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Trip Report Australian Road Trip

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I took a road trip in 1995. 1994 and 5 had been a difficult period for me, and I thought that a little time out would be good. A bit of fresh air, time and space, fresh wind in my face. So I allowed myself 100 days away.

I remember reading, years ago, a story of a guy who had ridden a bicycle around much of Australia, and it seemed a good idea. I'd ridden a bit, a seven day camping trip around the Snowy mountains a few years previously, so the bicycle was a natural choice.

I did this detailed plan, intending to do about 10,000 km in about 100 days, and the plan more or less worked. I planned to travel through central New South Wales, through Bourke, and then via the legendary Queensland towns, Cunnamulla, Charleville, Tambo, Barcaldine and Longreach, the most legendary of them all, the birth place of Qantas, our national airline.

The bike was not particularly exotic, especially compared to the carbon fibre creations that one sees on the streets now, and had been ten years in the making. Bikes can be like that – they sort of grow organically. Start with a bike. Get new handlebars, then maybe a new set of cranks, perhaps new brakes. New gear change mechs, a better saddle. I had a frame made to order, to just my size, and it was (and I use the term “was” advisedly) lovely. Having a frame made is like having a suit tailored to your measurements, or getting Purdey to make you a pair of guns. It was perfect, felt like part of my body, like the most comfortable pair of shoes that you could imagine. New wheels, with heavy spokes – I didn't want to be changing spokes in the middle of nowhere and ill – equipped, decent pedals and shoes, pannier racks, lights, water bottle carriers and the bike was ready to hit the road.

I was less ready to hit the road. I did not train for the ride particularly, as I thought that you can either spend the time training, or just get on with it. A couple of 50 km rides around the streets of Melbourne, making sure that the bike would not break down, and then just go for it. So my main preparation was reading Henry Lawson, stories of the outback. And buying a few maps.

Getting out of town – any town – is a major drag, so I took a train out of Melbourne on 12 April, 1995, to Shepparton. That gets one over the Great Divide, into the hinterland, into the more flat part of Australia, orchard and irrigation country. The first day, from Shepparton to Echuca, seemed like a killer. In fact, it was a killer. My diary records that I covered a scant 75km that day, at an average speed of 23 km/hour, against a light headwind, across terrain as flat as a billiards table. At the end of the day, I though that I'd have to take to my backside with a fire extinguisher, it was so sore. I was seriously querying my own sanity, knowing that next day, Echuca to Deniliquin, was going to be a little longer. One presses on.

I really like Echuca - my paternal grandmother, one Mary Butcher - was an Echuca lass. The town used to be at the railhead from Melbourne, and was a port for steamers on the Murray, Murrimbidge, and the Darling, river routes extending right up into Queensland. Each year, millions of pounds worth of wool was handled across the Echuca wharves, en route to the mills in Geelong, and fencing wire, shearing plant, pumps, wool presses and wool packs, horseshoes, sofas, forges, everything to support the pastoral industry, was shipped from Echuca into the hinterland. At one time, Echuca was Australia's second port, and still feels like a slightly maritime city.

Echuca to Deniliquin was uneventful, flat, and boring. Over time, I came to appreciate the boredom, or rather, to re-interpret the boredom. It's not really boring, it's just that at 20 or 25 km/hr, there's not a hell of a lot happening, or maybe it's like watching a movie in slo-mo. The advantage of traveling slowly is that things happen slowly. One sees the sign saying “Hotel – cold beer – 10km ahead” and so there's lots of time, about half an hour in fact, to take the decision that a cold beer would be most satisfactory, indeed one SHOULD have a cold beer, one has a DUTY to support the rural economy by having a cold beer, one should perhaps have TWO cold beers, times being a bit tight in the country on this particular day. I don't think that I rode past a single pub on the whole trip without doing my bit to support the rural economy. When it comes to cold beer, I'm most patriotic.

I stayed at the Youth Hostel in Deniliquin (Deni to the locals) and was joined by a party of people with the most gigantic appetites. I could not believe how they ate – it seemed that they needed boxes of pizza and a couple of BBQ chickens and ten litres of Coke to get them through the afternoon decision making process of where they would eat that evening. I left early next morning, creeping out before dawn, and was duly accosted by the local police, wondering what on earth I was doing at that time of day. I think they thought that I was nuts, I pleaded temporary insanity, and all was well.

I was headed to Hay, the first of that well known trio, Hay, Hell and Booligal, and made a discovery about the flora of New South Wales. Those little prickles, called three star jacks, can puncture a tyre in an instant, which they did, fore and aft. That hissing sound is most depressing for the long distance cyclist, even if he's equipped with spare tubes, especially if he's still got one hundred kilometres to pedal. It's that Robert Frost poem, “miles to go before I sleep”, I suppose.

The country around Hay is famed for breeding fine merino sheep, and there's a monster statue to one of them at the Perrin stud. A bronze merino, the size of a Shetland pony, male apparatus the size of tennis balls, marking one of the really pivotal places of the Australian wool industry.

I had time on the road from Deni to Hay to really think hard about the stuff I'd brought with me. I knew that a tent and sleeping bag might be useful, a petrol stove would be handy, spare tubes are a nice thing to have, and food and water really a good thing to carry. But do I really need that candle lantern, spare shoes, a tent fly, and various other bits and pieces. I thought I'd packed a minimum amount of stuff, but once you have to propel it along the highway under your own steam, then maybe there's scope for weight reduction. I thought long and hard about that – I had time to think long and hard – and figured it was time to do some serious Weight Watchers stuff on my kit.

A tour bus pulled into the camping ground at Hay, with about twenty souls on board. Almost before the engine had stopped, the cook had the back of the bus open, pulled out an industrial sized stove and had water on to boil. They were headed to Ularu, had come from Sydney, and were really well organised. It was fun watching the party struggling to erect their tents for the first time – they had run late, and so had skipped the tent erecting demonstration at their lunch time stop. The driver explained that they would be doing a 6/7/8 start in the morning, up at 6, breakfast over by 7, bus packed up and on the road by 8. They were on the road by 8, after taking pity on me as I mended the punctures from the day before, and feeding me breakfast.

Hay is, or was, the seat of the Bishop of the Riverina, and the Bishops Palace is still there. It's not exactly Lambeth, being a low timber structure, but really elegant, lovely, and raised high enough so that it would not be inundated when the Murrumbidgee floods. Hay is, as one might expect, on the Hay Plains. Flat, really flat.

I pedalled off across the Hay Plains, destination Booligal, on the Lachlan. Within a handful of days, I was to cross most of the big rivers draining into the Murray basin. The Murray at Echuca, the Edwards at Deni, the Murrumbidgee at Hay, trailed the Lachlan from Booligal, and was to cross the darling at Bourke a few days later. Much of Europe has been defined by the old Roman roads and trade routes, and I was discovering a geography based on rivers.

I suppose that, in some ways, I was following my fathers footsteps. Dad had been a shearing contractor, working in New South Wales, so many of the places that I went through had been familiar to him in the late '40's and '50's.

The “Hell”, of the “Hay, Hell and Booligal” trio was the One Tree Pub, about 40km north of Hay. It is closed now, it's been closed for years, but had a not very salubrious reputation when it traded, hence the soubriquet “Hell”. I can still imaging drunken shearers carousing there after the shed cut out, blowing their cheques in the front bar, the wool classer in the saloon, being somewhat aloof, and I had a vision, as CEW Bean the writer put it, of being “On the Wool Track”, feeling life from the fifties, when wool was a pound a pound, the sons attended Geelong Grammar or Kings, as one's sons ought, a Rolls was not out of the question, and shearers asked each other “where's your next shed?” and “is the tucker any good at Natue, Alma, Tom's Lake, or wherever?”.

