The Tour >
|The Tour Story|
> TOUCHING GROUND
> THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD
> OUTBACK'S GATE
> NEVER NEVER
> DARWINIAN TROPICS
|To cycle Australia was an idea that -for my part- was quite simple to explain. We had already crossed entire countries using the pedaling force of bicycles. We had done the entire descent of the U.S.A. in 2010 from Canada to Mexico and during our 2009 tour from Germany to Israel we had hopped from country to country; especially easy in Europe since most are so tiny.|
This time, not only would I traverse a country but an entire continent as well. I also contemplated that Australia was almost on the entirely opposite side of where I resided so that added to the interest and it was a country where the next supermarket wasn't just a mile away which projected a more adventurous feel onto the tour. We would have our heads upside down, the water in the toilet bowl would turn the other way around, we'd have to become rugged and escape near death from dangerous animals such as crocodiles, snakes, spiders and Australians ... or at least that was the general illusion.
Those who knew me were divided into two categories; those who were scared of all the dangerous creatures lurking about and those who were utterly frightened at the boredom the outback would have to offer. Many asked the question "why?", why travel through all that flat, dry and desolate countryside where one would see the same scenery day in and day out? I don't think I gave it all much thought, I just knew it was far away, I'd cross an entire continent and it differed from all the other bike tours I had been on in the past. No one knows if they get a second go at Australia during their lifetime so it may have been the first and only chance I would've had of seeing that country. There is an eerie sense in knowing that you may never return somewhere but an even worse feeling of pondering if you would ever go at all.
For this tour I grabbed my touring bike again. The last time I had used it on a longer tour was in 2007 when we biked form Germany to Morocco. In fact my "Smurf-Mobile" named after its color still bore a Moroccan sticker on the side of it. The rest of the bicycle was almost completely renewed except for frame and fork. Another addition on this tour was the SPOT device, a GPS tracking and SOS box that would come in handy in case we needed out but also allowed folks back home to track us and receive "OK" messages which we would send out every night before heading to the sack. Mind, we weren't able to receive any messages but this was good since these tours are made to unhinge from the binds of modern life and if we would have had access to Internet, Facebook, cell phone, messaging and all the rest it would defeated the entire purpose of the expedition.
"YES IS ALWAYS THE SECOND BEST ANSWER"
I had written the phrase on the front cover of my tour journal. The journal is important to keep track of distance, elevation, stories, in my case food that had been cooked during our voyage and to not lose track of time, which can easily happen on this type of adventure. I jotted "Yes is always the second best answer" to remind me of something in Australia. We are very yes-oriented society but seldom does the answer carry much substance by itself. How often had I heard "yes" when "no" was meant or how often had "yes" been used as short-lived positive response with no echo to it or transition into physical or mental effort? How often had "yes" also been a simple answer to not further any discussion but simply to grab the question from mid-air and stomp on it. Many of those who were yes-people didn't actually mean for "yes" to really mean "yes". Therefore, on such an adventure as this one I would have to involve myself not only mentally but also physically and financially, spending time and energy into the conception of this tour for the duration of almost an entire year prior to our departure to make this tour real, to make it happen, to give my idea form and this long before the first pedal stroke began. In fact I hadn't used to word "yes" too often but instead had let my actions speak that my intentions were true. Saying yes presented too much excuse for quickly abandoning a project and not letting it flourish. Even my team partner had used "yes" too often without showing reality behind the notion. If my "yes" were to be real, I would have to do, make and initiate without uttering the word. My answer would be post-defined once we'd be in Melbourne on the first minute of the first hour of the first day of our tour, only then could I even think of uttering the word ,"yes".
Before commencing, I'll force upon you my thanks for reading on and in that spirit would also like to reach out my gratitude to a few more people along the way. I'd like to thank my team at City-Bike in Wiesbaden for allowing me to take off for a month and a half without too often reminding me how I was abandoning them. I'd like to thank my family for their never-ceasing love and support and taking care of my dog, Quivo, while I was away. A great thanks to Julie Mercer also for having given us a home during our short stay in Melbourne.
|TOUCHING GROUND, DEPARTING|
|For personal reasons, it has taken me a long time to jot down the details of my journey. Coming back to Germany, I had been in no mood to reflect upon my travels. I gave them less meaning than they had actually had within me. I regretted coming home as I always do after such journeys but my regrets were deeper this time. Part of me stayed in Australia and I believe that part will remain there, pedaling through the bush until it gradually becomes forgotten. It no longer belongs to or is part of me but is given up to the outback and tropical regions of Australia, for the flies to feast off of.|
Before our departure, we had a going away party. I had been getting all things previously mentally prepared into action. The gear was assembled, the bikes boxed up, the papers checked and last checklists checked. The day before the journey is always one of the most stressful ones for me because a year's work was about to be released to itself, I'd have no control over its outcome and as it is for somebody who enjoys control it's difficult to let the system go and see if it runs on its own. At the going away party, I think, I am the person who is the least zen there, I am anxious but put on a happy appearance for the rest. I feel alone and vulnerable with my efforts while faces let me know how awesome they think the entire thing is, mixing pride with a hint of envy and reproach for taking off on such a long vacation. I also feel mostly alone because the weight of the entire organization over the year has taken its toll and I kept reminding myself that the worst that could happen -via Murphy's law- could happen. I am the only one there to whom the tour means the most or anything at all, therefore if something were to go wrong I'd also the sole responsible; these things go hand in hand.
I had stopped smoking for this tour, which is something I often do prior to taking off on longer journeys. This time it wasn't to breathe more easily like for our mountainous tours of the Great Divide of Pyrenees. Australia would be flat and I have never had performance issues due to smoking. In fact, despite smoking I have always pedaled harder than most but there is a huge drawback when you're craving for a drag while you're in the middle of nowhere. You get real cranky and it doesn't necessarily help you to stock up on tobacco with your limited supply space. The only real problem with quitting cigarettes is that nobody seems to really help you mentally with the transition. Those who blab on about the health-gain you'll receive make you more or less just want to go out and buy a pack. The support you get is usually not great to devastating. Some show a complete lack of support and encouragement so basically, you are on your own and have to keep up a "fuck you" attitude towards the ordeal in order to make it without your Nicotine friend ... I guess that's what people don't get, you're loosing a friend; one that's with you when you need it and doesn't let you down, one that helps you concentrate or calm down, a friend that had even actively helped you achieve your goals. However hard it was, I was able to kick the habit so I wouldn't start smoking any weird plants that grow in the outback.
The party was over, the gear was packed so we decided to sleep a few hours before heading off. It was hard to fall asleep as usual with the dread of not waking up on time or our ride not coming to pick us up. However, the alcohol content and fatigue helped to keep the eyes sealed long enough for the brain to shut down its racquet and snooze off to Never-Never land.
Paul Schumacher, a friend of mine, had offered to drive us to the airport, which was extremely welcomed since dragging the boxes to the train station then on and off trains was a bit of a hassle. The flight would be long, that I knew. It was to be the longest flight I had ever taken. I don't even know how long it was in total, I had lost track of time. All I know is I had jotted down 32 hours of travel in my journal before arriving in Melbourne. We had flown Etihad Airways with stop in Abu Dhabi. Etihad was a great company to take because they had a 30Kg per person luggage policy and the bikes counted as luggage so we didn't have to pay extra fees for our iron horses. This is an example of things organized before the travel. I had already been to Abu Dhabi before, no wait, I have always only been in the airport, which is sad but the fees of staying over one night are just too high so it's not worth the hassle. Especially if you take into consideration that transporting our bike boxes through Abu Dhabi would be quite cumbersome.
