Tag Archives: Australia
I see that the Tour Down Under is taking place this week in South Australia, with tomorrow’s stage meandering through the Adelaide Hills and finishing in Tanunda, in the Barossa Valley. This is very near to where I used to live – in fact the course runs right up Murray Street in the small, quiet pretty little town of Angaston, in the heart of the valley, where years ago I used to share a house with a couple of local artists and where my kids from an earlier marriage used to come and stay with me.
Before that I owned a century-old cottage out in Seppeltsfield, along the iconic avenue of date palms that has been a much photographed feature of the race in the past (but doesn’t seem to be part of the course this year) The peloton used to spin right past my rose garden; I could – and did – watch it from my veranda.
It was a beautiful old house, with the original Wunderlich pressed metal ceilings and walls, eleven-foot ceilings, polished wood floors and ornamental fretwork on the eaves. In style it wasn’t unlike some of the pretty ‘Queenslander’ houses you see in the tropics. Tourists used to stop and take photos of the place.
I bought it for a song not long after I finished my cycle trip around Australia and was so happy for a while to think that this lovely little cottage was mine. And to think that I had earned the money for the deposit by means of my bicycle and my journey. But while I was outwardly upbeat, and thrilled by the opportunities my cycling success had brought me, those were also deeply troubled times as well, with lots of unhappy, conflicting and highly stressful happening going on in the background and in what I can only characterise now as an act of self-destructive renunciation I sold my pretty little cottage only eighteen months after I bought it.
I have bitterly, bitterly, bitterly regretted it ever since – and have done practically from the moment the ink was dry on the contract.
I always swore that someday I would buy the place back, and for years I maintained a watching brief on the place, waiting for the For Sale sign to come up. Eventually it did, a year or two ago, but while my desire to reclaim my cottage and rectify a mistake of the past remained as keen as ever, it wasn’t to be. The market had been booming all these years but my income had not. Between the skyrocketing real estate prices and the strong Australian dollar, I was well and truly shut out.
Maybe someday I will be able to buy back the old place. I still want to; if I had the money, or won the lottery, I would in a heartbeat. But for now I can never follow the coverage of the Tour Down Under without pangs of wistfulness and regret, and memories of riding along that sun-drenched avenue of palms, delighted that the pretty little cottage on the corner was mine.
Light the candles, break out the tinnies. Today is Banjo Paterson’s birthday – born on this date in 1864, at ‘Narrambla’, near Orange, in rural New South Wales. For those of you who are not Australian, or haven’t had the pleasure of living down there, and don’t immediately recognise the name, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson is Australia’s national poet, the man who gave the world Waltzing Matilda, and a rich swag of iconic Australian ballads such as The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, and, for those of us of the cycling persuasion, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.
That latter tells the tale of Mulga Bill, a proud and haughty outback stockman who, fancying his skill at being able to ride anything that moves, buys himself one of the new-fangled safety bicycles everybody is talking about, and, all dressed up in a natty new cycling suit, sets off down the sloping street, away from the shop and out of town, disdaining all help or advice – only to have the skittish bicycle break away from him like a rodeo colt, giving the unsuspecting wrangler a short, swift, terrifying downhill ride that ends with his being launched off a twenty-foot cliff and splashing (harmlessly) into in a deep pool in Dead Man’s Creek.
Mulga Bill’s Bicycle appeared in the Sydney Mail on 25 July, 1896, at the height of the great cycling craze that was sweeping Australia and much of the rest of the world. The ballad was an immediate hit and has never really been out of print ever since. It has appeared in anthologies, been put to music, illustrated by countless Australian artists – including the great Pro Hart – and caused there to be many a ‘Mulga Bill’s’ bicycle shop dotted around Australia.
It also casts a revealing light on the poet himself, his values and the colourful, fast-changing times in which he found himself living.
Banjo’s romanticised bush was very much a world of the horse, and he guarded it jealously. In real life, for example, camels and their Afghan handlers played a huge role in settling the outback, being the lifelines that supplied the lonely settlements on the waterless plains and hauled the year’s wool clip to market from the outlying stations, but you’d never know it by reading Banjo Paterson’s poetry.
Nor would you guess, by reading Banjo, that the rivers in southeastern Australia, the very heart of the mythical bush that Paterson made his own, had a boisterous Mississippi-style steamboat culture with its brawling river ports and colourful steamboat captains that rivalled anything in Mark Twain. Again, nary a word of it in Banjo’s poetry. It was all the horse.
But the bicycle was something even Banjo couldn’t ignore.
The bicycle transformed the bush – far more than the horse ever did, or could, for it was the vehicle of the common man. Everyone could afford a bicycle. With the invention of the ‘safety’ bicycle in the mid-1880s – the sort of bicycle we know today, as opposed to the pennyfarthing – anyone who needed to travel the vast empty distances in the outback suddenly had access to a cheap, reliable form of transport which could carry them a hundred miles or more in a day, and, unlike the horse, didn’t require grass or water and could be repaired by anyone with a bit of wire and ingenuity. Australians took to cycling like nobody else on earth – shearers, prospectors, miners, land agents, stockmen, bush preachers, commercial travellers, the very people Paterson loved and wrote about and who figured so prominently in his ballads and poetry, were all taking to the bicycle in droves.
“It is extraordinary what unlikely places one found those tyre tracks,” wrote the veteran Australian newspaper correspondent Charles Edward Woodrow Bean in his classic turn-of-the-century outback travelogue On The Wool Track. “They straggled across the very centre of Australia. We crossed them in paddocks as lonely and bare as the Sahara. Bicycles were ridden or driven or ploughed or dragged wherever men could go, and not infrequently where men could not go with safety. But the bicycle got through, if the man did.”
A sure sign that the shearing season had begun, he wrote, was the number of bicycles heading into the bush. “The shearer set out on these trips exactly as if he was going from Sydney to Parramatta. He asked the way, lit his pipe, put his leg over his bicycle and shoved off…If he was city breed, as were many shearers, the chances were that he started in a black coat and bowler hat, exactly as if he were going to tea at his aunt’s.”
