Friday, 30 March 2018

Australia Tour Update 1: March 8th to April 1st

I am about 3-4 weeks in, and so far, so good, although there has been the odd day of suffering, but that is to be expected.

I set-off from Swan Hill after getting out of Melbourne by train.  I was basically following the Murray river for the first week from East to West, and the main highlight of this first week was the excellent free camping beside the river at numerous locations.  Almost as soon as I left the Murray, free camping has become far less comfortable.

The first few days from Swan Hill to Mildura were made difficult because of the heat.  It was over 30 degrees each day and just after leaving Mildura the mercury shot-up to 37 C.  On that day, I did not plan to cycle much, but at least make it to a free camping spot a little outside of town where I knew I could get a 4G signal , so I could do some work online.  I had spent money on a campsite for the previous two days, and I thought I'd test how working and free camping would work-out.

Some great free-camping along the Murray river.
Well, that was a bit of a nightmare afternoon for a combination of reasons.  I managed to complete the classes, but the stress levels were high.  I started teaching inside the tent, and as uncomfortable as it was, it was doable.  However, as the sun got higher in the sky, the shade of the trees disappeared and it turned into a bit of a sweat-fest.  The more concerning aspect of the heat, however, was the soaring temperature of my computer, which I could have almost cooked my lunch on.  Compounding my problems were ants and flies, meaning that I couldn't open the tent doors and get some breeze blowing through.

Looks nice, but the combination of heat, flies, and ants really made it quite uncomfortable.
All this meant that I had to get out of the tent, but there were very few comfortable places to sit down and the combination of wind and water-skiers made things a little more noisy than ideal sometimes for teaching English.  Going outside did, however, cool the computer down.  It was desperately uncomfortable though because as well as the problem of where to sit, ants, flies, and the sun were all ganging-up on me to make things as difficult as possible.

This was the first of two and a half very testing days, one off the bike, and the rest on it.

The decision to go to a known free-camping area set in motion a disastrous change of route.  I was now out of town to the north of Mildura instead of the south.  I would have had a simple A-road journey of about 140Km to Renmark if I had gone on my intended route, but now I had chosen a more backcountry road.  I knew there might be some areas of unsealed road, but with some good experiences of unsealed roads in Australia on previous tours, it didn't bother me that much.  Indeed, the route looked more interesting and adventurous.

Well, it certainly was adventurous.  Unbeknownst to me, I was entering an area known as the Mallee Wilderness, a particularly barren and isolated area, not very much touched by man, and the state of the roads showed this up nicely.

This bit of random information I found at the end of the road from hell pretty much sums the place up.
I had 150Km to get to Renmark on this route and 110Km of them were on the worst roads I have ever encountered.  If they weren't bumpy, corrugated, or pot-holed, the surface had broken-up so much that in many areas the road simply turned into sand.  I don't know if you have ever tried riding a bike through sand, but suffice to say it is pretty impossible.  Add another 25Kg to your bike and even pushing it while walking becomes crazily difficult.

All this meant that the trip from Renmark was extended by about 8 - 10 hours.  This obviously made me worry a little about water.  Luckily, though, there was at least one pleasant stretch in the middle around Lake Victoria, where the road was sealed for about 10Km and I could fill-up with water.

An oasis in the wilderness, Lake Victoria in the middle of nowhere.
The rest of the way was truly hellish, though, and would without doubt be standing clear at the top of the worst days and a half on a bike I have ever had and, come to think of it, worst days of my life period.  It really was that bad, if you could have followed me with a tape recorder, you might never see me in the same light again, such was the sheer range and rate of shouting and swearing that was going on.  Fortuunately, it was only the kangaroos that had to cover their ears.  Once I had finished, I wished I had taken some pictures of the road, but taking snaps wasn't on my mind at the time.

I'd never want to repeat that day, but strangely enough, I am glad I did it.  When you do something like that, which is truly difficult, truly a test of character, you feel almost invincible for coming through it.  You strut around with the confidence that not even the worst of the Australian outback can get the better of you, and that can be one of the most forbidding environments around.  Many people can't understand why I'd cycle through such a place, but understand that the harshness of the outback is a large part of it's appeal.  Add to that, there was a lot of wildlife on that road, kangaroos and emus everywhere.

To add another nail in the coffin, once the road turned back to bitumen and I could ride fast enough to notice the wind, it was quite severely in my face for the last 15Km into Renmark.  Once I arrived, I ate, ate, and then ate some more, sat down in a nice park and relaxed for a few hours, pulled-out about 10 thorns from my tyres (called Bindis apparently), and repaired a puncture from one of them.

