

John Pfitzner taking the bike to the Katherine River
Is that you in the crowd Wally ?
Note everyone in the crowd texting each other.

The Fish Tour.

Kick start 12 times underwater, hit fridge, water in motor through throttle cable, cos John never mentioned that at 14 feet, there is 28psi water pressure and not just 14psi at the surface.

Meanwhile under the Katherine River............. the stalled bike was given another workout with the heel on the kickstart only to give a compression kickback (only a motorbike rider knows this pain).  And in this instance it threw John over the handlebars while he still had hold of them and under 12 feet of water. Anyway swimming back onto the bike seat he kicked it into gear and continued along the bed of the Katherine River until he hit a washing machine that someone may of tossed off the bridge at some stage.
The bike stalled again and would not start.

Time for the diversion......and a scuba swim to where the prop had been placed.... all of a sudden a barramundi appears thrashing on the surface out in the middle of the river (albeit almost fully thawed) and it was doing all sorts of manoeuvres in mortal combat with a motorbike rider who was trying to catch it.

Fun over back to the bike to finish the crossing which eventually happened to the applause of the Carnival onlookers.

12 Months Later

You asked for it and hopefully dignitaries in attendance as we found out about the Guiness Book of Records and nothing had been set.  On the trial run, it went across without any problems, however we couldn’t get the bike up the other bank without a crane.  There was a rocky ledge about 2 meters above the water level, getting up on it could have been a problem but with the help of many onlookers we achieved it, although not without one minor problem.

The helper in the water who was supporting the snorkel for the air intake couldn’t hold it up from getting about 5 litres of water in, and consequently drowned the motor as the bike rose up, and another came to his assistance to elevate the snorkel.

No problem, we’re used to this.  Remove spark plug, turn bike upside down and after 10 minutes of cranking with the kick-start, the water went back to where it came from.  Install new spark plug and fuel and away it went.

Now the net problem was to remove the bike. Easy, why not ride it back to the other side.  Oh the joy we felt when it emerged and rode up the bank.  We had beaten the river, crocs, refrigerators and boulders.  Into the esky and relax to watch all the other carnival activities for the rest of the day.

Digressing back to earlier that morning, another hilarious scene unfolded, which could have had a painful ending.  Jim Bitossi from a local engineering firm and Bob Peterson who ran the local wrecking yard, conspired to also have fun on the river.  They stripped out an old Volkswagen, removed the engine and filled every crevice of the car with insulation foam, no doubt supplied by A.M.C. Refrigeration, another local company and mounted an old outboard motor in the back.

The idea was to drive it down towards the low level crossing.  When they arrived on the morning, the car was unloaded up on O’Shea Terrace from the trailer and then decided to roll the car down the access road to the river bank with Jim driving and Bob sitting on the bonnet, feet firmly planted on the front bumper bar and hanging onto a rope also tied to the bumper.  The car began to roll down the steep road, some 300 meters long.  I think it was at about 100 meters before they realised NO Brakes, after all, one does not use brakes on water.

The historic event
Lofty Evans assisting John into the water

That’s when muted sounds began progressively getting louder as speed increased, around the first bend they came with Bob hanging on and bouncing all over the bonnet as though he was getting some early practice for the bull ride at the next Katherine Rodeo.  Jim finally managed to see enough to be able to line up a couple of grass covered mounds of sand near the river edge and at about 40kph, Bob was a bonnet emblem no more, landing and rolling some 20 meters away.

The carnival crowd loved it, and possibly thought it was more planned entertainment.



Thanks for the memories


Lofty Evans

going underwater on motorbike

So there you have a bit of the fun Katherine people used to have before Indemnity Insurance, Light Beer & Computers.

What I would like to locate is any other photos of the event on the day of the Carnival. Many of which actually went into the River during the 1998 Katherine Flood. email to me mail@ourterritory.com
The actual photos here are from the day the "You asked for it" film crew arrived 1 or 2 or 8 years later (maybe 1978?). Did anyone have a blog back then? or get a text message on their mobile phone so we could check and confirm dates?

This story is open for updates & alterations as the flavoured truth is remembered by more people. (As have submitted the letter above from Lofty after many people did not agree fully with the original "flavoured truth" that was provided by one of the original participators)