Saturday, 2 June 2018

Perth to Shark Bay - Detours, Ups, and Downs.

It was great to have a few days off in Perth and meet my wife and finally get her on a bike.  We started-off with a mini tandem day cycle tour of Rottnest Island to have a look at the beautiful scenery and meet the quokkas, a kind of friendly, over-sized marsupial rat (Rottnest actually means "rat's nest" in dutch, I believe), with a quirky-shaped mouth which makes it look like it's smiling sometimes.  They only exist on a couple of islands now as most of them died-out on the mainland, perhaps because of their trusting nature.

As well as the fantastic wildlife, the island was very picturesque and we certainly picked the perfect day to visit, with not a cloud in the sky and hardly a breath of wind.  Riding the tandem bike we rented was easier than I expected and definitely the best way to see the island.  I worried that it would be a bit of a tourist trap, but with no cars on the island and the spread-out nature of things there, it really didn't feel that way at all and we had many vistas and quokka encounters all to ourselves.

The quokkas are delightful little animals and are not in the least bit bothered by you, they are curious creatures and actually seem to enjoy having their picture taken, hence the latest craze of taking selfies with them, as they will happily sit right next to you and make it easy for you to take a picture with them.

The next day we decided to take it easy and have a bit of culture in the evening.  We have lived in Australia for nearly 4 years now and had never been to an AFL game.  Coincidentally, the home side, the Fremantle Dockers, were playing St Kilda - where we live in Melbourne - at the new Optus Stadium, a beautiful new stadium seating about 50 000 people, just across the river from our accommodation.  Tickets only cost about $30, so it seemed a nice way to spend a pleasantly warm evening.

St Kilda went down, but not before making a bit of a comeback after half-time, which made things more interesting towards the end.  AFL is quite an entertaining game and I quite like how each side has their own silly song to come into and that they sing after the game when they win, a nice little touch.

Perth is the quietest city I have ever been to, and we both couldn't believe how empty the centre of the city was.  It is very odd coming from a busy Melbourne, it must be quite a nice place to live, but is perhaps a little too devoid of hustle and bustle for most city folk.

After about a week or so of not much cycling, and maybe two weeks of being around people and towns, I was quite looking forward to some time on the road again.  I said goodbye to my wife and I caught the train out of the city to a suburb called Butler where I continued my journey.

Very quickly, I got an unexpected bonus by coming across some koalas in a national park about 60Km north of Perth.  Koalas are not native to Western Australia, but these had been rescued and somehow ended-up in a sanctuary within the park.  There were several of them, most of them doing what they always do, sleeping that is, but I did manage to see a couple of others eating (the other thing they do), which was nice.  I didn't think I'd get to see any koalas on this trip as they inhabit the eastern side of Australia mostly.

As well as the koalas, there were loads of kangaroos on a golf course that I passed-through close to the park, so it was a nice little afternoon of wildlife.

The pure white sand dunes of Lancelin.
After an overnight camp, the first town I arrived at was Lancelin, famous for it's pure white sand dunes.  It was a bit of a detour, but I had 4 days to do about 400Km, which was plenty of time.  Many people were sand-boarding down the dunes, but I have done something similar down a volcano in Nicaragua, so didn't feel the need to do it here.  I just enjoyed the spectacle of the dunes, a new experience for me.

The next day, as I was heading to a town called Jurien Bay, I came across a turn-off for the Pinnacles Desert, a little place I had totally forgotten about visiting but came well-recommended, so off I went for another little detour.  This one was well worth it.  I arrived just after sunrise so the park was empty and the light was beautiful.  Australia often doesn't have the awe-inspiring scenery of somewhere like New Zealand, but it makes up for it with uniqueness, and this was another one of those uniquely Australian destinations.

How these pinnacles were formed in the desert is not known for sure and there are 3 theories as to how they came about, which I won't bore you too much with, but that you can look at here.  It certainly made for an interesting little ride on the well-maintained sandy road, just about rideable on my bike.  The bright-yellow sand also made a nice contrast from the pure white sand on the coast.

My first major stop, and the only town of any significant size for a very considerable distance, was Geraldton, where I planned on staying with another warmshowers host, having a game of squash, stocking-up on food, and doing some work.  About 40Km from town, however, and I heard that dreaded twanging sound of a broken spoke, just what I feared would happen after repairing the last one.  With only 40Km to go, I thought I'd chance riding it into town, and with such wide expanses of nothing ahead after Geraldton I thought it best to just get a new wheel.  This was an annoying expense but at least I broke the spoke just before a major town with a bike shop, because after Geraldton I'd do well to find a bike shop for the next 2 or 3000Km, no joke.

Kangaroos on the roadside.
My hosts in Geraldton, Damon and Fiona, were very hospitable and set me up in a lovely little separate house in their back garden with every comfort I could ever want.  I felt bad I kept missing them while I was there as everything we did never seemed to work out at the right time to do things together.  We had some interesting chats, however, and as usual with my hosts on this trip, were very resourceful people and had done some amazing trips of their own.

While I was in Geraldton, an old man who approached me in the town centre, he saw my bike and asked me about my trip.  Extraordinarily, he told me he had cycled the whole way around Australia 4 times, in his seventies!!  He was in his eighties now, but was dreaming about another big trip.  He was from Canarvon, a small town about 800Km north and he offered to host me there and gave me his number, which was very nice.  A few things to ponder on though; a) he cycle all around Australia, b) he did it in his 70s, c) he did it 4 times in his 70s, and d) he did it 4 times!  Why would you do it 4 times!!??