We left Frankfurt at 11:15AM and arrived in Sydney at 6:10PM the following day. Jetlag doesn't really matter for us on cycling tours since sooner or later time of day doesn't really matter and the only thing that would count is "sun is up" or "sun is down". We took the train from the airport to Sydney central train station and I had booked a night at the Sydney Central Hostel on Pitt Street, which is a very very long à la New-Yorker style avenue. For us it had been optimal since it wasn't far from the train station, meaning we wouldn't have to carry our bike boxes a long way to our hostel AND because -again- it was close to the train station, where we had to embark the following day towards Melbourne. Out of shear luck, we had a stroll during the evening to grab a beer and some food and found ourselves out of all places smack right in front of the Sydney opera house. I stated, "Well, we've seen Australia. We can go home now." We had dinner at a pub nearby and after a nightcap headed back to the hostel.
Early enough, we picked up our boxes anew and headed for the train station. We grabbed the NSW Southern Link train from Sydney to Melbourne and arrived at destination somewhere around 7PM. The journey is long, about 12 hours, and just like English-style trains you could purchase meal tickets and tea-time tickets on board. From the Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, we took the suburban train to Patterson Station, close to our homely destination of Bentleigh, a town south-east of Melbourne. Julie Mercer was a friend of my family, I had known from Boston, where she was working as a postdoc and where I grew up. We were to stay with her from September 4th to the 6th. Julie had already received a package from me containing our tent, water filter, batteries and gasoline burner a month before we arrived. I had sent the stuff because after tallying up our total luggage weights I had gotten afraid we would have to pay the hefty overweight fees at the airport, which run at about $80/Kg. Julie had two houses there, one of which her mom, who was out of town visiting family, resided in. So, we were given that house to stay in. Julie also offered our first incites into the Australian way. Of course, there isn't just one Australian way and the standard of living, culture and way of life differs from Sydney to Melbourne to Alice Springs, the outback, Perth and Darwin. Melbourne is very English, the architecture is definitely influenced by the ex-colony's motherland. Melbourne is hip, thriving, with newer tall buildings propped up alongside older English-style brick structures and yes, driving on the left. Though, I fancied (and I'm using an British verb here) that since we were down under on the opposite side of the globe driving on the left made sense since right-side-up we were driving right.
We spent the fifth of September by building up our bikes, trying to get rid of the huge cardboard boxes, buying food, herbs and necessities and visiting Melbourne. Julie had let me borrow a car so this was my first time driving a car on the left. I had driven motorcycles on the left in Thailand before but cars were bulkier and I often found myself driving a bit too far left or staring right into the right screen pillar because my head was used to tilting towards the right in a left-steering-wheeled car. Not to forget, it's always a good laugh when the driver mistakes sides and gets in the passenger's seat. At night, we went to a bar in Melbourne and enjoyed a few drinks with view of the city. We did want to head down to St. Kilda beach to watch the penguins but had unfortunately run a bit late so we headed back home for our last night of sleeping on beds. The next day, we got up, thanked Julie for the great hospitality and headed off, the first stroke of the pedal towards Melbourne chanting a traditional chorus verse of "On the road again".
|THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD and the roo's butt|
|On recollecting it, I split our cycling tour into four parts: The Great Ocean Road, Outback's Gate, Never Never and Darwinian Tropics. These four parts actually make up the different environments through which we traveled, each distinct through changes in climate, population, flora and fauna so it makes the most sense to chapter the travel this way rather than to use time or distance as a marker.|
Riding the Great Ocean Road wasn't a necessity at all, we didn't actually need to further our travels by riding alongside the coast of the Southern Ocean. We could have veered directly up and to the left, which would have cut time drastically but two reasons made me choose this itinerary over the direct approach. First off, it would be our only time to see, appreciate and witness the Southern Ocean and secondly, if we were to travel through the desert of the Outback, taking in a little more green, a bit more wetness and a lot more presence of homo sapiens would be a good accustoming stage for our journey. Plus, there was something magnetic about bathing in an ocean where Antarctica was the next land due south. It was a communion between my body and that of our globe's south that rendered wading in those cold waters somehow important.
The first ordeal was to get in and out of Melbourne as easily as we could. Cities are never simple for cyclists and Melbourne wasn't the exception. As usual, getting in was not too difficult but getting out wasn't child's play. A lot of roads going out of Melbourne were prohibited for cyclists, meaning we had to cruise through large industrialized areas, where we sometimes lost our way a bit before leaving the city behind us.
Geelong was the first major stop after Melbourne and my first understanding of the division in preferred Australian national sport. I knew Australians were Rugby fans and that this was more important to them than soccer or cricket but Geelong was capital of an Australian Rules Football (Rugby type, not soccer) Team, "The Geelong Cats". I watched part of a game but couldn't understand much of it. After our tour and back in Sydney, I did purchase a Geelong Cats jersey to remind me of my obligation towards the Cats' team since it had introduced to the sport first here.
We also got to experience bicycle trails on the highway, which was interesting though somewhat awkwardly dangerous. The breakdown lane -on the left mind you- was basically a bike path and with each entrance and exit to and from the highway, you would have to veer and pay close attention to incoming or outgoing vehicles or be pancaked. On the plus side, this does offer a very long and quick way of travel for cyclists though the scenery and loud noises aren't pleasant. We didn't meet too many cyclists on the highway but there were a few who used it almost everyday and most likely were used to the normality of it, cranking up their iPods to annihilate the screeching and whooshing of passing vehicles.
It was cold and wet on the Great Ocean Road. We had our rain jackets on the entire time to break the wind. We woke early since we had exactly twelve hours of daylight this time of year in Australia. When we rose, it was 3°C outside and damp. The temperature summited to 11°C during the day but not much more and our hands and feet went numb for long periods of time. The wind gusts added to the freeze but the scenery was worth it and the Great Ocean Road was a perfect for cycling. Race bikes could particularly often be seen curving around bends and zig-zagging along the roads of the southern coast. The road itself had enough shoulder space for bicycles. Medium sized trees and bushes greened the scenery ... unfortunately, just like other places in this world so did the barbwire left and right of the roads. We managed twice to see the lower half of a black kangaroo as it scurried off into the bushes. The kangaroo signs were also posted about, ornamenting the roads just like deer signs would in Europe or the Untied States. The kangaroo is the Australian deer and we baptized them "Skippy" from then on. The Australian joked about their national wildlife by saying they were the only country to have two emblematic national animals who could only move in one direction, the Emu and the Kangaroo do not posses a reverse gear.
The Twelve Apostles and London Bridge (London Arch) are magnificent natural limestone structures formed by erosion along the Great Ocean Road and many tourist buses could be seen stopping at different locations to grab a view. The trees sometimes resembled huge bonsais, miniature versions of our trees, smaller but still full and of a luscious green color. The cold waves crashed along the sides of the Great Ocean Road. Beaches are made of fine to middle-sized sand decorated with boulders half in the water and scattered around, sometimes impossible to descend to because of the high limestone walls. The water is cold, too cold to bathe in comfort. It may have been refreshing if the outside temperature had been warmer or the sun had come out and the rain clouds had vanished but this wasn't the case so the scenery remained fantastic but almost untouchable.
Portland is where we left the Great Ocean Road and took a more northern direction towards Port Augusta. It was raining for the 100th time, I wrote in my journal. This was our fifth day and the weather hadn't been nice to us. Understand, I am someone who doesn't mind the "too hot" or even in some aspects the "too dry" but give me the "too wet" and "too cold" and I tend to get edgy, my pedaling loses its enthusiasm and I communicate less with my surroundings. I also tend to look up at my environment less, fixing my eyes onto the asphalt instead of the scenery. The temperature was now 10°C during the day but worse was the icy breeze, which froze motivation into place and made departing from any breaks we took an unwanted task.
