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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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.