Bicycle Touring in Australia
February 23 to April 16, 2001
Oz Report 1:
25 Feb 2001
Hall's Gap, VIC , (about 300 km northwest of Melbourne)
Melbourne is a good place to be away from. I took the train to Terang, then rode some 116 km to meet Roger and Wendy in Dunkeld, a small town at the south end of the grampians, a small range of mountains. We spent a couple nights camping in the grampians, and did a short day hike. It's been warm and dry. A serious drought is in progress. The farm fields are completely brown, though the native vegetation looks a lot better. In some places, they are restoring the native vegetation along the roads, much like prairie restoration in the US. Of course, the native plants are well adapted to drought.
My first day was through some pretty desolate farm country. We haven't gone far since then, just up to the north end of the grampians, about 60 km. Hall's Gap is a tourist center, but an extremely small one. Next, we'll probably tour the goldfields to the east, though we're planning the route day by day.
I had forgotten how raucous the birds are in Australia. The kookaburras and cockatoos, in particular, are really noisy. No need for an alarm clock here! When you wake up in the morning, you know right away you aren't in Wisconsin.
Learned the hard way at the grampians campsite:
Do not leave your bananas unattended when there are kangaroos about.
Oz Report 2:
Sun, 4 Mar 2001
Castlemaine, VIC (In the goldfields area north of Melbourne)
Weather here has been perfect: Cool nights, warm days, lots of sunshine, light winds. I hope that when Wendy and Roger depart tomorrow they don't take this great weather with them.
Since the last report, we've been wandering around the goldfields. It's fairly hilly, with lots of trees, but still most everything looking very dry. We haven't been working very hard, with most days under 50 km, and lots of time to explore the towns. We have, however, been getting plenty to eat. We've also checked out a couple wineries, explored many old mine sites, and toured one underground mine.
Tomorrow Roger and Wendy take the train back to Melbourne to start their long trip home. I'll ride west, finally escaping from the traffic spilling over from Melbourne. It may be a while before I find another internet connection.
Oz Report 3:
Sun, 11 Mar 2001
Penola, South Australia
Last Wed., Roger and Wendy left Castlemaine by train for Melbourne, so I'm on my own now. That day I rode back the way we had come, through Maldon and Dunolly. In both towns, someone remembered us coming through the first time. In Dunolly, I stopped at the campground, and found my tent stakes right where I'd left them lying on the ground. (I had had some steel ones made by the blacksmith in Maldon, which was kind of fun, but they were pretty heavy.)
The ride from Castlemaine to St. Arnaud, 120 km, was the first long day since my first. Along the way, I saw my very first Australian snake: Roadkill. A couple days earlier, I had my first hostile encounter with an Australian dog, a large boxer who didn't give up until I doused him with water. (I hate to waste good drinking water like that.)
St. Arnaud is large enough to have banks and ATM's, but also a lot of traffic noise at night, kids driving around in noisy cars, etc. Hopefully, I'll find some smaller places.
After stops in a couple larger towns, I found the kind I've been looking for. Harrow is just a village set in a little valley, but the store and cafe are still open. West of the grampians, the terrain reminds me of the driftless area of SW Wisconsin, with it's valleys and ridges. It's a lot greener in WI, of course. I happened to arrive in Harrow the weekend of the "Bush Billy Cart" races, the Aussie version of the Soap Box Derby. No doubt the hill I rode down coming into town will be their course.
The next day, a "southerly change" arrived, bringing an end to the hot weather, at least for now. Instead of 35 degrees C in the afternoon, it's only 20. There's even been a little rain. I had one day when I didn't have to worry about getting sunburnt.
From Harrow, there was a good route south and west. I checked out another village, Merino, but it turned out to be another dying town, too close to some larger ones, so I went on to Casterton. There was a vintage car event going on, but not a problem. (Weekends can be a pain.) From there I rode over into South Australia to Penola, a nice town in a wine-producing area. (Wine is cheaper than drinking water around here. Is that a problem?) I decided to head west when I got a map of New South Wales, and saw that the roads further north don't look all that attractive. Besides, it was so hot that heading toward the equator didn't sound like a good idea. It's starting to sound better now that the wind has that bite of the southern ocean in it again. So, I'll go back to Victoria after just one night in SA, and head toward the Murray River.
The small towns here are interesting. The smallest have nothing but a community hall, usually with clean flush toilets and serviceable tennis courts. It really seems strange to see these tennis courts in the middle of nowhere. Usually there's a rainwater tank, with water of varying quality. The bigger towns have a cafe or shop, but many of them are also full of abandoned businesses, like many small towns back home. Strangely, no matter how poor the rest of the town looks, there are always spotlessly clean public toilets downtown and often a swimming pool.