Our total distance up to this point was 647km and total ascending elevation was 4,444m. I had forgotten to mention another reason why I chose to cycle along the Great Ocean Road. Since I knew the Outback would be rather flat, I wanted to grab the chance of cycling a bit of elevation, which we did. Our highest daily elevation of 1,609m was attained on day three. By the way, this was to be the flattest tour I had ever done.
|OUTBACK'S GATE and the magpie's revenge|
|Leaving Portland and heading northeast also meant leaving Victoria and entering South Australia. Australia is divided into six territories, though I count seven but I think the Australian's don't count Canberra as a unique territory. Though it's not entirely important to our travels, we did have to separate ourselves from any food we had left over when switching territories to help combat the fruit flies from invading grounds and ruining crops. So we chugged our leftovers into the bin at the border only to wonder a few kilometers into SA why we had done so, what the purpose was for us on bike and if anyone was going to come collect the trash to make themselves a meal out of our fruits and vegetables. South Australia is a very important farming territory and since Australia grows almost all of their own fruits and vegetables, South Australia may be one of the most important territories (sorry, NSW).|
The Magpie's revenge started somewhere near Mont Gambier, which its highest point being at about 190m is not a mountain. We had already witnessed Australians in Melbourne with zip ties fixed onto their bike helmets going upwards giving them an extra-terrestrial look. We laughed at this, not knowing why they had furbished themselves this way, thinking it was some kind of Australian fad. As a side note there were some other Australian fads and whacky hairstyles that were quite funny. But suddenly, I now was the victim of a ferocious attack! I didn't see it coming and it almost made me lose control of my bicycle and crash. The very first time it occurred, I had no idea it would happen again but it did. This was indeed a thing, we even caught an attack on camera. Forget about the crocodiles and snakes and spiders, the Australian Magpie is the most dangerous creature we met and the only one that displayed any violent behavior towards us. You have to imagine, I was pedaling along my merry way, probably singing a ballad on how great Australia was, when all the sudden I heard and felt a "clonk" on my head. I uttered a "What the ?" and turned around. I thought at first I had been hit by a rock but soon saw the perpetrator swirling around above me. I screamed at the Magpie to show I wasn't afraid but it nearly backed off and probably got right on the phone with its cousin, laughing its beak off and letting him know we were coming so he could have his fun with us. We learned from the Australian that during mating season the Magpies get really aggressive and protective. They attack creatures many times their size and strength, real bad ass birds and this is why the Aussies wear zip-ties to fend them off!
It was still cold. The wind was slowing us down considerably. Nevertheless, on the sixth day, we managed about 155km, which was a great ordeal and necessary to put a bit of plus in our distance column. We had the feeling we weren't getting enough distance per day and were getting sick of the rain and cold. Our speed average of 22km/h was overall better than what we had done so far and allowed us to put in some more mileage. I wrote in my journal, "I think we're looking forward to the north ... where it is warm." That made me laugh, thinking of a European wishing to avoid the cold Mediterranean weather by heading north to the Finnish cap. It is also important to mention and so everyone can get the idea of mindset in this area that though the scenery here of fields and Australian grapes ornament our view, the excitement and happenings in South Australia seemed somewhat asleep. I jotted down, for instance and just to give you a taste, that along the way we had passed the town of Naracoorte, which prided itself on having been elected the "tidiest town in years '85 and '94"!
Despite cloudy weather and rain, our feet got tan ... they warned us of the Australian sun. However, we endured a strange phenomenon which no pharmacist or person could help us with. We got itchy-feet syndrome. Our feet, mind you just our feet, would all the sudden get extremely itchy and scratching would hurt and lend a burning feeling. Our feet also had little red dots on them and the itchiness would come and go in waves. I have never experienced that bad of an and extreme itchy sensation before. On top of that my Achille's tendon was inflamed and had to be bandaged up. I lowered my seat to get some relief. Since no one could offer an explanation for our itchy feet syndrome, I came up with three possible catalysts: sun poisoning, pesticides or water. Take your pick. Our only solution was to put socks on under our sandals, a German-style trend I hoped never to adopt but here I was, breaking fashion laws. On the plus side, the itchiness probably saw how unfashionable it was to stay with us and left us alone so the socks stayed from then on and I tried not to look down at the horror.
We were deep into the wine region of South Australia, where I gather most of the Australian wine comes from. Vines left and right of us along the way was the scenery we saw the most of. Magpie attacks were frequent still but we finally got a bit of break on the weather front. Though it didn't stop raining, we were now caught in a fight between rain and sun and the two had it out, making us remove our rain jackets just to put them back on again. The temperature would even get up into the 30s (°C) but wouldn't stay long at that level and dropped back down. While rain and sun were dueling, wind was the ultimate winner and slowed us down continually by spitting in our faces. We still hadn't seen a full live kangaroo though we had witnessed many carcasses and cadavers along the road. We also still hadn't seen one Aborigine, only white faces that had seen too much sun.
We had one last uphill battle at Wellington, SA and then we were to descend towards Port Augusta, the gate to the Outback. Though people had promised us a nice descent, "it's all down from there!" we still had to pedal hard even though the slope was going down because of the wind. While dropping, the environment changed rapidly. No longer did we see green luscious rolling hills but right in front of us was a landscape made up of small scattered bushes, treeless with a soil of a redder shade. This was the first sign for us that we were reaching our first major checkpoint, the door that would lead us into the belly of Australia and its Never Never. Port Augusta was a last frontier or a final stop before nothingness. I couldn't tell you if Port Augusta is important to Australia, I don't think so. Our first Aborigines appeared and the city seemed large enough but without great purpose. We took a hotel room for the first time since we started and stayed one entire day to get ourselves packed and ready for the Outback. We purchased a lot of water and relaxed. All activities in Port Augusta seemed to die down at 7PM and it was an ordeal to find a restaurant or anything opened after that but we ate at a diner and experienced the strange Australian way of being served at a restaurant. You would sit down at a table, then someone would bring you a menu but you would have to go to the counter to order and pay in advance and then someone would bring you the food. You paid in advance for a refill on your drink, then in advance again for dessert and then again when you wanted some pie. At the end, you just left. Everything was paid for so you got up from the table, no goodbyes or "see you soon" from your half-waiter. It wasn't always like this in Australia but in Port Augusta, Alice Springs, Darwin and other spots it was the unique and somewhat nonsensical normality.
We watched TV in our hotel room and checked our itinerary and planned the next stage. This has always been important on longer tours so that we can tweak whatever may not be working. We know if we can pat ourselves on the back or whip ourselves to do more. This was our twelfth day on tour, our own day off, our Sunday (though it was Tuesday) and just like Gods, we rested. Mentally, the "dirty" part of our tour would commence. In reality, this was the real beginning of our journey.
Our total distance up to this point was 1,424km. To give you an idea on how I constructed the tour: To successfully finish the tour I had calculated that we needed to ride 120km/day, which put us at +104km on day 11. Of course, since we stayed an entire day there this meant we were at -16km on day twelve. I thought that 120km a day was more than do-able and that if we wished to have a day off we would have to work on that by pedaling more than 120km and accumulate distance. If we hadn't had at least 100km of plus on our watch at Port Augusta then we wouldn't have been entitled to a free day there. This I do to motivate us into doing more per day so we can accumulate a holiday (I write of it as if it's work) but that's the state of mind you need, holding up that carrot stick in front of you to remind you that the reward comes after the work.
Our total ascending elevation was 7,803m.
|NEVER NEVER and the dead skippies|
|The gate creaked open and let us enter the bowels of Never Never, a desolate landscape, which devoured us for the next leg of our journey and nothingness became our home. Unveiling the heart of Australia is like opening a chest to perform surgery. Once its open, you decide it's interesting but not all that pretty. Now the chest was sutured shut and closed and we -stuck- inside it.|
The scenery changed a little bit during the first day, starting off red-soiled with little green and yellow scattered bushes, occasionally a small tree and switched to rocky dry terrain with dried up bodies of water bearing countable grass strains trying their best to stay alive. Still witnessing nature at its best with dead cows and kangaroos in various stages of decomposition, I wondered where all the dangerous animals were at. The Outback is so vast that you don't actually meet up with that many living things. I would have actually been thrilled to see a poisonous snake or spider at that point. Sometimes the landscape seemed to bear no living creatures whatsoever and each side seemed an exact mirror of the other sides. It was good to know in which direction we were headed because we may have made the mistake of taking the road the wrong way to find ourselves back in Port Augusta.
