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.