As the nation’s most popular and best-selling bush poet Banjo felt unable to ignore the bicycle, and so he chose to lampoon it instead:
“‘Twas Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk that caught the cycling craze
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen
And hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine…”
Confident of his ability to master anything, the dude-y Mulga Bill sets off on a meteoric course down the main street and out of town, bouncing, veering and gathering pace until the out-of-control bicycle – a lovely metaphor for all the irreversible new-fangled changes – finally bounds off a twenty-foot ledge and dumps its badly shaken rider smack in the middle of Dead Man’s Creek. Of the bicycle, Paterson concludes:
“…It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s creek, we’ll leave it lying still
A horse’s back is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill.”
So there you have it: game, set and match to the horse. And Banjo made it stick too, in his world anyway, never revisiting the cycling theme in his poetry but, like Mulga Bill, sticking to the good old horse thereafter.
For those who’d like to know more about Banjo Paterson here’s a link to an award-winning feature I wrote about him that appeared in the August 2004 issue of National Geographic. Perhaps not quite as intrepid as those early bushmen, I’ve cycled a fair bit through the bush myself – about 10,000 miles worth in a solo trek around the continent in 1996. Some of that story here. If you are considering cycling through the Australian outback yourself – a wonderful experience and a great thing to do – you might find this post here useful.
Or if you just want to read a rollicking good poem, here Mulga Bill’s Bicycle in its entirety:
‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, “Excuse me, can you ride?”
“See here, young man,” said Mulga Bill, “from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy’s Gap to Castlereagh, there’s none can ride like me.
I’m good all round at everything as everybody knows,
Although I’m not the one to talk – I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.
There’s nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There’s nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I’ll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I’ll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.”
‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above Dead Man’s Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ‘ere he’d gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,
It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man’s Creek.
It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man’s Creek.
‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, “I’ve had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I’ve rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I’ve encountered yet.
I’ll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it’s shaken all my nerve
To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek, we’ll leave it lying still;
A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.”
(For those hyper-critical sorts who notice the dateline on this post reads the 16th of February, and who happen to know that Banjo’s birthday is actually the 17th, bear with me please: while I may be writing my blog from Sussex, putting finger to keyboard here on the afternoon of the 16th, it is already the 17th Down Under and a happy excuse for me to post early since I have been given to understand from our local electricity provider that we will not be having any power all day tomorrow due to ‘essential works’ being carried out on the grid – so it was post today or miss the event completely.)
In July of 1996 I left my job at Time Magazine and set off to cycle around Australia, unsupported and on my own, free clear and beholden to no-one. Shortly before I left though, I approached the editors of National Geographic, told them my plans, and after due consideration their story approval committee responded with cautious enthusiasm – a contract to write a small feature on the expedition (how I loved to hear it called that, and by such an august lot as the expeditions committee of the National Geographic Society!) along with a hundred rolls of Fuji Velvia film.
On the chance that the story might actually be better than expected, and that I might actually complete my ambitious 10,000 mile circumnavigation of Australia, they said they’d like to send one of their photographers to join me occasionally on the road for a few days, starting when I reached the Kimberley – or rather if I reached the Kimberley, as I recall the photo editor putting it at the time. I couldn’t blame him for the caution. I was an unknown quantity and the Kimberley was a good 4000 miles from Sydney, where I was starting, and getting there involved crossing some mighty harsh stretches of Outback.
I set off late in July and over the next three months I cycled up Australia’s bustling eastern seaboard, took an experimental 600-mile side-trip into the Queensland outback along the Capricorn Highway, returned to the coast again at Townsville, then pedalled up to Cairns and before turning west and heading into the so-called ‘Gulf Country’, the achingly desolate, blazing hot savannah that skirts the Gulf of Carpentaria. I was in seriously remote territory now, some of the harshest and loneliest scrub in Australia. I survived this baptism of fire and eventually made it to Darwin, arriving there much browner, fitter and leaner, and much, much wiser in the ways of the bush.
The day after I got there I called the photo editor collect from a pay phone on Mitchell Street and told him I was just about ready to start tackling the Kimberley. My stock had risen around the magazine by then. I’d been posting chatty, informal letters back to the manuscripts editor about my life on the road. He’d enjoyed them and passed them around – remember, this was before the age of Broadband, when letters were well thumbed sheets of paper in enveloped with postage stamps on them – and a consensus was building in the august halls of the magazine that this bicycle journey of mine might actually end up being a good story. Certainly the photo editor greeted me in welcoming fashion. When I told him where I was and my plans were he replied ‘just a moment’ and for the next few seconds I could hear the sounds of an atlas being spread open on a desk in an office 12,000 miles away.
“Is there an airport at this place, Kununurra?” he asked after a moment’s silent study. I told him there was. “Okay. We’ll have a photographer meet you there in a couple weeks,” he said, “He’ll follow you along the road to, hmmm, let’s see, how about Broome? Will he be able to get a flight out of there?” I assured him he would. We chatted bit, he wished me luck and we rang off.
I lingered in Darwin a couple more days, and set out for Kununurra, an isolated settlement in the eastern part of the Kimberley, about 600 miles away. When I got there I learned there would be a delay: the photographer they were sending was off on another assignment and couldn’t get here for another couple of weeks. And so I spent a fortnight getting to know Kununurra, where it was 115 degrees every day and sweltering in humidity in the build-up to the rains. I put in the time picking fruit in the irrigated melon fields on the outskirts of town – brutally hot hard work by normal standards, but a doddle compared the long days I’d put in on the bicycle riding out to this place from Darwin.
It was the first week of November by then, time for the running of the Melbourne Cup, the famous Australian horse race that stops the nation. Like everybody else in town I spent the day in the pub, drinking cold beer and investing my fruit-picking earnings in slow-running horses. The good news was, though, at long last, the photographer would be flying in the next morning.