Those squawking white cockatoos are getting annoying. They seem to thrive in disturbed areas, as I haven't seen many in the forests. Edge dwellers, I suppose. Coyotes of the sky, in need of some effective predators.
I hear that Roger and Wendy have arrived back in Madison. I hope they brought back some warmer weather.
OZ Report 4
Tue, 20 Mar 2001
It's been a while since I caught up with a library when it was open. Weekends are a bummer, since everything closes at noon Saturday.
During the warm spells, I've encountered the Australian dust-devils they call "Willy-Willies", and even got caught in a very small one. One larger one was a narrow column of dust rising high into the air, sort of like a miniature tornado. I don't know if they are dangerous, but they sure look dusty.
After just one night in South Australia, I crossed back into Victoria, working my way north through the Wimmera towards the Mallee further north. It's been very dry there for 4 years, the "largest freshwater lake in Victoria" reduced to a mud flat. Still, the farmers had a good season this year, the first in a few years.
I've met a couple cyclists, though not touring. It seems there's a 540 km relay in a couple weeks, so people are out training. I told all of them how Connie Barnes did 640 km in 24 hours, just a couple years before she died of cancer.
Further north, the scrubby Mallee trees appear along the roadside, the namesake of the region. I suppose it once was a regular forest, but most of the trees were cleared for farming. All over Australia, they're paying the price for that as the water table rises and brings salt to the surface. Yet they are still clearing more land.
March 16, which happens to be my birthday, often seems to bring bad weather. (One time in New Zealand it was REALLY bad.) This time I only had rain and a headwind. I had planned a long day of 130 km, knowing that a cold front was coming through and expecting the wind to shift to the southwest early on. The front arrived, but brought rain and even stronger northeast winds. Needless to say, that's the direction I was going. After 105 hard km, I arrived in the tiny town of Ultima at 5 PM. Another two hours into the wind wasn't appealing, so I checked at the old hotel, and they had cheap rooms and dinner. The only other business in town was a tiny store. So I bagged it for the day, which turned out to be a great decision. It rained even harder that night, and a bunch of locals invited me to join them at dinner at the hotel. In the morning, the whole place was deserted, except for one gigantic spider guarding the hallway. By then, the wind had finally shifted, and I cruised into Swan Hill at record speed.
Swan Hill is a larger town, so I decided to take a break there. I ended up there two nights, the second being a last-minute decision as I was packing up in the morning. There was an interesting pioneer museum and a riverboat cruise.
The Murray River is THE major river in Australia, draining the whole southeastern part inland of the dividing range and supporting a great deal of the country's farming. Still, it's a mere trickle compared to the Wisconsin or Mississippi. Naturally, they're having all the usual problems with the overused river. The banks are lined with pipes and pumps drawing water from the river, and not much water gets to the sea in South Australia.
After Swan Hill, I crossed the river and did an easy ride to the New South Wales town of Moulamein. A tiny place, it was pleasant. It turns out most of the towns around there are grain shipping terminals, with big warehouses and loading facilities by the railway. That results in some grain trucks on the roads, but the drivers have been generally good.
Today I did another short, easy ride back toward the Victorian border to Barham. The ride was very flat, the road lined with huge irrigated rice plantations. It turns out to be harvest season now. The only bad part about today's ride were the bridges: Many are surfaced with planks running parallel to the road, with big gaps between them to catch bike tires. I had to walk across most of them. I wonder how often one just disintegrates under a grain truck.
Finally, the story on drinking water. In most places, the tap water is undrinkable. It's either salty bore (well) water or foul-tasting river water. The locals all drink rain water, which is collected in tanks as it runs of just about every roof. Needless to say, the rain water tanks also contain everything else that washes off the roofs. I've been using bottled water when I can get it cheaply, or putting iodine in the rain water.
From here, I'm planning to ride more or less parallel to the Murray river, perhaps as far upstream as Lake Hume (a reservoir). That, of course, could always change.
Oz Report 5:
Fri, 30 Mar 2001
Wagga Wagga, NSW
After almost 2,000 km without a flat tire, I've had a bunch of them recently. Maybe there are just more thorns around here.
I've found the auto club maps to be by far the best. They accurately indicate by color which are the busy and quiet roads, so I can pick the quiet ones. I call them the yellow roads, since that's the color they are on the map, and away from the cities they've been fine. There are also some even smaller roads, but many of them have only one paved lane, and only a very small amount of traffic makes them unpleasant. In any case, my routes are planned around the yellow roads. If the yellow roads don't go there, neither do I. That's only possible because it really doesn't matter where I go, as long as it's a nice ride. That's the way a bike tour should be!