Like I have said before, just when you are feeling pretty darn good about yourself, thinking you are doing something pretty crazy and pretty great, there is always someone who is on completely another level.  This chap was in Geraldton to tell his story to a local newspaper, he was literally on the way there when I met him.

Anyway, as I was telling my host about this man, this brought-up an old lady called Lizzy, who had stayed with them a few times.  She was in her sixties when she started bicycle touring and had cycled all over Australia, doing different routes and rough-camping in all sorts of places.  This rang a bell with me too as I had met an old lady on the train after a training ride before my first big tour from Darwin to Melbourne a couple of years ago who had a similar story.  Turns out it was the same old lady, confirmed by the fact they knew she was from the Mornington Peninsula, just south of Melbourne.  Another extraordinary person, you meet quite a few of them doing bicycle touring.  What a small world for a big country.

I had a decision to make upon leaving Geraldton; did I continue as planned to Shark Bay or take a detour to Kalbarri.  Many people had told me to pass through Kalbarri as there were some spectacular and unique landscapes to see there.  It was, however, a 200Km or so detour.  Shark Bay itself was also a 250+Km detour, but I had at least planned this.

Looking out of nature's window.
It ended-up being a great decision to go to Kalbarri.  This place was exactly what you think of when you picture outback Australian landscapes.  It didn't come easily though, the area was very up and down and the detours to the sea cliffs and gorges created big climbs.  It was totally worth the effort, though, it was a beautiful place.


Onward and upward then towards Shark Bay.  I was struggling to make it there on schedule because of the detour to Kalbarri and the ever-present northerly headwinds.  In fact, since Ceduna (some 3000 or so Km away), I hadn't seen a day of tailwinds, with probably 90% of these days being predominantly headwinds in the main direction I was travelling.  Perhaps it sounds like I am exaggerating, it can't possibly be that bad, however, I can assure you it has been. I was plodding through it nobly until recently, but at the time of writing (now in Carnarvon), it has started to become too much and is draining me physically and mentally.

Over the last few days, I have been cursing the weather gods far too much.  I am trying to stop the inner bitterness as it is almost as tiring as the physical battle into the winds themselves, but it is incredibly hard to do.  If you have been following me on Facebook, it is possible to get the impression that I am sauntering through paradise, going from stunning beaches to spectacular scenery, and seeing a wondrous variety of wildlife on the way.  All true I guess, it's magnificent, but on the bike it is difficult to describe how depressing the last couple of weeks has been.  The destinations are making the effort worthwhile, but I am exhausted, truly.  There are massive distances between places here in Western Australia, so there really is no way to make the cycling easier, even if the winds weren't so against me.

This exhaustion plays funny tricks on your mind, with a day's rest, things are restored to normal, but I find myself closing-in on a roadhouse, for example, fantasizing about arguing with the owner or making-up scenarios in my head of people saying some smart-alec comment to me, just so I can viciously put them down.  It's bizarre.  I can't be angry at the wind, I guess, perhaps this is my way of releasing the frustration.  I am a fairly disagreeable person sometimes after all and I do enjoy the odd bit of confrontation.

Anyway, I was to get my wish of an irritating roadhouse owner.  I have noticed a pattern of Indians owning some roadhouses in Australia and every single one of them so far has been an ungenerous, humourless, hard-ass, deeply suspicious of my presence, and not willing to do anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small.  I had to stay at one such roadhouse as a storm came in.

The roadhouse had camping for $10, not bad for price, but there was a reason.  Basically it was a dusty car park with loose sand over a hard surface, impossible to pitch a tent in good weather, let alone in high winds and rain.  There was no shelter anywhere, all of my gear was primed for a soaking and I couldn't possibly pitch a tent.  After a while trying to persuade the owner that I needed somewhere undercover, he finally relented and allowed me to pitch my tent under a mesh roof, protected by the wind near the roadhouse after it closed.  Seemed nice of him, but the roof did not provide cover from the rain.  Right next to it was an area that did though, which he didn't want me to use or even put my stuff in.  It was still a bad deal for $10.

On top of all this drama, I was again having some trouble with my back wheel.  Having bought a new one in Geraldton, I didn't expect any more problems, but I noticed several loose spokes, which was bad news indeed.  The wheel basically hadn't been tensioned properly, this happens sometimes, so I hear.  All this meant - with no bike shops anywhere ahead of me - that I had to send the wheel back to Geraldton to be trued properly.  I managed to get it on a courier service going at midday on from the roadhouse, which unbelievably dropped it back to me at 6am the next morning, all fixed.  All this further irritated the roadhouse owner, as anything even slightly out of the ordinary seemed to vex him greatly.

I made it through the storm and moved away from the roadhouse to teach some classes in my tent the following day.  However, I had run out of charge on my powerbank and needed somewhere to teach for 2 hours that was quiet and that I could plug my computer in.  I knew he had a spare unit that was not being used because the air-con wasn't working (one of his staff told me), so I offered to pay him $20 if I could stay in there for 2 hours teaching.  He simply stared at me with a blank face and said it was being cleaned, I knew this was a lie but I was desperate, so I offered him $30, but no dice.  He had a smug look on his face, which was soon wiped-off though as one of his employees offered me his room for 2 hours for no charge at all.  The guy wouldn't even fill a water bottle, but I took the opportunity when he was away and got one of his employees to fill 5 for me.  Obviously as loved and respected by his employees as he was by me.  Moron.