We were carrying 15 Liters of water with us, which is about what we needed per day. The good part about the Outback is that roadhouses are scattered along the way and we were able to reach a roadhouse usually within 1-1.5 days. The drawback was that water was like gold and cost around $5 per liter at the roadhouses, more expensive than gasoline! The Australians love caravanning and it is probably the best way of traveling through the country. Luckily for us, the people are mostly nice and offer to fill our water from their caravan taps.
On day fourteen, we finally saw a live great red kangaroo hopping around, crossing the road to get to the other side, which is probably the Australian version of that chicken joke I have never seemed able to understand. Or maybe they just say, "take my kangaroo ... please". We also saw an Emu and a shingleback lizard. The count of live to dead skippies at that point, without exaggerating, was about 1:200. The Australian don't seem to mind. There is supposedly an abundance amount of kangaroos that the roadkill ones are made more out to be a kind of population control rather than murder. Since kangaroos are nocturnal, most deaths occur at night. The road trains are unable to stop or don't want to stop or don't care and just whizz by killing roos like we do flies on our windshields during the summer months.
Wind, a constant feind, remained an issue in these flat lands but not only because -for the most time- it was pushing us backwards. We had to take heed of vehicles and road trains. Road trains are huge trucks with 3,4 or even 5 trailers and they don't slow down. We had been warned many times by Aussies about these new age ferocious predators. The road trains seemed radio controlled, they flew by at great speeds and I'm not certain if they had either brakes or a steering wheel. As soon as one of them approached, we had to stop and get the hell off the road. The problem with frontal wind is that we couldn't hear them coming so we had to rely on a newfound sixth sense to ring the alarm any time a road train came from behind. As it wooshed by -without slowing down or perhaps even speeding up- the wind whiplash slapped our faces and at times almost made us lose balance. We shut our eyes for the brief passage, waiting until the dust cleared. Though other vehicles such as caravans were less of a problem, since we didn't see any for longer periods of time, they still presented a danger on this long straight line. More often than we wished, the drivers themselves were on autopilot and hadn't taken notice that two idiotic cyclists were on the road. At times there was a close call. At a roadhouse once, we met up with a caravan Aussie, who had brushed us before, blamed us for him not having seen us, blaming us for having been put in a blinding trance by the monotonous highway ... blame Stuart! Needless to say, we weren't fond of road trains but respected and abhorred them simultaneously for what they did to our skippies.
We have also made new friends, we hadn't invited them but we were in their territory and they seemed to love us. They seemed to need us: The flies. This is the greatest drawback of our entire time in the Outback. The facial wind, slowing us down extremely and making every pedal motion countable was annoying. Our average was now 17.5km/h but not an easy 17.5! A tough 17.5! The flies were our discomfort when taking a break. The wind would fatigue us, making moving forwards difficult but the flies would feast as soon as we rested from the wind. They would find us immediately. Once stopped it wouldn't last a second or two, they would buzz around our heads and try to find any wet orifices to get themselves into. They loved the corner of our mouths and eyes. If you closed your eyes and remained still, you could hold that position for approximately 10-15 seconds before going insane as you felt flies literally covering your face. Sometimes during breaks, we would walk jerkily to and fro to escape them and you could recognize us by our arms flapping around in all directions and all the time. If someone saw us behaving like that here, we would be locked up in an institution but the Australian would go, "Ah, those pesky files, eh?".
There was, however, one relief from the flies; the southern cross. For those of us who are hemisphere-ically challenged, the night sky and constellations are different in the northern and southern hemispheres. For instance, the big dipper can only partially be seen in most of Australia. In the northern hemisphere we cannot see the southern cross. So, yes of course and to get back to the point, I'm talking about nightfall. When the sun dropped and the first stars appeared, the flies activity would die down to nothing. As soon as the first sunlight would hit the earth again, the vermin would be back from the dead. I couldn't get much cooking done as long as the flies were trying to suck up any source of moisture I had on my person. So, I would have to wait until nightfall to start cooking. The Australian caravan campers wore fly nets to avoid getting bothered but seeing as though I had already broken one rule of fashion with my socks under my sandals, I wasn't quite ready to go all the way yet. The flies would torment us all the way through the Outback and we'd only get rid of them in the tropical region of the Northern Territory.
The flies helped us move on forwards though by not allowing us much relaxation during break periods. We preferred hopping back on our bikes as soon as we could. This enabled us to do 189km on the fifteenth day. That night we pitched our tent on an extremely rugged and dry landscape, not too far from the road. It actually didn't make much difference landscape-wise to go any further into the wilderness and at the same time we couldn't since this area had been declared military missile test ground for the Australian and other governments though more and more parcels have now been sold as private property.
During the morning of the sixteenth day, we rode 67km into Coober Pedy, a major stop and one of the few cities along our route. Please bear with me, when I call towns cities, cities metropolises or one-hut-hamlets towns. For us on tour, these references are always relative and so, even though Coober Pedy has a population of 1,700 I still refer to it as a city. When you enter Coober Pedy from above, you can see a small mass of one-story houses laid out in the middle of the desert. This town was well known for its opal mining. The running gag here were T-shirts and postcards bearing the "Warning" signs of possible ground holes, telling you not to walk backwards or take photos while walking so you won't fall into a hole and break something or die. A running gag since it had been years since Coober Pedy had any drill holes inside its city. As usual with mining towns, this once prominent place is now facing population death since very little mining is done there anymore. The main resources nowadays for Coober Pedy seem to be derived solely from tourism and as usual tourism is kicked up once the real work has vanished; unless you want to believe that Asian guy dressed up as a prospector who tells you he's a miner and can score you some of that sweet opal for half price. Coober Pedy is also an interesting site because of the underground houses. The homes are dug, the rock cut and make for quaint living quarters with an automatic and natural cooling system. No matter at what temperature the sun bakes the desert above, the homes remain cool between 20-25°C. The only disadvantage is no daylight but you are happy to take that as opposed to scorching heat and maddening flies. Coober Pedy was definitely an interesting place, it had history and along the desolate Outback roads anything more than a dead cow or kangaroo would draw your attention and make you stop to see what it's about or to actually talk to another human being. Most towns and small cities in South Australia we saw before Port Augusta boasted on being the "best of" or "home of the only" or "the biggest of" something in Australia but most places only had that one thing to cling on to. Coober Pedy in itself was the opal in the desert, it wasn't the prettiest opal you'd ever seen but it was there and much appreciated.
Out of Coober Pedy, we knew we wouldn't see much until we reached Alice Springs. So, despite frontal winds which made reaching 50km during the morning hours extremely difficult, we tried our best to accumulate kilometers on our plus column to be able to grab a full day of rest once we reach the mid-point of our journey in Alice Springs. Luckily for us, there are man-made oasis here called "roadhouses," where we could relax a bit, grab a cold coke or even stay the night if our timing was right and our distance allowed it. Taking a shower or jumping in a swimming pool was a pure luxury when all that surrounds you is vast nothingness. The salt accumulated quickly on our bodies. The temperature stayed above 40°C during the day and our shirts stayed on because of the menacing Australian sun. If we stayed at a campsite, great. If we didn't we'd rub the salt off our bodies dry with a towel and the skin would sting somewhat but that was the price of moving forwards. "Dress for success" is what we would now call "drive to arrive" or even better suited in these parts, "survive this ride" and had become out motto for achieving the goals ahead of us.