Out in the country, the drivers have generally been very considerate. There are some very big grain trucks, even on the smallest of roads, but only a few and they haven't been a problem. If a truck overtakes me when there's a car going the other way, I just get off the road, but that's only happened a few times. As soon as I get near a city, though, everything changes. Not only is there more traffic, but the drivers are consistently more aggressive. In the bigger towns and cities, pedestrians get no consideration at all, and traffic through the business district is very, very fast. Some towns have thoughtfully posted signs warning pedestrians to cross carefully.
The night in Barham, just after the last report, was stormy, but dry in the morning. It was cool, but there was a great tailwind to Deniliquin, a town of 7800, the largest I've seen in a while. The next day was cold and wet, and I later learned that they had torrential rains and flooding down in Melbourne. Not that bad where I was, just cool. ("Worse than bloody winter", according to one local.) The rivers are mostly running now, so things should be turning a little greener. It was a cold ride from Deniliquin to Jerilderie, but just after I arrived it started to warm up and the evening was pleasant. Jerilderie is one of those nice little towns, though it's on a major highway. Just big enough to have a bakery.
I left Jerilderie on a perfect day for Urana, an even smaller town. No bakery, but who could complain after such a great day? The next day wasn't as sunny, but quite warm in spite of a few morning sprinkles. Just after I got settled in Lockhart, I saw another touring cyclist ride into town. He was the first I'd seen since Roger and Wendy left. He also camped there, so we spent the evening chatting. Originally from Brisbane, Len is living in England, and came here to ride from Ballarat to Brisbane. That night, expecting another stormy cold front, I stayed in the "on-site caravan" at the caravan park. The storm never showed up, but the caravan was pretty cheap.
From Lockhart, I was going to ride some 130 km to Albury, a large city. About 40 km short of there, I came to the little town of Walla Walla, which had a very nice campground. It was early, but I decide to stay, and had a nice, quiet night. It was a short ride the next morning to Albury, which left time for the usual shopping and chores. Much as I dislike cities, they have their uses. At least Australian cities still have a "Central Business District". If you can just find your way there, chances are you'll find what you need. (The first thing I look for is a map.)
On the way to Albury that Monday morning, I ran into a bunch of touring cyclists. We stopped to chat, and it turns out they were heading out on a 4 day tour. If they hadn't been going back the way I'd just come, I'd have tagged along. They seemed to by retirees, though not much older than I. It seems this self-contained bicycle touring crowd is aging.
It was good to get out of Albury, and the next night couldn't have been a greater contrast. Following the Murray River upstream to the east, I found a beautiful riverside campsite at about the 80 km point. There's a dam and reservoir (Lake Hume), but the water was very low. Otherwise my campsite would have been submerged. The lake itself is pretty disgusting, just a maze of dead trees, most of which stand well above the high water mark. Slows down the speedboats, I suppose, but it sure is ugly. It was a great campsite and a clear night. For the first time this trip, I was able to see the Small Magellenic Cloud. (About 20 degrees below the LMC at 8PM, right?)
Somewhere east of Albury, an amazing thing happened: Everything turned green. I'd been approaching the mountains of the Dividing Range, and climbing. The other things I found that I hadn't seen in a while were HILLS. It had been very flat where I'd been to the west, but I got into the foothills. The tap water has been improving, too, as I get closer to the source of the rivers.
From the riverside bush camp, I followed the river further upstream to the tiny village of Jingelic, where there was a free campground right next to the river. (The Albury cyclists had told me about it.) Another peaceful night, though it was the coldest one so far. Lately the weather has been quite nice, with sunny comfortable days, but the nights are getting colder.
From Jingelic, there were some serious climbs getting out of the Murray Valley. The woman at the store told me about the "tragic hill", where a year ago the bride on her way to the wedding in Jingelic was killed when the helicopter she was in hit the power line at the gap. There are markers on the power line now, but the wires aren't very high.
After a night in a forgettable town on a busy highway, I rode to Wagga Wagga, another big town, though not as big as Albury. A fairly hilly ride, still near the mountains. There were a couple stores along the way, a pleasant way to break up the ride. There's a nice caravan park by the Murrumbidgee River in Wagga Wagga, right downtown. Now all I have to do is figure out how to get out of town.