The One Tree Hotel stands on the One Tree Hill, which marks the watershed between the Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee rivers. “Hill” is a misnomer really, as the hill would stand about three metres above the surrounding terrain, and not bothering the cartographer much when he draws his contour map.

Natue Station is still on the map, about 20km west of Booligal. Natue was owned by my God-father, Bindi Robinson, and I remember visiting there, as a child of ten or so, around '57 or '58. Horses, wild pigs, emus, a mile from the homestead to the woolshed and shearers quarters, a meat house, carbide lamps, learning to use a .22 rifle, first tentative driving lessons. We drove up from Melbourne in Dad's FJ Holden, a long haul, and I recollect having a lemonade at the One Tree Hotel. This trip, I punctured near the One Tree Hotel, and while there was no lemonade, there was welcome shade under the verandah while I mended the flat.

Booligal, another 40km north of One Tree is a one horse town – or would be, if there were any horses – motorbikes having replaced horses mostly. There's a pub and general store. The pub is new – the old pub, which I remember from a trip there in the '70s, was a cool mud brick building, which collapsed into its own cellar. The new pub looks like a temporary building, but will last for some time, and offers comfort for the thirsty cyclist. The general store also serves as the post office, stock and station agent, petrol retailer and most other things in Booligal, so I mailed some surplus equipment home.

I camped on the Lachlan river, or rather beside a string of water holes that marked where the river would be if it was flowing, and this felt like my first true outback camp.

Some bad ideas turn out to be good ideas in the end, and the reverse is also true. Riding from Booligal through to Hillston seemed like a really good idea. It's a dirt road, but, hey, what's 70km of dirt road to your intrepid cyclist, and anyway I wanted to go to Hillston – the birth place of a former wife.

The dirt road started out very well, hard packed clay, easy pedalling, and got worse from there on. By the time I got to Hillston (which sounds like the first line from a Glenn Campbell song) I felt like I'd just gone ten rounds with Sonny Liston. The next day was also half dirt road to Lake Cargelligo, hard riding, and my diary records is as “Difficult dirt road, steep banks, and soft edges. Cool day, lovely”. Maybe the lovely was when I stopped, and my hands were numb from the hammering of the handlebars. The numbness is still with me, almost fifteen years later, and I still have reduced sensation in my little fingers. I believe they have a disease in Sweden known as “Chain saw finger”, caused by vibration, and maybe I'm a sufferer. The only reason for going via Hillston and Lake Cargelligo was to get to Condoblin and then to Parkes.

Older Australians might remember stories by Mary Grant Bruce, written around 1910 to 1925, and as a child I devoured these books, all twenty or so of them. Books written around an idyllic pastoral existence, a local version of “All things bright and beautiful”, a record of simpler times. Anyway, the town of Condoblin was mentioned in one of the books, so Condoblin it was – I had to go via Condoblin.

I'd planned on camping the night at Bogan Gate, and one look at that township compelled me to keep on riding. Visualise a store, pub, wheat silo and nothing else. Nope – I found the energy to do another 40km to Parkes, and was really storming along. That was the first 200 km day of the trip, and so I knew that I'd be able to keep on going. I'd figured that if I could not make 200 km in a day, then the trip would not work, so the day was a real achievement.

Up the road to Dubbo and the Western Plains Zoo, dodging trucks on the highway, horrible, and the next day to Nyngen, an easy day, a mere 170 km – I was getting pretty fit by then, no saddle sores, no need for the evening fire extinguisher. And then the long haul to Bourke.

Bourke is one of Australia's very special towns. It is 210 km up the way from Nyngen, and the road is straight, with one tiny dog-leg at Byrock. The railway line, de-commissioned, is dead straight, and I believe is the longest stretch of straight track in the world. Henry Lawson writes about a bunch of shearers tumbling out of the pub and joining the train at Byrock, and I could imagine it quite clearly. In the late 1940's and early 50's, there were shearers strikes, and they were big, lasting for months. Shearers are a pretty tough lot – anyone who can shear for eight hours a day, six days a week has to be pretty tough – and the strikes were pretty tough too. The odd woolshed torched, punches thrown on the railway station at Bourke, altogether a very colourful time. Dad had recruited a team of shearers, determined to shear, come hell or high water, and they travelled to Bourke by train. I remember Dad telling me that they stopped the train, and made tea from the boiler water. “Worst cup of tea I ever had in my life”, he reported.

Bourke is a bit tamer now, and they've taken Henry Lawson as one of their patron saints, the other being Fred Hollows, who did amazing work in the field of aboriginal blindness. Henry spent a few months in Bourke, painting the bar, writing despatches for the Bulletin, and hated it. He found the outback indescribably bleak and hard, the romance of the outback never did it for him. He writes most eloquently about it, though, so maybe that's why he has sainthood.

Big day from Bourke to Cunnamulla, the biggest day of the trip almost, 257 km. I was on the road at dawn, and crossed into Queensland at Barringun, 130 km up the road. Barringun was a customs post, on the border between New South Wales and Queensland, and rather lost its importance when Australia federated in 1900. It now has a permanent population of four. But there's still a pub, with a barmaid wondering what on earth I was doing pedalling up the Mitchell highway.

Cunnamulla to Charleville was an easy day – I had a tail wind. That day was 25th April, Anzac Day, and the war memorial in Wyandra (population about 10) had an Australian flag flying, as would every War memorial in Australia on April 25th. Wyandra is your topical Australian hamlet, pub, general store and post office. The pub and general store were run by a Vietnamese couple, and I had to wonder what on earth had brought them to that place, so far from anywhere, so far from family and community. Probably a desire t make a better life for their children.

I talked with a grazier (nobody talks about farmers in that part of the world – one is either a grazier or pastoralist) in the pub. He'd been preparing for shearing, to start in a couple of days, getting the shed ready, yarding the first sheep, making sure that the shearing plant would perform. Getting ready for THE WOOL, he termed it. The annual cycle for sheep growers is from the Lambing to the Wool, over and over.

He had a team of New Zealanders coming to shear, an eight stand shed, but only six stands being used. “Killed a sheep this morning, so the cook would have something to be getting on with, but he'll have to butcher it himself. The meat house is in good shape – cleaned it out for them. I hope they've got a decent cook this year”, he said. Last year's cook had been “a nightmare – all sorts of fancy food, egg and bacon pie that he called quiche, and his bread had been like concrete”, he reported. “Almost lost the team”, he said, “but the cook the year before was a beaut. He cooked a hangi when the shed cut out, meat cooked on hot stones in a pit wrapped in green leaves. The Kiwis thought that was pretty special. Some cooks think they're running a cafe, when they need to know that food is just fuel for shearers”.

I ventured to display my ignorance, and asked him how many sheep they’d shear. One ought not do this, it is like asking how much a person earns a year, but I thought that I'd get away with it, being a city slicker. He said that they'd shear about ten thousand. “Y'know, three years ago we shore sixteen thousand. Lost about six thousand in the flood – they took me off the roof of the woolshed in a dinghy. I was a bit lucky, though, I'd been able to move the good stock to the higher ground, and saved the rams and best ewes. We're on the Warrego, and when she floods, she really floods. But the grazing is good on the river flats, but.”

Those people are tough – he'd just taken the flood more or less in his stride.

I kept on pedalling, and fetched up at Charleville, and stayed at Corones Hotel. Corones is pretty special, a very grand hotel built in he twenties, the finest hotel in inland Australia, it boasted, the centre of social activity for a hundred miles around. The hotel is still grand, a veranda fifteen feet wide, and I paced it out, about a hundred yards from end to end, and the hotel is packed with lovely Australian furniture, and the joinery is very special. (The hot water was not working, but then, you can't expect everything.) They'd copped the same flood that drowned the sheep – a plaque recorded the height, and there had been a metre of water through the bar.