I went out to the airport to meet him, curious and a little apprehensive to see what a National Geographic photographer was like – you hear so many myths and stories. What came out of the plane was a cheerful Canadian guy named Ian Lloyd who lived in Singapore and did specialised in Asia. Aside from magazine work he had a long list of corporate clients, including many of southeast Asia’s grand hotels and five-star resorts. This was his first visit to Kununurra. He glanced around and said: ‘You’re kidding, right?’
We had lunch together in the pub and then he went off to see about renting a Land Cruiser or some such for the 600-mile drive to Broome, and pick up some camping things and supplies so he could stay with me on the road. You can get all kinds of gear in Kununurra, anything from geologist’s hammer to a helicopter. It may be just a lonely dot on the map, but it is also the main service and access town for the big Argyle Diamond Mine, some two hundred miles further out in the desert. Geologists, mine engineers, site surveyors, contractors, you name it, go in and out of here all the time.
While Ian took care of his end of things, I moseyed on back to the seedy backpacker’s hostel in which I’d been staying for the past fortnight, packed my things and gave my bicycle a thorough going-over ahead of the dawn start I proposed to make on the morrow.
I’d told Ian I would be leaving at first light, which at that time of year, in that part of Western Australia, is about half past four in the morning. He smiled and shook his head and said he’d catch up with me later, that he had a few things to attend to yet in town, This seemed a little odd to me; all the photographers I’d ever known and worked with in the past were always dead keen to get out there at the crack of dawn and work the morning light for all it was worth. And yet here was this guy, National Geographic no less, going to sleep in. What was this all about?
For the time being though, at least on the gloriously sunny morning when I finally pedalled out of town, I was just grateful to be shaking the dust of Kununurra off my pannier bags, and enjoying the freedom of the open road once more. I’d done my part, said where I’d be and when I’d be going. Presumably this Ian knew what he was doing; if he screwed up, that was his look-out, not mine. Now it just felt good to be up and moving.
I made decent time. I always did this hour of the day. That was the trick to cycling through the deserts out here: put in the work in the relative cool of the mornings, and then, around eleven o’clock or so, when the mercury has soared up over the century mark, pull over make yourself a day-camp in whatever scrap of shade you can find and sit out the worst of the heat, sipping from a water bottle, reading, dozing, listening to the drowsy hum of the insects. Then set off again late afternoon, when a subtle but recognizable shift in the light told you that the day was on the wane and the gentle slide towards evening had begun.
On the subject of light I began looking around as I pedalled along the desolate highway that morning and thinking to myself that perhaps Ian had called the right turn after all; this was a nice time of day for riding, but a bit early yet for the outback colours to have taken on those nice rich tones that photographers so rightly love.
A couple of hours later though, the morning sunlight was as honeyed and sweet as anyone could hope for – the sky had deepened by then to a rich enamel blue and the majestic red rock country of the Kimberley was practically aglow with golden sunrise warmth. It was lovely and getting lovelier by the moment. But still no sign of Ian.
I pulled over on the roadside for a drink and thoughtful look around, wondering where this guy might be, if he’d broken down or gone the wrong way out of town. Wherever he was, he was a long way from where I was. My stretch of road was dead quiet, just a desolate ribbon of bitumen stretching away for miles in both directions and that great primal hush that descends over you when you stand all by yourself along a lonely roadside in the Outback. The horizons on every side were empty. The only thing that was moving anywhere was a distant speck of a helicopter off to the north – somebody doing a bit of cattle mustering, probably. That’s the way they round up their livestock here in the Kimberley, where cattle stations run into the millions of acres: they use helicopters. This time of year, with the rains about to start, the big Kimberley pastoralists are usually busy moving their cattle up onto higher, firmer ground – one of the many chores they need to attend to in the battening down of hatches before the onset of ‘The Wet’, when the homesteads get flooded in, the roads washed out and pretty much everything up here shuts down.
I had about 2000 miles to cover if I was going to get myself far enough south to be out of reach of big tropical rains that were coming. I’d been dawdling these past few weeks, what with one thing or another – taking a well-earned breather in Darwin, revelling in the romance of having ridden my bicycle from Sydney to the Timor Sea, and that fortnight I’d just spent cooling my heels in Kununurra waiting for Ian to show up. We were well into November now, very much time for me to get cracking. I capped my water bottle, mounted up and set off down the highway into the pretty morning light, the buzz of that helicopter growing ever more insistent in my ears.
Ever seen that old Hitchcock movie North by Northwest? You know that scene where Cary Grant is standing all by himself at that impossibly desolate crossroads in South Dakota, looking as lonely as a pin on a map, and watching the crop-duster swooping in the distance? Where the audience feels a gathering sense of unease and menace that Cary Grant’s character doesn’t notice until it is nearly too late? Well, except for the fact that I don’t look a thing like Cary Grant, that could have been me. And like his character, I never saw it coming. I was pedalling blithely along the highway when suddenly there came a deafening roar as the no-longer-distant helicopter zoomed up behind me, shoulder height and frighteningly close, its powerful down-drafts buffeting me across the road. As it whooshed by I noticed Ian leaning out the open hatch with a big motor-driven Canon SLR clapped to his face.
Nose down, the chopper sped up the highway ahead of me, Ian leaning out and shooting back at me like a tail-gunner. As I watched, open-mouthed, the pilot wheeled his craft around in a low, tight turn and came back for another pass.
And so it went. Back and forth, hovering low – and I mean reach-out-and-grab-the-struts low – with Ian shooting close-ups, the pilot smiling and nodded reassurance, and me wrestling the downdrafts, gripping the handlebars like a strangler, flabbergasted, awestruck, and all the while trying to look casual for the camera: a carefree cyclist breezing down an empty desert highway with just the twittering of the birds for company.
