Cycling Australia: Northern Exposure
It has been a while since I kicked off a big adventure. Back in April, I started a run across Japan which did not go quite to plan. I ended that challenge with an early flight back to the UK to rehabilitate a torn ligament in my right knee. But after the disappointment of that setback had faded I remembered the feeling of nervous excitement, the jittery stomach and itchy feet that had plagued me at the starting point, standing at the northernmost point of Hokkaido.
Leaving Darwin a couple of weeks back I experienced all those things and more. I was apprehensive about the heat, about the state of my knee, about the availability of water. I was also feverishly excited to explore a country that feels instinctively like one I know very well, and yet Australia is so large I actually know precious little about it.
As I set off I am targeting 8,000km or 5,000 miles on the bike. It’s a fairly arbitrary goal, one I expect to be challenging yet doable in the less than three months I have before Christmas. When I set off across Europe last year I anticipated spending Christmas and new year 2019 in Sydney with family and I’ll be glad to stick to that. My route there has diverged significantly from the original plan to cycle to Thailand from Bristol and hop over to Australia on a plane. But the change of plans to cycle India, run across Sri Lanka and spend a crazy two months of ups and downs in Japan has been exhilarating.
I expect to finish this leg (of an as yet undetermined period of adventure challenges) in Adelaide. It’s a huge distance to cover in less than three months, but that’s my goal. I won’t be upset if I don’t hit it, as long as I have made the most of my time exploring the western side of this great landmass. WA is spoken about with such excitement and anticipation amongst many I’ve met.
“Oh yeah everyone knows the east coast, but have you seen WA?! You have to check out WA!”
Before that though, the Northern Territory, or simply ‘The Territory’, home to the fiery red centre of the outback and iconic Uluru. I’m thousands of miles south of home, but very much in the north, and though I haven’t delved deep into this particular state, the 8 days it took me to cycle across to the border with Western Australia was somewhat a trial by fire.
In fact, everything here seems to burn, with a deep crimson red. Whether it’s my poor sunburnt calves or the roadside ditches filled with burnt orange dirt, the bold red sunrises that bring me out of my morning slumber or the intense setting of the sun that seems to cast the sky into a thousand shades.
I should have come to expect all this, on only my third evening in Darwin I sat at Mindil beach and watched one of the most drawn-out and awesome sunsets I’ve ever seen, along with thousands of others.
In leaving myself two days to acclimatise to the heat in Darwin I assumed I would be hitting the road prepared for long days in the saddle. I’d fixed up my bike with necessary new parts and bought spares, explored a little of the city and mentally prepared for being back on the road.
I was well prepared with information, but not necessarily common sense. I had stayed with a WarmShowers host for a few nights. Fleur and her adventurous young son provided me with a fantastic landing pad after my flight into Australia, supplying me with extensive knowledge of the coastal route to Perth as well as evenings spent chatting about our various experiences on bikes - mine across Europe and India, and Fleur’s variety of touring on bikes, recumbents, tandems and a Brompton.
I was hugely appreciative of their hospitality and advice on cycling in Australia, it has thus far proved to be very useful indeed. Of course, it relies on me taking heed of it rather than blindly heading off into the hottest part of the day on my first outing.
“Oh, so it’s too hot by 9am? Brilliant, I’ve only cycled half an hour today”
I left at 8.30 and I had over 100km to go on day one. By 10 am I am sheltered in a roadhouse nursing an iced lemonade, and 1pm sees me 65km down slowly munching on a stale chicken sandwich in a petrol station. As I contemplate how long I will stay out of the sun, an offer of a joining a group of hillbillies on a bush camp, with cocaine and marijuana on hand, gives me sufficient cause to get the hell out of there, back into the scorching afternoon. It took me 10 minutes to decouple from that conversation, so convinced was my new friend that smoking a joint would help me cycle the next day. I was not convinced.
By the time I made Adelaide River, the first town out of Darwin, I had struggled through 110km, fallen short of my target that day to reach a natural pool and wild camp, and found myself quickly reevaluating my schedule.
It was almost unbearable to cycle past 11am. The stupid sunburn and exhaustion of that first day were a lesson learned. I must start earlier.
That first day also saw me take an almost immediate wrong turn off a bike path and end up 10km down a dirt track with no hope of getting back on the highway. I pushed and pulled my bike back up the hill, through sand and gravel to the turning. I later consoled myself with a first camp meal - spaghetti with boiled carrots and a spoonful of Vegemite. Gourmet it was not, but the satisfaction of that meal after a tumultuous first day was fantastic. I must eat more Vegemite.