As I sat down, I noticed a sweet little dog sitting about 100 metres away, kind of next to someone, but not really.  After a while it ran over to me and sat by my leg.  He had a collar on, but had no tag and seemed to want some attention.  I asked people around, but they said it wasn't theirs.  With no tag, I called the council, but after a short time he chased a couple of dogs and then ran-off down the street, crossing a busy main road in the process.  Some trampish-looking man said he had seen him doing this all day, and it was lucky he wasn't killed.

I tried to get the dog back but he had gone, sprinting a long way down the road.  I had to inform the council he now wasn't in the park, but heading towards the river.  Ten minutes later, though, and guess who appeared by my leg again!?  I was pretty happy, and this time hooked him up to one of my bungee cords and waited for someone from the council to arrive.  He was apparently reunited with his owner the next day.  As a bit of a dog lover, I was pretty happy with it all.

My office for the afternoon.
Anyway, back to business, and it was now time to make my way towards the Flinders Ranges, with part of the route being very familiar to me.  The route from Morgan to Peterborough was the same as on my Darwin to Melbourne tour 2 years ago just in the reverse direction.  I only repeat two sections on this trip, this one in South Australia, and Katherine to Mataranka in the Northern Territory, which is a few months away.

Everything looked very different at this time of year.  I had gone through this area before in the middle of Winter, and things were much greener.  I stayed in Peterborough in a very nice chap's house I connected with through  This was my first time using this website, which lets people make contact with others who are interested in letting cycle tourers stay in their houses, free of charge.  Many even cook meals for their guests, as mine did too (a really fantastic curry, most definitely my best meal of the tour to date).

Sunrise in Peterborough
Chris (yes, his name was also, Chris) was a super-host, even though he was out most of the time working, however he was very easy to get along with and he provided a comfortable, inexpensive place for me to stay for a few days while I worked and rested.

Working while on tour has been a success so far, and in the first three weeks I have managed to cover the expenses of the trip with the work I've done.  I have been using the 4G signal on my phone and hooking it up to the computer.  I have found that the wifi I have been getting in various places is simply not reliable enough for teaching.  Finally, it seems, Telstra is of some use.  Useless in almost every other regard, I can't fault their coverage in Australia and the internet speed.

Another major plus on this tour so far is my new tent.  For such a long trip, and the inevitability of a huge amount of camping, I thought it essential that I was a little more comfortable than on previous tours.  I was worried about the extra weight, but that doesn't seem to be too much of a problem, but the extra room in the tent is absolute bliss and has actually made camping a bit more of a pleasure, rather than just a place to fall asleep every night.

The view at castle point in Hawker after a morning run.
On to the first highlight stop of the tour then, the Flinders Ranges.  After a couple of days working in Hawker, I had a 3-day loop back to Hawker through the iconic hills and mountains, working in some hiking as well.

Over the 2-3 days, I had about 180Km of cycling to do, and I ended-up doing quite an arduous hike up to Mary's Peak, the highest in the Flinders Ranges At about 1150m.  The circuit round, starting from Wilpena visitor's centre, was about 22Km in total, and I did feel it in the hot weather.

At the top of St Mary's peak with the crocodile's back of the ranges disappearing into the distance.
I actually wasn't supposed to go to the top of this peak out of respect for the aboriginal community of the area, but I consider this a silly rule, so I didn't respect it.  I was especially against doing what I was told because of the way I was told not to go by a park official at the visitors centre.  I didn't know about the rule, and just said, "I'm planning to go to Mary's Peak", to which I got the reply of, "No, you aren't".  I had assumed at the time, that the trail was closed, but later found out that it was out of respect.  Well, no one is telling me where I can and can't go, and certainly not in that tone of voice.

The same bloke also gave me some rather unfortunate advice about the state of the bike trail from Wilpena.  The trail was only for mountain bikes, so I had to walk it through most of the way, costing valuable time and energy.  It was, however, super-easy to find a camp spot.

The Mawson Trail was a bit rough for my bike, but it was a bit of an adventure, and nice camping.
The hike was stunning, especially the view from the top, so I was glad I broke the rules, you could see right down the crocodile's back of the Flinders Ranges.  I passed a couple in their late forties who seemed to be struggling with the heat and difficulty of the trail, and from where they were, I couldn't imagine them getting back before dark.  Indeed, that particular trail is closed in the summer months.  Despite it being early Autumn temperatures still rose to over 35 degrees for the few days I was there.

I, half-reluctantly, chose to do some of the back roads around the park and loop back down the Flinders Ranges Way and back to Hawker.  I was a little apprehensive after my trials and tribulations on the dirt tracks earlier on the tour on the way to Renmark.  Bumpy in places, the roads weren't nearly as bad and gave a real feeling of getting away from it all and being lost in the wilderness.