The pilot was a genius, his skills honed by years of mustering cattle and dropping off geologists in weird and inaccessible locations. He was easily able to pace me on the bike, occupying the lane beside me, even doing it backwards when Ian wanted to take pictures from the other side of the road. At one point, when they were riding along close beside me, he’d had to haul back on the joystick and jump clear to let a road train barrel through beneath him. A moment later he was back again, hovering beside me, little more than an arm’s length away, as though nothing had happened. I can only imagine what that truck driver must have thought. The spectacle of a cyclist being monstered by a helicopter must have been a little odd even by outback Australian standards.
As for me, I’ve been able to play dodge-‘ems with the most aggressive of London’s taxis, busses and white-panel-van delivery men with complete equanimity ever since. They are all just pussycats compared with a bush pilot in a Bell Jet Ranger.
After a few more passes they put down on the roadside and the pilot switched off the engine. Silent fell over the desert. I drew up on my bicycle, chuckling to myself with relief and amazement, accepting gratefully the ice-cold bottle of Gatorade Ian thrust into my hands, and the oversized bag of breakfast goodies he’d brought along to go with it. Ian and the pilot and I then stood around gasbagging for a while – for I felt there was much for us to discuss – after which they hopped back in the whirlybird and, all smiles and waves, took off in a roar of engines and swirling dust, back to Kununurra, shooting aerials along the way. And there was me standing by my bicycle in a big empty desert wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for.
We spent the following week together, Ian and I, crossing the Kimberley east to west, all the way to the old pearling port of Broome. No more helicopter chases after that first day, just him driving a rental Land Cruiser packed with camera gear and me working long days in front of the lens, pedalling back and forth as required, jollied on by Ian’s infallible good humour and his assurances that this would all pay off in the end. As indeed it did. Buoyed along by the strength of the images that were shot that week, the story of my ride around Australia grew in National Geographic’s editorial panel’s estimation from the original planned shortish feature to a full three-part series – the first in the magazine’s history.
In fact, one of the shots Ian took that week, of a beleaguered me pedalling past a bush fire not far from Fitzroy Crossing, very nearly became a National Geographic cover, narrowly losing out at the last minute to a more adorable shot of baby leopard cubs (but winning the reader’s choice poll!) To this day whenever I see that shot I can still hear him calling out to me from a safe distance away (thanks to his 300mm lens), as I pedalled across the viewfinder: “Can – you – ride – closer – to – the – flames?” And my plaintive response, a wailed: “Noooooo!”
Ian was to join me several more times over the course of my journey – in the towering Karri forests and Margaret River wine region south of Perth, and again in Melbourne, in the cold, blustery wilds of Tasmania and one final time at the very end of the trail, at the steps of the Opera House when I finally reached Sydney. I came to look forward to his visits on the trail, a familiar face after weeks of encountering only strangers, and having the opportunity to step outside my traveller’s anonymity and be somebody, a somebody with a name, a background, colleagues, and friends – one of them fast becoming a jaunty Canadian photographer named Ian Lloyd. All these years later we still keep in touch, exchanging the news of our families and children and marvelling at the passage of time.
As for me, I’ve always wanted to write the story of scooting down that lonely desert highway, wide-eyed, with the blades of that Bell Jet Ranger prodding me along – without doubt the weirdest bit of traffic I’ve ever encountered in my cycling career – but writing the photographer into the story just isn’t usually the done thing in the magazine game, not even in a first person account. It just seems too indulgent and anyway there wasn’t space. But what is a blog if not an opportunity for a little writerly indulgence? And so here, fifteen years late, is my helicopter story.
I was thirty-seven years old in July of 1996, when I quit my job as a senior writer for Time Magazine, packed my panniers and with my final pay cheque as a road stake, set out from Sydney on a 10,000-mile solo trek around Australia aboard a several year-old 21-speed Cannondale tourer. I was gone nine months. It was a rollicking adventure. I met all kinds of people – graziers, cane growers, bush policemen, wanted criminals, missionaries, shearers, drovers,and road train drivers; I stayed on cattle stations, in remote aboriginal communities, in mining towns, outback pubs and camped rough out on the vast spinifex plains a hundred miles from the nearest dwelling and with a billion stars overhead. I had the time of my life.
When I returned to so-called civilization I wrote a story about my trek which was published as a three-part series in National Geographic and later appeared in book form, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. In the years since I have had, and continue to have, a number of letters forwarded to me written by readers who were planning similar sorts of expeditions themselves, had read my book and wanted advice on cycling through Outback Australia. I have always been happy to oblige, and have written many a lengthy e-mail filled with what I hope turned out to be useful tips and suggestions. Australia is a wonderful country to explore by bicycle. It is that rare thing in travel: a destination that is big and raw and wild enough to satisfy anybody’s longing for remote-area hardship and adventure, and yet at the same time it is clean, safe, cosmopolitan and friendly. What’s not to like?
It occurs to me that with a magazine-style blog such as this I have at my disposal a handy platform for answering some of those most frequently asked questions in one fell swoop and giving encouragement to anyone who is thinking of cycling Australia. So here goes:
Let’s start with that most frequent of frequently as questions, the one about all those deadly creepy-crawlies. Well, they’re out there all right. Australia has something like eight of the world’s top ten most venomous snakes. And yes, you can meet them if you are camping in the bush. But the chances are, you won’t. In nine months of bush camping all over the continent I encountered only one snake – a king brown that was dozing on the sun-warmed bitumen one evening as I was spinning along a lonely outback highway in Queensland. I thought he was just a piece of blown-out truck tyre, swung lazily around it and whizzed past the tip of his nose, scaring the life out of him and me both. And therein lies the point: snakes don’t want to see us any more than we want to see them. Think about it for a second. What’s in it for the snake? They can’t eat us. We’re too big. The only thing they are going to get from humans is grief, and grief is something they don’t need. If it is at all possible they’ll be slipping quietly away long before you see them, and as long as you don’t do anything really stupid like stick your hand into hollow logs or down wombat holes, you’ll be just fine. Perhaps even a little disappointed as you won’t have any dramatic there-I-was stories to regale the folks at home.