During the next two days I fared better. I started at 4am to get out a couple of hours before sunrise. The riding was cool, and a little strange having no more than 50m of visibility in front while dark. The days were punctuated with regular stops for coffee and snacking and long lunch breaks to wait out the sun. Usually I brew my own coffee on my stove but I had met two RAF servicewomen on my second day who were on a camping tour and kindly made me a glorious cup of instant coffee and provided a camp chair in which to enjoy it. Lunch was at a roadhouse in Emerald springs that proudly displayed its current population of 5 people on entering the ‘town’. It was stark how quickly the city had faded and the sparsely populated areas began. I am not sure when it happened, but all of a sudden I felt like I was out in the wild.
I was heading for Katherine, at which point I would turn off the Stuart highway which runs from Darwin to Adelaide (in a relative straight line) - I was taking the scenic route… lots more long distances between patches of civilisation to come then. I must download some more podcasts.
I reached Katherine on day 3, cooled myself in the incorrectly named ‘hot springs’ and slept deeply. I had ran out of water 5km from town and couldn’t face cycling the final stretch before having a lie down under an abandoned petrol station. I must carry more water.
The heat was causing a severe thirst but also some strange cravings. I sank 2 litres of milk that evening after dinner and have done so on several occasions since.
From Katherine I joined the Victoria highway, part of the immense Highway 1 Route which runs around the coast of the entire country, chock full of great road trains and campervan tourists. It was my first turning in 4 days and came with a little over 500km to go to Kununurra where I would take my first rest day. This stretch was aided by a tailwind and passed more comfortably than the first stint south to Katherine. But on each day I would find myself hunched over at the roadside at various intervals sinking litres of water. This particular brit is not made for temperatures of 40*C.
I camped each night, sometimes in roadside rest areas, occasionally at road stations that serve campers and the fleet of road trains on the highways. The highways also have a variety of free campsites, some with shaded areas, tables and toilets. Some also have great tanks of water - not drinkable, but good enough for a shower. I spent an evening out of Katherine pouring cup fulls of water over myself as I waited out the afternoon sun, and I wasn’t the only one sweltering. A flock of birds would fly in and lap at the puddle I left each time and would fly up and down to the tap, knowing this is where the water came from but quite unable to work the device that brought it. I ended up pouring a huge puddle for them. It last all of 10 minutes before drying up, but I think the birds enjoyed it briefly. Good deed done for the day.
Elsewhere I took advantage of two river camps, the Victoria roadhouse and Wirib camp in Timber creek. The day I rode into Victoria had begun in the dark again, and as the sun rose I found myself in the hills, cycling through the outer edges of the Gregory national park. Wallabies and Kangaroos flanked the roadside, there had not been enough traffic overnight to scare them off. But I did a good enough job of shooing them back into the bush. Most mornings I see a handful of roos and a bunch if cattle on the road, and am reminded of dodging herds of various animals on the roads of India.
The river camp at Victoria was dry and dusty, no water flowed in the river and a couple I met outside the roadhouse had talked long about the ongoing drought across substantial areas of the country. I hadn’t cycled over a wet creek all week and only the Darwin river showed a significant body of water. In the northern territory much of the population is served from Lake Argyll, one of the most impressively massive lakes in the world. I was informed it could easily serve the city of Perth if a pipeline were built, but politic and shorterm-ism meant the city was spending billions on building desalination plants of inadequate capacity. Not the only country to put short term goals ahead of longer term environmental stability I thought, as Extinction Rebellion took to the streets again…
At the camp a Swiss lady, Emelda, who I was pitched beside that night supplied me with fruit bread and mandarins for my breakfast the following day. Come the following evening, after reaching Timber Creek I found myself again camping next to her jeep, quite by chance. This time she provided a camp chair for the evening for me to relax in and observe the hundreds of bats hanging above my tent in the trees. Below the branches in the dry bed of the creek a freshwater croc waited patiently for water to come. Neither the bats nor the crocodile disturbed my evening. Instead I was quite content, sat under a dead tree stump on which a solitary bird sat, also enjoying the dying light of the evening.
I was grateful for the relaxing night and good sleep the following day, in which I covered 170km, the most I’ve ever ridden on tour in a day. I rested after 120km at a roadside picnic area, Saddle creek, chatting with others who pulled up about my trip and the insanity of cycling in the heat. It was hot enough to start fires in the bush.
In fact, fires were burning at the roadside when I left Timber Creek, and smoke choked me for a couple of kilometres out of town. I was unsure if they had been started deliberately or by accident. Much of the roadside shows signs of burning. Some is back burning to prepare for the hot season when bushfires are common. Sometimes indigenous folk burn areas to drive out wildlife or help cultivate land. Sometimes a camper will let their campfire get out of control. the scorched earth all looks the same despite the cause. The rusty red dirt punctuated with a grim blackness, like a scab growing over good skin underneath.
