Port Augusta, last minute nerves
Like a couple of inexperienced backpackers, straight off the boat, we fumble to put up our new tent; it was ‘a bargain’ and to our horror looks like a small silver spacecraft. The red sand covers the concrete soil below and for the first time in the last five months I can’t simply push the pegs in – so I tie the four flimsy guy ropes to a couple of rocks. We have a good six weeks ahead in the outback so we decide to take one more day to prepare in Port Augusta, wondering to myself ‘Steve, is this really wise?’. Alice Springs is a long way yet
And we are off…
To my relief my stomach is not rusting, a trickle of sweat is just carving a channel through the dust. My heart has been pounding all day. Ahead long straight roads draw us into an unknown abyss. In the hazy distance, on each side, huge ochre monoliths rising from the bush move slowly by the hour. It is only when we break to drink that I look behind. I could be looking forward except the afternoon sun is on my right. We are in it now, the outback, we suddenly feel so small in an ocean of dry land.
The distances are so great out here (sometimes up to 250km between road houses) that we often have to camp in the bush. It is a strange feeling to cycle all day and then pitch your tent in the dirt, knowing that the next community (population 15?) is still another eight hours cycling away. It should be terrifying. I imagine seeing ourselves on Google Earth and then in one bowel-dropping moment zooming out to reveal our remoteness. It should haunt us and tease out deep insecurities and fears fuelled by a mental library of Hollywood horror scenes. We expect to feel the sudden terror, but it doesn’t come. In fact, with all the freedom and space all is calm and uncomplicated. Plants, rocks, dirt, creatures big and small including ourselves all have room to exist out here – and are quite happy doing so.
It was one of my day dreams before we left London to be camping out in the bush, sun setting, cooking up dinner on our stove, exotic sounds in the evening air. The reality, although hard and painful to earn, doesn’t disappoint. Night camping in the bush this time of year is often warm. We leave all the doors and windows open but netted. I wake up at about 3am from a deep sleep, the balmy air passing over us in the tent. I see stars through the door, the silhouette of a gnarled tree still and ancient against the window. As I roll over I glimpse the rear wheel of the tandem sunk slightly in the red sand. What an adventure!
MTV eat your heart out
‘Darwin? You guys are going to have to cycle through a whole heap of nothing to get there!’ is the regular cry of many we meet on the road. We were a little worried about this – the boredom, the possibility that we may ‘go tropo’, six weeks of blistering heat and nothing. That’s a whole school summer holiday of nothing. So it was decided that although up to now we hadn’t really used our i-Pod or felt the need for music while cycling, we would invest in a little speaker so we could listen to some tunes together while riding through the monotony of the bush.
Well, we haven’t been bored so far. The views change constantly in their own subtle way. We notice a new tree or plant species that appears for a few hundred kilometres and then suddenly it goes again. The earth changes colours from deep reds to creamy caramel. Sometimes you have the feeling you are high above the world, other times you feel like you are slowly sinking down into it. An endless straight road suddenly has a bend in it – no apparent reason for it. Pausing to pee behind a bush, always a new strange little critter will run off for shelter (a new experience for us both I’m sure!). We are not bored, but we have started to cycle to music for parts of our day anyway. Our surroundings have brought a new dimension to some of our favourite tunes. David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac or Guns’n’Roses blasting out with the endless outback laid out before you – just EPIC!
Coober Pedy – Outback Town
Many Australians describe the splendour of the glorious outback as traveling through ‘The Guts’ of the continent. While we find it hard to follow this analogy, when we arrived in Coober Pedy it was agreed this must be the dusty arse crack of not just Australia, but possibly the world. But we really liked it! Appearing out of a wide barren landscape, small piles of dust and rock appear. Little molehills popping up sporadically, often in groups, others just on their own. Little scars on the moonscape – each one a punt, a gamble, a man’s dream of finding precious opal. Kat and I had both felt upset when witnessing damage caused by huge gold mining operations in New Zealand – the environmental cost had seemed too high. Here though it felt different. Small, not particularly lucrative operations, venturing into the wilderness. A person down on their luck could come out here, make a claim to a piece of dirt and start digging, like a kid in the garden with a bucket and spade searching out buried treasure.
Coober Pedy is a town of characters and in such harsh conditions I suspect only those with a true Aussie pioneering spirit and a sense of humour can stick it. Half the population live underground – it’s much cooler in the summer heat (no need for air con) and warm when it gets cold. The locals, of course, are experts at digging holes and as for living underground being a bit windowless and claustrophobic, I don’t think you would find any estate agent in Coober Pedy selling a surface property on its views! It just makes sense in this environment to live underground, but often people don’t do what makes sense. We could learn a lot from the Coober Pedy miners, who have realised a house doesn’t need to be a box with a lawn and a white picket fence to be a home and the money they save on energy to cool their homes will buy a few more stubbies for the weekend. They’ve got it sorted I reckon.