If for some reason you do encounter a snake – just leave it alone. Simple as that. Don’t mess with it. Something like eighty per cent of the people who are bitten by snakes are bitten while trying to kill the snake. It’s not a good idea. When it comes to killing things, chances are the snake has had a lot more practice than you have. Steer clear and walk away – all the while congratulating yourself and rehearsing in your mind the gaudy brush-with-death tale you can be dining out on for years ever after.
As for spiders, well, they are out there too. Some are ‘friendly’ (see above!). Others are not. The most common poisonous one is the redback, a cousin of the American black widow. They are smallish, shiny black with a splotch of red on the back – just like the name says. You see them around occasionally in the musty corners of shed and such. They won’t kill you, but being bitten by one won’t make your day either. Again, chances are you are not going to see one.
Australia’s other famously poisonous spider is the funnel web. This is a fairly nasty little beastie that dwells not in the far-flung bush but – wait for it – in metropolitan Sydney. Until an anti-venom was developed for its poison about thirty years ago, it did kill the occasional Sydneysider now and then and you wouldn’t want to be bitten by one today. They are furry brown ambush predators who live in holes in the ground and it is generally gardeners who encounter them, which is why gardeners tend to wear gardening gloves and not just when they are pruning the roses. Again, it is not like they are everywhere; you’re unlikely to encounter one. I lived in Sydney for seven years and in fact worked as a gardener at one of the residential colleges when I was attending the University of Sydney and I think I saw only a couple funnel web spiders in all that time. No big deal.
Moving slightly further afield, saltwater crocodiles, on the other hand, are very worthwhile being scared of, but they are found only in the north, generally (but not always) above the Tropic of Capricorn. Simple rule here: don’t go swimming in estuaries and rivers when you are up there, and in fact even be a bit leery of hanging around the riverbanks. Generally there are signs warning of the likely presence of crocodiles, but not always since tourists seem to have developed a fondness for souvenir-ing the signs. Up north, it is safest to assume that crocodiles are in any body of water and act accordingly. That said, despite the gaudy mention of crocodiles in the title of my book, the truth is I saw only a couple during my journey and those encounters were more in the matter of game spotting; I felt pleased and privileged to see them. There was far, far more cold beer than crocodiles.
The second most frequent query for would-be cycle tourers heading out bush concerns road trains. Road trains, if you didn’t know, are those gigantic double- and triple-trailer rigs that haul goods and livestock in the outback. They are mightily impressive vehicles, as much as 50 metres (165 feet) long and weighing up to 150 tonnes. And they move right along. A lot of well-meaning but non-cycling folk will warn you that it would be suicide to go cycling on highways where the road trains rule; that the suction of these monstrous trucks whooshing by will draw you into (and under!) their wheels, and that their rear trailers can be swinging side-to-side as much as nine feet. It’s all nonsense. The truth is the highways out there are wide open and clear, (See: On Assignment) with plenty of space for road trains to pass you unhindered, and the drivers always give you plenty of room. And no, their rear trailers do not swing wildly side-to-side. The guys pushing these big rigs know their business. In more than 10,000 miles of cycling out there I never once had a single problem with a road train. Not one. Nor have I personally known anyone who did.
Oh – and although you might well hear breathless descriptions of road trains with five, six, eight, ten trailers, it just ain’t so. Australians can be a bit like Texans when it comes to super-sizing their mythical outback. Three is the legal limit on gazetted highways in the bush, although I have seen four used for hauling cattle within the boundaries of some of the bigger stations out there.
As for your own vehicle – your bicycle – any decently constructed tourer will do the trick. I did my ride on a 21-speed Cannondale with an aluminium frame and 700c tyres, the same bike I had been using as a commuter for a couple of years before hand. It survive the outback odyssey in good order, served me many more years after that before I passed it on to my 16 year old son, and he in turn recently took it on a thousand-mile trek up the Oodnadatta Track. Bring all the usual spares – several tubes, patch kits, a spare tyre, extra links for the chain, and a multi-tool. There are excellent bike shops in the big cities and helpful ones in many of the bigger regional towns. You can generally order what you need.
As for camping in the bush, it is easy and straightforward: just go well off the road, out of sight of any passers by, and stake your claim for the night. I like to do this just around dusk, when the light is dim enough for what few motorists there are out there to have their headlights on but with still enough ambient glow in the sky for me to see what I am doing. Australia is a very safe country, but as you would anywhere, it pays to take a few precautions – don’t sleep in obvious places like rest areas or public parks. Be discrete. I used a low-slung, dark-hued bivvy bag which blended in perfectly with the night shadows. And be responsible. Don’t litter and while the thought of a cheerful campfire at night might have a certain picaresque appeal, it’s not really such a great idea. For one thing it’ll give away your location. For another – and much more importantly – a lot of Australia is tinder dry much of the year and fire bans are often in force, with very good reason. If your campfire gets away from you, you are not going to have nearly enough water in your bottles to put it out. On a more upbeat note, camping out on the vast spinifex plains, miles from anywhere, with billions of stars swirling overhead is one of the most magical experiences you can have. And doing it night after night as you cross the deserts seems almost an embarrassment of riches.
One question people don’t ask nearly as often as they should is how much water they ought to be carrying. The short answer, if you are heading very far inland, is: lots. Err on the side of caution. Outback Australia is hot, dusty, distances are vast and cycling is thirsty work. Consider the towns and roadhouses you see dotting the map out there to be like lonely archipelagos with nothing much between them but empty ribbons of highway and shimmering waves of heat. Don’t, whatever you do, assume that the many rivers you see marked on the map will have water in them. They are highly seasonal, and for most of the year will be no more than parched rocky beds with, maybe, if you are lucky, a few stagnant pools here and there leftover from the last season’s rains. And as for all those lakes you see up in the northern reaches of South Australia? Forget them. They are salt pans. Useful for setting land speed records, but not for quenching a thirst.
The Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor, and the Stuart Highway running north-south from Darwin to Adelaide, both have (or had when I was last out there) water tanks at the rest areas. These are very useful, but don’t rely on them. Personally I never came upon one that was dry, but I have heard tales of idiots leaving the spigot open – either by accident or on purpose. Towns and roadhouses are the only utterly reliable places to obtain water, and bear in mind when you are calculating costs that roadhouses, especially those on the Nullarbor Plain will often charge you for water. Ruthlessly. “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man” is not a motto you see embroidered on many framed samplers out there.
How much water to take? Well, on the loneliest stretches of my journey, in the remotest corners of north-western Australia – the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert – I as packing as much as 23 litres of water, was glad to have it and wished I had more. It was high summer, temperatures were routinely well over 45C and distances between the towns and roadhouses up there are vast, often well over a hundred miles. This, however, is a pretty extreme example. If you are doing, say, the Nullarbor at a more reasonable time of year – spring or autumn – or riding up to Darwin or Uluru (Ayres Rock) on the Stuart Highway, you could get by with ten to twelve litres, but I wouldn’t carry any less.
Cycling is a fantastic way to explore Australia. If you are planing a trek down there, I hope the above advice will be helpful. If you have other questions about cycling in the bush or are seeking ideas for places to see – or avoid – please drop a comment below. Aside from cycling around Australia, living there for more than 25 years and covering all sorts of stories there for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age and Time Magazine, I’ve also written several Australian features for National Geographic and written the National Geographic Traveler Guidebook to Australia, so there is a reasonable chance I might be able to help.
It was a tram driver’s strike in Melbourne back in the early Nineties that got me riding a bicycle again as an adult. I was living in Elsternwick that year, an old bayside suburb in the city’s inner, and catching the ting-a-ling tram down Glenhuntly Road each morning to a fairly dull job writing features for a lightweight, parochial and oh-so-earnest Sunday broadsheet.
I didn’t own a car but relied on shoe leather and public transport to get around and so when the tram drivers’ union announced out of the blue one afternoon that their members were going on strike from midnight, and the bus and train drivers agreed to down tools in sympathy, I found myself stuck for a way in to work.
The twelve-mile round trip between home and office seemed just that bit too far to walk and you could grow a beard trying to catch a cab in Melbourne during the rush hour in those days, any rush hour, let alone one during a transport strike. As I sat at my desk that afternoon pondering my options, the cheeky idea popped into my head that I could always try riding my bike.
I still had a bike, a relic from college days that I hadn’t ridden in ages but had somehow never quite had the heart to get rid of either. As far as I knew it was still in working order, buried somewhere deep amongst the clutter in the garden shed. The more I thought about it, the better liked the idea. It might be fun, an adventure, and certainly a more spirited response to being strike-bound than throwing up my hands and begging a lift from car-owning colleagues.
When I arrived home that evening I found my old bike and dragged it out of the shed, feeling a little reproachful at its sorry state, all grimy and saggy-looking from years of neglect. This had been quite a decent bicycle once, bought with a whole summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back when I was still daydreaming of cycling adventures in Asia, Africa and South America.
This here would have been just the thing to take you wherever you wanted to go, or so the man at the bike shop had assured me: the Gemini World Randonneur. It was the company’s expedition model: pine green with silver mudguards, fifteen speeds, pannier racks fore and aft, braze-ons for three water bottle cages, drop bars with bar-end shifters and powerful cantilever brakes for sure-footed braking for those times when you were descending tricky mountain passes with a load of gear lashed on the back.
Unlike the other bikes on display in the shop, this one ran on twenty-six inch tyres, rather an old-fashioned size in those pre-mountain-bike days, but one which was plenty common in the Third World, meaning I could source spares wherever my wanderings took me: from the Bolivian altiplano to the market bazaars of Samarqand. It was that which sold me on the model. I loved that touch of practical worldliness and savoir faire. It spoke of foresight and planning, seriousness of intent, and set my rugged World Randonneur apart from those tame suburban road bikes you saw tooling around the campus.
But as they say about buying novels, you don’t buy the book so much as the imagined leisure time to read it, and so it must be with expedition bicycles, for the way things panned out I never actually rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways along King Street in the student ghetto around the University of Sydney. I never even put enough miles on it to wear out the original set of tyres. Those same old Michelins were still clinging to the rims all these years later, soft and flabby and grimy with age.
I rummaged around some more in the shed, found my pump and set to work inflating them. Surprisingly enough, the things held air.
They were still plump and firm the next morning, too-disconcertingly so, for by then I’d begun to have some second thoughts about the wisdom of all this. A good many years had passed since I’d ridden a bike, and then it had been mostly just tooling around the University of Sydney campus or riding the bridle paths in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying about in the mean streets of a big city rush hour, let alone one in the throes of a transport strike.
Having those mouldy tyres deflate overnight-not an unreasonable expectation-would have given me a convenient ‘out’, the force majeure that would have allowed me to back away from my brash plan to cycle into work and still keep a measure of face. But the tyres remained firm and the weather outside was gorgeous, a perfect spring day. I had no excuse except timidity for calling it off, and pride forbade that.
And so after breakfast, with my heart in my mouth, I wobbled out into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, my office clothes folded into a bundle and tied on the rear rack. I headed for the city as a motorist would: straight up the main stem, along the fast and furious Nepean Highway and St Kilda Road.
It was a harrowing ride, peppered with what seemed at the time to be many near-misses, but half an hour later when I rolled up to loading dock at the newspaper building, flushed with effort and the exhilaration of danger, I was kind of sorry to see the morning’s adventures draw to a close.
