Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Long Red Road Ahead

The first leg of my Australasian adventure is shorter, but by far the tougher of the two (at least cycling-wise).  I've set this as a challenge, both a physical and a mental one.  The journey will take me through some of the most arid and baron landscapes on earth, with very little in the way of creature comforts or even many towns to pass through.  To get to Melbourne in the desired time frame (approximately 30 days), I'll need to average about 130Km (that's just over 80 miles) a day.  Seeing as this is my first long cycle tour, I have set myself a contingency target of making it to Adelaide if I have any problems, which works out at a much more leisurely 100Km a day.  Given my practice runs, though, I am pretty confident of making it all the way to Melbourne, barring any disasters.

I'll be arriving in Darwin in the early hours on the 6th of August and I have 35 days until I leave for New Zealand, so I can't dawdle along too much.  30 days is the target so I can have some much needed rest and relaxation in Melbourne before I go.

As far as side trips go, two stand out, and those are Katherine Gorge and Ayers Rock. I will only visit them if I am on schedule.  This trip is all about the challenge, my trip to New Zealand is more about travel and a serious amount of hiking (my first love). However, I obviously would like to get to these places, but I'll have to hit my targets. Katherine Gorge is only 29Km off the Stuart Highway, but visiting will use up a day and Ayers Rock is a massive 267Km side trip, which I certainly won't be cycling to. Luckily, another one of Australia's major attractions is on the way back to Melbourne and I'll be riding on it, i.e. The Great Ocean Road.

Other than that, the vastness and nothingness is part of the appeal of this ride.  The simplicity of life for a month should be both a source of hardship and relaxation.  I have a daily target to hit, one singular focus for the vast majority of the time.  My worries, aren't money, work, or traffic jams; they are where to camp, finding enough water, eating enough food, and staying safe.  These are the basic concerns of primitive man before life became so complicated, and much of Australia - especially the middle - does have this almost primordial feel to it.  I am looking forward to the night sky, sunrises and sunsets; the real basic, often overlooked benefits of living nomadically and off the grid.


It's going to be the simple life for me for the next month on this trip.  I have a small, inconspicuous one man tent that will be my shelter for most of the time.  Sometimes this will be just pitched in the bush, out of sight in the wild, or at roadhouses with some amenities on offer.  If I am really in need of a proper bed, I can occasionally treat myself to a room at roadhouses, hostels, or other places of accommodation along the route. After the longest section without civilization - Coober Pedy to Glendambo (255Km) - I certainly may be tempted into this, and at Alice Springs also.

Weather and other conditions

The only time of year that I could really ride this route would be in the winter, as the temperatures in the red centre of Australia can regularly top 40 degrees celsius and sometimes hit 50 in the summer!  Not ideal weather for cycling, especially when water is scarce.  The flies at any time of year other than winter can be incredibly irritating as well.  Bush flies have to be one of the worst things about living in Australia, they can be extremely vexatious, even in Melbourne, so I can't imagine what they'd be like in the middle of the outback.

Even though it's winter, I still expect the days in the Northern Territory to top 30 degrees, and in the far north the nights may be sticky also.  However, this will quickly give way to warm days and very cold nights under the clear skies of central Australia, with the climate behaving more like desert conditions.  Of course, as I get further south the days will slowly turn colder and I can expect some chilly days cycling back to Melbourne along the southern coastline.  I visited the Great Ocean Road and camped near the Twelve Apostles with my mum back in January this year (the height of summer), and it wasn't exactly warm then.

A chilly Twelve Apostles, even in summer.
All this means that I have to take more than just board-shorts, a vest and a bit of sunscreen.  I'll need the sunglasses, shorts, and protection from the heat and sun, but I also need warm clothes and a very good sleeping bag.  To give you an idea, it got down to - 5 degrees in Alice Springs this month.  That was especially cold, but below zero is certainly possible in central Australia at night.  It is actually a good thing as it is frost that kills the flies.  I'll take a few cold nights if it reduces their numbers.

August is the dry season in the Northern Territory, so I am not expecting much rain at all, especially after a couple of hundred kilometres south of Darwin, but I may again see rain after I hit the southern coast.

According to the sweet and inspiring lady I met on the train, who has done a lot of cycle touring in Australia, she reckons I am doing the trip the wrong way.  She thought I'd be more likely to hit headwinds going from Darwin to Melbourne than vice versa.  I will be praying for the wind direction to blow my way because headwinds are the curse of the cyclist and winds blow very strong in Australia.  They are quite changeable through the middle, but I'm hoping that I won't get too many wind-blasting days struggling into the wind.  Once I start turning east along the southern coast - where the winds can really blow - my days could be radically affected by the wind direction.  In my limited experience of living in Victoria, it does seem to me that westerly winds are the stronger ones and with any luck these will push me home with a strong tailwind.  I do remember watching the easterlys almost breaking Mark Beaumont on his trip along the south coast, however, on his documentary for the bbc (see the video below at about 7mins onward for his Australia section).

