Australia’s Summer Plant: The toughest thing I have ever done

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Taking a break in the intense heat. Photo by Sarah Dilley

Trapped in a suit of my own sweat, I scan the tree line, looking for an escape. My body is dragging, sinking towards the earth and I start to panic. My breathing has become desperate and laboured. In the extreme heat and humidity I feel like I am locked in closet full of bulky coats collapsing in on me. The sun is a hellish cyclops staring down at us, unblinking.

I trudge slowly through the tall grass, three calculated steps at a time, before I plunge my spade into the parched soil. I reach for the tray attached to my left hip and pull out a lone pine tree seedling. I bend over, slide it down the blade, kick the hole closed and do all of this again – almost 2000 times per day.

I am walking through a clearcut – a gaping hole in the lush gum tree forest that surrounds. Rolling green hills tower above – powerful and imposing. A thick mist starts to spill over top, like a  science lab beaker billowing steam.  Here in far North Queensland, Australia it is the summer and the wet season.  When the rain comes, it is sudden and furious. We crave it like a drug, desperate for a hit. It is our only reprieve out here while we create handmade plantations. When the dark grey clouds approach, all eyes turn to the sky, hopeful. Then, we feel that first drop and all senses become heightened. Suddenly, the skies open up and the rain falls heavily, gradually building in intensity. Over the deafening sound I can hear one of my co-workers let out a primal yell. Others echo him, like a pack of wolves. We hold onto these precious minutes before the shower dissipates and we once again become prisoners of the sun. Life out here is intense, hard fought. This is summer tree planting in Australia – the toughest thing I ever done.

I am no stranger to tree planting. I have worked in the Canadian forestry industry for 10 years and spent six seasons as a treeplanter. It is a production job – meaning you are paid a set rate per tree that you plant. I have made anywhere from 6 to 28 cents per tree, planting anywhere from 1500-5000 per day. I started planting in Australia in the winter season from May to August in 2016 to help fund my future bicycle travels. Despite a four year gap between my last contract in Canada and the current one, it was a success. After five weeks cycling in New Zealand I decided to try Australia’s summer planting contract. I had heard many stories from past planters that made me apprehensive, to say the least. This ranged from the entire crew suffering from foot rot with the constant rain to staph infections that required hospitalization. And of course, the heat and humidity which became unbearable after 10am. I also knew that I didn’t perform so well in the heat myself. I was nervous, but I figured that I would eventually adapt.

The crew begins to arrive at our accommodation in Lucinda, Australia. I have driven up with my foreman, Sarah from Brisbane – about 1500km south. We are a multinational group, with the majority from Germany and Canada. This includes two 10-year veteran planters from the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. I hear that one of them has a personal record of 8000 trees in a single day.  I am also happy to see some familiar faces from the winter planting contract. It is a big, airy beach house. There is one unfortunate condition – we can’t swim in the ocean because it is box jellyfish season. We are also warned against walking along the beach because of saltwater crocodiles that have been seen occasionally in the area. A general rule for wild swimming in Queensland is not to jump into any body of water unless in has been determined to be croc-free. Of course, there are also deadly snakes and spiders. Out there though, this turned out to be the least of my concerns.

The heat seemed like it was inescapable even when I wasn’t working. Sometimes I would jump into a cold shower at night fully clothed just to be cool enough to fall asleep. Eating also became a struggle – all I wanted and craved was fruit, despite the fact that I was probably burning about 5000 calories per day.

Every day the weather attacks me like a sort of demonic force. Each day out on the “block” feels like a feat of survival. We begin work around 6am in attempt to maximize our production before the real heat sets in. Even at 6:30am I am already soaked in sweat. Every bit of my skin is covered and I wear a large straw hat to protect me from the oppressive sun. I am also donning two pairs of socks to stop the friction and prevent blisters, thus preventing a possible staph infection. I go full force in the morning, because it is the only chance I have to make money. Right around 10am, things start to deteriorate rapidly. The sun starts to come out and my body becomes weak and heavy. I feel like I am dragging chains. I start to feel nauseous. I am drinking electrolite sweetened water constantly, but my state continues to worsen. The heat becomes trapped in the tall grass that I push myself through. Every time I plunge forward into it I feel like I’m drowning. Now I am walking in slow motion and my spade feels limp in my hand. Then, I start to experience what I later realized was a bit of a panic attack. I am having trouble breathing. I can see a truck in the distance and start to walk in that direction as fast as I could. I get to my foreman, Sarah feeling scared and desperate. She tells me to get in and takes me to a creek where I lay still in the cool water and let it run over me for about 30 minutes, motionless. She gets me some more electrolites and slowly the life comes back into me. I eventually return to work.