Therefore, it was no surprise, when on the twentieth day we saw a sign reading "Alice Springs 40km" that we boosted our efforts. We put our legs in high gear and rode at 34km/h until we arrived there just as the sun had given off its last rays. There was much to celebrate in Alice Springs. First off, this is the center, the largest city on our way to the north and the first "real" city since Port Augusta. A lot is government funded in Alice Springs, which means real supermarkets, real restaurants, real motels, real pubs and even ice cream and coffee shops! I'd like to emphasize real supermarkets once more because although the roadhouses had been oasis in the desert, the food there was mostly junk grub and they offered extremely few real vegetables for me to cook with. In fact, arriving at a huge campsite in Alice Springs, we didn't have time to buy any real food and had simply decided on finishing the canned goods and chips we had purchased expensively at the last roadhouse. In my journal, I wrote, "Dinner: things out of a can ... I don't want to mention it". But we knew the following day would reward us because we had not only made it to Alice Springs, which we fantasized out to be a metropolis but we had gotten there a day ahead of schedule. This put us at +258km on day 20. We could also celebrate having achieved our distance record of 196km that day thanks to that sign and the doping it offered our brains, activating serotonin and rushing blood into our legs to have them pump up and down as hard as the pistons of an engine.
The following day, we repacked our gear and headed into the center of Alice Springs to stay at a motel, stock up and relax. Our total distance for day 21 was 6km but knowing that even with a day off we'd still be ahead of schedule on the 22nd day was an amazing revelation. It meant the day was paid for in full and the stop wouldn't even draw up blood. As stated before and I'll say it again, the supermarkets were a paradise for us. In certain areas along the way, we had gassed up on water only to find the taste utterly disgusting and were glad to chug it the very next water-fill-possibility we got but our water bottles were starting to take the toll and we desperately needed new ones. Though I had been against it, I purchased a large 10L bottle with tap, which was very useful during stops to fill up our drinking water bottles and didn't need any dismantling of gear to get at. I was initially against the larger water containers because if ever the container broke or leaked, we would have lost a great amount of H2O, which could have devastating consequences to our health and moral.
That night in Alice Springs, we went to a pub to enjoy hamburgers and Yak Pale Ales, though, weirdly there are no yaks in Australia but we'll overlook that for now. I had said before that the deer in Australia were the kangaroos and I had thought that there were no deer here, how could there be? Then someone mentioned to us that the British, who had colonized Australia and were fond of hunting, had brought deer and foxes to Australia to hunt them. Furthermore, free-range camels live in the Outback. These creatures were brought in because of their ability to adapt to the weather conditions here and carry gear and bulky equipment. Some had escaped and just like the mustangs of America, the camel had now found its home on a continent it didn't belong.
Idleness -as our time of relaxation in Alice Springs- often makes you ponder a little more on what is what and why. So, this is a good place to wire in the how this road going from Port Augusta to Darwin came to be and why it was so important. Back in the colonial days, the main port where ships came in from England was Adelaide on the southern coast of Australia but there was a notion that Darwin, which faces southeast Asia would grow more and more commercially important, maybe even more important than Adelaide (God forbid!) or any of the other densily populated cities of southern Australia. Therefore, there was a need for a route to the north. Many expeditions were started but ended in failure mostly due to lack of knowledge or underestimation of the landscape and environment. Finally, John McDouall Stuart was the first to achieve a path, a route was created and a telegraph line put up for communications between the south and the north. There are remains of telegraph posts and camps that were created for workers on the telegraph line as well as monuments pertaining to the telegraph posts and victims of some accidents during the erection of the telegraph line. Needless to say, these memorials are extremely interesting and of high historical signifigance (sarcasm). Sometimes, I do wonder at us humans. We strive to find any reason to put up monuments even in places that lack the necessity of having one. Nevertheless, this is how the road came to be and it was dubbed The Stuart Highway. The first dirt road was created to transport equipment and assemble a telegraph lines. Of course nowadays the road has been paved and the telegraph posts abandoned. Electrical wires were added later on, a fiber optic cable was dug into the ground parallel to the road and the train tracks*, though we cannot see them from the highway, have been placed not too far west of the road also traveling parallel to it. To this day, the Stuart highway remains the main artery to the north though it bears no resemblance to an American highway or German Autobahn.
* Side Note: The Ghan train leaves Adelaide twice a week towards Darwin and takes 53 hours with two stops, one in Alice Springs and a drop-off only in Katherine. The ride is not only long but fairly expensive. I just thought, some may want to know.
In fact not much happened elsewhere left and right of the road. The dead cows we would see and smell along the way are in fact farm animals. The farms themselves are immense. Someone told me of farms that were 1 million hectares big. In this desert landscape, a cow needs about 20 hectares to graze on and most farmers haven't even set foot on most their property. The cows are herded via helicopters and if a few die or are hit by the road trains (remember, these are trucks with trailers, not trains) or give birth the farmers don't really mind, nor do they keep count. Fences cannot even separate the land because it is so vast. Riding on that straight road, going north, you look to your left and reflect that miles and miles away there are places within Australia where people have never set foot in yet. It isn't entirely known if tribes had ever gone or been there. For a European, this is news because in Europe we have pretty much populated or set foot everywhere and there remain no mysteries in this perspective about our land anymore.
On the morning of the 22nd day, relaxed and cleansed, we headed on out of Alice Springs and back into the endless desert of the Outback. We started seeing large termite mounds, staring up from the ground like hard soil skyscrapers. Their color was light brown and later during our travels would turn to dark red. On our way, we met with two crazies: A guy from Germany and a girl from Japan. The guy had long unkempt hair full of trapped flies and was pulling a hand-built cart, carrying some water and a chair for sitting in on top. They both looked very dirty and the Japanese woman didn't utter a word. They had both worked in farms under the work and travel VISA program. Many of the jobs given to these inexperienced young adults is hard and sometimes resembles slave work. The work and travel dudes and dudettes basically do the jobs nobody else wants to do like harvesting bananas. For the farmers, it's cheap labor. For the laborers it's a chance to visit Australia. So, you can see how this program was born. The German guy had had a falling out with one of his bosses and fled the place with his Japanese girlfriend. From that time they had been on foot on the road and if biking allowed us to attain roadhouses in 1-1.5 days and purchase water and food, you can just imagine what it would be like to travel through this barren land on foot with no money. Their VISAs had already run out so basically, they were illegally staying in Australia. For food, they would cut slices off more freshly murdered roadkill kangaroos. He told us that they would rest there and take it easy for about a week then head on towards Alice Springs. The idea of staying in that retched dry terrain with no water or food sources around for a week's vacation seemed more than absurd to me but it didn't seem like they were princesses opting for the five-star hotel so we left them behind to their dream holiday resort.
The following day, we had already finished our due's day work when we saw signs for a roadhouse with gas, a restaurant and a hotel. So, we decided to head on to Barrel Creek. Sometimes the things you dream up are not exactly in sync with reality and upon arriving at our destination we were met with a filthy and rundown establishment. In the back there was a half-built motel that had never been finished. The windows of the rooms were missing and the bathrooms filled with debris. In the middle there was a small court, on which we put up our tent. The only shower and bathroom appeared as though they hadn't been cleaned for at least five years. Upon entering the establishment, innumerous photos of smiling people and signed bills had been tacked to the walls and ceilings. However, these photos were all at least 10 years old. The place was eerie and I think the keeper was taken aback and didn't know how to react when we asked if we could stay the night. He agreed, not amicably but probably saw no danger in it. We met a few drunk Aborigines there, a woman who didn't seem to like us off the bat and a man who was very pleased to meet travelers from Germany. He was especially proud because his first name, Manfred, was German and would tell us a dozen times how proud he was of his extensive German heritage, his name. Then he demonstrated his pride by raising his right hand up and shouting, "Hail Hitler!" repeatedly. He was happy with himself, we were somewhat taken aback. I don't think Manfred knew anything about who or what Hitler was or did and had taken the only bit of information he had on Germany, trying to share it with us as best he could. This happens in many areas around the world. I've heard many different people abroad proclaim that Hitler was their hero. They, also, unfortunately did not know much about history. So, Manfred is forgiven ... Australia not!