Happy Birthday Kat!
It was always going to be tough making Kat’s birthday a special occasion. While we had had the good fortune to be in Wellington, New Zealand for my birthday, we had known for a while that Kat’s would be somewhere in the centre of Australia. The day before ‘B day’ we planned what food to carry and where to store the 12L of water we would need for the next leg of our trip in 37C of unrelenting heat. I was also trying to come up with some kind of resemblance to a surprise party for Kat. It was hard. Luckily, we had been held up by one day in Coober Pedy with strong headwinds and soaring temperatures. I booked us into an underground youth hostel for the night, at least the day before Kat’s birthday would be pleasantly cool and possibly romantic? We went out for pizza too, a big treat for us, it was lovely – John’s in Coober Pedy, its won awards!
We were glad we spent the night 6.5m underground. It was cool and we had a great sleep. Kat’s Australian birthday wouldn’t start as she might have dreamed with a champagne breakfast in a hot air balloon over Uluru or a lie-in at a boutique hotel. All I could manage was a Happy Birthday banner duct-taped to the wall of our underground room, a single pink balloon and a Kit-Kat chunky. Before all the women in my family gasp with horror – this picture was taken at 4:30am, and the whole ‘party’ arranged while Kat nipped to the bathroom. It was so pathetic, for all the secret planning it took. I promise a proper celebration another time my darling – you certainly deserve it!
Banner swiftly taken down, bags packed and bike loaded by dawn, we leave Coober Pedy, balloon strapped to the trailer. I have a musical candle, a couple of sparklers and a packet of party hats and a bag of sweets hidden in my bag. It is my hope that when we camp in the bush I can put on another sad little party. But by 11am we have already reached 75km and the rest area where we can get our water to camp. We have a couple of cookies and look at each other – we might not have to camp in the bush. If we push it we could make it to Cadney Homestead, the next roadhouse. I like roadhouses but love the bush, Kat likes the bush, but loves roadhouses! With a nod we set off straight away – a roadhouse birthday – we cycled our little hearts out.
We arrived faces beaming, 155km on your birthday isn’t bad! Happy Hour just started! We lean the bike up covered in dust and grime, worn out and thirsty. We walk past a group of blokes, who look at us oddly, but we have little time for small talk – ‘two cold ones thanks’. Perhaps enamoured by our single-mindedness to get a beer, Buddha, Darren, Clinton and Rod welcome us to their group. They are coarse, brash and wonderfully entertaining – but then that’s what you get from a group of guys who travel to a backwater roadhouse to spend their weekend! Beers and a birthday cake too – thank you boys, you really helped make my wife’s day!
One of the treats of riding a bicycle through this land is getting up close to the wildlife. While we have seen fewer kangaroos recently our new favourite spots are emus and wedge tail eagles. These birds are both huge. The eagle’s wings can be over 2m across as they soar above us or take flight as we disturb them eating some unfortunate road kill; the emus really do look like you could ride them – if only I could catch one!
A roadhouse in the outback is a strange place – on the face of it little more than a petrol station in the middle of nowhere that serves food, beer and a few random groceries at a highly inflated price. But they have a magic. Run by characters who often have legendry status on the road – Woody’s Road House, Spud’s or Stuarts Well – home of Jim’s singing Dingo. And of course they are legends. They have created a tiny oasis at spots on an endless road, given a piece of dirt a personality, created communities out of places that happen to be where petrol tanks are running low. Truck drivers (the seen-it-all-before regulars), the tourists (wondering where the hell they are), the locals (where do they come from?), the staff (only a certain type of person chooses to work 500km from the nearest town) and the two grubby pommie idiots arriving on a bloody bicycle – there is always a hubbub of activity at a roadhouse day and night. We both like people watching and haven’t we seen a few we won’t forget!
Alice Springs and the Northern Territory
Well, we have made it to Alice Springs, not quite the rest stop we were expecting – what a town, with a lot for the anthropologist in us to digest. I will leave tales of The Alice for another day. The long road still stretches on ahead of us. Darwin feels like it must be around the corner, but there are 1500km to go! We have never felt so far from the sea. It is warming up too. 38c again today, sometimes we wonder if there may be an easier way to travel the world…
Kat is more frequently giving me the ‘where the hell are we?!’ look – I don’t have an answer, but we somehow got here on our little green bike.