I am not only one struggling. When the heat becomes too overbearing, I hide out  in the trees with a few of my workmates. We share fruit and salty snacks amongst each other. Our bodies slump lifelessly against the stifling bark of some small gum trees. Out there, I watch facial expressions twist and contort into pain as tired bodies toil like slaves in the noon day hell. Sometimes this turns into vomiting, sometimes tears emerge. But, they press on – motivated by the handsome pay check that we have all come here for.

One afternoon I took a break in one of the utes (Australian for truck) with the air conditioning blasting. Fifteen minutes later, my co-worker Gabe stumbles in. His lips are pale and he is coated in sweat, his eyes lifeless. Gabe has been a tree planter and crew leader for 10 years in Canada. When I watch him plant, he moves through the land like a well-tuned machine with barely a break between movements. Now, he sits in the front seat completely drained and in shock. “This is crazy,” he says, “I have never needed to take breaks like this… when I plant, I don’t stop. Never in my life have I had to do this.” He repeats these phrases several times over the next half an hour in frustration while trying to comprehend what is happening to his body.

On one of the hottest days we worked I walk past several of my co-workers on the ground slumped over from heat exhaustion. I take off my wide brimmed straw hat and start to fan them. Our tree runner Rhys stops by and dumps some water on their heads. At this point, I have forgotten that I am out there to make a wage – work has become secondary. I am here to help others survive. We are here for each other. It was a profound feeling to finish the day with and it was the most unforgettable of my time spent out there. We went to a fantastic swimming hole afterwards, which were plentiful in this part of Queensland. We waste no time, jumping in fully clothed, some with work boots still on. As soon as I hit the water, my body immediately forgets what it has just been through. The toils of the day are washed off and drift away with the gentle current. I stop and look around at the beauty around me. This elegant, pristine river closed in by a motherly embrace of eucalyptus trees. This is my Australia – a country that has made its way deep into my heart.

With these joyful moments that I have with my crew, it becomes apparent that we are all in this together and are there to support one another. On many days where anger and frustration started to take over, my wonderful foreman Sarah would pull up beside me in her ute. Her giant and warm smile immediately shattered those emotions that I had built up around me like a glass cage. And I was often given reminders by crew mates who were there to support me and remind me: hey, it’s just a job.

So, if you, the reader are looking for the ending of how I persevered, overcame adversity and finished the season, you may be disappointed to find out that I quit. I gave it everything I could – five weeks of it. It took a heavy took toll on me mentally and physically and I saw no improvement. I also had financial obligations that I wasn’t able to meet.

This was a very tough thing for me do – to realize that I had reached my limit. I have spent my entire working career outdoors in all four seasons in Canada. I have worked in every condition imaginable – even at the opposite extreme of -40 degrees celsius. For me, this was easier than working the summer in Far North Queensland with 38 degrees celsius and 80% humidity.

I believe that bravery doesn’t always come in the way of perseverance. Sometimes you have to embrace doubt and accept failure in order to come out stronger. But I don’t necessarily see this as failure. I learned a lot about myself out there and understood what it meant to reach my limits mentally and physically. Sometimes it is important to tap into that primal instinct to survive in extreme conditions – something that the modern world often shelters from us. And at the end of each day, planting trees in an Australian summer, a remarkable thing happened. The day’s hardships were quickly forgotten about and smiles emerged. We looked to each other and without words we acknowledged what we already knew.

We got through.

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The crew (minus myself) Photo By Sarah Dilley

Thank you to Sarah, Hutch, Rhys, Joe and all of my incredible crew members for being so supportive and such awesome human beings.

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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…

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

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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.

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No need to sugarcoat the message…

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The Stuart Highway. Pretty straight forward…

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Rest stop on the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dan on the William Creek Road

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Sign at the start of the William Creek Road

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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.”

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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A real feast for the flies

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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.

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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.

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Dan ripping on the Oodnadatta Track

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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.

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lunchtime

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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.

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An awesome and unexpected gift

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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.

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Marree. Photo by Dan Calverley

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Me in Marree. Photo by Dan Calverley

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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.

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Start of the Flinders Ranges

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Kangaroo and joey (look closely in the pouch)

 

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

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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.

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Southwards to Adelaide. Photo by Dan Calverley

 

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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!

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

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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.

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Photo by Dan Calverley

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Thorns galore

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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.

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Great Central Road

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And of course, the sunsets.

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

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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.

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Red Dirt Girl. Photo by Dan Calverley

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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.

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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.

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Just a tad sandy…

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and as smooth as ever…

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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.

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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…

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“That guy came out of nowhere!”

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

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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?

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“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!

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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.

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Riding along the 550 million-year-old Petermann Range

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The desert oak, a truly resilient tree

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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.