The "Aborigine problem" in Australia resembles the same conflicts that had occurred and still do in the United States with the Indians. Colonists moved in and treated the natives as if they were worth less than farm animals. Soon the natives would be forced to move to avoid being slain or placed into slavery. For a long time, in Australia, it was all right to see the Aborigines as animals. To this day and for some, it still is. While the colonists introduced their style of farming, their sense of land ownership and division and money -all of which the Aborigines had absolutely no understanding or notion of- the Aborigines saw the best pieces of fruitful territory be taken as if someone could attribute themselves the rights to whatever it is they wished to possess. This was not in the Aborigine's mindset and, as usual, they got the raw deal.
Think about this: The Aborigines would live off the land. They would take whatever was ripe and eat what was there. Europeans would grow their foods using larger scale cultivation farming. For us, this has been normality for many centuries now. Could you however imagine when the two worlds collide? The Aborigine would come by that parcel of land, where ripe vegetables grow and would have his pick. The man has no notion of farming and no notion of property rights. For him, it is food from the earth and belongs to nobody and everybody. Now, the European seeing this calls out "thief!" because he is witnessing this foreigner stealing his crops, for which he had worked so hard, off his own land, which had been righteously purchased or signed for. It may be theft to our eyes and treated as unlawful but ask yourself, who is the foreigner here? Ask yourself, who has the right to own or sell land?
Yet another problem was introduced to the Aborigines, one they had had no experience of before and just like the American Indians, many Aborigines had their lives ruined or shortened by that drug we are so fond of, alcohol. Having no concept of drinking with consideration, alcohol remains a very big problem within the Aborigine community. Many Aborigine reserves are "dry" lands, meaning alcohol is prohibited there but you can imagine how effective this works when alcohol is sold in abundance elsewhere. When alcohol is in short supply, some take to sniffing petroleum as an alternative pastime. The Aborigines have little concept of money or trade. In all roadhouses and supermarkets, you see Australians, Asians and Indians or Pakistani working there but only very seldom do you witness an Aborigine behind the cash register or kitchen counter. However, as Australians would retort, Aborigines are given Government aid. The children go to school and the adults get a so-called cashless welfare debit card so they may purchase food and necessities. It seems like a good idea. Aborigines are not able to purchase any alcohol on the debit cards, though -of course- they find other ways to trade for it. The bigger issue is handing out cash cards to people prior to haven given them the notion of money and value of money. From what I could understand, a cash card would be automatically filled with around $300-400 every week. As soon as the cash was on the card, the Aborigines would then head off to roadhouses and supermarkets and basically empty their cards entirely. They would literally shop until nothing was left on the card. The real conundrum here is that, they buy whatever they feel like, a lot of junk food and useless frills. The important thing is to use up all the credit, not what you purchase with that cash.
Of course, some Aborigines have been able to get good jobs, become actors or play sports professionally but would often then lose their connection to the rest of their people and sometimes even dismiss their own heritage. This is especially easy within a society that rewards you for being more like it than being yourself. Even mixing the two worlds becomes a difficult task and most Aborigines who are what we like to call active participants in society have also been forced or have found it wiser to abandon their old ways, culture and beliefs.
Back on the road: After a wonderful night's rest in our palace and after the owner of the Barrel Creek establishment had reconsidered his free offer and informed us that we should pay, we ignored his strange mannerisms, shrugged him off and left without even taking one last look at the place. We stopped at a roadhouse/hole in the ground called "Whycliffe Well", which according to our officially purchased map was a UFO research area. The research center is indeed a roadhouse that has used aliens and UFOs as a theme for its commercial front. The tenants were an Asian girl and guy who when we asked if they had seen any aliens or UFOs gave us a stare as if they had never heard that question before and simply said, "no". No stories, no questions ... just a cardboard green alien cutout outside with a hole so you could place your head and become yourself an extraterrestrial for the duration of a snapshot.
At the next roadhouse in Wauchope, we learned of the story behind Barrel Creek and the rundown rest stop suddenly made more sense. The woman who recanted the legend to us, treated us like half-heroes and half mad men for having stayed there. A few years back a group of young people had had car troubles and were helped out by a man near Barrel Creek. Unfortunately, the help they received was days of torture, sexual abuse and murder. There has even been a movie made after the affair. The name Barrel Creek was altered and the story filmed under the name, "Wolf Creek". You can rent it if you wish and see just where we had stayed, or at least a version of it.
We met a group of young Hong-Kongese cycling in the opposite direction. They had started on the Golden Coast and were heading down to Melbourne. These Asians travelled by night to avoid the heat and had just stayed the day at a rest stop and were getting up. We warned them of Barrel Creek and parted ways, wishing each other well. At the same rest stop, we met a Dutch family; a husband, his wife and their two daughters. The young family had been in Australia on the work and travel VISA program and had now run out of money and were staying in the middle of nowhere at a rest stop to wait for some dollars to come in!? I didn't ask for further details but they stated they had wasted some $600 on fuel already and that it was a lot of dough. Yes, indeed, I thought but if you're planning a two-year trip with your little infants wouldn't you organize a little better? And ... where was the car? Like I said, sometimes it's better not to ask more questions or the story could turn even more sordid. Some of the strange people we meet have either had too much sun shine on their skulls or have taken too many sips of bore water!
The World Solar Challenge was happening at about the same time we crossed into Northern Territory and the more north we went the more solar-powered race cars we saw with accompanying teams of
"Your mom doesn't live here, clean up after yourself!" Some instructions, dos and don'ts often ornament campsites and roadhouses here. In Tenant Creek however, they take it one step further and tell it to you as it is like this bumper sticker said: "We're in the Outback, Tenant Creek, spend more money you bastards!" Bastards were us, the tourists and as the sign indicated, the Outback was courteously asking us to use our resources to better their situation. This worrisome way of thinking is probably a hint at Outback hospitality and mentality. Sometimes, it is with a bit of disappointment that you realized how nasty mankind can be. A good example is environment. You may think that Australians embrace keeping nature clean and that may be true for those residing in Sydney or Melbourne. Here in the Outback, who gives a shit! If your car breaks down, just leave it out here. No worries mate if the engine is still full of oil and coolant. It costs more to get it towed than to abandon it. Environmental protection seems more or less to be something that happens by accident here during the in-between time, when people aren't chugging shit out of their vehicles.
At night, in Tenant Creek, we heard the usually screams of Aborigines, all night long, roaming around in search of alcohol or petroleum or other substances. It's real eerie to hear shouts and rants in various pitches, screams followed by laughs outside our campsite walls. Was it the natural callings of the wild? Or the much conflicted populous, who have been turbo-forced into our society? Hygiene seemed low amongst the Aborigines here in the outback, probably mental health stability too. Who knows? Australia doesn't seem to mind, the Outback is what it is and it isn't dubbed "Never Never" without reason.
My team partner's rear wheel had lost its will to go on. The rim was ripping in multiple areas. There were no bike shops in Tenant Creek, of course, but we both knew that there had been at least one or two in Alice Springs. We placed a call to one of them, gave them our Credit Card info and they sent us a wheel via the next bus that came up towards Tenant Creek. The following day, we had only lost one and a half hours time before we hit the pedals and hit them hard.
Mistake. We overestimated ourselves or -perhaps- underestimated the Outback. A facial warm blaze at 46°C made the first 100km very tiresome and though we had wanted to gain some plus in our distance column to stay a day in Katherine, NT we nearly killed ourselves with too much enthusiasm. During the day, salt buildup had colored my shorts white and stung my eyes. As night set in on our 26th day, the wind died down and as we sweat bullets in the tent our legs cramped up to remind us the torture wasn't entirely over. Before I could turn in, I went outside, turned on the SPOT device, aimed it at the clear sky like every night and pushed the "ok" button. As a signal traversed the air, into space and bounced back off a satellite to let my folks know that I wasn't dead, I had to wonder if anyone else is out there was receiving my message. Smirking, I remembered that they'd be hovering on over to Whycliffe Wells, grabbing a bumper sticker and taking off at warp speed out of here ... the Outback was no place for aliens.