Despite being in the Australian wilderness, I did manage to meet a bloke from Colchester (my hometown in the UK), who was doing a bikepacking tour from Perth to Sydney, going on all the back roads and dirt tracks.

Typically, the first cyclist I meet actually lived in Colchester.
Bikepacking differs from what I am doing, in that it is more a mountain bike set-up designed for backcountry bike trails and it something very appealing to me.  You pack a little lighter and not with panniers, but lots of different little bags and attachments to the bike.  One for the future, I reckon, I'd definitely be interested in doing it.  I'd need a new bike and some different kit though.

I left the ranges the same way I came in, but the weather, the lack of shelter, and the flies were starting to drive me crazy.  I thought I'd take it easy on the penultimate day there and find a nice shaded area and rest for a few hours in the heat of the middle of the day.  However, there was nowhere to get myself out of the sun.  It was so frustrating and when you get tired and frustrated in Australia that's when the flies seem to be at their worst; they land on you once, then again, and again, and again.

Look closely.  Under almost every tree that could offer shade sat a bunch of kangaroos.
The Flinders Ranges had more kangaroos, wallabies, and emus than I had ever seen anywhere else, amazing for such a harsh landscape and climate.  I started to admire their ability to survive while I suffered-away in the heat with limited supplies of water.  The kangaroos would either be bouncing along the side of the road, often quite close to me while riding, or chilling-out under trees.  When you looked closely into the distance, you could see just how many of them were around just sitting under trees in the middle of the day.

Another problem I had was that because of the high temperatures and lack of shade I was getting through a lot of water.  I also lost a bottle because I filled-up at a rainwater collection spot only to discover the water was putrid, which stained my bottle with the most vomit-inducing odour imaginable.  All this meant that after I stopped to camp, about 25 Km from Hawker, I ran out of water and then just had to cycle into town in the middle of the night as sleep was impossible.  When you get truly dehydrated you fantasize about drinking, jumping into swimming pools, singing in the rain, and all that, it's quite something.

After a day's rest in Hawker and some work I was back on the road again, this time heading south towards Port Lincoln.  This was a stretch of the tour I wasn't looking forward to much because of the high chance of headwinds and the mostly uneventful roads with few attractions.  I met another cyclist, this time a girl from Slovenia, who was travelling from Perth to Sydney.  Her tribulations with the wind had been much greater than mine, though, as she crossed the Nullarbor from the wrong direction at this time of year, and bore the full force of the notorious winds in this area of Australia.

Natalie from Slovenia, had already crossed the Nullarbor into the wind most of the time.  Top effort, that is not for the faint-hearted, even with the wind.
I managed to get in a workout in a gym and a game of squash in Port Augusta - my second game of the tour, I also managed one in Mildura.  After 80Km of riding in the morning, I hit the weights and then a few games of squash.  It was nice to get the body doing something else except cycling.  I was obviously pretty slow on court, but I haven't dropped a game yet.  This may change in Perth where I will face stiffer competition, I'm sure.

After Port Augusta it was as I feared, a bit of a slog into the wind, but the wind didn't blow too badly, and I got most the distance I needed to cover daily done very early in the morning, before it got too strong.

View from the lookout in Whyalla.
I had a difficult day coming into Whyalla, an industrial town on the coast of the Eyre Peninsula.  I was a bit tired and fed-up, but I thought I'd struggle-up to a lookout and eat some lunch.  Whilst looking out over the marina, I noticed a fishing boat returning, and following were a number of dolphins.  I jumped on the bike to see if I could get a closer view, and sure enough they came right up to the jetty and hung around waiting for some fish and eyeing us up at the same time.  I have never seen dolphins up so close, it was amazing.  It was pretty awesome to actually look into their eyes and it made me look at them slightly differently, it really seemed like there was a lot going on inside their heads.  There were 8 dolphins in all, 4 mums and 4 calves; the mothers were the only ones to eye us up and stick their heads out of the water.

Mum and calf.  The calves almost seemed like little toys, very cute.
It really was a huge lift, as I am very much a nature person, unlike my dad (private joke).  I had a bit more of a rest afterwards and I was motivated and raring to go later in the day.

One of the fishermen kindly gave me a fish to feed one of the dolphins; she was very gentle.
The next few days were just a grind into the wind and wild camping, which was a bit easier than I had imagined, but it still drains you after a few days.  I was dirty, tired, and in need of a rest.  Fortunately, Port Lincoln came just in time and I settled-down with my new warmshowers hosts, Peter and Lana, which is where I will pick up from next time.

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