“How did you cope with it. It must have been heart breaking”, I asked the publican. “It was pretty tough”, she said, “but everyone was in the same boat as us, and we'd had days warning, so we moved lots of furniture upstairs. All the shops were flooded too, and we all just helped each other”. I suppose they'd just taken a plane to the doors, shaved them until they would close.

On from Charleville to Tambo, a snap at 200 km – by now, 200 km days were seeming pretty routine, and then to Barcaldine.

Barcaldine is significant in Australian history, the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party during the shearers strike of the 1890's. The tree near the station, known as The Tree of Knowledge, was still standing, and it was under this tree that the shearers met, and formed a political party. Some idiot poisoned the tree a few years ago, but there is hope that they can strike a cutting from it. Funny how the DNA from plants can be significant, seedlings from the Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine, and pines from seeds of the Lone Pine at Gallipoli, two places that are very important in Australian history. There's a museum, almost a theme park, devoted to ordinary Australians in Barcaldine, a rural school and police station, a post office, all showing how people lived and worked a hundred years ago.

I stayed in a pub in Barcaldine, asked the publican about breakfast. “Oh, just come down to the kitchen and help yourself”. Duly went down in the morning, to find eggs, bacon, tomatoes, bread, cereal, the lot, ready to go. He must have thought that we were shearers.

Barcaldine to Longreach – a day that I wished would last forever, but it was only 110km. I had a howling tailwind, the long distance cyclist's prayer being answered by the God of winds. I averaged 29km per hour on that jaunt, max speed 45 km/hr. Whoo-hoo!

Longreach is something of a destination town, lots of good pubs, and the Stockman's Hall of Fame that I visited. There was a demonstration of horsemanship and cattle dogs working, which was a lot of fun – especially as the dogs were being called on to round up a flock of ducks. They did it pretty well – I think the dogs just psyched the ducks into submission.

The publican was trying to go up-market, and had opened a cafe with a genuine espresso machine. You've got to realise that in 1995, a cappuccino in central Queensland comprised instant coffee and heated milk, so she was proud of her endeavours. I wish her the best of luck.

I pedalled from Longreach to Winton overnight – too hot and windy during the day. It was strange riding at night, but enough moon to see by without using the lights – until I almost hit a kangaroo. There's almost no traffic at night in that part of the world – in the ten hours or so, I saw half a dozen trucks, and a couple of kangaroo shooters. I also saw the most amazing shooting star – the brightest ever, and could have believed that it was a satellite crashing to Earth. Winton has two claims to fame. First, “Waltzing Matilda” was written by AB Patterson near there, and second, it is the fossil capital of Australia, every sort of fossil from beetles to dinosaurs.

Winton – eighteen days on the road, fifteen days pedalling, and 2432 km on the odometer. Feeling rather proud of myself, so I hopped a bus to Charters Towers. Where disaster struck.

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    Ah, you'll have to wait for the next installment, which takes the intrepid cyclist from Charters Towers north to Cairns, and then out west to Ularu. But the clue is in the fourth para.

    Cheers

    peter

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    Great read, Peter.
    Did your Dad ever have a team at "Boorooma"? - half way between Walgett & Brewarrina. 24 stand shed, on the banks of the Barwon.

    Looking for the next instalment - I think I've worked out the disaster, but will have to wait & see!

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    Libretto, thanks for the encouragement. The next instalment may be a little while coming - it's a battle organising one's thoughts from fifteen years ago, fishing out the old maps, diary and photos. The route from Charters Towers was up to Cairns, back to Townsville, and then a train to Mt Isa. I've written the train trip bit - you'd find it if you are interested.

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    Longreach to Winton had been quite a haul, travelling overnight. I had pulled into Winton at about 4:30 AM, and found a park. Made breakfast (coffee and the dreaded instant noodles) then headed to the railway station to find a quiet bench and have a sleep.

    Big mistake in Winton – I ran out of money, and there was nothing remotely resembling an ATM in town. By the time I'd bought a beer or two, a bus ticket to Charters Towers and a meal I was broke. I got onto the bus, for a twelve hour trip, with not a cent to my name. You can imagine my envy at the midnight stop, people buying hamburgers, hot chips, a whole smorgasbord of junk food, and I was not even able to buy a Mars bar. Free coffee helped. A little.

    Arriving in Charters Towers at about 6:00 AM, put the wheels and bags on the bike, and headed off into town. Spotted the cyan blue of an ATM, got money, and then smelled a bakery. Open. Selling buttered buns. Selling coffee. Excellent.

    There'd been something “wrong” with the bike, a slight bump bump, affecting the lights as I'd ridden from Longreach to Winton. After I'd checked into the backpacker place in Charters Towers, I pulled the back wheel off and found that the tyre was blowing up. “No big deal”, I thought, “I'll just ride down town and get a new tyre. Easy Peasy”. And I'd planned a rest day in Charters Towers anyway.

    On occasion, I have fallen off bikes. Sometimes when road racing, you clip the wheel in front, and just tumble off. Another time was on the Yarra bike path in Melbourne, going flat out, fourth in a line of four. The guy in front braked to avoid a seagull (a bloody seagull!) walking across the path, and I couldn’t brake in time. Clipped the wheel and rolled off onto the grass – it could have been into the river – so I was lucky. I was less lucky with the crowd of onlookers, one of Melbourne’s larger law firms, putting on a breakfast barbecue for, oh, about three hundred of their favourite clients. The roar of applause was ringing in my ears for some time.

    The main street of Charters Towers is well paved, smooth, with no discernable pot holes. Except one, no bigger than a large egg cup. I duly rode into the pot hole – I think that maybe I was concentrating on the bump bump coming from the back wheel – and fell off the bike. No expletives were deleted as I fell to the bitumen, but falling off a bike is just one of those things that happen anyway.

    Scraped myself up, told the onlookers that I was fine, and re-mounted the bike, or what was left of the bike. Bent top tube, bent down tube, bent forks. Completely not able to be ridden. My beautiful custom made, bespoke, double butted tube bike frame was a wreck.

    Walked and bled the remaining distance to the bike shop, meandered in.
    “Can I help you, mate” from behind the counter, in a strong Dutch accent.
    “Yeah, I think I need a new bike frame.”
    “I haven't got anything much in stock. But a mate is coming up from Townsville tonight; I'll tell him to chuck a few frames into the car. Looks like a 21 ½ inch road frame, should not be too difficult. Come back tomorrow, OK?”
    I left, feeling most under confident, thinking I'd be stuck in Charters Towers for ages.

    I spent the afternoon walking the town. Charters Towers was a gold mining town, and even boasted its own Stock Exchange. Now the main industry there is education – there are a number of boarding schools in the town, catering for the children of western Queensland, and the teacher population makes for a lively environment. There are lots of fine buildings, a most picturesque place, except that I was stuck there. I made my way to the Returned Servicemen's Club, had a beer. The club is quite something, dates from about 1900, the first members were probably returned soldiers from the Boer War.

    Two full sized billiards tables, overlooked by sepia photos of Major This, Captain That, Colonel So-and-so, men of the district who had died in the slaughter of the Great War. I watched on idly as a billiards game was played out.

    A bloke invited me to a game of billiards, and duly slaughtered me.

    Back to Century Cycles next morning, and hey, they've got a frame that will do the job, can re-build the bike, ready next morning. Magic. The only components that could not be re-used were the brake levers – destroyed in the Great Charters Towers Bike Wreck (1995) . The Century Cycles mechanics did a great job, lights, racks, mudguards, water bottle carriers, cleaned the chain, and replaced the offending rear tyre, the lot.

    We talked about where I was headed. North, through the Atherton Tablelands, and he said that I should not miss the Undara Lava Tubes. Geology is not my favourite interest, and I wondered what could be so interesting about some lava tubes – I envisaged rabbit holes - but decided to take his advice. Only 100 km to the next camping spot at Blue Waters, then 240 to Undara, not too difficult, but no water from Blue Waters to Undara.

