A Taste of the Outback
By Mark Rote
As I rode out of Sydney, all was clogged in a muddy grey haze. The pollution was so bad, I felt it would slow me as I pushed through it. The next night, lying in my tent, trying to come to terms with what I was doing, trying to forget the inedible “meal” I had just eaten, I heard on my tiny radio that yesterday had, indeed, brought Sydney its second highest ever pollution level.
Not a bad day to leave, I thought.
What followed was a six month trip up the east coast to Cairns and Cape Tribulation, west to Normanton, south to Cloncurry, across to Three-ways and Tennant Creek, south again to Alice Springs, Ayers Rock and the Olgas and back to Darwin. I rode with Scott Casley until Alice Springs, and then from Katherine with David Goodall, a cyclist I met on the way. Scott and I intended to ride around Australia but, as yet, neither of us has completed the ride.
Scott and I rode fairly quickly along the east coast, wanting to get over the “top” of Australia before the wet season. Riding through NSW and southern Queensland provided us with about the most rapidly changing scenery on the trip – the most hills, the most views, the most fresh mountain streams.
Much of Queensland was relatively dry and monotonous, although if one is willing to make the detours there’s always plenty to see. A quick visit to Great Keppel Island didn’t get us wrecked. Dry pandanus palms started to appear by the road and the vegetation was noticeably greener by Townsville where we stayed for four days. The mango yoghurt shakes available there are unbeatable.
The higher rainfall north of Townsville really shows in the landscape – not just the vegetation but also the abundance of running streams and beautiful swimming holes.
We spent only one night in Cairns, having stayed in enough hostels for a while and wanting to escape the trendy travelling set. We also wanted to get out in the bush – wild camping spots had been rare on the highly populated coast.
We camped by the beach for several days at Cape Tribulation where dense tropical jungle runs from the mountains to the sea, where the weather was impeccable, where the sea was warm.
Having to change direction to continue the trip meant an end to the daily tailwinds on the coast. What a pity! We rode to and slowly made our way across the Atherton Tablelands, another area definitely worth revisiting. One gluttonous fruit feast we had there could have made theGuinness Book of Records, I think.
The east coast ride was a handy introduction to long distance touring. We worked out what we were carrying and didn’t need and vice versa.
The first two months let us build up some resistance to the frequent torrent of questions and comments from other tourists. “Where are you riding to?” “Where have you ridden from?” Invariably followed by “Gee, you must be keen.” Or “Gee, you must be fit!” Then: “How far do you ride in a day?” “Where do you sleep?” “How many tyres have you worn out?” And so on.
This problem became worse the further inland we went, as the busloads of tourists were more and more inescapable. The occasional unusual comment still lingers in my memory though. A girl at Ayers Rock asked “Are you sore?” A man at Ti Tree, trying to comprehend the distance coverable by bicycle, muttered “I don’t know if that’s good or bad.” Countless photographs, movies and videos are taken of “outback cyclists”.
I suffered quite a bit from saddle sores. Although this was a problem that I never solved completely, various things can be done to minimise it. Changing saddles in Townsville helped. I started wearing braces with my cycling shorts to keep them where they belong and, of course, I always kept my shorts (two pairs) and my rear very clean. A trick I learned from American cyclists we met helped – sprinkle some baby powder inside your pants to absorb sweat. Very effective but around Darwin in the “suicide season” you sweat so much that the powder gets gluggy after only ten minutes. Frequent changes of position on the saddle while riding, standing on the pedals often and, ultimately, keeping daily distances down, reduced the problem to a minor one.
We worked out our food preferences the way most tourers do – experiment and see what works best. It’s relatively easy buying, carrying and cooking food along the coast because shops are frequent, so a fair amount of fresh and tinned food can be used and variety can be maintained.
Riding inland required more careful planning. We often carried four, five or six days’ food as we weren’t too keen on eating the frightfully expensive food available at roadhouses. I can’t praise the virtues of rice and lentils enough. Together, they provide a complete protein source besides being cheap, compact, easy to carry, readily available and easy to cook.
I ended up cooking a rice and lentil stew most nights, using “Surprise” dried vegies, sometimes instant mashed potato, often cheese (processed cheddar doesn’t go off), sometimes salami, sometimes sultanas for sweet curries, and always a selection of flavours from my bag of herbs, spices and stock cubes.
I always carried muesli, milk powder (Sunshine full fat was our favourite and the tins are good for carrying margarine), bread (pumpernickel is compact) or flour to make damper, and honey or treacle, peanut butter, tins of fish, various dried fruits including lots of dates, and nuts or sunflower seeds. Cheese and dates were one of my favourite snacks. Eggs are tasty at breakfast and can be carried in special plastic holders. Fresh or tinned food can be carried if used the first or second day.
