“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
– Joan Didion
I am feeling a bit like a long distance trucker with a mind on autopilot. The Stuart highway is straight, fairly flat and the landscape is unchanging. I focus on forward momentum, creating an imaginary tunnel fast tracking towards the horizon. But the landscape is empty and immense, stretching my thoughts in many directions. The wind howls and cracks in my ears, occasionally punching me in the face with its gusts. It is a sound that drowns out all others, including Dan’s voice, even though he is only a few metres away.
Dan: “how far…pshhhhh…swishhh..psshhh..psshhhh*
Headwinds. Cyclists often rant about them – a repetitive and uninteresting topic for non-cyclists. Even I get sick of talking about it. But, like talking about the weather it is a discussion that can’t be avoided.
If I could only transplant the reader into a 25km/hr headwind, incessant for 8 hours per day. That mind numbing frustration and hard effort that gets you nowhere. Legs burning, mouth and eyes dry, the constant thrashing in the ears. When you should be cruising downhill, you are instead pushing against a wall, like a game of Red Rover. Ask anyone who has cycled Australia and they will boast or complain about the winds. Mark Beaumont, once the fastest man to cycle around the world specifically timed his ride across Australia to use the prevailing winds in his favour. He was unlucky enough to be pedalling into a headwind a lot of the time.
Some mornings we would hit a strong tailwind and cruise effortlessly at 25 km per and take a leisurely stop at roadhouse, thinking that we had the rest of the day in the bag. Wrong. The direction reversed and suddenly we are going about a third of the speed.
The Stuart Highway was a mental game. Monotonous and often dull, the focus was to cover ground as fast as the wind would allow us. On the road we passed our first and only cyclist of the Australian tour – Liam from Sydney. He was on his first tour for charity on a fat bike from Melbourne to Uluru via the Oodnadatta track, where we were headed next. He was a very friendly and chatty guy and not surprisingly, he complained about the headwinds. It was good to meet up with another rider and his keenness reminded me of my own when I first started touring in 2012.
It was nice to have a break on paved road, but I started to miss the dirt. After six days, we reached the oddball opal mining town of Coober Pedy. It is a harsh environment – hot and dry, surrounded by an apocalyptic, Mad Max style desert landscape. In these conditions, its residents decided it was preferable to live underground in cave type dwellings. Many homes and buildings are bored into the hillsides, like this catacomb church.
From Coober Pedy, we headed east onto the William Creek road, a remote dirt track that links up with the Oodnadatta Track, following the old Ghan Railway route.
When it didn’t seem possible, we experienced an even larger amount of nothing (oxymoron, I know) on this road. I suddenly thought of an amusing wise crack made by my dad :“You know how some people are afraid of heights? I am afraid of widths. Like…the prairies. They scare the sh*t out of me.”
With a fear of widths, the William Creek road would be a nightmarish place indeed.
Within a few days, the headwind, heat and flies began to crescendo. An all-encompassing, buzzing orchestra.
One afternoon we temporarily gave up and used what little and rare bits of shade we could find, while the fly hordes closed in.
After a sleepless night due to the heat, we awoke in our zombie state to a completely insane tailwind (YES!). We surged forward into William Creek, which is basically just an outback hotel. We ducked out from the crazy heat and gorged on burgers and cold drinks.
The energetic and tiny woman at the hotel bar filled our water bags full of ice – a small and kind gesture we greatly appreciated. The wind continued to be fierce -travelling in the opposite direction it would likely have put us at a standstill. The air was so hot that my ice cold stainless steel bottle quickly turned into a tea kettle. But we surged forward with the strongest tailwinds of the trip. It is not often that I can ride almost 140km in a day on a dirt road. The Oodnadatta Track was a blast.
Like the Great Central Road, it has its quirkiness. Random, oddball sights suddenly appearing from nothing. We had this groovy express bus pick us up for lunch.
One of the greatest surprises of the track occurred about 8km from Coward Springs. Just ahead of us, we noticed two oranges placed beside an unknown object wrapped in newspaper.