Anyway, I was glad to be away from there, and somehow managed to teach every scheduled class, despite some incredibly close calls.  It was stressful though and the 130Km up to Shark Bay was again mainly against the wind as they had shifted from the NE to the West.  I had North Easterlies the whole way since Perth, yet while I stayed in Shark Bay the wind was blowing from the SE, and indeed when I left, meaning a big headwind all the way back to the junction.  The next day, when I was heading north again, the winds had switched back to northerlies, this was getting beyond a joke and was torturing me mentally and physically.

A dugong coming up for air.
As painful as the trip up and back from Shark Bay was, it was somewhere I had to go.  It really is a haven for wildlife, often featured on wildlife documentaries, because of the beds of seagrass in the shallow bay.  This makes it home to turtles, dugongs (like a sea cow, most closely related to the hippo and the elephant), rays, sharks, and of course dolphins.  Bottlenosed dolphins have been around pretty much everywhere I have been, the common variety in the south, and now the Indo-Pacific variety.

They almost beach themselves sometimes, so close to shore they come.
On a beach called Monkey Mia in Shark Bay, these dolphins reliably come right up to the shore to be fed every day.  This is one of the few places in the world where this happens so reliably.  It started in the early-70s when local fishermen used to feed the dolphins when they returned to shore.  A handful of dolphins got used to this and kept coming back.  This was then turned into a regular practice for scientific and ecotourism reasons in the last 20 years or so.  They do it very responsibly, never giving the dolphins any more than 10% of their dietary needs, forcing them to hunt as normal.  They also only feed the direct descendants of the original dolphins fed by the fisherman in the 70s.  I was surprised to know that two of the dolphins were older than me, the oldest being 45 years old!  She didn't look it.

The Indo-Pacific bottlenosed dolphin seemed a different colour from the common bottlenose.
It was a great experience to see them so close to shore, and for wild dolphins, they were very well behaved, they knew the routine and the cues that meant it was time to line-up next to a feeder and when to finish.  When people stepped out of the water, each dolphin found on person with a bucket, and when the buckets were rinsed-out, the dolphins all swam off.

Dugong on the way up for air.
I booked a yacht cruise for later in the morning, which was surprisingly not that expensive.  I was hoping I would see a dugong and I wasn't disappointed.  We saw two in a very shallow area of the bay a few kilometres offshore.  At only about 1-2 metres in depth, the dugongs come up regularly for air while feeding on the seagrass.  One of them wasn't at all shy, coming much closer to the boat than I expected.

This turtle was close to shore and not that shy, but the bigger ones didn't hang around for a picture.
Also around were a number of truly huge turtles, but once they spotted the boat they rather shyly dived underwater.  I did get a picture of a small one close to the shore, but the bigger ones were too far away, and considering the distance they were away, I was actually quite shocked at their size.

The dolphins played around the boat for much of the time, racing along at the front of the boat. 

After another little cruise - which was free with the first one - at sunset, I managed to get a lift back to my accommodation.  What an incredible day of wildlife, not just in the sea, but on the beach as well, as emus and pelicans wandered around without a care in the world.  It was absolute paradise.

The next day it was back to work on the bike.  The next destination was a few days in Carnarvon for some rest and some work, and then onto Coral Bay and Exmouth for some adventures out at sea on the Ningaloo reef, which is where I'll pick up next time.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Esperance to Perth: Melbourne to Perth Complete!

So far my journey has mainly taken me across arid, largely flat, featureless terrain on land - with the exception of the Flinders Ranges - but from Esperance to Perth the climate and the surroundings changed markedly.  Almost immediately as I left Esperance the roads became a lot more up and down, testing the legs in a different way.

I left the last update with some pictures of the gorgeous Esperance coastline, but in the next two days, the heavens opened and the winds blew.  Fortunately, I was settled in a hostel doing some work and only got a little wet when I went out to play some squash.

Squash clubs were few and far between in the first 3000Km or so, I only managed to play twice in that time; once in Mildura and once in Port Augusta.  In the South-West corner of Australia, however, they started to become much more prevalent as I hit some slightly bigger towns.  It is still clear, though, that squash is a bit of a dying sport here, especially in rural Australia.  There aren't many players and the facilities don't look like they have changed in 20 or 30 years, and many gyms around were obviously squash courts in the past.

As I set-off out of Esperance to Albany late afternoon, I looked a bit stuck for a campsite on the first night until I came across a rest area that was meant to be closed.  Far from closed though, it was actually brand new and offered a very convenient place to camp for the night.  Wild camping anywhere outside the rest areas in Western Australia has proved a bit tricky at times, with either fences or dense undergrowth in the way.

From then on I tried to plan to stop for the night at rest stops on the 500Km to Albany, my next major town.  Nothing much to note on the way except for the prevalence of mice around my tent at night (something I have never experienced in Australia before) and meeting a couple of cyclists along the way; one Englishman, currently living in Vancouver, and one Canadian.  I have met maybe 8 or 9 cyclists now since Melbourne, with the UK leading the way in numbers, but more interesting than that is the average age.  I have met a few young ones, but the majority have been older, I'd say 50+, perhaps not what you'd expect, but bicycle touring certainly isn't purely a young man's game.

