Australia part IV: The End of the Road to Nowhere

On a busy street in downtown Brisbane, scurrying amongst a flurry of rushing bodies is an alien visitor. It looks out of place, but wanders about with a cool air of confidence. Proudly lost. But this peculiar looking bird isn’t really a stranger to these streets. To call it “alien” is really inaccurate –  this ibis is like a city pigeon in Canada.  While it is out of its natural environment, it has learned to adapt. I spent 22 years living in an urban centre and now I float in and out of them. Over time I have learned that my heart is in the wilderness and within these urban constructs I start to feel oddly detached. Am I a bit like this winged wanderer?

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Out of place…

I had just spent a wonderful Christmas with my Danish “sisters” Marianne and Heidi on the outskirts of Brisbane. I had taken the train from Sydney, the end destination of our ride across Australia. From Brisbane, I was catching my flight to New Zealand, where I would continue cycling. Checking into a hostel in town, I heart the song “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads playing in the background. This was a bit eerie – during the long sections of riding through the outback I often had this song echoing in my head. Turns out, Dan did as well. Suddenly, it was all coming back… 

When Dan and I left Adelaide on our final 2000km to Sydney, the “wild” Australia was behind us. Now we were headed to most densely populated area of the country and this meant more civilization and more traffic. I feared disappointment and a lack of real adventure. Yes, there were some dull sections and busier roads, but also some amazing roads to showcase the natural diversity of this enormous country. Some sections even became highlights of the entire crossing. We also saw a lot of wildlife – more kangaroos, wombats, koalas and echidnas.

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I love yield signs for strange animals. Heading into the Adelaide Hills

Rolling out of the city and into the Adelaide hills we were hit with some of the steepest climbs of the Australia crossing – one at a whopping 21% per cent grade. After a leisurely week of beaching, boozing and South Park watching in Adelaide with my friends Callan and Nick this was a bit of a slap in the face.

We eventually got over the hump and crossed the Coorong – a long, barren stretch of coastal lagoon. At times it was a dull existence of straight tarmac lined with swamp and stunted vegetation. Other times we were offered small, shimming pockets of ocean. The area is rich with birdlife and we had some excellent pelican viewings.

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The Coorong

 

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Pelicans

 

Naturally a gigantic wetland also boasts a healthy mosquito population and were attacked by the hordes day and night.

Leaving behind the wilderness of the Coorong, we were now headed towards the Great Ocean Road, probably’s Australia’s most famous stretch of coastal road. Swamp turned into green pastures and farmland and the traffic increased. With a higher population density our mode of camping became more stealthy – we were no longer in the vast uninhabited outback. Our choice spots became tree plantations. My forestry co-workers and friends in Canada may find these photos amusing because it looked as if were were camping on my old job sites.

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Photo by Dan Calverley

And sometimes we took mid afternoon detours to the ocean – like this one in Beachport. After several months of pure desert it was a welcome and soothing sight. The delicate crashing of the waves were taking over the fly-buzzing emptiness of the outback like a favourite new song.

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Lunch at the Beachport pier

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Beachport pier

Being in the populated end of the country also meant more interactions with people and we had some excellent experiences with Warm Showers hosts along the way. In Port Fairy, for example we were invited to Cynthia and Mark’s Sunday dinner – a laughter filled traditional family event that made me miss these types of get-togethers with my own family. But in the company of good human beings, strangers can temporarily become family.

Then, there was the Great Ocean Road. A stunning strip of road with tourist clogged viewing points such as the 12 Apostles. I won’t deny that it was worth it to stop and lay my eyes on this iconic strip of coastline.

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12 Apostles. Photo by Dan Calverley

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Photo by Dan Calverley

The road wasn’t always paradise, though – a popular tourist route meant a steady flow of traffic with not much of a shoulder to ride on. We discovered that the best experiences on the road were to be had later in the evening. While everyone else headed home after a day of sightseeing we rode our bicycles along a quiet, windy road hugging a great expanse of blue.

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And, of course, we had to go swimming…

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Swim time!

Many people travelling the Great Ocean Road will link up their trip with a visit to Melbourne. We decided to avoid the chaos of cycling into a large urban centre and instead took a Queenscliff ferry to the south. We had a relaxing day in the town of Rosebud with our hosts Graham and Lesley, hiding out from the only real rain we had seen in 2 months (yes, perhaps we were getting a bit soft!).