Assuming this was deliberately placed there for us, Dan unwrapped the paper to find two cans of beer – and they were cold. Which wondrous human beings were responsible for such a generous act? We tried to rule out a few tourists in caravans that had passed us earlier. We recalled a particular German couple, whom we met later that night in Coward Springs. When we asked if it was them, they said no. Later, they brought us oranges wrapped in newspaper.
“It wasn’t us,” the woman said,”we just have a lot of oranges.”
I don’t think I had a bigger smile all day.
After two days on the Oodnadatta we reached Marree, the end/beginning of the track. I appreciated its outpost, wild-west feel. A true outback settlement.
We were now headed due south and over the hills to Adelaide.
Flat scrub land slowly morphed into elegant, rippling lines as we neared the Flinders ranges. Emerging from such a long stretch of desert, it was a new feast for the eyes.
I felt a renewed energy and sense of exhilaration – it is a feeling that I often get in a mountainous landscape.
In the national park, wildlife abounded. We saw many, many kangaroos and emus. In a single day in the Flinders we saw about 10 times more kangaroos than we did in the last two months. If I were to guess, this would be about 50.
It was also wonderful to be able to camp in a forest.
Leaving the Flinders, we were entering a much more populated area of the country.
Towns were only a few hours ride apart. We no longer had to worry about stockpiling food and water, which was a constant topic of discussion and debate in the desert. We were entering a new chapter of the trans Australia ride.
We sailed with the tailwinds past golden fields and into the lush Clare Valley wine region.
Cruising through the town of Clare we pedalled past vineyards in the fading light. Dan was having a nostalgic moment as it reminded him of the pleasant nights he spent camping in vineyards and orchards in Western Europe. Then, a woman in a van drove along side us and asked if we were looking for a place to camp. Her name was Heather and she said that we were welcome to camp in her vineyard 15 kms up the road. How could we say no?
We pulled up onto Heather and Neil’s driveway in the dark and they were happy to see that we had arrived. Heather asked if we wanted a bed for the night and there was dinner if we wanted. Also, there was wine to go with it.
Once again humbled by kindness, we accepted the invitation.
Heather and Neil grew the grapes, mainly riesling, and sent them to a local winemaker for processing. In one year they expected to produce about about 1200 pallets of wine. I don’t know how many bottles are in a pallet, but that sounds like a lot of wine!
Saying goodbye to our amazing hosts, we left for our final day to Adelaide. Adelaide is the largest city we have seen since Perth. The transition from a wilderness to an urban setting is one that I have always found to be difficult. I spent the first 22 years in my life living in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Over the last 8 years I have spent a great deal of my time in rural and wilderness settings through work and play. I feel like this has altered my comfort zone. I often feel stressed and out of place in a city. I loved the isolation of the Australian outback, even though I am aware that life in this opposite extreme is harsh, non-sustainable and short lived. It is interesting how bicycle touring allows me to drift in between two very different worlds – neither of which I find a permanent existence.
Crossing the outback has been a fantastic experience – this is my kind of bicycle touring. It has brought back the feeling that I experienced so strongly in Mongolia. The feeling of isolation and insignificance in such a vast, empty land.
But now, I am looking forward to some easier riding (easy enough – still flies and headwind!) and to seeing another side of Australia. We plan to follow the coast towards the renowned Great Ocean Road on the final 2000km stretch.
We are now enjoying some rest in Henley Beach (Adelaide) with Callan and Nick. Callan is a close friend of mine from Toronto, whom I hadn’t seen in about 8 years. It will be hard to leave their fantastic company, the beach, beers and nightly South Park viewings behind.
It is great to hear another Canadian accent again. Hanging out with Callan is the best reminder of home I have had in a long time. Encounters on the road are fleeting, but this is one that I will hold on to in my heart. Eventually I will have to hit the road again, to chase down another horizon – distant and never-ending like a trail of dirt through the outback.