Australia Part 3: As Free As the Wind Blows (Alice Springs to Adelaide)

“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
–  Joan Didion

dsc01784

Somehow smiling despite a severe headwind. Photo by Dan Calverley

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: “Tahhh-ra…psshhhhpsshhhh*

Me: “Whaaaaaaat?”

Dan: “how far…pshhhhh…swishhh..psshhh..psshhhh*

*wind sounds

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.

_dsf7833

No need to sugarcoat the message…

_dsf7840

The Stuart Highway. Pretty straight forward…

_dsf7779

Rest stop on the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory

_dsf7785

Galahs

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.

_dsf7788

Liam from Melbourne touring on his fat bike with 3 inch tires

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.

_dsf7847

Underground church in Coober Pedy

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.

_dsf7873

Dan on the William Creek Road

_dsf7861

Sign at the start of the William Creek Road

_dsf7874

An unusual picnic spot

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.”

_dsf7890

Nothing and nowhere: The William Creek Road

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.

dsc01731

It’s fly o’clock. Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7907

Goanna on the William Creek Road

One afternoon we temporarily gave up and used what little and rare bits of shade we could find, while the fly hordes closed in.

dsc01724

Attempting to hide out from the sun and flies on the William Creek Road. Photo by Dan Calverley

dsc01726

The fate of those who choose to cycle the William Creek Road. Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf8072

A real feast for the flies

_dsf7946

Beautiful sunset on a hot and sleepless night

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.

_dsf7967

Windy as hell

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.

_dsf7981

Dan ripping on the Oodnadatta Track

dsc01779

The Oodnadatta. Photo by Dan Calverley

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.

_dsf7986

_dsf7988

lunchtime

_dsf7990

Strange art installations on the Oodnadatta Track

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.

_dsf7974

An awesome and unexpected gift

_dsf7976

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.

dsc01771

Marree. Photo by Dan Calverley

dsc01774

Me in Marree. Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7998

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.

_dsf8008

_dsf8003

Start of the Flinders Ranges

_dsf8032

Pulling off the road near Parachilna with a view of the super moon

dsc01788

Photo by Dan Calverley

I felt a renewed energy and sense of exhilaration – it is a feeling that I often get in a mountainous landscape.

_dsf8084

Dan on the road to Blinman, Flinders Ranges

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.

 

 

_dsf8090

Kangaroo and joey (look closely in the pouch)

 

It was also wonderful to be able to camp in a forest.

dsc01803

Stealth camping in the Flinders. Photo by Dan Calverley.

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.

dsc01809

Southwards to Adelaide. Photo by Dan Calverley

 

dsc01806

Photo by Dan Calverley

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!

dsc01813

Our hosts’ vineyard in Clare Valley. Photo by Dan Calverley

dsc01810

Neil, Dan and me

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.

dsc01747

Photo by Dan Calverley

Advertisements

Australia Part 2: Red Dirt Girl (Kalgoorlie to Alice Springs)

img_0918

Riding into the sunset on the Great Central Road. Photo by Dan Calverley

A whole lot can come out of nothing. Well, sort of – let me explain. The tiniest variation or sudden departure from the known monotony can seem significant – and in this case, hilarious. I am riding towards a horizon lined with spinifex shrubs – sandy, flat and unchanging for hundreds of kilometres. The closest settlement is about 250km away, with no services of any kind before it. And by settlement I mean a roadhouse (gas station with takeaway food, a campground and basic groceries) and a few hundred inhabitants, followed by another 250km of the same. Then, in the nothingness, you suddenly come across something like this.

_dsf7206

Thanks to this random joker that made my morning…

Dan was pretty disappointed that they had run out of veggie burgers…

The Great Central Road is pretty out there. Beginning in Laverton and ending at Uluru/Ayer’s Rock, it is 1100km long with about 1000km unpaved. There are several gaps as I previously explained of 200-250km with nothing. I use the term “nothing” by modern standards – no houses, no buildings, no shops and no water for about 3 days riding.  So, where did we get our water from? We had to carry it – starting out with 25-30L each. This amounts to an extra 25-30kg in weight on the bikes.

_dsf7079

24.5L of water that I carried on the bike. Dan had 33L at one point!

_dsf7147

First roadhouse, approximately 250km from Laverton. Pronounced “joo-kay-er-la.” They had delicious burgers.