I feel like my life has a beautiful simplicity to it on tour; I go from point A to point B, then I find the highest spot of point B, run up it, and look at the splendor of the place.  It keeps me fit anyway.  I have been trying on every day-off riding to do some different exercise.  Gyms have been difficult to come by, but running, a bit of circuit training in the park, some bodyweight exercises, and some squash are all stopping me getting too stuck into cycling mode.

Meeting People

This tour has stood out so far from the others in terms of meeting people.  I have really enjoyed my other tours, but I have been a bit of a loner on them.  I have obviously met people at certain times on all of them and had interesting conversations and experiences, but this time I have gone out of my way to illicit some social interaction.  Part of the reason for this is the length of time I am away, 10 months in all in Australia and New Zealand.  The result of this has been pretty awesome.

I have met some amazing people through, and playing squash has also been a really good idea.  Playing in rural towns has not provided very stiff competition (although it got steadily better on the way to Perth), but I have really enjoyed the social aspect of it anyway.  It is surprisingly easy to organise games too, even if I call at the last minute.  I think the combination of what I am doing on the bike makes people curious and my standard also helps.

Since Albany, the South-West of Australia has been much more populated and this has given me the chance to meet lots of people, something I was craving after some very long stretches devoid of very much human contact.  I found on the long stretches of nothing I did talk people's heads off when I found them, which is bizarre because I am not someone who gets lonely at all, it is not a sensation I ever feel, but I do enjoy conversation.  I am human after all.

From Albany to Perth, I stayed with 5 warmshowers hosts, who were all amazingly welcoming and easy to get along with.  I guess this is the advantage of having shared interests and something in common.  On occasion I have been tempted to use couchsurfing, as this site has a wider network of people and there is always someone in pretty much every town who can host you, but I haven't yet, I feel uncomfortable I guess not "knowing" or understanding these people in the same way.

My first hosts were Janey and Ruedi and they lived in a beautiful house in the hills outside Albany.  I stayed for one night, but would love to have stayed for longer. Unfortunately, I had work to do and I couldn't get a 4G signal in their house.  They had done some interesting tours themselves and we had a good chat over a delicious dinner.

Janey and Ruedi's beautiful house in the hills outside Albany.

The Story of My First Broken Spoke

My first encounter with the idea of bicycle touring was with Mark Beaumont's documentary, "The Man Who Cycled the World".  On that journey, he had a lot of problems with broken spokes, so naturally this was a concern for me, and I have always been a little paranoid about it because even if you can fix them, it is a time consuming pain in the neck to do it, as you have to true the rest of the spokes after replacing one.  Up until about a week ago, however, I had never broken one on any of my tours.

The Gloucester tree in Pemberton, which you can climb using the thin metal rods drilled into the trunk.
So I did eventually break a spoke, about 50Km from Pemberton, and although I can fix them, the spoke was on the gearing side on the back wheel, and for all of you here that aren't cyclists, this meant I would have had to remove the whole rear mechanism to be able to remove the broken spoke and put the new one in.  You need a special piece of equipment to do this called a chain whip and I don't have one, and the removal of the cassette makes a tricky, time consuming process doubly difficult.

A lady freaked out and froze about 20 steps up, which was perhaps understandable.
If you break a spoke, this puts pressure on all the other spokes when you are riding and if you continue to ride this makes the possibility of other spokes breaking pretty much a guarantee and will eventually lead to you permanently buckling your wheel, so you should stop riding right away.  This was a problem for me, as I was in the middle of nowhere (surprise surprise).  A lovely couple came to my aid, luckily, and gave me a lift into the nearest town.  There were no bike shops there, but I could hop on a bus to one, the nearest bike shop was in Bunbury.  This made for a change in my planned route, and meant I missed the far South West corner, and took me on a more direct route to Perth.  With the bus trip and the lift to Pemberton, this also meant about 150Km that I didn't ride.  All this meant that I was forced to slow down on the way into Perth, but to be honest, this wasn't such a bad thing.

Top of the tree.  There are some big trees in the South West forests of Australia.
When I got off the bus in Bunbury it became clear that the bus station was much further out of town than I had imagined.  Without the ability to ride my bike, that meant 5Km of pushing.  I got about 1Km in and while I was passing a hardware shop, a guy with a South African accent stopped me and asked me what my problem was.  I told him and he kindly offered to chuck my bike in the back of his car and take me to a bike shop in town that a friend of his owned.  While in the car he asked me where I was staying.  I had arranged a warmshowers host for a couple of nights, but on this day I was going to stay at a hostel.  Seeing as I hadn't booked anything, however, he offered to take me in for the night.  As it turned out, he was a warmshowers host himself, but he had made his account inactive because he was traveling around a lot for work, an incredible coincidence as Bunbury is not that small a town.  He had a cool job as an emergency response medic, the perfect man to bump into in a crisis, I reckon.

He picked-up another South African on the ride into town (there were loads of Saffers in Bunbury) and he oddly enough worked in South Korea (where I lived on and off for 4 years or so) in the ship building industry on Geoje Island, coincidentally the place of my first ever bicycle tour with my buddy Thaddeus.  I had a terrible bike that was uncomfortable with a seat I couldn't adjust and that was permanently sticking up at a funny angle, meaning I was absolutely exhausted and fed up after a day and a half of riding.  I was inexperienced at the time even with camping, so I remember having the worst night ever with a camping hammock with no trees to tie it to and no bedding, and so I had to lie on a wooden seating platform on a beach with mosquitoes biting me all night.  I am a little better organised these days.