He did it in summer though and across the Nullarbor, much much worse for lack of contact and trouble with finding and drinking enough water, and also headwinds too.  He was quite unlucky with the headwinds, they could have just as easily blown in the other direction and given him an extremely easy ride.  The old lady, previously mentioned who I met on the train, actually did the Nullarbor herself, except with a huge tailwind (she did her research), and she told me that she hardly had to pedal for large sections of the journey.

Dangers and Concerns

As well as the sheer distance, there are other obstacles to overcome.  Such a journey does come with some dangers, which are very real, but with sensible precautions, can be somewhat mitigated.  Every time you get on a bike you are relying on the car behind you not hitting you, for example, there is no such thing as a risk-free life.  I'm no house cat, sometimes you need to take the chance of life outside the box.

Getting Lost

One problem I shouldn't have is getting lost, especially from Darwin to Port Augusta (about 2700km), as I am literally on one long road for the whole time, i.e. the Stuart Highway.  And even after that, my weekend run-outs have taught me that the relative emptiness of Australia is actually quite helpful in a way because there are only so many roads, especially the sealed ones, which I intend to keep to for this trip.

Food and Water

There are issues with cycling the Stuart; accommodation, food, and water are sparse. For most of the journey down the highway, roadhouses and places to find food and water come about every 100Km, but the longest section is about 270Km of nothing. Obviously, I have to be careful to stock up on food, but especially water when the gaps between resources are as long as this.  This means more weight on the bike, as I predict I may need to carry as much as 12 litres of water on the longer sections.  On leaving any water source, I intend to have at least 8 litres on the bike before I go.

Road Trains

This is my biggest safety concern.  My only weapon against these monsters is a mirror. I don't intend to take the chance of them seeing me and giving me enough clearance.  If one is coming up from behind, or even in-front, I'm off to the side of the road for a break.  The gusts of wind and plumes of dust they create alone can knock you off-balance on the bike.


Some of the towns I'll be passing through are remote and home to some fairly eccentric people, so I hear.  The crime rate in aboriginal communities is also quite high, and I'll be passing through a few of these.  I am actually passing through the town (Barrow Creek), where a mechanic called John Bradley Murdoch kidnapped a British couple, and killed Peter Falconio while his girlfriend Joanne Lees managed to miraculously escape.  The rather disgusting gorefest horror movie, "Wolf Creek", was inspired by these events.

What can I do?  Be vigilant, take two wallets, lock the bike up well or take it inside shops and other places if I need to, get insurance, and hope for no bad luck.  Nothing much has happened that's really bad since the aforementioned incident, which was back in 2001.  I'm sure I'll be fine.


Personally, I think this is one of the more overstated dangers of Australia generally, but also of travelling through the outback on a journey such as this.  Basically, stupidity is the main reason most people get into trouble with animals.  That's not to say there is no risk, but significantly less than what one might imagine, especially in the imagination of the average Brit with no experience of Australia and with all the crazy scare stories of the animals in Oz that the media perpetuate over in the UK. (This article is a common example).

Crocodiles - there are two kinds in the Northern Territory, freshwater and saltwater. The freshies are nothing much to worry about, but the salties are the killers, and they have attacked and killed campers and fisherman in the recent past.  However, it is the dry season now, so they won't be very far down river.  I should be well away from them after just the first day.

- Snakes - is probably the biggest animal danger, although it is still highly improbable that they'll give me any problems.  I have lived in Melbourne for 2 years and I have only ever seen one, and I regularly get out into the forests and parks for trail runs and hiking. As with spiders in Australia, you just have to be aware that they might be hanging around in certain places and just proceed with caution.  Most snakes in Australia will want to avoid confrontation and just slip away unseen.  The most aggressive snake is the Eastern brown snake, which I have heard some scary stories about, but they won't inhabit the places I'm going.  Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of venomous snakes around, but they are mostly the ones that will stay well away from me.

- Spiders - more likely to give me a fright than be dangerous.  Shaking my shoes out in the morning is a must.

Kangaroos - can't imagine one will pick a fight with me, but they could be a hazard jumping across the road, though more likely they are hazardous when they are dead in the road.  I recently bought a powerful front light for this very reason.  Just in case I have to cycle at night at all, I would like to be able to see if they are lying in my path.

These are Eastern Greys, but it will mostly be the bigger Red kangaroos I'll be coming across.

Dingoes - can't imagine they will be much of a problem, but they will be about and have been known to be aggressive looking for food, and even pose a threat to children. I won't be storing any food inside my tent at night, everything but water will be sealed inside the panniers on the bike.

- And the rest - I may also encounter emus and camels going through the red centre, and koalas and wombats in the south.  I suppose the emus and camels could pose a hazard running across the road, but I think I'm pretty safe with the koalas and wombats.

So, what an adventure, and although there are a few fears, I have spoken to many informed people as well as done my research, so I have all the knowledge to make sure I don't fall foul of any of them.  One of the advantages of being a personal trainer is that I can pick the brains of my clients, who have much more experience than me of Australian roads and conditions, obviously though by car, and in slightly more comfortable circumstances than me.

Training runs, check.  Research, check.  Advice, check.  And now I'm packed-up and ready to go.  Let the countdown begin!

And Finally....

I will try and post updates as I travel through Australia, but because of the lack of facilities, this may be difficult.  The full story will be told when I return.

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