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The Kindness of Strangers

April 18, 2012

John Stoate - owner of the million-acre Anna Plains cattle station in Western Australia's Great Sandy Desert, one of the many kind strangers I've met along the road.

Even by outback Australia’s legendary standards, the old pearling port of Broome is seriously remote. It sits by itself on a lonely mangrove-fringed coast on the far northwest of the continent, with the steamy emptiness of the Indian Ocean stretching away on one side, and over a million square miles of hostile desert scrub stretching away on the other. The lights and bustle of Perth are more than 1400 miles away to the south.

As recently as the Forties the only way you could travel to Broome was via the old mail steamer that came up the coast from Fremantle every six weeks. There were no roads. There is only one road coming up here even now, an impossibly desolate outback highway that wasn’t paved until 1986.

It was dead quiet and shimmering with waves of heat when I rolled into Broome on my bicycle ten years later, on a sweltering afternoon in November 1996. I’d pedalled there from Sydney, coming up the east coast and over the Top End – through the aching desolation of the Gulf Country, to Darwin and then through the wild and remote Kimberley region, a place that is virtually a world in itself. I’d come more than 5000 miles by then. Along the way I’d had to make some increasingly long and challenging desert crossings between towns, but nothing as long as the one I faced heading south from Broome.

The next town down the road from here was Port Hedland, a remote iron ore seaport some 400 miles away across the Great Sandy Desert. It would be a difficult crossing at any time of the year, but this was November, the build-up, the season when the monsoon starts to gather strength, and the heat and humidity ratchets up to intolerable levels. The shade temperatures in Broome were well over 40C, and those temperatures were moderated somewhat by the sea. It was considerably hotter inland – as I well knew having just ridden down from Darwin and across the Kimberley. Out in the direct sun in the Great Sandy Desert I could expect the noontime heat to be soaring well over 50C.

Locals told me not even to think about trying to ride across the desert to Port Hedland, but to declare force majeure and put the bike on a truck or a bus; there was no beating the combination of heat, desert and distance. I didn’t want to appear arrogant or foolish, but I reckoned I could do it. I was fit, well equipped and had plenty of fresh experience in riding through the outback. Even so, I cased the ride pretty carefully before I started out. I saw there was a roadhouse called Sandfire Flat, about half way, where I could get water, and when I checked out a large-scale pastoral map I noticed that the homestead for Shamrock Station, a remote half-million-acre cattle property, was not too far off the highway and ‘only’ a hundred empty miles south of Broome. They were on the telephone so I called them up, explained what I was doing, and asked if they’d mind if I stopped by and filled my water bottles; they said sure.

The following day I set off, with my heart in my mouth and with twenty-three litres of water aboard my bicycle, practically feeling myself vanishing into the shimmering waves of heat that were warping the horizon. If I felt as though I’d left one world behind and entered another, indeed I had. Far from there being “nothing out there”, as everyone in town had assured me, there existed a friendly and thriving Great Sandy Desert society, whose members took me in as one of their own. It started with my stopover at Shamrock station the next morning. Along with a top-up of my water bottles, I was invited to stay for lunch. While we were lunching, the Catholic missionary at the relatively nearby Bidyadanga Aboriginal Community stopped by and after a bit of pleasant chatter invited me to stay at the mission for a few days on my way south. This bit of open-handed desert hospitality led in turn to an invitation to stay at Shelamar station, still further down the line. And the, sure enough, over dinner at Shelamar one night I landed an invitation to stay at the huge Anna Plains station, a million-acre outback spread whose homestead, alas, was so far off the highway, at the end of a rough track covered with dunes and deep soft sand that I had to decline; I didn’t think I could get there on my loaded tourer. John Stoate, the station owner, wouldn’t hear of it. “Tell me what time you reckon you’ll be going past our track and I’ll have a man there with a truck to bring you in.”

And so it went. By the time I eventually rolled into Port Hedland, more than two weeks after I left Broome, I’d put on about five pounds and was even getting a little out of shape. Heat, dust, thirst, sunstroke, long empty miles? Turned out my biggest worry crossing the Great Sandy Desert had been high cholesterol from too much good Anna Plains beef.

I’ve never forgotten that ‘lonely’ desert crossing nor indeed any of the countless other acts of kindness, generosity and friendship that were extended to me throughout the course of my nine-month 10,000-mile odyssey through the Australian outback, nor the great life lesson I learned along the way – that the overwhelming majority of people are good. And that’s been true not just of outback Australia but everywhere I’ve ridden and toured, all over the world. I’ve lost count of the kindnesses that have been extended to me as a cyclist – in Turkey, in Slovenia, in Nebraska and Zanzibar and France, stories that are warm and human, affectionate and humorous in the telling but were I to write them all I’d have a hundred-thousand-word post.

But then again there’s nothing like the medium of a bicycle for unlocking this common good and opening hearts and homes. Had I been travelling by car, say, or even by motorcycle, I doubt very much I would have enjoyed anything like the sorts of warm personal interactions with strangers that I’ve enjoyed over the years while travelling by bicycle. As far as the Great Sandy Desert goes, I’d have shot through in a day, with the windows rolled up and the air conditioner on.