Pete and Heidi in Bunbury.
Anyway, Jim invited me into his home, cooked me dinner, took me to his gym for a workout, and generally was just a absolute legend.  He had an amazing array of bicycles in his garage and we shared stories and chatted-away for hours.  The next day I had a similarly wonderful experience with my warmshowers hosts, Pete and Heidi, who took great care of me and who I felt genuinely at home with.  They were a lovely couple who seemed to have a shared love of the outdoors, and again, were amazingly easy to get along with.

Pete and Heidi's strikingly beautiful cat, and along with their black cat, the only cats i have ever not really been allergic to.
After a few days in Bunbury waiting for my bike to be fixed and serviced, I made my way to Mandurah and Pete and Heidi cycled with me for about 20Km or so, guiding me along the bike paths out of town.  I said farewell and headed into an increasingly stiff wind for quite a hard 105Km.

Thrombolites at Lake Clifton.
Along the way I hit the first of a series of sites featuring some of the oldest lifeforms on earth Thrombolites and Stromatolites.  The latter is the world's oldest known life form, producing oxygen from photosynthesis than led to the first life on land on planet earth, without them we would all probably not be here.  I will be meeting these ancient forms of bacteria later on the tour, but the thrombolites are almost equally as ancient with similar methods of growth and survival.  They lay down calcium carbonate during the process of photosynthesis, which creates these rock-like structures.

Jenny and the shadow is Will.
I had another warmshowers host in Mandurah, and again, they were fantastic.  I stopped for a couple of days again, mainly for work and luckily so, as on the second day the weather was windy and rainy.  My hosts Will and Jenny had done some pretty amazing trips by bicycle, motorbike, and combi (like a campervan) in Australia, but also in other parts of the world too and have an excellent blog about it.  They were certainly very can-do, industrious people; they did an amazing job renovating their house (I stayed in an immaculate separate little room and bathroom behind their house), grew and made some of their own food, made videos of their trips, and had some great traveling gear.  Like Pete and Heidi, they cycled with me for about 20Km on the morning I left, and were a pleasure to stay with.

Shortly after Will and Jenny left, I was joined by a fellow Brit who had been living in Australia for about 8 years, riding from his house to the next town, Rockingham for a bit of exercise and a coffee.  He guided me in and we had a good chat on the way.  He then insisted he buy me a coffee and a cake at his favourite coffee shop.  Nice guy, but terrible at sticking to his diet of no sugar; one day in and we both had the biggest double chocolate muffins I had ever seen with butter just to make sure we were eating enough calories for the ride.

Looking out on the Indian Ocean.
A great morning, but a shocking afternoon as I realised I hadn't charged my power bank and so therefore almost ran out of power for my laptop while teaching.  I rushed to a campsite between classes to charge it only to discover that the campsite didn't accept tents, only caravans.  Fortunately, I managed to persuade the owner to let me use her laundry room to plug in all my stuff and teach some classes.  I managed to get everything sorted with just one minute to spare, but there was a fair amount of stress involved.

Rockingham proved a difficult place to find a campsite as after I had finished teaching their was no where else to go that was close.  I managed to find an old abandoned foreshore park to pitch my tent, right in front of the ocean.  A lucky break as I thought free camping would be impossible there.

I arranged another warmshowers host in Fremantle (West of the city of Perth), a nice Italian couple, Mario and Gloria, and their children.  Mario had lived in Italy on the shores of lake Garda and Salomon (huge outdoor clothing and equipment brand) asked whether they could rent the shop he owned, as lake Garda is a great outdoor sporting venue in Northern Italy.  Well, that pretty much set him up for life, so he moved to Australia with his family and has been traveling and living a pretty sweet life ever since.  They, as a couple, looked extremely healthy for it too.  As usual with the warmshowers community, they were super hosts.

It was very windy as I entered Perth (against me, as usual).  Great for kite surfing.
While I was in Fremantle and waiting for my wife to arrived in a couple of days, I found a squash club and manage to arrange to play 2 days in a row, something I have not done for a very long time.  The body held-up well though, and I felt like my game started to get back to some fluency.  I managed to scrape home 3 wins in 3 games, so that means I am still unbeaten on the tour.  I hear Broome and Cairns could also provide me with some stiff competition, and I will arrive in both places without having played very much.

On the way into Perth.
The next thing on the agenda was to meet my wife in Perth for a few days, she had done all the organising of accommodation in the middle of the city, so I had to cycle about 30Km along the foreshore into Perth to meet her.

Dolphins right in the middle of the city.
I was quite impressed with how good the bike paths were and how clean the city is in Perth, both on the streets and in the water.  Perhaps this contributed to me seeing a few dolphins swimming right under a bridge in the middle of the city near Elizabeth Quay.  I have seen bottle nosed dolphins so many times on this trip already and it never gets boring, but it is quite extraordinary to see them right in the heart of a city.

I'll leave this update with a short summary of the tour so far, as the first major milestone is complete, and I'll pick up from Perth next time.  I'm looking forward to going up the West coast in the next stage of the trip.

Total distance: About 4500Km

Daily Expenses, e.g. food, accommodation, bike repairs and parts: $1580 after 63 days.

Special expenses: $650 ($500 for Great White Shark dive and $150 for bike service).