We became used to the sheer volume of food we ate, something that gained us reputations at youth hostels and once led to someone kindly advising me to visit a doctor to see if I had tapeworms.
Heading west from the Atherton Tablelands, Scott and I had our first taste of the “outback”. Descending the tablelands was to be our last big downhill on the trip. We felt apprehensive, feeling that we were riding into the middle of nowhere, wondering if we had enough food, enough spares, and hoping our water carriers would hold up to the rough roads ahead.
We both fell in love with the countryside on the way to Normanton. There’s a “right” feel about the dry grass, the open forest, the anthills. The road is good tar seal most of the way and horrendous the rest of the way. One hundred and twenty kilometres of alternating corrugations and bulldust really put our bikes, bums, hands and patience to the test. All survived. Each night I spent about 15 minutes removing razor sharp barbed grass seeds from my clothes and sleeping mat so that I could sleep in comfort.
It was along this section that we met a man who was walking around Australia. I felt very awkward and apologetic while asking the type of questions that thousands of tourists had asked us. He’d been walking about fifteen months and hoped to be home in Melbourne in another four.
The birdlife of inland Australia is amazing! Sometimes you hear birdcalls all day long, even in the hottest part of the day. Camping near a billabong or bore water dam is worth riding any distance. At dusk and dawn the green budgies come in hundreds to drink and play. You’re spellbound watching them fly in “formation” making a green column 30 metres long twisting, turning, diving, always putting out a formidable noise. When the sun catches their undersides, you see a brilliant flash of green, a green that looks too vivid to be on anything living. And to see the squawking red galahs flying among and stirring up the budgies really puts you in a good mood.
We found it rather disturbing when some of the car drivers to whom we talked complained of the boring scenery and thought it must be worse on a bicycle.
The hospitality of some of the travellers and drivers, though, is really uplifting. I remember riding towards the Barkly Homestead when a road train slowed behind me and tooted its horn. Very unusual for them to worry about hitting a cyclist that much, I thought. I rode on the very edge of the road but still the driver tapped his horn and wouldn’t pass. I looked around and saw the offsider waving his arms but I didn’t know what he wanted so I kept riding. The truck then passed and an orange sailed out of the window ahead of me. I was ecstatic. I had to look for a little while to find it in the grass where it had rolled but I’ve never enjoyed an orange more. It was the first fresh fruit I’d had in days. When I caught up with Scott, he was eating his orange and had the same story to tell.
The Barkly Homestead gave us the worst drinking water we had to endure. That night we could force it down only one sip at a time for fear of bringing it back up. We fell asleep thirsty and longing for a cold fresh mountain stream. In the morning, we tried to disguise its taste in various ways – extremely strong coffee worked, but that’s not too good as a thirst quencher. Even tea and muesli tasted horrible.
There was a bore water dam 35km further on. Muddy and only inches deep, we thought it would be horrible too. We took a tentative sip and – wow! It tasted like water! Even though there were several bores before Tennant Creek, we filled up all ten litres each so we’d be assured of good water till then.
No wonder a great musician called himself Muddy Waters, mused Scott.
We were never dirtier than when we arrived at Tennant Creek Youth Hostel. While I was eating a loaf of rye bread with a packet of (real!) butter and a jar of peanut butter, drinking gallons of tea and talking to a bored traveller on the front lawn of the hostel, Scott spent a full half-hour in the shower. When he came out, fully dressed, clean-shaven, hair combed, he rubbed his neck, looked at his hand, then went and had another shower. You sweat all day and cover yourself with sunscreen and bulldust. You sweat all night and cover yourself with mosquito repellent. It takes a while at the end of a week to wash it all off.
Bike touring in the hot outback really builds up one’s thirst – beer is just to enjoyable! But for some reason, so’s everything else – a shower, a bed, drinking tea from a china cup, butter, reading books, eating counter lunches and counter teas, eating chocolate and other junk foods. We spent four days in Tennant Creek indulging in all of the above.
The ride to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock was a detour we were glad we decided to take. The vivid colours and the intense clarity make panoramas of rocks, red sand dunes and blue sky look like surrealist paintings. The ghost gums with their pure white trunks and lush pale green leaves looked totally out of place in their arid environment. Sunrises and sunsets were sometimes magnificent.