    As it turned out, I was only 80 k's into the ride out of Blue Waters on the way to Undara when a bloke offered me a lift. I accepted – I'd never refuse a lift. We talked, and his family has two cattle stations in the district, and he was in transit between the two. “How far do you drive in a year”, I asked. “Oh, about 100,000 k's a year. This is my good vehicle – the old one's got 350,000 k's on it.” He was interested in what I was doing, and why. “Good way to see the country”, he thought, and he's right. He dropped me off about 15km from Undara, 15km of mostly sandy track, hard going.

    Undara is a small resort, on the edge of the Undara National Park, and I was interested to see what lava tubes were all about. They are stunning. Imagine this. There is a river valley. A volcano erupts, and the river of water turns into a river of lava, the river being about 150km long, and eventually the lava fills the valley. But the lava is still molten, except where the lava contacts the bed rock and the atmosphere, where it eventually chills off and solidifies. The centre of this river is still molten, and so the lava drains out downstream, leaving a void, a tunnel.

    It sounds a bit ordinary, until you see the remnant tunnel – it is big enough, in places, to drive a truck down. Over time, the tunnel collapses, leaving sheer sided voids, which have unique vegetation compared to the surrounding plain, and the vegetation varies depending on how long ago the tunnel collapsed.

    You can walk down into the tunnel in places, and we walked in about half a kilometre. There are colonies of bats in the tunnels, and a whole subterranean eco-system. Bats, beetles that eat bat dung, and parasites that live on the beetles. The beetles and parasites are albino – they never see the light of day.

    On to Ravenshoe, site of the highest pub in Queensland, and then onto Mareeba. The publican at Ravenshoe had told me that I'd enjoy the ride to Mareeba. There's a continuous 30km downhill from Ravenshoe to Mareeba, and I certainly enjoyed it! Less enjoyable was the pub at Mareeba – people in the adjacent room smoking dope and arguing. It seemed that the more they smoked, the more argumentative they became. I thought that dope was meant to create peace and love, encourage one to head off to some drug-inspired nirvana. Bummer.

    Chillagoe to see the limestone caves, bus to Kuranda, and then a short hop to Port Douglas. Kuranda to Port Douglas was a ripper – coming down off the dividing range is pretty steep, a winding road, a maximum speed of just over 65 km/hr. Up to the Daintree, rainforest and big, savage birds, cassowaries. Back to Port Douglas, and then the high speed ferry back to Cairns, the bike strapped to the stern rail. A week of being quite the tourist, easy days, days spent sitting around, drinking tea, yarning with people.

    Hides Hotel is without a doubt the best hotel in all of Cairns. OK, it's old, bathroom down the hall. But if you get a room in the “old” hotel, you'll have French doors opening out onto the balcony, potted palms, ease yourself into a chair on the balcony, have a drink, and pretend that you are a rubber planter out of a Somerset Maugham novel set in the Federated Malay States in 1908.

    “Better be the last round before I join the Memsahib for dinner. What'll you have, old man? Same again? Boy!” (Sometimes I just travel off in a time warp. Sometimes my wife just thinks I'm full of it!)

    I don't know what it is – maybe I just attract nut cases. I attracted two of them in Cairns.
    Nut case the first, sitting at a table by the sea front. Bloke asks if he can join me, proceeds to tell me that he's got a mathematical formula, which indicates the worth of any named individual. Margaret Thatcher is a 57, Ronald Reagan is a 43, and after asking me a few questions (birth date, initials to my name, occupation) tells me that I'm scored at about 68, maybe as high as 71. It would need more research to be more precise.
    Asks me what score I'd allow him. I tell him that I'd see him as being say 73, maybe 77 on a good day.

    Well, he was on his feet in an instant. “That's a bloody insult” was amongst the more subtle phrases that he uttered, and then he stormed off in high dudgeon. No pleasing some people, I suppose.

    Nut case the second. I should have seen this one coming – the luggage label pinned to her lapel with her name and address was a dead give away. She'd been watching me make a call on a public phone.

    “Was that a good call?” she ventured to ask.
    “Yep, it was fine, spoke with some family in Melbourne, and it was good for them to know I'm having a happy time, and to catch up on the news of them.”
    “But your ears, your ears, are they all right? Sometimes when I use the phone my ears are strange, something comes out of the phone into my head”.

    Total nut case or maybe someone doing advanced research into electro-magnetic radiation in the tropics. I don't know, but I'm putting my money on nut case.


    I'd planned on taking a bus down the coast to Mission Beach, as the coast road is rotten for cycling. Flat, endless cane fields, heavy traffic. Buy ticket, attend the bus station. The bus is packed, luggage space bursting, sorry, mate, can't take the bike. Hell, it's about mid afternoon, and I've got to pedal my way out of Cairns. I couldn't believe it. Hit the road.

    Two days to Mission Beach, and treated myself to a couple of nights at a resort hotel, then to Townsville. It was funny checking into the resort – I don't think they see many itinerant cyclists, and did not know what to do with my luggage. Should the bell boy wheel the bike, or what? Gave him my helmet to carry to the room, I'll wheel the bike, thanks.

    Train trip from Townsville to Mt Isa, a voyage in itself, and then off into the outback.

    It was interesting to see the changes in myself – from the start of the trip until Winton, it really had been go, go, go. Big days, a string of 200 km days. Once I'd had a forced rest at Charters Towers, things seemed to slow down a bit. Maybe it was some pretty ordinary riding conditions through the Atherton Tablelands, really heavy rain and windy, but somehow I seemed to take it pretty easy, more content to slow down and smell the roses, be a bit lazy.

    Not much chance to take it easy once I left Mount Isa, though. The distances are big, 190 km to Camoweel, then 260 km to Barkly Homestead, and 200 to Tennant Creek. Water is the problem, always water. How come, when you can buy packet soups, instant noodles, dehydrated chicken stew, dehydrated Madras curry, you still can’t get dehydrated water. There’s a market there for some enterprising manufacturer.

    You can carry gallons of the stuff, which makes the bike heavy, and slows you down, or take the minimum, which allows bigger daily distances. I met cyclists carrying twenty litres, who were able to make only sixty or eighty km a day, and that means that they needed to carry about three days water. I figured that if I carried less, and always filled up when I could, then I'd be OK with about five litres a day, and make 200 km. It worked – and I found that passing motorists would offer water, which I never needed, but an orange out of their car fridge was welcome. Eventually I found that if I had stopped for a rest, it worked well if I gave a nonchalant wave, held a bottle to my lips as if drinking, and they would see that I was under control.

    There were frequent flocks of Grey Nomads on the roads in western Queensland – older couples pulling caravans, off on the big Round Australia road trip. And road trains made cycling interesting – a prime mover and three full trailers, clipping along at 100 km/hr. It’s like being overtaken by, or pedaling into, a typhoon. Massive cloud of dust, gravel particles in the teeth and ears. I found it best to cycle down the wrong side of the road when being overtaken, rather than needing about 120 tons of truck and trailers to move across the bitumen. Only once did a road train driver give me a blast on the horn – he was going to overtake at the same time as a car would pass going the other way – and at times like that, one does well to pull over and plant a foot in the gravel. There’s not space for three on the road.

    Camoweel without problems, and then a couple of roadside camps in the middle of nowhere. I found that if you want to sleep well, head off the road where there is a drain. Even though the ground is covered in pebbles, there is soft sand in the drains. And it’s fun camping 100 km from the nearest habitation, a carpet of stars overhead.

    Roll into Tennant Creek against a howling 35 degree Celsius headwind. Tennant Creek is a horrible town. Jump bus pronto to Alice Springs.

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    I am so enjoying reading this. My biking days are long past (I think I was about 14 when I last rode) but the stories are wonderful and make me want to be in Australia RIGHT NOW! (Ah, well, hopefully in about 350 some days...)