Total expenses: $2230

Earnings from online work: $1570

Sum cost of the trip so far = $660

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Aussie Tour Update: Port Lincoln to Esperance Via the Nullarbor Crossing (April 1st to 21st)

I left-off last time checking-in with my warmshowers hosts Peter and Lana in Port Lincoln, so first a few words about these lovely people.  I arrived smelly and horrible, and they were extremely hospitable.  Just so you get an idea what kind of people they were and how I might relate to them, when I arrived Peter had just been running, Lana was cycling, and their son Martin was sea kayaking around an island 4Km offshore.

They were wonderful hosts, providing a very comfortable area to relax and recharge the batteries.  They had done a few tours in Europe and were just generally very active people, always on the go.  We had a lot in common and chatted a lot.

I rather liked Port Lincoln, I think it was my favourite town so far; big enough so that you'd have everything you need, but small enough so that most people knew each other and there was a real community feeling about the place.  Added to this, there was real adventure on their doorstep.

Port Lincoln is a town often bypassed by most bicycle tourers in this region of Australia.  Many cyclists in these parts are taking on the challenge of Perth to Adelaide, Sydney, or Melbourne, or the other way around, so the 900Km or so detour down and up the Eyre Peninsula is not most people's cup of tea, especially after tackling the Nullarbor (most people go from West to East).

I, on the other hand, have a bit more time than most, and there is something a bit special about Port Lincoln that caught my eye.  Port Lincoln is the only place in Australia - and one of only 3 places in the world, I think - where you can dive with Great White sharks.  If you've ever watched a nature documentary about these impressive monsters, it is very likely they filmed it in the Neptune Islands, a 3-hour boat journey from Port Lincoln.

Arriving in early April was not really the best time of year to see them, so I was a bit worried I wouldn't see any.  Sightings in March were sparse, 50/50 between no sighting at all and just one shark.  I was set to dive on the 2nd, and encouragingly they had seen 3 sharks on the 31st of March, and then 2 the day before.  Historically, shark sightings start to pick up at the beginning of April, so I had some hope.  Peter ran the 4 Km with me from their house early in the morning for the start of the trip, with the boat disembarking at 6.30am.

The day before, they had seen 2 sharks, but they did have to wait 5 hours for them, and then rush people into the water at the end of the day to get a look.  We, however, were extremely lucky.  We waited 30 minutes, and after that the sharks hung-around all day, meaning we all got 2 dives in the cage of about 40 minutes each time.  This was much longer than I could have hoped for, and we got a much clearer look at the sharks than I expected also.  There were 4 different sharks in all, recognisable by size, markings near their nose and chunks out of fins. It was an incredible experience.

A word of warning though, this trip is not for the faint-hearted, and it is not because of the sharks.  The 3-hour trip out to the Neptune Islands was choppy, and I just about avoided seasickness with careful taking of medication, some others weren't so lucky.  I was later informed that this was a pretty calm day and that many times more than half the boat are vomiting.

The experience in the cage also takes some getting used to.  The Neptune Islands provide some shelter, but not much, the water is still a little rough, so you rattle-around in that cage, which not only creates an uncomfortable atmosphere, it probably causes even more potent motion sickness than sitting on the boat.  Many of us were quite happy to be out of the water before we threw-up in our regulators.

That being said, no one wanted to get out of the water before their time was due, because although slightly disconcerting in the cage, the sharks were magnificent.  It was a real privilege to be confronted with these rather iconic predators of the deep, you couldn't take your eyes off them.

At one point, one of the sharks nearly got the bait (they shouldn't eat it, it is a lure to get them close), so it was pulled-in fast by the crew, causing the shark to speed-up and crash into the cage right in front of me.  The chap standing next to me in the picture got amazing footage of this on his Gopro, so I am hoping he shares it.  The sharks nose went right into the cage.  Strangely, though, it wasn't scary, it was just exhilarating.

Despite some sickness going around the boat, the crew and everyone on board were in great spirits and the atmosphere was brilliant.  Rarely have I been on a tour of somewhere where no one annoyed me, they were all very likeable, friendly people.  It was a fantastic day all round doing something I have always wanted to do, a real tick-off the bucket list.

Back to reality, I made I fond farewell to Peter, Lana, and Martin and headed back up the Eyre Peninsula, this time on the West coast.  I had 405Km to do over 3 and a half days to make it to Ceduna for a couple of days rest and some work.  The distance was not marked by many towns and the big distances without much chance to get supplies was good preparation for the real test to come, the Nullarbor and the over 1200Km from Ceduna to Norseman, which I had to do in 9 days.

I wild-camped this section every day and made some interesting discoveries when it came to food to eat.  It seems that ginger biscuits broken-up into cold porridge (oatmeal for you Yanks), peanuts and sultanas is a real winner.  It not only sweetens things nicely, making it quite tasty, it improves the texture as well.  And also, Mexican, Indian curry, and Thai curry tins of tuna in wraps with peanuts and a bit of chopped carrot again are very tasty, and healthy.

These signs are always a welcome sight.
I had noticed my bike was giving me some trouble on this section, occasionally the chain would be very noisy, even going so far as to seem like it was grinding some of the time, so I was a bit concerned.  I figured-out what it was.  Earlier on in the tour, I had done some dirt roads and I had forgotten my chain lube so I had to buy some.  I haven't passed-through many towns with bike shops, however, and the only thing available was from a toy shop.  This lube washed the chain but also made it slightly sticky at the same time.  As the kilometres passed by, this attracted so much dirt and grime it had made the chain run very badly.  I stopped at a rest area, water-down the lube and had a big clean-up, which did the trick nicely.