We went on a “balloon safari” in Alice Springs. Watching the sun rise over the MacDonnell Ranges while silently hanging a kilometre up in the air really wasn’t too bad. The areas we saw during the rest of the day while being driven around in a 4WD would be worth spending weeks cycling through but a mountain bike would be essential. Well, maybe another time…
Scott and I had company from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock: Isabel, a “cycling lady” from Germany. I enjoyed riding with someone who wasn’t always disappearing over the horizon ahead.
Our expectations of flat, sandy desert weren’t met – there was plenty of vegetation all the way, varying from scattered dry grass and shrubs in some parts to stands of the beautiful desert oak. And ghost gums.
The sheer immensity of Ayers Rock and the Olgas in inconceivable. It’s eight kilometres around the base of the Rock and Mt Olga stands 550m above the plain. The Olgas are made of a weird sort of conglomerate rock – the “pebbles” are often more than a metre across! Sleeping in Mt Olga gorge is awesome – frightening – the landforms are so unimaginably old, they seem to throb with grandeur and mystery. Sleeping on top of Ayers Rock in the full moon is so good it must be illegal!
As chance would have it, Scott met four old schoolfriends at Yulara, the new tourist resort 20km from Ayers Rock. They were travelling around Australia in an old ambulance. Rather than re-riding the 450km back to Alice Springs, we took a lift with them. We both wanted a break from the cycling. Four and a half hours instead of four and a half days was a bit of a shock.
We lived a life of decadence for a couple of weeks in Alice Springs, staying to see the annual rodeo and the Henley-on-Todd – the world’s only regatta held on a dry river bed.
Scott got a job as a builder’s labourer as he wanted to rebuild his travelling finances, so I headed north alone, trying to shake off the last of the flu I’d caught. My relationship with Scott was no longer filled with humour and good spirits. Bicycle touring demands a very well matched partner – we’d had a great time together but it was time to have a break from each other.
Camping alone in the middle of nowhere (or the middle of Australia, actually) takes a bit of getting used to. It’s hard not to worry about the cattle you can hear crashing through the bush in the dark. The vast silence becomes more intense and staring into the campfire becomes very hypnotic. Yet it gives an indescribable sense of freedom.
I rode the distance to Tennant Creek rather quickly and when I arrived there, I was for some reason filled with a mood of immense wellbeing.
At the youth hostel, I met David Goodall, a recent convert to cycling after having spent ten months hitch-hiking. I stayed longer than intended due to late nights and headwinds but, when I did leave, a tailwind blew me an easy 170km, my longest day yet. I was happy to be riding on windier and hillier roads than the flat straight roads I’d grown used to.
Each day I rode, the country grew greener and the temperature rose. I was rather worried about the heat – I was going to Darwin in what’s called the suicide season – extremely hot and sweaty – but before the wet season when the rain eases the heat.
I met up with David again at Katherine and we rode together to Pine Creek and through Kakadu National Park. When riding alone, we’d each averaged about 150km per day but, when together, this dropped to about 50km/day.
I’d been starting and finishing early, taking a long lunchbreak. David started and finished late, and took several breaks throughout the day. So we started late and finished early taking a long lunch break and many shorter stops.
This must have had something to do with the beauty of the area. Not only were there.. green trees(!) but there were.. lots of them(!!) and also.. some of them were quite tall(!!!).
Kakadu National Park has striking changes in landform and vegetation. We couldn’t resist swimming in every bit of running water we saw (being wary of crocodiles of course) and the abundance of birdlife at Yellow Waters billabong is unbelievable. We had the good fortune to be shown the caves, views and paintings of Obiri Rick by Talking Billy, an elderly Aboriginal. It’s a sad fact that there’s so much racial hatred in the outback towns. And it’s sad to see how much of a fine culture has been destroyed.
My bike didn’t make it to Darwin. Six tyres, one front rack, 13 spokes, a couple of chains and clusters weren’t enough… My frame broke. Carrying eight litres of water on the front produced a steering wobble that fatigued the frame.
Because of the few problems David had had with his mountain bike and because I intended doing a fair bit of dirt road riding in WA, I bought a mountain bike in Darwin and spent some time changing parts between the two bikes and extensively repairing my panniers. As it turned out, I only used this new set-up for a few days, as I ended up flying back home from Katherine, (after a good look and a lot of swimming at Katherine Gorge) for a variety of reasons, including family matters.
Far from satisfying my “wanderlust”, this trip has whetted my appetite for bike touring in Australia. There are just so many roads asking to be ridden. The Gibb River Road, the rest of Western Australia, the Nullarbor, the Birdsville Track, Cape York Peninsula… You get to see what the country’s made of, you feel the sun, feel the rain, feel the wind, for good or for bad.