This time, my third long ride across Australia, was full of contrasts and surprises. I left Perth, as expected, in pleasant sunshine as I headed south along an attractive coastline. There was a considerable change as my direction followed the coastline eastward beyond Augusta. Much of the land was now covered in forest. The trees were impressive and often huge. The sun now rarely showed - instead it rained. Not just a little rain. In Albany we had an all-time record of 120mm overnight flooding people out of their homes.
Luckily in Esperance I withdrew some money from my account in the National Australia bank. It turned out to be a wise move as it would be 2,000 km before I would find the next NAB. From now on there would be few places of any size at all. One of them, which was larger than average, had the distinction of having been named after a horse. Norseman, unlike Bucephalas the great warhorse of Alexander the Great - who had a city named after him, was a modest little pony that just happened to have struck gold. One story claims he became lame when a bit of gold bearing ore stuck in his hoof.
Before getting to Norseman I was delayed by a golf-ball sized hailstorm, which, leaving ice 300mm deep, blocked the road. This road too had once been forested but many of the trees had been cut down to power the condensers used to convert the salty bore water into drinking water for the horses used in the gold rush. Eventually, camels proved to be the best way to cross these waterless areas of Australia. On my last ride in Australia, from Perth to Darwin nine years ago, I had been followed for several kilometres by a huge male camel over part of a massive, empty scrub desert. At the end of that day I met up with Andrew and Janet, a couple who happened to be riding the same route, and told them my story. I asked about their day. ‘The same as yours, except for the camel’, Andrew said. There were going to be many more ‘except for the camel’ days over the next few thousand kilometres of this ride.
Corrugated iron camels on the Norsman traffic island.
Heading east from Norseman I crossed the Nullarbor. This massive desert does, as its Latin based name implies, soon run out of trees. However, perhaps the Aboriginal name, oondiri, the waterless, is more important to a cyclist.
Roadhouses, which are filling stations usually with a shop, a campsite and a motel, are never more than 200 km apart across the Nullarbor. It is possible to carry enough water to make it from one water-buying place to the next, knowing there should be no need for waterless wild camping for more than one night at a time. Along the 1200 km of the Nullarbor there are also Rest Areas. These are places, often with some shade, where it is possible to camp overnight. Some of them even have a water tank.
Rest area with water tank – South Australia.
My first shock after leaving Norseman was a pleasant one. It was clear I wasn’t going to make it to the first Roadhouse and I was looking for somewhere to camp when I saw a sign for a caravan park (most camping places are called caravan parks in Australia). A couple of km from the main road there was an old disused sheep station that had been converted into a splendid camping place. It had attractive gardens, shade and a place to buy some items of food. This was a whole lot better than spending a night in the desert without a shower to wash off the dust. Before leaving the caravan park, I was to hear of the first cycle tourist I was to meet on my trip. He was just two days in front.
A garden in the desert.
Balladonia, the first roadhouse I was to visit on the Nullarbor, had its five minutes of fame when it received a telephone call from President Jimmy Carter. Looking up to the sky in July 1979 its staff, of perhaps ten people, saw a great firework display covering the night sky. The old USA’s Skylab had broken up on its re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere and had spread itself over South Australia and almost wiped Balladonia off the map. The US president apologised for this near miss. The state premier, with the usual Australian humour, sent him a bill for litter. It has not yet been paid!
It was in Balladonia where I met Mark. He was the cycle tourist I had heard about. He was no longer two days in front because he’d had a couple of rest days. Mark is a huge friendly man with an equally big personality. He is seeing his native country by working for a while before moving on to fresh pastures on his bike. He’d recently been the warden of a youth hostel.
Less than 30 km from Balladonia is start of the ninety-mile straight. Mark and I agreed to meet part way along, at a rest area 128 km from our starting point. The day’s ride began with a gentle head wind. It didn’t stay gentle for long. By the time the100 km was reached it was a gusting gale force side wind and no longer felt save despite the wide hard shoulder at this point. Along the Nullarbor long vehicles, known as roadtrains, speed. The drivers are usually good and give cyclist as much room as they can, but when they are coming from both directions, that’s not much. By the time I reached our agreed meeting point my speed was down to 13 kph and I was fighting to keep the bike on the road. Mark was towing a trailer some hours behind, and had found it even more trouble to keep moving.
The next day we had only 60 km to the next roadhouse. The gale was still blowing. It had turned again and, thankfully, was now a back wind. I averaged an effortless 40 kph for the 60 km, getting there for early breakfast.
Mark was extremely tied the following day and wisely had another rest day. For me, with the heat of the summer threatening, it was a case of pressing on, day after day, roadhouse after roadhouse. Sometimes I had a short ride of seventy or so kilometres a day, but more usually around 100. The gale force winds continued. They were rarely helpful.
There is no mobile phone network over these remote areas, but there are emergency telephones spaced along the road. Parts of the highway can be used as landing strips for the flying doctor service.
After one really hard all day battle with a gale force head wind, I changed down into bottom gear to climb the slight incline to Eucla. I had only completed 65 km and planned to go on to the border just 15km further on. The sky blackened; there was thunder and lightening over the sea, but almost no rain on land. Yet, it was enough to make me decide to stay the night. I felt it would be best to go on to the border the next day and treat it as my first rest day.
Eucla is close to the Western/South Australia border. It is famous for being the place where the great explorer Eyre found water, and later for its telegraph station. This telegraph station was as bizarre as it was important. At one side of the table there used to sit West Australians, tapping out Morse in one time zone: on the other side, tapping out a different version of the Morse code, and 45 minutes ahead of them in time, were the South Australians. Likely to be completed this year, is an equally bizarre enterprise. A golf course is being built over about 2,000 km of the Nullarbor. One hole is being played in each of the participating sites. Eucla is taking part.