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    I knew Tennant Creek from days of yore – I'd installed a turbine for Mitsui there in 1987, in February and March at the power station. I remember it clearly – dark at 5:30 AM when we started on site, and then the sun would explode over the horizon. It was like the guys watching the atomic explosions at Maralinga, the fireball arising, reach for the dark glasses. And the fly repellant. By mid morning, it would be about 38 degrees in the shade – except that there was little shade – and come mid afternoon, the mercury had seen about 42 degrees.

    So I had no great love for Tennant Creek, and a bus trip to Alice Springs seemed like a good idea. The bus pulled in about 11:00 PM, and was the source of great excitement, as nothing very exciting happens in Tennant Creek. It felt like the arrival of Cobb & Co.

    Fire lighted, on the table a meal for sleepy men,
    A lantern in the stable, a jingle now and then;
    The mail coach looming darkly by light of moon and star,
    The growl of sleepy voices—a candle in the bar.
    A stumble in the passage of folk with wits abroad;
    A swear-word from a bedroom—the shout of ‘All aboard!’
    ‘Tchk-tchk! Git-up!’ ‘Hold fast, there!’ and down the range we go;
    Five hundred miles of scattered camps will watch for Cobb and Co.

    Old coaching towns already ‘decaying for their sins,’
    Uncounted ‘Half -Way Houses,’ and scores of ‘Ten Mile Inns;’
    The riders from the stations by lonely granite peaks;
    The black-boy for the shepherds on sheep and cattle creeks;
    The roaring camps of Gulgong, and many a ‘Digger’s Rest;’
    The diggers on the Lachlan; the huts of Farthest West;
    Some twenty thousand exiles who sailed for weal or woe;
    The bravest hearts of twenty lands will wait for Cobb and Co.

    The morning star has vanished, the frost and fog are gone,
    In one of those grand mornings which but on mountains dawn;
    A flask of friendly whisky—each other’s hopes we share—
    And throw our top-coats open to drink the mountain air.
    The roads are rare to travel, and life seems all complete;
    The grind of wheels on gravel, the trot of horses’ feet,
    The trot, trot, trot and canter, as down the spur we go—
    The green sweeps to horizons blue that call for Cobb and Co.

    We take a bright girl actress through western dust and damps,
    To bear the home-world message, and sing for sinful camps,
    To wake the hearts and break them, wild hearts that hope and ache—
    (Ah! when she thinks of those days her own must nearly break!)
    Five miles this side the gold-field, a loud, triumphant shout:
    Five hundred cheering diggers have snatched the horses out:
    With ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in chorus through roaring camps they go—
    That cheer for her, and cheer for Home, and cheer for Cobb and Co.

    Three lamps above the ridges and gorges dark and deep,
    A flash on sandstone cuttings where sheer the sidings sweep,
    A flash on shrouded waggons, on water ghastly white;
    Weird bush and scattered remnants of rushes in the night
    Across the swollen river a flash beyond the ford:
    ‘Ride hard to warn the driver! He’s drunk or mad, good Lord!’
    But on the bank to westward a broad, triumphant glow—
    A hundred miles shall see to-night the lights of Cobb and Co.!

    Swift scramble up the siding where teams climb inch by inch;
    Pause, bird-like, on the summit—then breakneck down the pinch
    Past haunted half-way houses—where convicts made the bricks—
    Scrub-yards and new bark shanties, we dash with five and six—
    By clear, ridge-country rivers, and gaps where tracks run high,
    Where waits the lonely horseman, cut clear against the sky;
    Through stringy-bark and blue-gum, and box and pine we go;
    New camps are stretching ’cross the plains the routes of Cobb and Co.

    Throw down the reins, old driver—there’s no one left to shout;
    The ruined inn’s survivor must take the horses out.
    A poor old coach hereafter!—we’re lost to all such things—
    No bursts of songs or laughter shall shake your leathern springs
    When creeping in unnoticed by railway sidings drear,
    Or left in yards for lumber, decaying with the year—
    Oh, who’ll think how in those days when distant fields were broad
    You raced across the Lachlan side with twenty-five on board.

    Not all the ships that sail away since Roaring Days are done—
    Not all the boats that steam from port, nor all the trains that run,
    Shall take such hopes and loyal hearts—for men shall never know
    Such days as when the Royal Mail was run by Cobb and Co.
    The ‘greyhounds’ race across the sea, the ‘special’ cleaves the haze,
    But these seem dull and slow to me compared with Roaring Days!
    The eyes that watched are dim with age, and souls are weak and slow,
    The hearts are dust or hardened now that broke for Cobb and Co.


    I'm a bit of a hopeless romantic when it comes to Henry Lawson.

    But we did stop at little places, Wauchope, Wycliffe Well, Barrow Creek, Ti Tree and Aileron before reaching Alice Springs before dawn broke – 300 miles might not have seen the lights of Cobb & Co, but they saw the lights of the Pioneer bus. Sleepy people climbing on and off, a longer stop at Barrow Creek to let people have a smoke. Some had ridden from Darwin – almost a thousand miles.

    I never really got my navigation sorted out in Alice Springs, having arrived in the dark. I could never quite work out north and south, never was able to orient myself, but I found a shoe maker who was able to repair my cycling shoes, the soles of which were parting company from the uppers. A nice little set of brass screws in each shoe. I had to ride around Alice in sandals! - a true indignity to the serious cyclist.

    I stayed a couple of nights at the Youth Hostel, enjoyed cooking on a real stove instead of the portable petrol powered job that I was carrying. My petrol stove had two speeds – off and blow torch – and it was nice not cooking on the ground, and sleeping in a bed for a couple of nights, swimming pool and shower to hand. And I took a hot air balloon trip. Four AM pick up, doze in the bus while the balloonists figure out where to go to. To gauge the wind, they inflated a helium balloon, and released it. They could track it with a spotlight, to see where the wind would take us.

    Lift the balloon and basket off the trailer, unroll the balloon, fire the burner and we were off into the heavens. Magic, so quiet, except for the roar of the burner. We saw the sun rise over the ranges, clatter clatter of camera shutters. Operator decided that we could have a few sunrises, so lets the balloon sink until we were brushing the tree tops. Fire the burner, rise a thousand feet, and bingo, another sunrise.

    Buy food, fill the water bottles, and head off south towards Ularu after a lazy start, 100 km. At Finke River, I camped with a bunch of Grey Nomads. They had a fire going, and were amusing themselves by guessing how many lights each passing truck would have along the side. In between times, they discussed endlessly the virtues of various items of caravan equipment, gas versus electric refrigerators, free standing tents versus attached annexes. I never knew that the Grey Nomadic life was so complex. They couldn’t understand how I could be traveling with only 15 KG f equipment, wobbling into their camp after dark.

    I’d met a few other cyclists on the road – a Japanese guy who seemed to believe that once you left the coast, you could not buy food. He was carrying a big bag of rice, and a saxophone of all things. An English couple riding a tandem – they'd ridden through India, Indonesia and were headed to Melbourne, pushing into a headwind, which was my tail wind. They were traveling light, but finally relented and bought a pair of sleeping bags and a microscopic tent. I saw them, by absolute chance, in Melbourne six weeks later.

    I was later to meet, in Norseman, an English girl who had ridden through Pakistan and India, made her way to Perth and was riding the Nullabor to Adelaide.

    “How was Pakistan?” I asked.
    “Horrible”, she said.
    “Why?”
    “MEN!” she said. The conversations of the trans-continental riders.

    Next day was too easy. A hundred and thirty KM to Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse. There is a shop selling Aboriginal at works there, and it's lovely. A big tin shed, concrete floor, but over the floor there is three inches of red sand. Like a big red beach. The Pioneer bus, nearly empty, pulled in while I was there, and the driver offered me a lift through to Ularu. I accepted, and spent the trip yarning with the driver. They like to have someone to talk with – it can be a pretty boring trip, more boring in a vehicle than on a bike, I think.