A bicycle is just plain different. There is no speeding, self-contained aloofness here, no safety glass. The barriers are down. You’re open and exposed to whatever the world has to offer, recognisably human, moving through the landscape at a gentle pace, vulnerable, approachable, a curiosity to be sure, with all your panniers and saddlebags, but not perceived as a threat by anyone. I’ve discovered I can pedal up to just about anyone on my bicycle and ask directions or start a conversation without creating unease, and what’s more anyone with a friendly curiosity about me or my bicycle seems to feel perfectly free to come up and ask what I am doing and where I am off to.

To some degree I suppose we can thank Hollywood for this. Think about it for a second. Except for Elmira Gulch in the Wizard of Oz, when was the last time you saw the baddie in a movie getting about on a bicycle? No, we’re always the character parts – the country vicar, the village policeman, the snoopy old spinster, the earnest young man looking to get ahead, bit players as a rule; likeable, harmless, innocent, naïve. On a certain level life is presumed to imitate art, at least Hollywood’s version of it.

As indeed it would seem to do. How else could you script such a delightful passage across the Great Sandy Desert – or into and through so many of the other wonderful scenes and vignettes I’ve experienced from the saddle of my bicycle over the years. Like the old couple in Queensland who wouldn’t let me camp on their land but instead put me up in the old caboose they’d fixed up as a guest house and cooked me a fine dinner. Or the Greek shopkeeper who insisted on washing all the fruit I bought because I mightn’t have a chance to wash it myself later, on the road, and then, it being a hot day, loaded me up with a free Coke and several bottles of water. Or the gruff-looking old French dairy farmer who, when I couldn’t understand his Alsatian dialect, turned the herd over to his farmhand, grabbed his old rattletrap bicycle out of the barn and personally led me to the village I’d been trying to find. Or the Glaswegian lady who, when I took shelter under the awning of her newsagent shop during a downpour, invited me in for a nice cuppa tea and biscuits, apologising all the while for the inclement Scottish weather. Or the elegant silver-service picnickers I encountered while pedalling up The Struggle to Kirkstone Pass, in England’s Lake District who saw me coming around a bend and cheerily cried out: “You must be famished! Won’t you come and join us?”

On and on that list could go, the kindnesses of strangers. Thanks to my bicycle I have discovered and experienced so much of the very best of human nature.

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4 Responses to The Kindness of Strangers

  1. Ron Clark on April 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Stories like these are one of the reasons I read your blog, and why I enjoyed your book. I was a police officer for many years, and that job made it easy to surrender to your inner cynicism and believe that people were inherently bad (even when intellectually, you knew that wasn’t accurate). Reading about your adventures, and then having some of my own, definitely restored my outlook.

    It’s interesting that, the further you got from “civilization”, the more civilized people get.

  2. Roff Smith on April 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    It was indeed odd – and rather endearing too – that the farther out I went, the more civilized things became. Another odd thing was that it was the townspeople who were the most fearful and negative about the idea of anyone cycling in the bush, and often scolded me for my ‘foolishness’ in going ‘out there’, while the people who actually lived ‘out there’, and knew the land, just thought it was interesting that someone was seeing the country that way.

    Funnily enough Aborigines, who more than anybody else could appreciate the dangers and timeless hostility of the bush, thought cycling through the bush was an absolutely splendid idea.

  3. Dave on January 29, 2014 at 1:16 am

    I was just wondering if you have had recent contact with any of the people you met in your great book “Cold Beer and Crocodiles.” It was the people, to a large extent, that made your book so wonderful to read. I am not trying to take anything away from your unbelievable cycling feat. Whatever happened to them?

    • Roff Smith on January 29, 2014 at 4:29 am

      Yes I do keep in touch with some of the people – Mick is still in the police force only now he has moved down to southern Queensland, although still a rural posting. He’s the father of two teenage girls. We are planning (maybe only daydreaming, but hopefully can make happen) a reunion in the Gulf in 2015 and a reprise of the great fishing trip – which to this day was one of the grandest trips I have ever been on. Steve Gilchrist is still making the finest mandolins on the face of the planet, although he has moved from Warrnambool and is now closer to Melbourne. I have not been in contact with the Mackintoshes for a couple of years – which reminds me, I ought to drop them a line, and will – but a couple of years ago I had a nice note from Mary (the three year old who was driving the truck and singing “You are My Sunshine”) and she told me she still liked that song. She would have been in her late teens then, be in her early twenties now.

      You are quite right – it was the people and the Australian landscape that made that journey. I myself never saw the journey as a physical cycling feat. I was merely a spectator who happened to be travelling by bicycle – a form of transport that allowed intimacy with the landscape and whose vulnerability and exposure brought me into contact with so many people. To borrow a thought from a much-disgraced cyclist: It was not about the Bike!

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