In between settlements you could make a game of counting the number of smashed up cars lining the road.

_dsf7161

_dsf7208

Riding the Great Central Road is a great way to really “get out there” and get in touch with nature. A strong headwind blowing sand, bone rattling washboard, thousands of flies dive bombing your face, evil thorns clinging to your tires and clothing – this is the real nature. It’s a picture f*cking postcard.

_dsf7331

Thorns galore

img_0963

Eventually the fly net becomes necessary. Photo by Dan Calverley

But, call me a masochist – I actually quite enjoyed it! Well, not so much the above mentioned features. I loved the isolation, the bush camping and the ochre coloured road in the evening light.

_dsf7152

img_0921

Great Central Road

_dsf7145

_dsf7449

And of course, the sunsets.

_dsf7302

_dsf7178
_dsf7199

_dsf7040

dsc01651

If you look closely you can see Uluru on the left and Kata Tjuta on the right. Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7504

I have a bit of a thing for red dirt – not only the American musical style, but the rich hued soil that covers this continent. Seeing photos of these dirt tracks traversing a vast landscape inspired me to ride here. It held a very strong appeal that I can’t really explain.

img_0909

Red Dirt Girl. Photo by Dan Calverley

img_0964

Gee, really? Photo by Dan Calverley

The rough condition of the road was one of the bigger challenges that we experienced.But the dirt road misadventures didn’t begin here. Leading up to the Great Central Road we took an even rougher track.

img_0869

Donkey Rocks “road” Photo by Dan Calverley

Donkey Rocks Road. The main objective here was to avoid the main highway to Leonora from Kalgoorlie. We had hoped for a fairly decent dirt road and instead got a sand pit. Some locals passed us on our way out of Kalgoorlie and we asked them about the condition of the road. “It’s quite sandy, it’s not really a road,” the friendly driver told us. Our cyclist’s ego kicked in a bit and we thought “they don’t know what’s it’s like for us on bikes, we’ll be fine.”

We should have listened. Because sandy for a 4WD vehicle equals impassable on a bicycle.

_dsf6988

Just a tad sandy…

_dsf6994

and as smooth as ever…

_dsf6924

A rare (relatively) good stretch of road along Donkey Rocks

And eventually the sand became so deep that it was easier to push our bikes through the bush.

_dsf6931

Wildlife encounters along Donkey Rocks road

On the plus side, we saw emus, kangaroos and not a single soul or vehicle for three days. Except for this one…

_dsf6944

“That guy came out of nowhere!”

Abandoned farmsteads and random fences gave us subtle reminders that human life once existed in this remote corner.

_dsf6977

Abandoned farmstead

Travelling in such remote areas, encounters with people are few. Along the Great Central Road each day we would only encounter a handful of locals in beater cars or caravan tourists flying over the washboard past us. Quite a few would stop to make sure that we were OK, that we had enough water or tell us that there were better, easier ways to see Australia. Over the span of a few weeks we also met a few “road angels”  – those wonderful individuals looking to help out the weary traveller. Our first encounter was on a dirt road out of Kalgoorlie. Two guys coming from a funeral and on their way to a wedding at a farmstead stopped to give us ice cold beer. Were we dreaming?

_dsf6916

“Road angels” delivering us cold beer. Yes, this actually happened.

About 40km from Tjukayirla Roadhouse on the Great Central Road, a road maintenance worker stopped to talk to us. He showed us a collection of photos on his iPad of other touring cyclists that he had met. Then, he asked if we wanted some fruit. He opened up a cooler and told us to help ourselves to oranges, apples and bananas. At the time, it was 38 degrees with screaming headwind and swarming flies. You can’t imagine how good that apple tasted.

And then there was Liesel in Warburton who went into the community shop that we couldn’t access as tourists to buy us groceries, refusing to let us pay. Also, a man surveying the condition of the North Territory section of road who chatted to us in the morning and found us later having lunch under a bush. He pulled his truck into our spot and gave us two cold cans of coke that he had bought in Docker River.

These small, simple acts of kindness went a long way, like finding oases in the harshness of the desert.

As for wildlife encounters, we didn’t have as many as we expected. A few camels, one tiny snake and this thorny little devil. Dan nearly ran the little guy over – he easily could have punctured a tire!