A chap with a caravan pulled-in at the same time and I asked him whether I could wash my hands in his sink, as they were filthy.  He kindly let me in and also made me a coffee and we had a nice chat about stuff and his Italian greyhound, who was very nice and also a bit quirky.  It turns out he squats like he's pooing when he wees - often weeing on his leg in the process - and cocks his leg when he poos.  I noticed the odd way he peed, and then the old man told me about his number 2's, and sure enough 5 minutes later he demonstrated the latter.  We had a good laugh, strange dog.

Ceduna foreshore as the light fades.
As you might be able to tell, sometimes you have slow days in Australia where there are long distances of grind and the landscape hardly changes, and there are few people.  Nowhere is this more starkly demonstrated than on the long trip across the Nullarbor between Ceduna and Norseman.  This was probably the biggest physical and mental challenge of the trip, and bizarrely, it is a challenge a number of other cyclists try every year.  Why?  There is nothing there after all.  The reason?  It is difficult, that's it, and for some unknown reason, this has some appeal to me as well.

Well, if it was difficult I was looking for, that was certainly what I was going to get.  The prevailing wind in April is a south-easterly (although this only blows about a third of the time, wind direction is changeable this time of year), which would have been great for me.  However, after a few hours on the first day, I was never to see it again as it was replaced by westerlies and south-westerlies, not so good for me.  I endured 7 days in a row of this.  At this time of year, the winds are not as bad as they can be, but they were still pretty exhausting to cycle into, and on 2 days in particular, pretty impossible.

Sunset over the Great Australian Bight.
I had to sit-out a whole afternoon on one day early on as the winds turned north-west and brought with them temperatures over 40 degrees.  There was just no point cycling into that, in fact, it would have been flat-out dangerous.  On other days I struggled through, often starting at 5am to avoid the worst of the winds.

On one day, I started to get seriously concerned about whether I'd arrive on schedule in Norseman for my scheduled work online, especially as the forecast for the next couple of days was grim, with strong westerlies all day on both days.  With this in mind, I decided to cycle on into the night; there were no cars or trucks, and the wind had completely died after sunset.  I had intended to go on another 30Km, but I was rolling and with music in my ear and the milky way in full view in front of me, I was buzzing (the night sky in Australia is truly wonderful, especially when you are in the wide expanses of nothing).  I managed to go until midnight adding another 91Km, taking the daily total to 211Km, a new personal best for one day of cycling, and all without a breath of a tailwind (and in fact quite a bit of headwind during the day).

It turned-out to be a wise move to put in these extra kilometres as the winds came in force in the following days, just as forecast, and it was brutal.  I managed to eek out at least some distance on these days, but waking-up every day to forecasts of strong headwinds was starting to get me seriously down.  It was soul-destroying stuff, and I cursed the gods more than once as it appeared the world was plotting against me.

It was inevitable that there would be a Japanese guy doing this insanity as well.
Energy to keep going came from different sources, often gallons of refill instant coffee and milo from roadhouses, but the kindness of strangers in caravans gave me an important boost on more than one occasion.  On one of the windy days, a dust storm blew-through briefly with a squally shower.  Luckily, I was near a roadside rest stop and shelter, but seeing as the dust and rain was driving-through horizontally, it wasn't doing much good.  A very sweet older couple arrived at the same time, though, and they invited me in for a coffee, a banana sandwich and some more little snacks.  I can't tell you how much better I felt for that, and this sort of thing happened on a number of occasions.  I had originally thought that it was the coffee that gave me a boost, but as time went on, and on some occasions just water was given to me when I really needed it, I thought that it might actually be the feel-good, morale-boosting feeling itself of good-hearted people inviting me in and having a chat that helped drive me forward.

I was struggling the rest of the time though, really badly.  The conditions were taking their toll.  Not much shelter, so many bushflies (if I could kill every last one of these damn things, I would), march flies that were biting, and an unrelenting wind.  I was scraping-through, and then I wondered how the Korean cycle tourer I met back in Ceduna was getting on.

I saw this guy - who didn't want to be photographed - just before I left and he had the most extraordinary set-up I have ever seen (see picture below).  At the time, I really admired him for such a can-do, brave, inventive, and adventurous spirit, but as I made my way across the Nullarbor, I started to have my doubts about whether his ambition was a little too foolhardy.

Absolutely insane, but he had already done almost halfway around Australia, his mission was Cairns to Cairns, clockwise.
His suitcase, that he was trailing behind him, was only attached by string, and with the high winds in this part of Australia, I worried whether he could pedal in a straight line, and this was backed-up by stories from people I met who had past him on the road.  Apparently he was swaying around everywhere and he'd also hurt his ankle somewhere along the way.  The risk to his own safety seemed too high, but not only that, to other road users as well.  I began to think that it was all even a little irresponsible.

About half-way through the trip, I was passed by an ambulance, fire truck and police car at high speed.  I assumed there had been an accident further up the road and I wasn't wrong.  Some poor chap towing a trailer had crashed off the road and had been killed.  A police officer stopped me on the road and asked me if I had noticed anyone driving erratically earlier in the day and took my details just in case.  There seemed to be no other cars involved, but the driver looked like he had taken a sharp turn to the left while braking, as that's where the skid-marks were going.  His car and trailer were in a terrible state just off the road.  Perhaps he tried to avoid a kangaroo, as I did see one hit on the same stretch of road.