Being in no good mood, we stopped our travels early on the 2nd of October, our 27th day after 93km. We did this because we had arrived in Eliott, NT and after having some refreshing drinks and snacks there had no great will to go any further that day. The Aussie caravan folk had warned us that Eliott was "not that nice" and that "there were too many black people there". Well, we hadn't been robbed or killed by the "black people" or ambushed as some warned us. Worse still, we had been greeted by them! Picking up the brochure on Eliott, I learned that it had been a lunch stopover during WWII, was home to the Jingili Desert people (referred to "black people" by the Aussies) and that Eliott had a vast history of rocks, some of which were the oldest in Central Australia. Yes! Eliott is THAT fascinating! However, the BP-gas station roadhouse did have a nice campground and a well-kept swimming pool so the brakes were put on our travels and we rested there.
Rob, the man who wandered the Stuart Highway with his ice-cream truck; that was all I could think of right then. Rob worked at the BP-station in Eliott, NT and we had chatted with him by the pool while he was enjoying a beer and we his story. Rob had travelled on foot through Australia for 13 months. He told us the tale of dehydration and having to break a water pipe with a stone to not die of thirst. Rob knew what it was like to be "on the road" and what it felt like to "come home again". He'd never be quite at home for the remainder of his existence, he would never quite fit anywhere anymore. The ice-cream truck was his idea -so copyright on that, bitches- and I believe it would work extremely well. Rob also told us of his unspeakable "final" journey; he would simply go to Tenant Creek then turn west and disappear into the bush to continue on through uncharted Outback for 2000km, that is, if he came out at all. Though I'd rather see Rob in his ice-cream truck ringing the bells and making good business, I can understand the pull of the unknown and desire to set off. It's the setting off that's tough, the rest is purely surviving.
We were slowly reaching our goal. Our total distance up to this point was 3,577km. Our total elevation was 11,984m. There was just one more thing to do now, "survive this ride".
|DARWINIAN TROPICS and Dinky the singing dingo|
|It's funny to be at the same place someone you know was at years ago. Especially, if you never fathomed you would ever be there. My sister had been in Australia for a semester abroad, studying Biology in Brisbane and had -naturally- taken the time to visit the Outback by car. I remembered seeing a photo of her holding a Koala and another photo of her sitting at a piano with a Dingo at her side, looking half amused and half non-trustingly at it. When I noticed the signs for Dinky on the highway, I knew this was him; the dingo from the photo so I had to halt there to see the place and to know I had set foot where my sister had years ago. Dinky was sleeping or in retirement or dead ... I never found out but he was a star in these parts and was not to be bothered by us simple "bastard" tourists.|
The tropic of Capricorn is a little ways after Alice Springs and we had passed it a while ago. People were always telling us how damp and hot it is up north but it took a long time for us to experience any of the tropics. I may have stupidly thought that once we crossed the tropic of Capricorn, all the sudden all would grow densely green and bodies of water would magically appear but they didn't. So, all this while we had talked about the tropical north but hadn't seen anything of it yet and were starting to wonder if it had been just a myth. However, little by little things were changing. The scenery was no longer just dry with a lot of nothingness. A bit of green had come back into play and we exchanged the great red kangaroo for something somewhat smaller, the Wallaby.
The wallaby is cuter, it's human-friendly sized and more social than its larger cousin and its eyes look like the creature's constantly stoned. The Aussies had told us how dangerous the great red skippy was, that its claws could and would rip your chest open if it had a chance. With the Wallaby, I even got a chance to pet one. The Larrimah roadhouse is without contest the coolest one in all of Australia. It's pink with a pink panther lounging about outside. Even the establishment's owner is one cool lady with a very good taste for music. The decorations are all displayed with a personal touch of love. Larrimah has it's own zoo with various birds, wallabies, lizards, snakes and an adopted blind croc. We lunched while enjoying a few verses of, "faster horses, younger women, older whisky ... more money!"
Rest stop that day was at Bitter Springs, Mataranka, NT. Key attraction here are the natural hot springs just a few minutes off from the campground through a dense forest bordered by high palm trees. The treetops are full of upside down sleeping fruit bats, who at the first signs of dusk take off and fill the skies. In the woods, the penetrating smell of bat urine mixes its musky odor to the heavy tropical air. The springs themselves are indeed natural as opposed to other concrete basins I have seen elsewhere advertised as "natural" hot springs and the entrance fee is zilch. The water is at a comfortable 32°C, spawning out of the ground into a sand and rock pool with dense tropical plants and trees surrounding. The basin then flows out into an adjacent river. Since the river is crocodile territory, a grid has been placed to avoid crocs getting into the pool. When I talk of crocs, mind you, I'm speaking of the fresh water crocodiles here. They are not as aggressive and much smaller than the saltwater crocodiles. The funny paradox is that though the Outback was utterly dry except for every 10 years or so when rains flood it, the north with it's large rivers still didn't invite you to simply dive right in. Signs start appearing reminding you that bathing in northern Australian water could be your last bath and there are enough stupid dead tourist stories to go around.
At this point, we knew the tour was ticking towards its final days. We also knew that we would be able to arrive on time in Darwin, which meant that we could relax our minds and that the endeavor was ending. It's a sweet and sour feeling.
Day 30 we came into Katherine, where two humungous first-class campsites awaited us. I pitched my tent on the campground while my team partner took up an air-con room. As planned we stayed and relaxed there the following day wading and relaxing in and out of the pool and watching Aussie TV. In my normal life, I'm not a TV fan but when in a foreign country, I like switching on the box and seeing what mainstream is like there. This is where I learned the phrase "deadly" means "cool" ... not unimportant!
The next days on the road were easy; the pedaling seemed effortless. And now, I will fast-forward a bit ... THE END! It kind of felt like that the last days on our tour. Day 33 is when we arrived in Darwin and the finality came at us out of nowhere. Suddenly en route, traffic started getting a little heavier and we were boosted into Darwin like a tidal wave. There was nothing we could do. There was no sign where we could stop to take the "made it here" picture, just a highway filled with cars and roadwork forcing us to move ahead on through. The last day was strange, not as in surreal strange but as in "is this it?" strange. Once we arrived, in front of a hostel and read out 173km on our computer not only was our daily distance more than attained, our complete tour had abruptly hit that brick wall. There was no north anymore, just water. There, on that busy street, filled with young mostly white foreigners, who were there to have a good time, were two cyclists who had just come from Melbourne. There was no magic to it anymore and no one there to pat you on the back. In an instance, a snap of the fingers, your job was done, over, and nobody knew.
We got ourselves a room at the hostel, brought our bikes up and took to a newer task: Finding postcards, boxes for the bikes, grabbing a beer to celebrate and taking a peek at our faces in the mirror. As I looked at myself, my beard had grown in all directions from my face. Underneath that was sun-worn skin and on top a shabby head of hair. I could hardly recognize who I was. This homeless-guy reflection is who I would become if I continued. If I let myself imagine for one second that maybe this wasn't the end but that I could grab my bike and go further still, maybe I'd find myself pulling a handmade cart with a chair in it eating roadkill or maybe I'd go west of Tenant Creek and disappear off into the bush. This is the part of the tour I call, "reality bites back" and though I'm trying to digest the meaning and magnitude of my ventures, I still am not entirely able to comprehend what I had accomplished. I still hope in years to come it may dawn on me, sitting at home one day while writing about it, what it was about and if or if it hadn't been something grand. I recalled what I always say, "the way is the goal". The destination is never important; being at the end of my journey wasn't why I embarked on it in the first place. Sometimes I do wish there hadn't been an "end" and that I was still right smack in the middle of it, dreaming of my goal but it being still out of reach just enough to motivate me to move on.