    Arrive at Ularu. That monster rock looming over the resort, even though it’s fifteen kilometers away.

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    Oh Peter,I haven't ridden a bike since smashing up my face badly, aged 15, (many) years ago, but you have me wanting to be off on a journey too.

    Thanks so much for one of the best reports I've read..you should write a book!

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    From Ularu to Aileron Roadhouse:

    I rolled into Yulara, the Ularu resort, courtesy of the friendly bus driver, and found myself in a real tourist town. Yulara was the first place that I'd come to with no raison d'etre other than tourism. Cairns was a fishing town when I was first there, Echuca a port, Hay a rural centre, Mt Isa a mine. But Yulara is a tourist destination, pure and simple, for we Europeans anyway. It's home to the Aboriginal population, though.

    I checked into the backpacker place, and then headed off to the five star Sails in the Desert hotel for a drink. I thought that I really ought to experience both ends of the tourist spectrum, a gin and tonic beside the swimming pool. The backpacker place does these patriotic barbecues, you buy meat and cook it yourself. The patriotic flavour comes from the choice of protein. One can eat all of our national icons, crocodile (tastes like chicken), emu (tastes like tougher chicken), camel (really tough, and tastes, well, like chicken, I suppose), kangaroo, water buffalo, and beef too, none of which taste like chicken. Oh, and chicken for the vegetarians. A rock band plays while one cooks.

    There is a variety of tourists. I was yarning with a bus driver and an Irish tourist, and the Irish guy said, “Well, if my Mum could see me now. She'd be amazed”. The driver whipped out his mobile phone and said, “Give her a call”. “But she's in Dublin”. “Yairs, give her a call”. Which he did, shouting into the phone, as Dublin's a long way from Central Aus. Then we all said Hello to his Mum – he was most touched, as was she. We made the world a little smaller, I suppose.

    To say nothing of the tourist – I think maybe Austrian or German, as I can't tell the languages apart – dressed in Desert Garb. Dark John Lennon sun glasses on a string around his neck, a powder blue safari suit, short sleeves, button down pockets, epaulettes, long trousers, founded on powder blue sneakers, topped with a powder blue canvas hat, drawstring hauled taught in case the wind took his hat, indoors at 9:00 PM. Most fetching - particularly on a bloke. Eat your heart out, Bruno.

    Early start next morning, in the dark, to pedal to Ularu for sunrise. A traffic jam, buses, cars, Grey Nomads, camper vans, plus your solitary cyclist. Camp stools pulled out, the sun rises, Ooh, Aah. Rattle of shutters that sounded like castanets, where are the flamenco dancers, and then they mostly hurtled off. A couple of nomads lit the billy and we shared a cup of tea in the dawn chill, most peaceful.

    I have to confess that I climbed Ularu, in a state of ignorance. I was unaware, then, that the traditional owners see Ularu as sacred, and that it is not respectful to climb. The climb is no big deal really, in terms of achievement. There’s a chain to haul yourself up the steepest part, and after that it’s easy. Not worth doing really. The T-shirts on sale saying “I climbed Ayers Rock” are about as significant as saying I rode a bus.

    I went to the visitor centre, and learned heaps about Ularu. At that time, the visitor centre was still in a tin shed, and the new centre was under construction, near completion. By absolute chance, I ran into Greg Burgess, architect for the new centre, and he showed me around, explaining how the architecture reflects the stories, the song lines, of the Anangu, the traditional owners. He'd designed the centre by sitting on the ground for weeks with the owners, drawing patterns in the sand, talking endlessly, and the building is the result of that process. It is one of Australia's fine buildings, an inland version of the Sydney Opera House.

    Ularu is to me the centre of gravity of this country. The bike trip was my first visit, and I’ve been back three times since. It's special to me, it feels good. I drove there the Easter after the bike trip, my second visit, a mad escapade, 4000 km in about four days, insane, and so worth it. I spoke with a friend, Lana, of whom more later, “What are you doing for Easter?” she said. “Don't know, but I might drive to Central Aus.” “Can I come?” she asked, so off we went.

    The third time was in transit from Perth, and I took the long road, as I did not want to do the Nullabor highway, as I’d already pedaled it and driven it. North from Kalgoorlie to Leonora and Laverton, where the bitumen ends, as does mobile phone coverage. Then it's 1100 km of dirt – and sand – road to Ularu. No towns to speak of, just a roadhouse every 200 km, one of the most memorable trips of my life. There's a good system in place. When you get to Laverton, you fill in a form at the police station, saying what you are driving, and how far. The police fax it through to Yulara, and then when you get to Yulara, you report in. I saw no more than half a dozen cars on the road, and the red dust I accumulated lasted in the Honda Civic for almost ten years. It's profound knowing that you are camped a hundred miles from anywhere, on the border between the Gibson and the Great Sandy Deserts. Australia is fortunate in having these remote places.

    The fourth trip to Ularu was with Lou, for New Year 1999/2000. We figured it would be fun to see in the new millennium in “the land that time forgot”, as they say. So we drove to Ularu, spent a couple of nights in total luxury at Sails in the Desert, the full five star experience, and then headed out into desert west of the Olgas and camped in the sand. We saw in the New Year sitting on a sand hill under the most brilliant stars, and there were tracks from feral camels around our camp next morning, and no tracks of Y2K bugs.

    I like Ularu. I've got a bowl of red sand from there on the table here.

    I like the Olgas too, but they are a bit hard to get to on a bike, being 50 km from Yulara, so I did this “Olgas trip plus dinner in the desert” tour. I'm not really a tour type of person, but needs must, I suppose. Picture a bus full of tourists, many wondering what on earth they are doing there, Japanese totally obliterated by the landscape, a sense of incomprehension, heading out to look at a bunch of rocks.

    At least, it looks like a bunch of rocks from Yulara, the resort, because you can see them from 50 kilometres away. There is no concept of distance or scale, until you get closer, and then they are not rocks, they are mountains. The tour group did a walk through the rocks, up a track, and I think most were wondering what was meant to be happening. You have to go there to understand it, but you are walking through a most remarkable geological formation, completely different from Ularu. Ularu is a big, monolithic sandstone chunk. The Olgas are made of pebbles, big pebbles, glued together. There are dreamtime legends explaining how both the Olgas and Ularu came into being, but they are secret men’s business, so I had best not write them here (and I don’t remember them much, but I recollect they feature a pair of large snakes).

    So the tour party wended it’s way, and I found myself trailing along at the rear, wondering if there ought be a sheepdog to keep this flock together. A kindred spirit joined me in tailing the mob, a certain spark, and you know that you’ve encountered someone on the same wave length. We yarned, she was doing a quick visit to Yulara before heading out into the Simpson desert for a camping safari for a week or so. Shared tents, two to a tent, but she said she never slept in the tent, “It’s such a shameful waste of stars”. Lana was a most free spirited woman, and envied me my time on the bike. “Oh, you lucky bugger!”

    So we wandered back to the place where dinner was happening, on dusk. One was expected to line up for food, and then take it to a table seating about 80 people. I’ve got a problem in queuing for food, in that I don’t do it, I totally detest standing in line for food. This has a bit of a history for me, reinforced on a cruise.

    Lou and I had known each other for only three months when we embarked on a P&O cruise around the Pacific, and we’d not spent much time together, as she was living about 400 kilometres from Melbourne. So we took the opportunity on the cruise to re-create ourselves, achieved mainly by telling lies to fellow passengers. The lie that seemed to stick was that she was a lawyer, working in family law in Sydney (not exactly true, as she was then a reference librarian, living about 450 kilometres from Sydney), and I was her assistant, managing the Melbourne office (not exactly true either, as I’m an engineer, generally not managing anything). But we freely offered legal advice, just to keep up appearances, so to speak.