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Kata Tjuta, seen from the Great Central Road

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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.

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Riding towards Uluru

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Photo by Dan Calverley

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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.

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“Luxury” bush camp. Photo by Dan Calverley

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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.

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King’s Canyon

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King’s Canyon. Photo by Dan Calverley

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

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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.

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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.

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

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Photo by Dan Calverley

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The return hike from Mount Sonder summit

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Sunset over Mount Sonder

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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.

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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.

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Australia Part I: Love Down Under

 

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It was time for a bit of departure from cycling. My mind said so, my heart said so and most importantly, my bank account. After South Korea (post to come…sometime) I felt like I needed a break. While I enjoyed my time there, I was starting to feel a bit jaded from travelling.  I had planned to join my friends Marcus and Kirsty in Japan, but I soon realized that I needed to work sooner rather than later. So, I booked a ticket to Melbourne where I spent a lovely few days with my host, Janet. Then, by train and bicycle  I made my way North to Mildura, where I would be planting trees for Outland Resources at six Australian cents per tree. I was planting about 4000-50o0 trees per day to reforest areas of Murray Sunset National Park. After two weeks, we moved to Oberon in New South Wales where we were paid twelve cents and luckily I only had to bend over half as much. This wasn’t my first rodeo – I worked as a planter for six seasons in Canada. It is a grueling job that I both loved and hated. It has challenged me mentally and physically in ways that nothing else ever has and probably nothing else ever will.

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Flashback – tree planting near Prince George, BC Canada 2008

 

To get an idea of what tree planting is all about (in Canada) I recommend my friend and co-worker Tara’s excellent article, who is now a reporter for New York’s Epoch Times newspaper.

I swore to myself that I would never do this job again. But, here I was, back at it Australia and I have absolutely no regrets for making that decision. I lived and worked with an incredible crew of people and it felt good to be back in the game.

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Planting the sand rows in Murray Sunset National Park near Mildura

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In the zone: Oberon, NSW

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My awesome and nutty crew

 

Oddly enough, it sometimes felt like I was back at home in Canada working in the cold and drizzly weather planting pine trees  Then, I would take my eyes off of the ground for a few seconds, see a kangaroo, gum trees and I would suddenly remember where I was.

Oh yeah, and I worked in one of the few places in Australia where it snows in the winter (Oberon).

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Playing in the snow…

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…and working in the snow. Thawing out the frozen seedlings around a fire. Photo by Kively Kohv

 

Nine weeks later I finished my 7th planting season and had a flight booked to Perth where I would begin a new adventure with the amazing Dan, the Self-Propelling Particle. He left England in January 2015 and has since then cycled over 30,000km in Europe and Asia.

Two weeks of sweet lingering turned into a month. We were lucky to be house sitting for our awesome hosts Ruth and Victor in North Beach for a few weeks while they were off on a camping adventure. I first met Victor in Bangkok in March, where he was beginning his cycling adventure in Thailand and Burma.

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From left: Victor, Ruth, Dan and me in North Beach, Perth

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It would be a while before we would be seeing the ocean again. Perth. Photo by Dan Calverley

 

After almost four months off I was ready to cycle again. Our plan is to ride all the way to Brisbane for Christmas to meet with my dear friends Marianne and Heidi. There they will begin their 1.5 year journey home to Denmark. Dan and I have an ambitious 7000km to cover and we won’t be taking the most direct route. The plan is to leave Perth and chase the red dirt along the remote Great Central Road through to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia’s red centre. From there, we will head towards Alice Springs and then down the Oodnadatta Track to Adelaide. The route from there is currently unknown.  Soon, it will just be the two of us amongst the red earth, snakes, camels, kangaroos, sand and flies…and maybe the odd curious dingo. Of course, throw in the odd road train and grey nomads passing in caravans.

So this is the account of the first section of the ride: Perth to Kalgoorlie. We are still clinging onto the tiny outposts of civilization before they soon disappear in the desert.

PERTH TO KALGOORLIE

 

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Along the Rail Heritage Trail in John Forrest National Park

About 30 km outside of Perth we joined the Railway Heritage trail, where Dan had his first kangaroo sighting.

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Along the route we also had a few curious birds: galahs, cockatoos and a particular bold Australian ringneck that hung around our first campsite just outside of Chidlow.

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The nosey Australian ringneck that hung around our camp. He practically dive bombed my head.

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Stealth camping on a MTB trail near Chidlow

And what about scary snakes and spiders? None yet – well, a dead snake (but a desert death adder nonetheless!)  and then a few bobtail skinks crossing the road with stubby tails and dark blue tongues that they stuck out at us as we passed.