Waking to find that for once the wind was helpful, I rode to the border for breakfast. This was too good a chance to miss; instead of a rest day I continued on and completed more than 200 km. The following day was a head wind again.
The road here runs alongside the Great Australian Bight. There are viewing areas giving a spectacular panoramic view over the ocean from the cliff tops. I was about six weeks too late to carry out the whale watching this area is known for.
Whales were once boiled into oil using these pots.
Along these great empty spaces people were friendly and went out of their way to be helpful. Cars would stop and asked if I had enough water, and some would even pass me cold sodas while still on the move. I must have looked thirsty!
Ceduna is the first town of any size after crossing the Nullarbor. I arrived there at 12 noon on a Saturday, only to find that the shops were closing until Monday morning. It is here that main road divides. The A1 cuts across the top of the Eyre Peninsula; the B1 follows the coast. This coastline seemed especially pleasant after the Nullabor, with its many bays and inlets. Small fishing towns are now filled with tourists. Matthew Flinders who, in Napoleonic times, mapped out this coastline, seems to have had difficulty thinking of enough names for all these bays and inlets. His list of names includes all the towns of any size in his native Lincolnshire: Boston Bay (he was born in Boston), Port Lincoln, Sleaford Bay ect. Then there are the names of his follow officers, such as: Coffin Bay, Port Neill. He even resorts to describing the seaweed: Streaky Bay. On the east coast of the peninsular there were bush fires, with aircraft dropping water from the skies. A stark contrast to the rain soaked ride of a couple of thousand kilometres before, but a sad sign of a larger event to come within a few weeks.
Once again campsites had grass. It is always difficult, especially in a gale, to pitch a tent in soft sand. The caravan parks are not geared to the small tent. I was often given, what seemed like, a big enough plot to build a small city. There was considerable variation in price, from less than 10 Australian dollars to more than sixty. The best value camping places were in National Parks. To use these you had to be a member. Membership cards were available in a box at the entrance. The card had to be filled in and posted with a small fee in an honesty box. At one of these campsites you could get a hot shower by cutting wood and lighting it under a boiler. Caravan Parks, in contrast, had shower blocks, kitchens, swimming pools, often a room with games and a TV. There was always the Australian essential, a barbeque.
An evening visit
Some tents sites had wildlife. On this trip, I only saw two snakes; one very small one hid under my tent; a large black one backed away quicker than I did. On my last trip, I had seen snakes of all colours and sizes in the Northern Territories. On my first trip, while in Queensland, a tarantula had camped in my shoe for the night, and took some moving in the morning. This time I would hear grass being munched outside the tent, look out, and find a Kangaroo. Emus would stride across a campsite and disappear into the bushes.
North of Adelaide I met my second cycle tourist. He was French, but worked in Canada. Serg was determined to bush-camp every night. He had stopped to wash and get water from the toilet block in the small town of Two Wells. Many of these places have a shower. I asked him where he was heading. ‘North.’ He said, giving himself plenty of scope!
There had been a spate of shark attacks this summer. A man was taken, by a great white, while swimming off an Adelaide beech. The body was not found. His son made an appeal on behalf of the sharks: as it is their environment, he felt it wrong for the authorities to go on a shark-killing spree.
South of Adelaide I found my first real climbs. It was the area to be used by Lance Armstrong when he trained for the Tour Down Under. The hills didn’t last for long. I was soon heading along another remote flat coastal area as I headed towards Victoria. I met a couple on a caravan park. He was Swiss she was German. Cycle tourists were still rare.
As I moved closer to the border, there were more and more holiday resorts, and it was holiday time. January can be a very difficult time to find even a bit of grass on a Caravan Park.
Along the Great Ocean Highway are some of the most spectacular views anywhere. Sadly, the road is often narrow; there is lots of traffic, and rarely a hard shoulder until beyond Port Campbell.
Suddenly, the road becomes hilly, there is more hard shoulder, and for the first time since Perth, lots of cyclist. Some I even recognized. Phil Anderson lives along this fantastic coastline. He still trains a couple of times a week and looks very fit.
An odd mix
The meeting of an odd mix of American cycle tourists took place at one lay-by. A young man who was riding a light bike – his kit was following behind in a vehicle. He was talking to a retired couple with folding bicycles. Their bike cases were acting as trailers. Like many people who tour parts of the world on a bike, they seemed to be carrying much more than required.
The west side of Port Phillip Bay has a motorway along the coast from Geelong to Melbourne, so I took the ferry to the east side. This proved to be cycle friendly despite the heavy traffic. Much of it had either a cycle path or road markings for cyclists – and there were loads out training. Parts of it are very attractive.
In the 1980s, when I cycled down the east coast of Australia, I managed to ride all the way to Melbourne airport, this time I found a maze of motorways. From next to the railway station there is an hourly airport coach. The driver let me take my bike on the bus. The cool start to the summer was now turning into a heatwave and it was time to go home.
If I was to do this ride again:
This ride took place over the Christmas period of 2008/9 and almost every Australian I spoke to told me this is too hot a period for a long desert ride. Two months sooner would also give a chance of whale sightings from the cliff tops.
The very light single-pole tent I took was difficult to pitch on sandy campsites and wild camps. The MSR Hubba tent in the equipment review, or my old North FaceTadpole, would have been a better option.