From there, we were undecided about the rest of our route to Sydney. We were intrigued by the idea of heading into the alpine region of Kosciusko National Park, home to Australia’s highest peak – Mount Kosciusko at 2229m. Then there was also the Southeast Coast, which many people raved about for the views, but it promised heavier traffic. While doing some research Dan noticed a Warm Showers host near to Tarra Bulga National Park in Gippsland. It was an area that we hadn’t considered venturing into, but with a bit of research it suddenly seemed like an intriguing prospect. Dan, with the Locus mapping app on his phone was able to show me that we had a ridiculous amount of climbing ahead along the Grand Ridge Road that would lead us to our hosts.

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The Grand Ridge Road

The beauty of the unknown is all in the surprise that it offers. The Grand Ridge road turned out to be a highlight of the country for me.  We climbed up and down all day along an empty stretch of dirt road winding through a forest of massive Eucalyptus and Mountain Ash. The forest is prehistoric in feel with large ferns clustering around the bases of the giants. Early settlers that arrived in this area of Gippsland apparently had to fell 90m tall trees and push through dense forest to make a living in the hills. Much of the old growth has been logged, though some giants still remain intermixed with plantation trees.

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Amongst giants

After feeling somewhat jaded from the busy roads over the last week, it was exactly what I needed to experience. And leading up to the Grand Ridge Road, we passed through rolling green hills that made Dan feel nostalgic for his homeland in England.

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And, we came across another cyclist! Joe from Manchester, England on a multi-month ride around Australia and New Zealand.

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Joe from Manchester, UK

About 15km away from our accommodation for the night we noticed a car driving slowly beside us- it was probably the 3rd one we had seen all day. That woman turned out to be Lilian, our host coming out to check on us. She was so concerned about our well being that she brought us a box of Lindt chocolates and wouldn’t let us leave until we had practically finished the entire thing. It was such a welcome treat for us as we started to really feel the fatigue the rollercoaster dirt road. Lilian took us out to a small suspension bridge floating above a sea of giant ferns that could have been hiding velociraptors.

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Dan and I on the suspension bridge. Taken by Lilian Duthie

Lilian left us to ride the last kilometres to her farmhouse and we were eventually joined by her husband, Mark on his bike.

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Riding with our host, Mark

 

We were surprised how cold it was in the evening, when we had just come from temperatures in the high 20s. Mark explained to us just how unique the area was – it was like its own strange ecosystem separate from the rest of Victoria. He was proud to be sharing this little hidden gem of the country with others. And what a gem it was.

Leaving Lilian and Mark’s little pocket of paradise we had finally made the decision to head into the mountains. It is one that I definitely don’t regret – especially the tough and incredibly scenic ride along the “Barry Way” from Bruthen to Jindabyne. Another completely different side to Australia. On our first night we passed by a lodging facility looking to fill our water bags. This eventually turned into a dinner invitation and a place to camp. We thought that we were somewhat of a novelty as cyclists, but it turned out that we were the 3rd bunch to pass through that week. I also saw my first koala there, asleep high in a tree. Unfortunately I was unable to get a photo.

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The Barry Way. Photo by Dan

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Looking into the hills on the Barry Way. Photo by Dan

 

Once the tarmac disappeared, motorized vehicles were few and far between.

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Following the Snowy River

We found one of the best campsites of the trip just beside the Snowy River. That night the sunset painted a pink glaze over the entire landscape. Unfortunately the photos don’t come close to doing it justice.

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Snowy River on fire. Photo by Dan

The road continued to follow the Snowy River before climbing relentlessly.

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Taking a break from climbing. Photo by Dan

We arrived in Jindabyne completely exhausted, whining and not wanting to go much further. We tried a few days before to find a host in town, but no one was around. Jindabyne felt a bit like a semi posh ski village and in my physically and mentally ragged state I felt a world apart. We bought some supplies for the next few days and continued to linger around the supermarket – tired, delaying our inevitable departure. Literally when we started to roll our bikes away we were approached by Syd, a Warm Showers host. He had originally turned down our request to stay with him because he was leaving for Canberra. Last minute he decided to stay an extra night and was now inviting us to stay with him. We couldn’t believe our luck.

Syd worked so that he could go bike touring, usually in 1 year stints. His bookshelves were stocked with pretty much every bike touring publication in existence. He was a very interesting guy to talk to.