    On cruise liners, or anyway at the more budget end of the cruise spectrum, one has to line up for food. Luncheon would be served at eight bells of the forenoon watch (noon, to the uninitiated landlubbers) and people would be standing in line from 11:30, in case they missed out. It reminded me of feeding time at the zoo (the animals looking most overfed), or that scene in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” where the crows are lined up on the fence outside the school.

    And we still have fond memories of the Fijian Fun Night – which was the most God-awful event we’ve ever attended, and NOT FUN.

    Nope, I don’t queue for food.

    So Lana and I drew some strange glances when we helped ourselves to the leavings after the ravenous hordes had done their worst, and went and sat on the ground. Probably perceived as being a bit unsociable, and maybe we were just exploring our inner-Aboriginals. Aboriginals mostly prefer so sit than stand, and mostly prefer to sit on the ground rather than on a seat.

    Off at the crack of dawn next day, bus to Kings Canyon, and thence through to Alice Springs. I’d not planned on Kings Canyon, but was able to change the bus ticket and go there. Kings Canyon is such a contrast to Ularu. It is small, and a bit tropical, palm trees and waterholes. We walked around the rim of the canyon, and I thought that it must have been a most desirable place for tribal Aboriginals to live. No, they never lived in the canyon, the confined feeling never did it for them. But I bet they hunted there.

    Alice Springs, Lana off to the Simpson Desert, and me off towards Darwin. Darwin seemed a long way away – about 1500 kilometres, probably a week of riding. I made it as far as Aileron Roadhouse the first night, after exploring around the old telegraph station at Alice Springs – which is also the site of the spring that gave Alice its name. The telegraph, the Overland Telegraph, the Overland Telegraph Company, or the OTC, was of enormous impact in inland Australia. There were repeater stations along the way, at Alice and Tennant Creek, and a few other places. What a boring job it must have been. Write down incoming telegraph. Send it down the line in Morse code. Wait for next telegraph.

    And then sometimes all hell would have broken loose. “Hey, Charlie Gordon’s been killed at Khartoum”, or “The siege of Mafeking has been lifted, the British are almost at Ladysmith”. Get hammering on that Morse key – this is BIG NEWS.

    Aileron Roadhouse is about 140 kilometres from Alice Springs, and so I wobbled in there well after dark, having crossed the tropic of Capricorn. It was the sixth of June, just two weeks short of the solstice, and I think that Sol was drifting around the tropic of Cancer, so the days were short. I’ve no idea why Aileron is called Aileron. I believe that an aileron is a moveable trailing appendage on an aircraft, but maybe an aileron fell off there, or they fixed an aileron with bits of fencing wire and leather pillaged from a harness. I don’t know.

    The usual inquisition at the bar from a couple of locals:
    “Yairs, we been watching your light as you came in. Ridden far?”
    “Where are y’ from?
    “What’ll y’ have?”

    The discussion proceeds, and “You blokes live around here?”.
    “Yairs, we live on Aileron. You’ve been riding through Aileron for about fifty miles, y’know.”

    A load of absolute bullshit! These guys, I later find out over the fourth beer, own Aileron. They also own a couple of helicopters, two road trains, about 5000 head of cattle and the roadhouse. The are trucking a couple of thousand head up the road to Darwin every year for the live export trade to Indonesia. They are, in fact, bloody millionaires. With the soles half out of their boots, frayed shirts and trousers. They were having a drink or five while they waited for the mail to arrive, and their drinks always went “on the slate”. They showed me the slate – it stretched back about twenty years.

    The mail arrived, and one of them said, “Well it’s time that all barmaids, all cyclists and all pastoralists went to bed”. So the bar was duly closed, I pitched the tent, and went to bed.

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    Aileron to Barunga:

    I ovenighted at Aileron, and made a comfortable departure, after having a yarn with another cyclist there. He was a bloke of about 68, had ridden from Melbourne. He was travelling pretty heavy, camp stool, and all the accoutrements to make comfortable outback camps. He was doing about 60 kilometres a day, and was most fearful of punctures. He’s managed to put two tyres on each bike rim, one inside the other, a truly Herculean effort, I thought.

    I had planned on making Barrow Creek, about 160 kilometres, and was in Barrow Creek for dinner, about 6:00 PM. The residents of Barrow Creek may not like this, but I didn’t care much for Barrow Creek. I don’t know what it was, maybe too many people at the pub drinking, maybe a certain feeling of unease, a kind of “Deliverance” feeling. Or perhaps it was just the poor dentistry and strange haircuts of the locals, but I decided that I’d be more comfortable in the middle of nowhere, so pedalled another twenty kilometres after eating and made camp off the road, beside a fence, in the dark.

    Nearly full moon, and I hung a shirt on the fence to keep the moon out of my eyes, a pretty rough camp, only 75 metres off the road, far too close for my liking. It’s funny when you camp in the dark, as you never know if you’ve picked the best camping spot. As it turned out, if I’d ridden another 100 metres, I’d have found a gate that I would have entered, camped much more comfortably and lit a fire, a kilometre off the road. Ah well, can’t complain, and anyway it was only a couple of hundred kilometres to the next stop, the dreaded Tennant Creek.

    You can get lucky in this life. I’d ridden only 75 km and stopped for food (fuel for the cyclist) and to take on water at Wycliffe Well, and a bloke walked into the bar. The usual litany of questions, where from, how far, how long, and then a question out of nowhere. “Do the varicose give you any problems? You might get them looked at one day.” He was a doctor from Tennant Creek, he’d be pleased to give me a lift, was driving up from Alice, could use the company as it’s a pretty boring drive and it would help him concentrate. So off we went.

    Tennant Creek is pretty challenging in medical terms. A population of about 3000, of which about 2700 are Aboriginals, with massive problems associated with alcohol and poor diet, leading frequently to diabetes. I admire people who can rise to those challenges, and he talked about the initiatives that he and his wife, a social worker, were attempting. They were concentrating on the women, believing that if you can get the women sorted out, then you’ve got a chance of getting the families to go along. A thankless task, and it’s people like that who can make a difference. He explained that there were six outlets for alcohol in Tennant Creek, and that he’d love to get even half of them shut down. We arrived in Tennant Creek and he showed me where some mines had been, quite close to the town. Tennant Creek was once a gold field, but a pretty small gold field.

    He asked if I was going to the Aboriginal festival at Barunga, near Katherine, about 650 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, and highly recommended it. I figured that it was likely to be over by the time I got there, and he encouraged me to bum a ride or get a bus and make it. I’m not madly into Aboriginal culture, as I don’t know a lot about it, but he encouraged me. Good advice indeed., as it turned out.

    I hung around Tennant Creek near a service station, thinking that if I got lucky I might get a lift north, but to no avail, so it would have to be the bus, a mid-night departure, Cobb & Co. Negotiate ticket, hang around, and hang around some more. Finally the bus pulls in, and yes, there’s seat – the last one, and space for the bike! Embark, find the last spare seat. I was not surprised to find that the last seat was adjacent to a woman with a BMI of about 67, and I inserted myself into the available space, thinking that if she breathed out, I’d likely be extruded out of said seat and into the aisle. She was a tad grumpy.

    Bus pulls out, smell of fast food and stale cigarette smoke, intermingled with the smell of the great unwashed (of which I was a proud member), as the bus had come from Adelaide, 2000 kilometres to the south. There’s meant to be some sort of romance attached to hopping a Greyhound, Country and Western singers mention it not infrequently, but the romance, sad to say, escaped me. Driver puts on a C&W tape, and we’re off. I figured that Cobb & Co would be more comfortable, in spite of leather springs and gravel roads, than the seat that I was occupying, and so made most of the trip sitting on the floor, talking with the driver. I learned quite a lot.

