Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Across Oz - cycle touring Australia, Coast to Coast

Most nights we just pushed our bikes off the road, into the scrub and pitched the tent. At one point we couldn't wash our cycling shorts for 10 days. Across the Nullarbor, we cycled Australia's longest section of  road without a bend - 146.6km over two days. Our legs got sunburnt, our stamina was tested, and the wind was a constant battle. This, is the story of one of our most challenging and memorable adventures yet.

The plan was to ride our bicycles coast to coast, more than 4,200 km across Australia from City Beach in Perth to Nobby’s Beach in Newcastle. There was to be no fundraising for charity, no-one sponsored us, we didn’t raise awareness for a particular cause, or visit public schools along the way. It was to be our first major adventure holiday together as a couple. Pure, selfish adventure.

Out there…

We rode out of Perth to face the first challenge of the trip, climbing up the escarpment into the Perth Hills. Months of pre-ride training helped, as did our excitement and enthusiasm - that powerful rush of energy at the start of any long-planned and anticipated adventure. The first week of riding eastwards took us through Western Australia’s seemingly endless, undulating wheat fields and then eventually out into the pretty scrub of the world’s largest temperate woodland. Gimlet trees with bronze bark were surrounded by yellow wildflowers clustered along the road verge: add the emerald green flashes of ringneck parrots in the grass, glossy forest snails emerging after rain, shingleback lizards slowly retreating from the warm tarmac. Long straight roads lead us onwards, following the equally long and straight Goldfields Water Supply pipeline which delivers potable water to communities in Western Australia's Eastern Goldfields, particularly Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. The project was commissioned in 1896 and was completed in 1903 and, when built, was the longest fresh-water pipeline in the world. The pipeline continues to operate today, supplying water to over 100,000 people and providing a guiding companion and easy roadside camp access for cross-country cycle tourers. 

The first 8 days on the bike saw us surviving a wild afternoon storm, baking sun and cold rain, and an intimate encounter with the side mirror of a speeding semi. We passed the wildfire skeleton of Boorabin National Park, found wondrous granite outcrops hidden in the roadside woods, turned right at Coolgardie and explored the brilliant white quartz of the salt pans Lake Lefroy and Lake Cowan.

The friendly town of Norseman was our first big milestone, already 734km from Perth and the starting point of what we called the 
“out there” leg of the adventure. Norseman was the last major town before we stretched ourselves across the Nullarbor, off the edge of the temperate woodlands, and out onto the flat limestone country of the Roe and Nullarbor plains. The next town would be Ceduna in South Australia, a staggering 1,100km east. Along the way we would have to rely on a string of remotely placed roadhouses for fresh water and food supplies. 

The second day out of Norseman we were cycling through sparse woodlands with distant hillsides of spinifex grass and watchful crows observing us from the treetops. A cracking tailwind brought with it scorching heat and at Balladonia we were forced off the road to sit and wait three hours as the mercury hit 43 degrees Celsius roadside.  Those three hours were spent eating expensive ice creams and chocolate bars and examining the small, but surprisingly good, roadhouse museum documenting the location's claim to fame that the Skylab Satellite crash landed nearby in 1979.

Before riding out of Balladonia we stocked up with water from the bathroom taps as it was 161km to the next roadhouse. I carried 6 litres and Caz carried 8 litres, which was on top of our regular 20-25kg of gear and food. We continued 20km up the road to where the Eyre Highway doubles as the airstrip for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). White lines are painted on the road to guide aircraft and they take on the appearance of a pedestrian crossing in the middle of nowhere. When you are on a pushbike it is hard to pass up such a fun photo opportunity.

However, as we jollied around taking happy snaps we had a sudden and dramatic shift in fortune. A weather change came smashing towards us, frontal winds whipped up the dust, the temperature dropped and our hot roaring tailwind swung fully to a freezing headwind of about 35km/h. The change heralded five days of headwind hell.

Journal: Day 11, Friday, 26/9, alarm went off at 4:15am, slow pack up and on the road by 6:30am. Head wind from the start. Overcast; great riding temperature. Slowish pace with the wind, riding Australia’s longest stretch of straight road – 90 miles. But the head wind made it hard work and it only got stronger as the day went on. We played music quiz first thing then conversation became more infrequent as we had to knuckle down and ride. When we stopped for a bum break, Annie and Mick pulled off to say hello – bless them they gave us another 2 litres of water and a fabulous cold banana from their fridge. Really boosted morale. Lots of eagles, wild dog early on. Laying back now on the tarp, wind getting stronger – we’re about 50km from Caiguna. It seems to be taking forever to get there. Eagles above – floating like kites on a string.

On the fourth day of the headwinds (day 14 of the trip) and just 40 km into the day's riding towards  Mundrabilla Roadhouse, some caravanners stood waiting for us at a dusty roadside pull in: one couple with a bag of cut up cold oranges and another van with some cold lime cordial. We had met them all at the previous night’s camp and their morning pit stop was a much needed boost after another morning being flogged by the wind. It was also an example of the constant support and encouragement we received from other travellers on the remote expanse of the Nullarbor road.