Leaving Syd’s place the next morning we were headed towards Braidwood to stay with the Wimbornes- a young family of cycle tourists. This meant more relentless climbs along a scenic backroad avoiding the main road to Canberra.  In this area, I had my first wombat sighting, which was unfortunately a dead one. I did see a few live ones a few days later.

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Dead wombat. Photo by Dan

We paused just outside of Numeralla to look at a map to see how much climbing was ahead. A truck slowed slowed down beside us and asked if we needed help. We asked him where the closest place to find water was and he said that we could get some from his house about 15km away at the start of the dirt road. When we arrived at the end of the tarmac, we spotted a gate with a jug of water and two cups sitting on the post.

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A nice surprise for thirsty cyclists

We brought the cups and jug back to their owner, John. We asked him if it would be OK to pitch the tent on his property and instead we were offered a bed for the night. John worked in the fisheries and had a lot of interesting tales and insights that he shared with us over several glasses of red wine. But it turned out that he was quite a “foodie” and had dreams of packing it all up and moving to a small village in Italy. It was a refreshing change to hear someone else’s stories unrelated to cycling. Sometimes I get too caught up in my own world and I enjoyed getting a small glimpse into someone else’s.

The next morning we started along a winding dirt road that skirted along Gourock National Park, passing through more hills covered in dense gum forest.

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We also spotted some echidnas along the way, which are tiny anteaters.

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Echidna. Photo by Dan

The next night was spent with Tim, Meraiah and their two kids Eden and Morgan in the cozy, progressive little town of Braidwood. These guys had just recently moved from Singapore and have toured Europe as a family. It is always interesting to meet an entire family of bike tourists, which is quite rare. Adventure certainly doesn’t have to end when you have children!

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From left: Tim, Dan, me, Eden, Meraiah and Morgan

Now, it was the final push to Sydney. Traffic, more hills and traffic. Well, it wasn’t that bad, despite the odd angry anti-bicycle motorist yelling at us to get off of the road.

We cycled along some bicycle path from Wollongong and into Royal National Park.

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Riding the path from Wollongong. Photo by Dan

 

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Dan on the bridge towards Royal National Park

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We stopped in a small village about 40km from Sydney for our usual “brew and butty” (Northern English for tea and sandwich) to gain some energy for the final push. We sat in a covered picnic area where a large group of Christmas carolers were also gathering. It was hard for to me to really get in the Christmas spirit in (Canadian) summer temperatures. We arrived under shelter just in time for a torrential downpour to start. After 45 mins or so it finally eased off and we left for Botany Bay, our final destination by bike in Australia just south of Sydney.

With relatively little drama in the way of traffic we approached in semi darkness that was kept aglow by a bright pink sky. The storm was passing through to the east of the city creating a spectacular backdrop that was occasionally lit up by lightning.

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Wild skies near Sydney Airport. Can you spot the plane?

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Riding by some urban fishermen. Photo by Dan

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Photo by Dan

I was experiencing a mix of emotions – exhilaration from the brilliant skies and sadness to be finishing Australia.

We arrived in Botany late in the evening, where we were staying with old friends of Dan’s – Ruth and Simon from Wales. I really enjoyed staying with them and their little ones Nia and Iestyn for a few days.

So, that was it. Three months and 6800km later we had crossed Australia. But for me Sydney was just another city – I had been there four months ago. For me, the ride (and most of my rides) are not about getting from A to B. Yes, saying I cycled Perth to Sydney sounds “big” and is easy to sum up in one sentence. If only I could summarize that experience of all that was in between into one sentence – the sweet isolation, endless horizons, monotony, days of searing heat ,bright ochre coloured roads, swimming through amber-coloured gorges, strange wildlife, fiery sunsets, fly-driven insanity,deep sand, corrugations, annoying traffic in the east, blissful rides through the forest and mountains…this was my small taste of Australia.

And I was in love – in more ways than one. This country has blown me away – Australia’s landscapes are very unique. I haven’t experienced anything in the world like them. It has become one of my favourite places to travel and thanks to Dan for sharing it with me, even though I know it wasn’t always easy.

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Flashback – Mt. Sonder

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I will miss that red dirt…

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The Great Central Road in October

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And of course I will miss the brilliant outback sunsets…

 

Latest news: I liked Australia so much that I have decided to come back! After 5 weeks touring in New Zealand I am currently in Brisbane (February) and will be headed North (by truck with my crew) in a few days to go tree planting just south of Cairns at the hottest time of year. A bit insane? yes. We’ll see how I get on…

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