    Cummins diesels are better than General Motors diesels, the electronic controls on the Cummins engines can be a problem, a microchip fails and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for a service guy. It,s a nuisance having the speed limited to a hundred on the bus – it makes passing road trains difficult. (I can attest to this – whenever I’ve had to pass a road train I’ve would the car up to about 160 kilometres an hour and scorched past, which seems much safer.) Cattle sometimes camp on the roads at night if it’s frosty because the bitumen retains the heat. A tourist took a photo in the bus at night one time, used a flash, almost blinded him, could have murdered the tourist. And so on.

    We clipped along at about a hundred, and caught up with a road train, doing about 95. Headlights shining about five kilometres down the road – they make the landing lights of a jumbo jet look like tea light candles. Negotiate a passing manoeuvre, a highway pas de deux. Call up the road train driver on the UHF radio, make contact, we’re the Pioneer bus behind, can we pass. (And remember that a road train is about a hundred metres long, and it will take a minute to overtake). Road train driver is amenable, “Hang on, I’ll just take a look and see if anything’s coming”. Turns off all his lights for a couple of seconds, there are no oncoming lights visible, so he eases up a little and calls us through.

    Short stop at Daly Waters in the small hours, hamburgers, chips, coffee, smokes (bus travel can be a health hazard, I’m here to tell you), and next stop is Mataranka, where I disembark. There are hot springs at Mataranka, and it looks quite tropical around the springs, palm tress and such. The palm trees look a little shredded though, because there a colony of flying foxes, like big bats, living in the palm trees and sadly, shitting in the springs. But the water was nice anyway, and I felt a little less part of the clan of the great unwashed afterwards.

    Then on to Barunga, down a pretty ordinary road, clouds of dust from overtaking cars, and small busses from all over Northern Australia. “Hope the festivities are going to be worth the effort” I was thinking.

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    Interesting to see your comment about Barrow Creek's atmosphere Peter. I'm guessing this was about 5-6 years before Peter Falconio's murder.

    Really enjoying the read - thank you again.

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    Loving this tale. I only wish you could bold the place names or something (ALL CAPS?), so I could more easily skim the parts I won't be going to on my upcoming trip, and find the areas we will be passing through, to read more thoroughly. It does help though to have the headers at the beginning of an installment. Is there more?

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    I thought I'd top this report (cries of shameless self promotion, I hear). I intend to finish the report some time, probably over this Christmas, when I'll have some free time to write.

    A trip report from fifteen years ago - more like a slightly stale guide book. Ah well . . .

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    You were game, riding your bike so far, and on such interesting roads, Peter. I, like several of the other posters, have not been on a bike since I was about 17 - several hundred years ago.

    I have really enjoyed your report, even if your trip was a few years ago. You are a clever writer, making your travels sound so effortless. It is interesting to read about places I have been to, in the luxurious confines of a bus or car, for example Deniliquin - yes, a Kiwi who has travelled there AND spent two days looking around. I found it an interesting place, especially when the children encountered what we were told was a redback in the motel's swimming pool - a variation on the redback on the toilet seat! I never did find out if it was one, although it certainly looked like one. The other children in the pool weren't fazed.

    I look forward to the next instalment over the summer, when I will have more time to enjoy reading it. School goes into its nightmare stage very shortly, which lasts until Christmas.

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    I was not sure what to expect at the Barunga cultural festival – anticipating a heap of tribal dancing, painted body decoration, maybe some boomerang throwing, didgeridoo playing, and wondering if it had been worth riding about 30km off the highway.


    I was totally wrong. There were groups from all over the Northern Territory, Cape York, South Aus, and even the remote communities from Western Australia, Toyota 16 seat buses drawn from thousands of kilometres away, and they were in Barunga to party and catch up with friends. I’m not sure how many people were there, but at night there were little camp fires all over the place, and I think that maybe three thousand Aboriginal people were there, plus a couple of hundred Europeans. That was a new experience for me, being in an ethnic minority, and I think that the Aboriginals were much more tolerant of the Europeans than it would have been if the numbers were reversed.

    So there was almost no tribal dancing or stuff like that, although a group of women from the Tiwi community did a bit of a dance. I asked one of the women what it might have meant, and she gave me to understand that it meant that tomorrow they were going into the bush to do some secret women’s business. I don’t know if she had a slight tic in her eye, or if she winked at me, but I suspect that she winked.

    I was talking with a bloke, and he referred to us Europeans as “Youse ballanders” in quite a kind fashion – “ballander” is a common term for Europeans in the top end. I was to later find out where it came from – the first Europeans to reach those parts were Dutch, Hollanders, corrupted to ballander. I can visualise Dirk Hartog coming ashore, saying to the locals “we’re Hollanders, can we interest you in some clay pipes, some lace from Bruges, it’s the finest quality, or maybe a replacement shaft for yonder windmill". Met by blank looks – the Aboriginals were doing just fine before we ballanders mucked things up for them.

    So the culture consisted of football matches, basket ball, boxing, both in the ring, and a few impromptu matches the were quickly broken up, and a bunch of music. Rock groups from Thursday Island, and an amazing performance by an African percussion group, and a performance by Vicka and Linda Bull. A very harmonious mob, a happy time.

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    I must say that it’s an odd business writing this – right now I’m in Venice, here for a couple of months, and yet writing about things that I did, things that happened, in June, 1995. Well, better late than never, I suppose. And it is such a contrast, Venice, where bicycles are pretty useless, where you can’t walk down a street more than a couple of metres wide, and Australia, where the road reserve may be 40 chains wide, space for travelling stock.

    I left Barunga before the mob, wanting to hit the highway before running the risk of being bounced off the road by about 300 small buses, headed to Katherine for a quick look around, then to Katherine Gorge. Katherine Gorge is probably one our less discovered treasures. The camping ground is nice and grassed, level, a convenient shop for necessities for the itinerant cyclist, so I was happy to pitch the tent there, about 5,100 kilometres on the clock. There’s always a community of travellers, citizens of the road, on the wallaby, I suppose, and I was able to amuse a couple kids as they watched me setting up camp and cooking a meal. Lots of people pull their children from school for a few months, and give them a different sort of education, seeing things first hand. School is a good place for kids, so long as there is nothing better to do.

    People take these motorboat cruises up the Katherine Gorge, and it is pretty spectacular. However, if you hire a canoe, it’s even better – you are closer to the water, and the cliffs just tower over you, you feel like an ant in a canyon. And better still, is if you pack a sleeping bag, air mattress, petrol stove and tucker in a four gallon drum, hire a canoe and camp out in the Gorge. Which I did. I just paddled upstream until I ran out of other people, and camped. It means dragging the canoe over some rocks, the odd portage, and is so worth it. I could say that I camped under the stars, but the stars were extinguished by a full moon that rose about the same time that the sun dropped over the rim of the gorge, there were these two great balls of light, the sun and moon, chasing each other.

    Back to Katherine the next day, figuring on a couple of easy days to Darwin, two days at 160 K’s a day – too easy. So I rolled out of Katherine, got delayed in a pub, too many mosquitos to set up camp, too late to find a camp, and just kept on riding. It was pretty amazing, replacing the headlight globe at 1:00 AM, rolling through the countryside at 3:00 AM, stopping to boil the billy every two or three hours, bacon and eggs at an early opening service station. And rolling through grass fires also, because it was the burning season. Hit Darwin the next morning, 320 km under the front wheel, hitting Darwin at peak hour. Belting through the morning traffic on a bicycle, headed for downtown, panniers flapping, find the Youth Hostel, and a much awaited sleep. I do think I was a bit out of the habit of riding in traffic.

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    Hmm, we migh see an upsurge in tourists (ballanders, even) on cycles in the NT, perchance?

    No results expected for awhile in your rivetting state election. I'm sure this will keep you awake at night.

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