All that day I found myself thinking about the homeward journey with a heady adrenalin-charged stab of eagerness and apprehension. I made it home unscathed, and feeling victorious, and the next morning’s commute wasn’t nearly so fraught. The first-day awkwardness was gone. I felt more assured out there, accepting as a matter of course the stream of cars and their wing mirrors whooshing close by my elbow. Along with this confidence came a certain quiet satisfaction at having taken matters into my own hands, a sense of having reclaimed some part of me that had lain fallow for years without my being aware of it. As I bowled home that evening along the margins of the Nepean Highway, I found myself marvelling that I hadn’t done this earlier.
The trammies went back the following day, but not I. I stayed out and with the money I saved from not buying tram tickets I tricked up my old tourer with a brand new flashing red taillight and a snazzy rear-view mirror. I bought myself a pair of padded shorts and cycling gloves as well, a citrine-yellow riding cape for rainy days, and a pair of sturdy waxed cotton panniers to keep my office clothes clean and dry-all the stuff I’d need if I was going to make these daily jousts with life and traffic a regular thing.
Over the coming weeks and months I came to know the city streets in the intimate way only a cyclist can. By that I don’t just mean where the potholes were or the misaligned storm drains, but the pulse and mood of the place, the thousand-and-one vignettes and details that pass unnoticed when you rattle by in a tram with your nose in the paper.
Morning commutes were my favourites, when the day was fresh, bright as a newly minted penny and full of promise. As you might with music I varied my journeys to suit my mood. Sometimes I’d find myself drawn to the old Edwardian fun pier at St Kilda, where Greek and Italian fishermen sat up all night with their squid lines and thermoses of coffee. I’d ride out to the kiosk at the end of the pier, lean my bike against the decorative iron railing and just stand there and watch the city wake up and greet the day, the upper flanks of the Rialto Tower catching the early morning sunshine, and the distant sparkle of traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge, and the big Tasmanian ferry steaming up the bay, fresh in from its overnight run across the moody waters of Bass Strait.
Other times I’d veer inland and follow the Yarra River into the city through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Alexandra Park. Or if I were in a gritty inner-urban frame of mind call in at the South Melbourne markets, just off Cecil Street, and lose myself for an hour in its cheerful ethnic bustle and the heady redolence of ripe fruit and fresh fish and scorched Asian spices. I’d buy a handful of dried peaches or a couple pieces of baklava and nibble my ad hoc breakfast while I wandered amongst the stalls, soaking up the ambience and marvelling at all the lives lived out beyond the periphery of my own. It was like being a kid again, this roving around on a bicycle, taking the worm’s eye view. I’d forgotten.
As summer bloomed and the weather became warmer and finer, I found myself toying with the idea of playing hooky sometime; taking French leave from work and swanning off down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine and piny breezes and fish-and-chips on the beach among the pretty little seaside holiday towns down there.
What started out as a bit of whimsy, a wouldn’t-that-be-fun sort of thing, evolved into niggling temptation, which in turn grew into a bold-faced dare: go on, be a devil, do it. I fought the good fight, but in the end the bicycle and its seductive freedom won out, and one sparkling Wednesday morning early in autumn, I bolted.
I phoned in ‘sick’ from a payphone in Frankston, one of the outer suburbs along Melbourne’s southeast flank, and, with baited breath, recited the lie I’d been rehearsing since I veered off course twenty miles back: sore throat, headache, fever-one of those twenty-four hour things, no doubt I’d be fine tomorrow. It was the copy boy I spoke with. He bought my story with touching naïveté, and I rang off feeling mean and low and guilty-and elated and relieved as well, a heady cocktail of emotions. I’d been brought up well, imbued with a doughty middle class work ethic and had never before pulled a sickie, or at least nothing quite so flagrant.
Now the deed was done, the crime committed. Might as well enjoy the fruits of it, come what may. Which I did. I had a wonderful time.
It was lovely down the peninsula: plenty of warm cheerful sunshine, a creamy surf, and the bracing tang of eucalypt in the air. I did a spot of wine tasting at one of the vineyards I passed along the way, had an excellent lunch of fish and chips on a picnic table shaded by Norfolk pines along the beach at Sorrento, and discovered a wonderful ice cream parlour.
Later on, at a stylish café in Portsea, over poppy-seed cake and cappuccino, I pondered the remains of the afternoon. I had come a long way and had just as long a ride ahead of me to get home but I was feeling fit and besides, I could always bail out at Frankston, if I had to; catch a train back to the city from there if it was getting too late or too dark. With that as my fall-back net, I reckoned I could afford to venture all the way down to Cape Schanck, the wild, windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula, another ten twelve miles further south.
I’d never been there before. I’d understood it was beautiful, haunting in its loneliness with its weathered lighthouse overlooking the moody waters of the Southern Ocean. And so it proved to be. And on a midweek autumn afternoon I had the place all to myself, too just me and a few wheeling gulls and the hollow boom of the surf far below. I sprawled on the clifftop for a long dreamy while, well satisfied, gazing into the violet haze, letting my mind tinker with the notion that the next landfall from here would be Antarctica and, like a kid, imagining myself going there one day.
After a while a sense of lateness came over me. I don’t wear a watch, but from the angle of the sun, and the increasing honeyed quality of the light, it was clear that afternoon was on the wane. Time was getting away from me. It was still a solid thirty miles back to Frankston and if I wanted to get there before dark (which I did, since I didn’t have a headlamp) I’d best get cracking. And so with a wistful but contented sigh I picked up my trusty World Randonneur and pushed off.
Not many yards later I heard a hiss as my rear tyre went flat. An annoyance, to be sure, but hardly the end of the world since like any seasoned cyclist I carried a pump, tyre levers and a patch kit. I had the wheel off in a jiffy, and a few minutes later, patched and pumped, I was on my way once more. But not for long. Within thirty yards the same tyre hissed flat again.