Chrissy’s journal: The wind is troublesome because a) very strong b) headwind c) wide open plains with no cover, just us and the wind. Rations low. We call our diet the John Eyre Explorer Rations (some rice and dried peas for dinner, porridge for breakfast, white bread and peanut butter for lunch). The road kill is looking pretty good and there’s certainly plenty to choose from. We have been eyeing off all the caravaners with their luxuries and 110 litres of water and fridges chocka block with food and delicacies and sweet biscuits - caravans are also known as Monte Carlo Vans.

With Mundrabilla Roadhouse in sight - 10 km ahead across the flat, scrubby plains - we dropped down to our lowest gears. Powerful drafts from passing trucks hit us like a brick wall and 5km out from the roadhouse we stopped for a rest.  Again, just 2km out we were forced to rest again. The roadhouse was in sight the entire time, a cruel oasis that seemed to never get closer. We had no food left in our panniers except a few tea bags and a handful of oats. 

Caz’s Journal: “wind just kept making riding hard with constant gusts. Could get no rhythm, just constantly pushing hard on the pedals. Arse continually feeling sore being in the saddle. Both didn’t talk much while riding, heads down in our own worlds of pain.”

When we finally made it to the roadhouse, we sat in the corner of the restaurant looking shattered and eating steak burgers, neither of us able to speak. Our eyes stared vacantly out of the window. After more than two weeks on the road, Caz’s ribs has begun to show and his pants were falling off.

Eucla, a stunning location near the WA and SA border, sits high up off the Roe Plains on the edge of the true Nullarbor Plain. It is a popular stopping spot with excellent caravan, tent and hotel accommodation and access down the beaches and white dunes on the edge of the Southern Ocean. Its small shop had the most extensive selection of groceries we found across the Nullarbor. And, at Eucla, a crackling storm with thunder and lightning, brought us the best present so far - we woke to the most beautiful ripping tailwind ever created. Despite plans for a well-earned rest day, exploring the old Telegraph Station buried in the dunes below, we rode off on the tailwind, punching out 135 km in one day, scooting along the Bunda Cliffs and through the Nullarbor National Park with it’s blanket of green shrubs and trees, saltbush and blue bush all making a beautiful patchwork of colours across the landscape.

We arrived in Ceduna 12 days after leaving Norseman and in time to enjoy their annual oyster festival on the shores of a glorious wide bay. To celebrate our crossing of the vast Nullarbor, we sat down to a huge meal of steak, bread, chips, salad, and beer and realised how our conversations had been reduced to comments on wind direction and reports on the colour of our wee to make sure we were keeping properly hydrated.

The A- Z of cycle touring…

Our route home from Ceduna included some sightseeing as we headed down to Streaky Bay before taking back roads to Poochera and the Eyre Highway which we followed across South Australia sighting several emus, one wild camel, wild dogs and dingoes, wallabies and lizards. Each white silo a welcome beacon on the horizon, heralding the next small town.

Journal: Cycle touring terms to remember: Kitty litter - the loose gravel off the shoulder of the road. If you are in the kitty litter at high speed you are in the shit. Bunda Cliffs - not just a scenic spot on the Nullarbor but also a term used to refer to the cliff like drops off the bitumen into the kitty litter.

Up until Port Augusta we had been on our bikes every day, for 27 days straight. So, for two days we checked the bikes in for a service and hired a car with comfortable seats and a V6 engine. For a change of pace we drove up to the Flinders Ranges for two days of bushwalking and sightseeing before returning to our bikes and, of course, more headwind. I know I sound like a broken record but our first day out of Port Augusta was sheer hell (grandma walking pace). We started late and scored a powerful cross wind screaming off Spencer Gulf. With the kookaburras laughing as we surmounted Horrocks Pass we managed our lowest daily cycling average of the whole trip, a mere 15.4km/hr.

Luckily magic happens when you most need it. A gorgeous roadside camp amongst huge river red gums near the historic town of Melrose was a balm for our wind-battered souls. Evening light cut patterns of shadow through paddocks of bright green barley as the sun dipped behind Mt Remarkable.  The peace that comes with fatigue, reinvigorated our joy of traveling by bike.

Unfortunately, there were less trees and less roadside land in South Australia's wheat belt than on the Nullarbor. This meant fewer camp options. Near the small town of Spalding we were forced to sneak in late through the gate of an old Gaelic church where we slept under pine trees beside the headstones. The next morning, strong winds continued to plague us. But, they always do on a bike. To hammer the message home, we passed a wind farm of 50 huge turbines. Still scarred from the difficult days across the Nullarbor we discussed the idea of switching to a night ride, as the winds seemed to ease each evening. While we weighed up the pro’s and con’s of this idea we spent some time in the pretty South Australian town of Burra drinking hot chocolate, admiring the historic stone buildings, eating scones, jam and cream, and hamburgers and chips, and generally feeding up as we now did at every town.