This philosophical debate is tough enough to intertwine it with some very complex physics assignment. For whatever reason, just like Steven Hawking is trying to find a correlation between the theory of the very large -relativity theory- and that of the very small -quantum theory-, I too am still scoping for the answer to marry the phrases "survive this ride" and "the way is the goal".
|What happened afterwards, you ask? For those who have read up to here ... good job. In Darwin and since we arrived a bit early, we had a good amount of time to witness the city itself with its bay surrounded by expensive villas, each having their own docks for their very own yachts. We went shopping, not extensively but as you can guess some of our clothes weren't the freshest and for the most part we needed a few new rags. At the Billabong store we got a chance to chat with the owner, who was very fond of surfing like a lot of folks there. She told us, and what we didn't realize, how sad it was that they couldn't go surfing off the northern coast. "Too dangerous, those crocs have a real bad attitude!" She had gone surfing on the eastern coast and even had had a run-in with a shark but, "no worries," she said, "they usually don't attack". Which reminded me that sharks usually attack surfers because they think that they resemble turtles when they're paddling on their boards waiting for that "deadly" wave. Salt water crocodiles didn't seem to care if you were turtle, man or anybody else. You were tasty enough for a bite and if they didn't like you, who cares, they'll spit your half mutilated carcass out and go find something more tasty.|
Of course Darwin had something called a "Croc Tank", an expensive tourist trapping gimmick, a box sunk into a pool filled with saltwater crocodiles so you could have the thrills with the luxury of a safety net. Frankly, I may sign up for it if I would have gotten really bored but in my mind, it's not what I wanted. I wanted to go see these creatures where they lived. So, we booked a tourist tour boat ride to go see them in a nearby saltwater river. It was definitely amazing! These things are huge and their prehistoric appearance makes you think, "my God, these things do exist ... on Earth". Part of the tour fun was to see the crocs jump out of the water to snatch some large pieces of lamb or poultry dangling high from one of the boat's sides. To watch them exit the water is tremendous. They are ballerinas when they jump but they make you respect them immediately and you consider yourself extremely lucky to be on the boat as opposed to swimming around in the murky waters. We learned that it was hard to spot them unless they were swimming along the surface and that if you saw one, there were probably a few more of them under the water. The Aborigines, before they'd go swimming anywhere, would throw in pieces of meat in all directions and wait. If a croc showed up, they'd know not to thread in the waters there ... smart thinking!
We had grabbed some cardboard boxes given to us nicely by one of the Darwinian bike shops and were ready to take our flight from Darwin to Brisbane. In Brisbane airport, I left my team partner with all our bags and bikes and went by myself into Brisbane to go get our rental car. In the past I haven't had luck with rental cars. During my Great Divide Tour in the United States I had lost my credit card and when we had passed Juarez and into El Paso, TX, we headed to Fort Bliss to try and pick it up. Hertz ruined my vacation part of that tour by refusing any other payment methods. My sister had even offered her credit card but they declined. Not only had it taken a while to get into Fort Bliss because this was a military compound and we had to be escorted to the Hertz rent-a-car with MPs but then they flat out denied every possibility I could think of. When I had filled out the online demand for the rented vehicle, I didn't have to prepay anything. This made me anxious because it also meant there was no real contract between the rent-a-car dealer and myself. Prior to our departure from Germany, I had written them an eMail, asking for verification that all was good and had even called them up to make sure the car had been reserved. Still, I had my doubts but these were quickly stomped. Not only was it absolutely no problem but also the rental place didn't even ask for my driver's license or insurance information.
As I got back to the airport with the vehicle at hand, I was radiant that our short vacation was going to actually happen this time without any last minute re-organization. We packed our stuff in the car, bought a cooler to put some cooled beverages in and headed north along the sunshine coast. We as far north as Hervey Bay and basically went to every beach we could find along the way. In Hervey Bay we wanted to go whale watching but it wasn't the season in October so we scratched that idea. We saw pelicans, crabs, pythons and did a lot of driving, on the left of course. On the way back down, we stopped at Surfer's Paradise and Byron Bay on the Gold Coast. I especially liked Byron Bay, it's a cool setback city that used to be hippy central and has now become, well, hipster central. During those four or five days it was freedom. We cruised to where we wanted with only one end destination to go to and stopped in various places along the way with no real plan and only a vague map of the coast. The final coast was the Central coast and the final city was Sydney.
Dropping the car off at the renal agency was a bit adventurous because I had not opted for GPS and our map was of a small scale. I think I found the drop off place by magic but the next task was a hassle. Luckily, we found ourselves on Pitt Street. Unluckily, Pitt Street is ridiculously long. I left my team partner behind and went off to find a reasonable-priced hotel somewhere not too far from a train station. This ordeal took a while and when I finally found one, I had to go all the way back to where my team partner was waiting, grab all the bags, head off to the hotel again and then come back again to fetch my team partner and the boxed bikes. We didn't like the first room and asked to get another. Believe me, it's not that we're picky but a sock under the bed covers and a used condom on the floor told us that maybe the room hadn't seen proper cleaning.
The following day, our last we used to visit Sydney a little. First task was to go back to the opera house, where we had been on our first evening. This was kind of like closing the loop for us. There had been a major forest fire west of Sydney that day and the sky was red. The wildfire caused our eyes to sting too. I have to be fair to say that I would have loved to see more of Sydney but it hadn't been our main focus, as you can imagine. Therefore, the last day in Sydney was more about erring around and seeing what we could see but without any real guide to the city's sites. Somehow, I tend to always do this this way anyway and sometimes I end up finding things that no one would know of, other times I end up missing things everyone has heard of. At the time for instance, I didn't know about walking up the Sydney Harbor Bridge and trust me, if I had know, I would've been the first one to rush there and find out how expensive it was to probably then not go up it at all.
After a night's rest, we took the train to the airport again. First, we went out with both bike boxes to the station, then my team partner went back to the hotel to fetch the bags and we flew back home, the long journey behind us, the longer one ahead of us.
Many would ask, was it worth it? The trip itself is probably something I would never have the chance of doing again. So in that perspective it was worth it indeed. So not only see but witness the Outback by literally traveling through that rugged dry landscape pedal stroke for pedal stroke was also worth it. We totaled 4,192km and 13,598m of accumulated elevation in 33 days. It's funny when compared with my Great Divide Tour in 2010, which totaled 5,076km and 54,000m of elevation in 50 days or my Pyrenean Tour in 2011, which totaled 1,130km and 23,900m of elevation in 14 days. This was the flattest tour yet but which by no means made it the easiest. The Pyreneans were tough because of the elevation. The Great Divide was tough because of the length and elevation. The Never Never OZsome Tour was tough because of the climate and very strong frontal winds. Some days you literally felt every pedal stroke and had no down time because freewheeling was not an option. We were often disappointed with the morning distances we achieved and had to double our efforts after lunch. The flies drove us crazy and wouldn't let us have any off-time during breaks. However, for all these reasons, yes, it was worth it. To have traversed not only a country but an entire continent and put that up as a mental trophy on my wall of achievements inside my cranium. Yes, that was worth it. The trip was nevertheless expensive. I didn't really tally up the entire costs but I think they must have run somewhere around €5,000 for the trip. Still, if we're talking money, it was worth it and like I always say, I won't be buried with any cash so what's the use.
You can transpose the ordeal and take it up like a book, a good long book, a hard book. You know they'll be a beginning, middle and end to it. At first, when you pick it up you know you could simply put it down and get working on something else and if you don't stick to it you'll probably simply end up forgetting about it. Once you're in it though, well, you're into it. In a way the story becomes you. You don't mind if a chapter ends because the next one's just a page turn away. What happens though, when you come to the end? What happens when all that is left are blank pages or you reach that final period? If it was a good book, if it was a great book you would have wished the chapters to continue or the story to have been elongated by other actions. Once you have read the last chapter, there is no going back, the story has been told and the adventure ceases. You are no longer yourself from the book. Part of you wishes to have never read that last part, maybe the mystery would have continued. Now you have to ask yourself one question, "Was it worth it?" or is the question as superfluous as the punctuation mark at the end of itself?
- Jeremy Boissel 2016
& Florian Weber, Mainz