_dsf7245

Thorned devil

As we progressed East, the flat mulga and spinifex country slowly started to transform into hills as we followed the 550 million-year-old Petermann Ranges. Scrub brush turned into desert oaks along the road, giving the appearance of a pleasant tree lined avenue in a city suburb. The desert oak is unique to the dry, desert regions of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia and can be found no where else in the world.

_dsf7346

Riding along the 550 million-year-old Petermann Range

_dsf7347_dsf7352

_dsf7151

The desert oak, a truly resilient tree

dsc01624

Desert avenue. Photo by Dan Calverley

Now, we were edging closer to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions – that iconic big red rock. We were perhaps more excited to be hitting tarmac after weeks of rough road that seemed to worsen the further we progressed. Before Uluru, we passed Kata Tjuta, its name meaning “many heads” in the aboriginal Pitjantjatjara language. Along with Uluru it is a sacred site.

_dsf7461

Kata Tjuta, seen from the Great Central Road

_dsf7459

_dsf7465

_dsf7477

View of Kata Tjuta from our campsite

Before seeing Uluru, I didn’t allow myself to create any expectations. I find often that these “must see” tourist sites become so overhyped that it inevitably will lead to some form of disappointment. I didn’t experience this when I set eyes on Uluru. This enormous monolith exudes a presence over the landscape that cannot be captured in a photo. Such a dramatic formation rising suddenly out of a flat, barren land. It was captivating to look at.

_dsf7480

Riding towards Uluru

img_0957

Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7488

As the light changes throughout the day, so does the colour and appearance of the rock.

Instead of going for the $38/pp campground in Yulara we pulled off the main road onto a sandy track. Someone had left behind a few chairs and a mattress, so it added to our typical bush camping setup.

dsc01639

“Luxury” bush camp. Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7493

Complimentary camp chairs

Next we turned North onto the Mereenie Loop, where we visited King’s Canyon and the West Macdonnell range. This route has been the highlight of Australia for me so far.

_dsf7584

King’s Canyon

dsc01667

King’s Canyon. Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7617

Into the West Macdonnell Range via the Mereenie Loop along a rough section of road

_dsf7746_dsf7749_dsf7738

_dsf7614

The undulating formations of the range followed us for the majority of the route. It was a great surprise to hear about the number of gorges that offered ice cold swimming holes. After a very sweaty 50km we reached Redbank Gorge for our first swim. It was a heavenly refuge from the intense heat trapped in by the towering rock faces.

_dsf7662

Redbank Gorge

After the swim we hiked 15km roundtrip to the summit of Mount Sonder for a spectacular sunset view of the West Macdonnell Range. The majority of the descent we traversed in the dark and didn’t end up returning to our bikes until about 8:30pm. We had underestimated the amount of water we would need for the trek and returned very tired and dehydrated. It was a fairly intense day of activity, but definitely worth it.

dsc01682

The West Macdonnell Range from the summit of Mount Sonder. Photo by Dan Calverley

dsc01689

Photo by Dan Calverley

_dsf7730

The return hike from Mount Sonder summit

_dsf7685

Sunset over Mount Sonder

_dsf7687

_dsf7695

The West Macdonnell Range

Our next stop was Ellery Creek Big Hole, another excellent spot for swimming. I can’t think of many swims in my life that have been quite like this. It was a unique way to view the world – floating in between a dramatic enclosure of red cliffs towering above.

_dsf7757

_dsf7754

_dsf7769

Dan and I have now reached Alice Springs and are about halfway to Sydney. We are taking some much needed rest with our great Warm Showers hosts Andrea and Laurie. The sandy, rough roads are now behind us (but unfortunately not the flies) and we are heading south to Adelaide, where I will reunite with Callan, a very close friend of mine from my hometown, Toronto. Travelling through the Australian outback the slow way has given me a sense of the enormity of the landscape. It is a vast, vast wilderness. The ability to experience this is a feature of Canada that I have come to miss on my travels – that wild presence that is created by endless, uninhabited space. The Australian outback is a harsh, unforgiving place, even for those just passing through. The conditions often made for a challenging bike ride, but I really enjoyed it (most of the time). On a journey like this, the tiniest occurrences like being given a cold drink, bizarre wildlife sightings or a joke McDonald’s drive thru sign can offer the biggest (and unexpected) rewards. The land isn’t really empty – it is full of resilient life struggling to survive the rigours of the desert. From a whole lot of nothing, a great something emerges.

_dsf7092

dsc01693