Oz Report 6
Thursday, 5 Apr 2001
I don't know how much more of this I can take. I haven't seen a drop of rain in over two weeks, the days have been sunny and pleasantly warm, the nights comfortably cool. The roads have been scenic and largely free of traffic, and the hills haven't been bad. I don't always get a tailwind, though.
The only sour note lately resulted from a batch of thorns on the bike path leaving Wagga Wagga, which perforated my inner tubes so thoroughly I had to take an unscheduled rest day to repair the damage. "Bindii" (bindy-eye), they're called. No doubt an Aboriginal word for "ouch".
I've been in and out of the foothills, generally working my way north. It's greener to the east near the mountains, drier to the west. Lots of cattle in the wetter areas. After dancing with the 35th parallel for days, I finally crossed it. Getting closer to home, though I have to take the bus back to 38S to catch the plane.
It's taken almost 3,000 km, but pedaling has finally ceased to be a chore. It takes longer every time, but I'm thankful to still be pedaling.
Well, it's really a beautiful afternoon outside, so I'm not going to spend much more of it here in the library. I've booked a bus ride back to Melbourne from a small town further north, so I now have a definite destination. Along the way, though, I'm planning to head further west, more toward the outback. Next report may be from back in Melbourne.
OZ Report 7
12 April, 2001
Camp Wambelong, warrumbungles National Park, NSW
You know you're off the beaten track when every farmer stops to ask if you're lost. I've been trying to follow the westernmost sealed roads. Certainly, not many cyclists come this way. Mostly, it had been very flat until I got near the warrumbungle range a couple days ago. The weather just turned much cooler, but it had been quite warm. One afternoon and evening was rainy, but the next morning was clear. I've managed to run over a few more thorns.
My route since Forbes has been generally northward, with overnight stops in Condobolin, Tullamore, Narromine, Warren, Coonamble, Coonabarabran, and here in the warrumbungles. My northernmost point yesterday was just north of 31 Degrees S. Tomorrow is my last day on the road to Gilgandra to meet the 2 AM bus to Melbourne.
There was no campground in tiny Tullamore, so I stayed in the hotel. Like the last one, it had a smoke detector with a weak battery beeping once a minute, on a 12 foot ceiling. Fortunately, we were able to recruit a tall guy from the bar who, standing on a bar stool, was able to reach it. Needless to say, there was neither a ladder nor spare battery about. After that, I checked out the escape routes very carefully. It seems a lot less trouble to camp, though perhaps not as interesting.
Somewhere north of Narromine, tufts of cotton started to appear along the roadside. Tangible evidence of northward progress. Soon I was in a major cotton belt. The quantity of the stuff is just incredible. It gives one small hint as to just how many of us there are on this planet.
After all that flat country, I decided to spend my final days crossing a small volcanic mountain range, the warrumbungles. Today was only 47 km, but by far more climbing than any other day. I took a detour up to the Siding Spring observatory, to look as the largest telescope in Australia (3.9m). It's nearly 30 years old and similar to the 4m telescope at Kitt Peak, only cleaner. Old technology. I'm not sure it was worth climbing 600 meters, but I really didn't have anything better to do all afternoon.
Tonight's campsite is down in a valley, so the stargazing may not be great, but it's clear and dark. One more day of cycling, and the long trip home begins.
15 April, 2001
The last day on the road to Gilgandra was another perfect one. It was mostly downhill out of the mountains, then back to flat country. The last 12 km of gravel was the worst I've seen here, but it was done quickly enough. In spite of it being the start of Easter weekend, a big holiday here, there was very little traffic.
Early on that day, I saw my only koala of the trip. It crossed the road right in front of me, then climbed a tree. The tree was only a couple meters tall, so I got some good close-up photos. Lucky for the koala I wasn't a predator. Lucky for me that I didn't step on a snake following the koala through the brush.
Later that day, while I was fixing yet another flat tire, a small ute (pickup) pulled over, so I had someone to talk to while I fixed the tire. It's not every day you meet a lady windmill fixer.
That, fortunately, was the last flat tire, and the rest of the ride to Gilgandra was uneventful. Unfortunately, the midnight ride to the bus stop was a couple km on the Newell Highway, a major truck route. Racing along with my feeble headlamp trying to stay ahead of the trucks, it occurred to me that hitting a kangaroo would be a poor way to finish my trip. All went well, though, and a long bus ride brought me back to Melbourne.
Easter Sunday in Melbourne isn't as dead as I expected, with a lot of businesses open. It's another beautiful day, even down south here.
So this is the end of the road. The total distance on the bike was about 3750 km. All of it, I am happy to report, rubber side down.