The winds of fortune…

A full moon was expected and the stretch of road ahead out of Burra was a relatively quiet country affair and so the decision was made to cycle at night. As it came onto dusk we saw plenty of wildlife including wild goats, roos, emus, and eagles. The road was straight and flat with little traffic. The few trucks that passed us in the dark would appear as lights on the distant horizon and then seem to take an eternity to reach us. The moon - a great, big, golden ball of liquid light, slowly coalescing above the horizon remains a highlight of the journey; one of those rare moments that you only find by pushing the boundaries of time and experience.

The night ride proved to be fun but we didn’t do it again. We missed too much of the countryside as we rode, and sightseeing remained high on our agenda. We were on holidays after all.

Riding into the town of Morgan we got our first sight of the Murray River - known affectionately by us as Big Muzza. The next couple of days we rode through irrigation towns with heavily fruiting orange orchards and rows of grape vines. The smell of orange blossom hung in the air. We had breakfast beside Big Muzza, caught a ferry across Big Muzza, had lunch with Big Muzza, and camped at night beside Big Muzza. And, our daily kilometres were subtly climbing higher as we got stronger. More importantly, the wind was changing. Across the country, the headwinds had always been cold; the tailwinds we discovered were hot. We rode 142km to Euston, in one day, and back into New South Wales with a warm north-westerly at our backs. 

The next day brought more hot tailwinds and we smoked into Balranald with 80km under the belt by 11am. It was a stroke of fortune not to be passed up - a tailwind to help us across the most desolate piece of countryside yet - the Hay plain. We stocked up on food in town, ignored the advice of the checkout girl to just "sit in the shade in the park" and headed out into the uncompromising heat. Thirty kilometres out of Balranald the trees disappeared and the ground cover turned to sparse saltbush. There were dust storms on the horizon. Brown everywhere. We drank hot water all day. We ate hot bananas. All our chocolate melted. But the powerful tailwind pushed us for another 100km, making for a record breaking total day of 184.5km.

About 30km from Hay I collapsed. Overheated and exhausted we stopped in a stark roadside shelter. After such a big day we treated ourselves to a big dinner of Explorer Rations - rice and peas and one zucchini. After Hay the big days rolled on as the winds stayed favourable to our traveling direction - 135km, 120km, 150km days. The countryside became greener the further east we got and the trees became noticeably taller.

The end of the road…

Having done over 3000km without a flat tyre we managed three in three days as we entered NSW, all thanks to the large cat’s eye thorns out west. We ended up having to change one tyre on a tiny patch of bitumen beside the Newell Highway. This was harder than it sounds.

The Newell Highway is the main trucking link from Melbourne to Brisbane. After a day and half cycling its narrow edges and crappy bitumen we voted it the adrenalin junkies dream - death wish kind of stuff; 50 tonnes of B-double shaving past your right shoulder, threading the big rig needle between your bike and the B double coming in the other direction. No road shoulder, no mercy, no fear.

With the end of the adventure looming, we dropped back to our 100km a day average as we headed on toward the Great Dividing Range. We began talking about missing the simple routine of our cycling days, the physical and mental challenges, the rewarding feeling of relaxing at night, the wildlife and scenery and the freedom, the early morning porridge, the remote bush camps and teamwork we had developed. We had a lovely time winding through lush countryside and farms on the back roads around Wellington, Gulgong, Ulan and up to Cassilis where the big hill country began. Up and down. Low gears going up, high gears going down. We rocketed past the horse studs and open cut mines of the upper Hunter Valley. We rode 120km on our second last day which brought us within spitting distance of Newcastle and our finish (70km - a fairly big spit).

Our final camp for the trip was in a rest area by the New England highway with a smelly pit toilet and constant stream of mini buses full of drunken miners returning from weekend excursions into the light. But just a quick couple of hours the next day, with yet another NSW tailwind, had us in Hexham, past the big mosquito, then into Newcastle. Before we knew it the show was over.

There were photos taken at Nobby’s Beach (ocean to ocean) then straight to the Brewery for beers, hot chips and quiet reflection on the previous six weeks. To be brutally honest, it was no holiday. It was challenging but immensely rewarding. Would we do it again? Absolutely positively maybe.

Total km: 4210
Hours in the saddle: 224
Time taken: 42 days (including 2 rest days)

It has been several years since this journey, and we have since driven much of route we rode, including across the Nullarbor Plain. Some things have changed. Where we only saw one other cycle tourer on the entire adventure, and heard of none others riding across the Nullarbor, last year we saw six cycle tourers at various road houses. There seemed to be a lot more vehicle traffic too - holiday makers and caravanners. The challenge, however, has not changed. The winds are still unkind and the scenery still spectacular. The Bunda Ciffs campsites have been blocked off, but the freedom of cycle touring can never be taken away by a few bollards and fences.

We have wanted to blog about this adventure for many years but never seemed to get around to it - so, why now? Maybe it just felt like time for a simple reminder that...nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Darren…it was one of those great trips that has stayed with us for many years.