I dismounted, a bit peevish this time, removed the wheel and peeled off the tyre, thinking that I must have overlooked a piece of grit or shard of glass embedded in the rubber, allowing it to re-puncture the tube. I ran my fingers around the lining, in a cursory sort of way and, feeling nothing, shrugged and chalked it up to experience and bad luck. Whatever was in there must have fallen out. I fixed the flat, replaced the wheel, put away pump and patch kit, and mounted up again. Less than a minute later I was standing once again in the tall grass along the roadside, hands on hips, glaring at yet another flabby rear tyre.
This was losing its charm. I cast my eyes around to see if there were tacks or thorns or something scattered on the road, but all I saw was the squashed remains of a brown snake that had somehow managed to get run over by the-what?-one car a day that came along this dead-quiet ribbon of bitumen. Lordy, how unlucky was that? Like getting hit by a meteor, or spontaneous combustion, or getting three punctures in less than a hundred yards for no particular reason. I shook my head at the improbable wonder of it all and gave him a sympathetic nod. “You and me both, brother.”
I sat down on the gravel with a heavy put-upon sigh and peeled off the tyre yet again, this time giving the flabby rubber the scrutiny I should have given it earlier, much earlier, like before I ever left home. Remember, these were the same tyres I’d had in college all those years ago, the ones on which I was going to ride off to Zanzibar or down the Silk Road. Sturdy things, just like the man said. I’d been riding around on them in the city for months now without a flat. They’d remained plump and firm and so reliable that I’d forgotten all about them. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not bicycle tyres, and here on the lonely Cape Schanck road, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon and miles from anywhere, I made the belated discovery that my globe-trotting Michelins were finally, at long last, well and truly shot-beyond repair.
The front one was bad enough to be dangerous, but the rear had frayed through completely. I could patch that inner tube as many times as I liked, but with the tyre holed like that, the first stray piece of grit that came along would get in and puncture the tube again. What I needed was a new tyre or, failing that, at least some flexible, durable material with which I could line the frayed bits in the old one. I had neither. I toyed with the idea of using the snake but he was too far gone. The ten-dollar bill I’d frittered away on coffee and cake back in Portsea might have done for a make-shift tyre plug, but of course I’d spent that. All I had on me was coins and plastic, and this was one hole my VISA card couldn’t bail me out of.
It was eight miles to Rosebud, the nearest town, over on the bay side of the peninsula. They might have had a bike shop there where I could buy a tyre, but I doubted it, not in a sleepy little berg like that-and, oh, the sweet irony of it all, if there was a shop they almost certainly wouldn’t have a twenty-six inch tyre to suit my expedition rims; I needed to be on the Silk Road for that. But supposing there was a bike shop in Rosebud, and they did have a suitable tyre, it was still too late in the day to do me any good. They’d have long rolled down the shutters by the time I got there.
With luck I could probably scrounge something at a petrol station, a bit of rubber or plastic with which I could line the tyre well enough to carry on, but that would still leave me with at least a twenty-five mile ride into Frankston, at night, with no lights and dodgy tyres, and on the narrow, fast and busy coastal highway. Home by three o’clock in the morning-maybe.
A sickly smile crossed my face as I thought of everybody back in the office, packing up for the day right now, easy of mind, clear of conscience, looking forward to home and hearth, an evening of TV and off to bed. How I wished I was there. I could have been. Should have been, too. My inner Calvinist rose up with smirking glee: serves you right, bucko; here’s the old cosmic payback for the lies, the shirking, and the theft of a day’s pay: the absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, receives his richly deserved comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration, misery and danger, muttering curses, prayers, and mea culpas every inch of the way.
Not a bit of it. Instead I made my best discovery of the summer, a sublime truth that would sustain and embolden me through many a cycling adventure and misadventure in the years to come: God, it seems, truly does look after children, drunks and tramp cyclists. No sooner had I begun the heavy-hearted trudge to Rosebud when I heard the distant purl of a car engine, the first such sound in what seemed like hours. I turned, hope and presentiment rising within me, to see a battered old Holden top the rise. The driver slowed as he drew abreast then veered, as though on tracks, onto the shoulder a few yards up the road, his brake lights aglow.
It was then I noticed the bicycle rack on the rear.
A lanky young Catholic priest climbed out and approached with a shy, almost apologetic smile, as though he were sorry for having not arrived a little sooner.
“Hello, there!” he called as he approached. “Trouble?”
I nodded, staring as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush.
He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and its threadbare tyres, sighed and shook his head. “It looks pretty final to me. How about I give you a lift to Frankston?”
I gave a feverish laugh, then sprang to life, eager to strap my bike onto that rack before this miraculous apparition could vanish. But car and driver remained wonderfully corporeal and an hour later I was standing beside my bicycle on the city-bound platform of the Frankston train station, homeward ticket in hand, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing.
I was back in the city by a fashionable hour, sooner in fact than if I had never had any of that flat tyre business. I bought myself a new pair of Michelins at a late-opening bike shop in town and toasted the sweetness of my escape over dinner that night with a fine bottle of merlot from one of the vineyards I’d seen down there on the Mornington Peninsula.
But the dice of God are always loaded, as the old saying goes. That beatific smile I’d been wearing on the Frankston railway platform wasn’t the only reason my face was radiant. When I swanned into the office the morning after, as neatly recovered from my recent malaise as though I’d been to Lourdes, I was sporting a beautiful set of tan lines around my eyes from where the sunglasses had been. The real moral of the story? Seize the day, by all means. Get out there. Lie, cheat and shirk if you have to. All will be forgiven. It is a big beautiful world out there, rich in possibility and ripe for discovery and Heaven knows there’s no finer way to see it than from the saddle of a bicycle. But all the same, do not tempt the Lord thy God, as the Good Book says, for he clearly Hath a wicked sense of humour. So check your treads before you go, keep something in your tool kit you can use to plug a holed tyre if need be, and no matter what, always, always, always remember the sunscreen.