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After Chidlow, we briefly made an appearance on the Great Eastern Highway to Baker’s Hill, a small settlement with a bakery very famous for their pies. Small baked pies, usually stuffed with meat and/or vegetables are a widespread Australian tradition. They were absolutely delicious and for a moment I fantasized encountering pie shops like this every 50km all the way to Sydney.

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Me stuffing my face. Photo by Dan Calverley

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The BEST Australian pies at Baker’s Hill – Photo by Dan Calverley

Avoiding the highway once again, we headed Northeast into the wheat belt, using a mix of paved and dirt roads that we mainly had to ourselves. Expansive green farmers’ fields and patches of wildflowers surrounded us. We are lucky to be travelling in the right season to be catching even the smallest glimpses of these piercingly blue, pink and yellow hues dotting the road sides.

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Wildflowers: everlastings

 

Some of the green was also covered in blankets of canola flowers.

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Canola fields – photo by Dan Calverley

 

Every 40km or so we would pass through small towns, spoiling ourselves with the odd coffee or baked treat. With a screaming tailwind most of the time, traffic-free roads and monotonous, yet pleasant scenery it was an enjoyable ride.

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Big skies along the wheat belt

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Shady backroads

 

Night time unfortunately brought in hordes of mosquitoes, which we hadn’t quite expected.

Camping was a bit tricky in this area because of the endless fence lines. One night we pulled into a ramshackle looking farmstead, hoping to find someone to give us permission to camp on their land. The place looked abandoned with only the presence of a lonely cow to give us the impression that someone still had an interest in the place. We decided to pitch camp anyway, hoping that an angry farmer wouldn’t run us off the next day. As we were packing up the next morning, we were visited by a friendly guy who worked for the landowner that didn’t seem to have an issue with us being there.

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Farm camping amongst the mosquito hordes

Once the fences disappeared, we could pretty much camp wherever we wanted, undisturbed. This is the beauty of travelling in a country with a low population density.

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Sunset view from our camp near the edge of a field

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Inspecting the site

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Viewpoint from our campsite at Marshall Rocks

 

The further East we travelled the more amusing the town signs became…

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Mukinbudin aka “Muka”

and the more eccentric..

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We did end up talking to one guy, but apparently it wasn’t Lenny

Leaving Bullfinch and failing to find Lenny we took a backroad toward the railway line beginning at Koolyanobbing, where we had planned to follow a maintenance track. By this time, we had many little stalkers of our own – mini hordes of bush flies that clung to our backs for the free ride. Luckily, they were only the swarming kind and not the biting kind.

Dan had pointed out earlier the potential issue of accessing the railway line from this side, thinking that we may be blocked in by a fence or gate. I assured him that it would be OK and we would find a way in somewhere. But at that moment it didn’t occur to me that we would arrive on the wrong side of the tracks. Oops. But, no problem Dan concurred, we will find a low point in the fence and carry everything across. Problem solved!

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Running the bags and bikes over the railway tracks

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Fence? what fence?

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Photo by Dan Calverley

Along the road we came across a few signs that said “No access unless authorized by Westnet Rail,” which we obviously ignored. You would think that if they really wanted to keep people out there would be some kind of gate and not just a small sign?

The majority of the track was a decent surface that occasionally deteriorated into rocky and sandy bits. The odd train and truck roared past and we exchanged waves, acting like we had every right to be there. We also spotted kangaroos and a family of emus – seven chicks in total. The emu is the world’s second largest bird and found only in Australia. The young ones from a distance looked to be easily over 1m tall!

 

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Emu – photo from birds guide.blogspot.com

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Riding the railway line – photo by Dan Calverley

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Photo by Dan Calverley 

Chilly nights brought relief from the flies and we pulled our bikes away from railway and into the bush to camp. When we got into lower vegetation the night sky felt massive – millions of stars encircling us like a dome. The nights carried on in silence until it was suddenly broken by the thunder of a passing locomotive.

On the final day to Kalgoorlie the flies grew in intensity and the road became a rocky mess. The buzzing menaces won this time and we left the track behind, heading south to the highway for the final smooth stretch into town. It didn’t take long for us to be sucked into a pub with a cold pint in hand. It felt good to be back on the road, to reap the rewards of these small luxuries once again.

Kalgoorlie is a gold mining town famous for its Super Pit – an open cut gold mine that is 3.5 kilometres long, 1.5 kilometres wide and 570 metres deep.

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Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit (about one half of it)

 

 

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…and some of the massive bits of machinery used

After a few days rest with our awesome host Bev it is time to leave civilization again. We are heading North to Leonara and then East to the start of the Great Central Road in Laverton. Red earth, emptiness, sand, flies, nothingness – here we come.

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Red dirt girl – Photo by Dan Calverley