The rest at Saddle creek provided a chance to draw breath and fuel up. I chatted with a tour group who had stoppered for lunch, the leader of which provided some useful advice on cycling the Gibb river road - this was plan from Kununurra to Broome, an 800km detour on dirt roads across the Gibb.
His advice - don’t do it.
Many of the stations in the Gibb were closing for the season and there was a lack of water available. I decided to stick to the highway. Fortunately a Taiwanese girl named Phoebe pulled up after the tour bus left, and she provided some advice on interesting sights ahead on the more conventional route on the Victoria highway.
After two hours resting and talking with Pheobe about everything under the sun, the fierce sun, I happily accepted the kind offer of a bagful of fruit from a family about to cross the border into Western Australia and set off again. Their fresh food would have to be thrown away before crossing due to border rules. Good for me.
An evening session past sunset saw another 50k pass and another end to day spent dark showering under a water tank tap. No birds around this time. Though, on most mornings, I’m woken by birdsong before my alarm. And the following morning after a relative lie-in until 4.00am I rose with the sound of hundreds of birds above me and cycled through the sunrise to the border with Western Australia.
There was little infrastructure there, just a petrol station style canopy over an office and a tired vending machine. I had eaten all of the fruit I’d been given the previous evening so I picked up a Fanta from the rusting machine as the border guard waved me through, after a few minor questions and remarks of “too easy”. I was tempted to say it’s really not easy actually!
Immediately the road twists and winds and buckles, as if crossing into the next state heralds some great change on highway construction. The hills are more undulating and the scenery more spectacular. I’m heading for Kununurra, only a few hours away now, the gateway to the Kimberly’s - an area of multiple national parks and outstanding beauty. Ahead lies the vastness of Western Australia, the coast of which I will follow for much of the next two months. A long way to go, but my first week has set me up well for the next two months. I had been exposed to the heat, to the necessity of finding water, beautiful wild camps and generous travellers. My time in the northern territory was brief, brutal and bountiful.
Many had warned me of the monotony and boredom I would face on the highways. They were wrong. The first week exposed me to the varied landscapes of the Northern Territory, left me elated and validated my decision to start up high and challenge myself to ride double the distance initially planned had I begun in Perth.
Starting in the dark each day means I’m never quite sure where I am come sunrise, and each day I delight in seeing the new landscape slowly come into focus, switching off my lights and headlamp as the early morning light takes over.
The landscapes, said to be ‘flat’, ‘dull’, ‘boring’ by many who have not experienced them, do indeed change. They change in subtle ways and small details. The shape of termite mounds evolves from 8 foot stacks to stumpy boulder type shapes, and small pinnacles dotted across the bush like freckles across sun-tanned skin. The roadside gravel and dirt slides into shades of dusty red to burnt orange and faint yellow. The sparsity or trees rolls up and down, sometimes I’m cycling through thick woodland, others I am the only thing taller than 5 foot for miles. The prevalence of Boab trees particularly is noticeable, their hulking trunks and spindly branches easy to spot amongst the scrubland.
When clouds are present there often only one or two, but sometimes, inexplicably, there are more than a few.
Corners in the highway are not sudden, their subtle bends seem to go on forever until you lose your bearings and you are not sure in which direction you are now travelling. It doesn’t necessarily matter when the next turning is in 1,000km. That said I have learnt quickly to tell my direction based on the sun position and the wind direction. On the road small gradients take you up and down undulating land, often feeling like steep hills, they sap your energy. Should you be caught in a headwind then you will pedal furiously downhill and be hugely demoralised. Should a tailwind flow it will carry you for miles with no effort at all.
Occasionally a car will pass, a road train will announce itself from miles away and almost every vehicle travelling in the opposite direction will wave.
And every day the sun will present a spectacular scene, without fail.
All these small changes are noticeable on the slow moving wheels of a touring bike.
I am slowly adapting to the conditions here. The intense heat in the day means I cycle hard from 3am to 10am and rest during the day, often failing to sleep in the heat before chewing out a couple of hours in the evening. I dealt with a week of routine nosebleeds as the blood vessels swell and changing temperatures left me light headed.
I am settling into routines, of making coffee after a couple of hours riding, snacking at will, setting an alert for every 10km to remind me to DRINK. I am getting used to crouching under shade to catch some relief from the sun and to stop the onslaught of sweating. I am adapting to the buffeting from road trains that can nearly tip me over, and the generosity of strangers who offer water or a cold can of coke. I am getting used to skidding off the highway down a dirt track to find shade under the biggest tree in sight, or to find an adequate piece of ground on which to pitch my tent, aware from termite mounds and sounds of the sporadic traffic. The 2am alarm is still not welcome, but those few hours of early morning riding are gloriously cool and productive.
And the roads? Well, just look at them.
Photos from the Northern Territory
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