With all the big road trains around, though, a cyclist wobbling around all over the road is not the safest thing in the world, and especially with this incident fresh in my mind, I began to think this Korean chap might get stopped by the police at some stage (he wasn't involved in the incident, he was a few days behind me).

Back to my problems then, and true exhaustion was beginning to take hold, especially with all the wild camping also.  Still, there wasn't that much traffic, and the roads were pretty straight and flat (usually great for distance cycling, but not in headwinds).  As if to reinforce just how boring the road was, a highlight was "The 90 Mile Straight", the longest absolutely straight road in Australia.  It was at this point of the journey that I started to feel genuinely fatigued, having periods of light-headedness, and even sleepiness on the bike.  Everything was hurting also, legs, hands, feet, butt, and even my eyes from being dried-out by the winds.

Shortly after the end of the 90-mile straight, I met a German cyclist, who was the worst person to meet on low spirits.  I was told to, "Relax and enjoy the ride.  Don't worry about headwinds, they just give you a nice cool breeze.  I met a monk in......blah, blah, blah, who saved my life......blah, blah, blah."  I could have clobbered the guy.  Here he is, 200Km or so into the ordeal, all in strong tailwinds, telling me, over 1000Km in, how I should be feeling.  I said to him, "We'll see if you are smiling in 1000Km time and after a week of headwinds."  I wanted to get away from him as soon as possible.  I have always hated people who give you advice without you asking for it, and being overly cheerful coupled with a lack of understanding didn't help either.  Turns out the lady who runs the campsite at Norseman met him too (he stayed there for 8 days, recovering from coming from Perth, what a lightweight), and she didn't like him much either, haha.

The Nullarbor crossing, as hard as it was, is something I am very glad I did.  "Why on earth would you do such a thing?", many people asked me this on the way.  It isn't for fun, that's for sure.  No part of that was fun, and I wasn't happy for ten days, I can assure you.  I had no good answer for the questions, but perhaps because I have been listening to Jordan Peterson a lot recently, I started to say, "Pick up the heaviest load you can and carry it, it makes life meaningful".  I think this is right.

This truck was carrying a huge load that took up the whole road and was escorted by two police cars.
Difficult things, a struggle, a fight, taking responsibility for something make life worth living.  I think most people do this by having children, and I have thought long and hard about having children, as it is something rather expected of you, yet I have always hated children, especially the young ones.  I understand they bring a lot of joy, but I think the real reason for having them is the struggle, the huge responsibility on you to raise them well and the heroic effort this entails.  I admire people for having them, but they aren't for me.  I need to find other ways of making life meaningful.

To be honest, on this trip so far, every time I have seen a young child they have ruined the atmosphere; they whinge, they moan, they cry, they scream and when they are happy they are just as noisy and irritating.  I fantasize about tripping them up when they are happily running along laughing and playing or pushing them over. I know, I'm horrible, but I don't actually do it!  I am actually rather protective and on edge if I see young children in danger, I think this is a deep paternal instinct that most men have, perhaps.  I'm the kind of guy that wishes a kid walking with an ice cream drops it on the ground and starts crying, while at the same time would actually give them mine if it did in fact happen.

My responsibility on this trip is for ultimately for myself, to live, and survive with very little and to cover the distance; this is incredibly engaging and there is not a moment of boredom in my day, even on the longest roads with nothing to see.  There really was nothing to see for hours and hours of cycling on the Nullarbor, but I can assure you that I wasn't bored for one second.  Even I find this phenomenon extremely bizarre sometimes.

A very unspectacular ending of the road from hell. 
When I finally finished this epic and painful ordeal, I was met with nothing but a bland sign for the town of Norseman.  So tired I was at the time, I couldn't even be bothered to wheel my bike next to it for a photo, I just lent it next to a sign closer to the road.  I stayed in Norseman for a couple of days to work and recover before moving on to Esperance.

I had a little over 200Km to Esperance, which I had to do in a couple of days to make my scheduled work.  Looking ahead at the weather, it didn't look great in Esperance after my date of arrival, but it looked very nice on the day.  With this in mind, I aimed to get there a bit early and fit in a scenic bike ride along the coast before settling-in to my accommodation.

I didn't really mean to go so far on the first day.  I wanted to leave myself about 50Km to Esperance, but ended-up leaving under 20Km, doing a whopping 170Km on that day.  I did about 30Km extra because I couldn't find anywhere to camp; everywhere turned into farmland, fenced-off close to the road, so I had to ride on into the night before I luckily found a quiet little nature reserve to sneakily pitch my tent.

The effort was worth it, however, as I was greeted in Esperance the next day with clear blue skies and bright sunshine, perfect weather to appreciate some of the most pristine beaches and turquoise-blue waters I have ever seen.  I was a nice change of scenery from, well, no scenery for the last 1000Km or so.

There were lots of surfers out on the water, very brave considering there has been a recent speight of shark attacks in this part of Australia, which forced the cancellation of a world surfing competition a bit further down the coast.  However, the waters here looked pretty shallow and a bit calmer, suited more for beginners.

So onto Perth next, following the coastline first West and then North.  This is probably going to be the most populated region I cycle through, but even then there still aren't an awful lot of people out here, but I will enjoy the regular towns though after this arduous part of the trip.

The Journey So Far

Just over 3000Km so far then, although it is probably a couple of hundred more than this this with all the side trips.  Looking forward now to the long journey through Western Australia.