10 November 2004
Most of Australia is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in memory, or at least it was. While I wouldn't want to claim ALL the credit, it has rained 7 of the 9 days I've been on the road, and today isn't over yet. In some areas, there's been flooding, hail, lightning, and high winds. I had a close call the other day, just arriving in town ahead of a big storm, but otherwise I really haven't had to ride in the rain much.
Meanderra is a tiny town perhaps 350 km west of Brisbane. In Brisbane, Peter, whom I met through a bicycle touring email list, picked me up at the airport, put me up for the night, and saw me off to the train station the next day. The commuter train was a painless way to exit the city, though there was a bit of traffic the first couple days. The second day I crossed the Great Dividing Range into the Darling Downs, a plateau which forms the source of one of Australia's major river systems.
Sometimes poor planning pays off. Low on water late the second day, I stopped in at a small school. Not only did they have water, but I had a nice chat with Karen and Stuart, who most likely comprise the entire staff of the Pilton State School. I've added the school to my email list, so I hope they and all 28 children at the school enjoy reading about my travels. Queensland appears to still be making a real effort to maintain local schools, rather than bussing kids to larger ones in that eternal pursuit of perceived economies of scale. I've been seeing these state schools all over the place.
After overnight stops in the small towns of Laidley, Clifton, and Cecil Plains, I met Dave and Coral in Dalby, a major center in the Darling Downs. (I met Dave through that same email list, and he's been really helpful in planning.) We were going to meet in another town 60 km further north, but I ran into a terrific headwind that day. We had a nice visit, and did a day trip by car up to the nearby Bunya Mountains, which have a real rain forest environment on one side. The picnic areas are also populated by birds with extreme talents for making of with your lunch.
From Dalby, I've been riding from one small town to the next on quiet farm roads, generally only 60-70 km each day, giving me time to relax in the afternoon, read, practice my oboe, etc. My overnight stops have been Jandowae, Chinchilla, and Condamine. This is a grain growing area, with some cotton and grazing. Except for the cotton, I don't see a lot of evidence of irrigation. Soon I'll be leaving this relatively populated country, and the daily rides will have to be longer. Even here, there's generally nothing but a few farms between my start and destination, so lunch is just a roadside stop where, if I'm lucky, I find some shade and something to sit on.
Weather has been warm and more humid than I expected. There have been lots of clouds, which has kept temperatures down. A couple days may have been above 32 C (90 F), but most days have probably been about 30 C. A couple times, after a rain, it's been quite cool.
For those of us from the higher latitudes, this sub-tropical living seems unusual. People leave doors and windows wide open most of the time, and air conditioning isn't nearly as prevalent as I would have expected. The distinction between "indoors" and "outdoors" is much less sharp than we're used to. There are plenty of the infamous Australian flies, but they don't particularly like to be indoors.
The most interesting wildlife I've seen so far was the 1 meter lizard I saw yesterday beside the road, very much alive. There have, of course, been plenty of kangaroos and a few emus. There is lots of prickly pear along the roadsides, and introduced species, as there are no cacti native to Australia. It reached plague proportions some time ago, before a South American insect was imported to eat it. Supposedly, that insect doesn't eat anything else, but I wonder how sure of that they were when it was introduced.
So far, the trip has gone very smoothly. My fat-tired bike is slow, but I imagine those tires will prove their worth when I have to leave the pavement. Traffic has been light, though some of the roads are one lane, often with very poor shoulders, which makes it tricky to get out of the way of the trucks. There aren't many trucks, though. Even the "major" highways out here aren't very busy by US standards.
The next stage takes me into the outback, a new experience. I plan to do a 4-5 day loop in Queensland before heading south into New South Wales, but that depends on how hot it is out there.
Gulgong, New South Wales
22 November 2004
Well, I believe it was a bit warmer than normal, even for Queensland, but it was too hot for one accustomed to frigid Wisconsin Novembers. I left my tent up one day up in Surat while taking a break, and one of the plastic bits isn't quite the same shape any more. I had come to the point, about 300 km west of Brisbane, where the towns were too far apart for a one-day ride, so I would have had to camp along side the road somewhere. That sounded really unpleasant in the heat, so I hopped on a bus and went about 300 km south and up the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales. I brought them some badly needed rain, and the weather turned sharply cooler, even a bit chilly in the mornings. I haven't had to ride in the rain, but I did wait out a shower for a couple hours the other day.
On my last couple days in Queensland, I followed the main highways, the only roads. Even so, there was very little traffic. In St. George, I made the decision to flee south by bus, after a very long day of 124 km into the wind from Surat. At least a headwind keeps the flies away. The infamous Australian flies have been with me since I first crossed the Dividing Range the second day. They're not a problem if I can manage more than 20 kph, +/- wind, but often I can't. Only a head net or a massive dose of DEET discourages them. They don't bite, but drive you crazy crawling around your face.
The last night in St. George, I met a couple young Dutch guys riding towards Melbourne. They're the only touring cyclists I've seen. I don't know where they went from there, as they were still in their tents in the morning long after the sun drove me out of mine.
I'm back in thorn country. Though none have been big enough to puncture tires, at one campground I had to borrow an old cloth sleeping bag from the proprietor so the burrs in the grass wouldn't puncture my mattress. Much more of that, and I'll have to add to my load a foam pad to put under the mattress.
Having the oboe along adds a new perspective. When I pull into my destination town for the day, the first thing I look for is a place to practice -- a park shelter, sports ground, etc., preferably someplace where I won't attract a lot of attention or bother anyone. So far, it's usually worked out fine, and a few of the neighbors have even been appreciative. On weekends, inquisitive kids can be a nuisance.
After I got off the bus, I went up to a national park in some small mountains I visited 3 years ago. There the ranger told me about some small towns on a route along the western slopes of the Dividing Range, towns I wouldn't have expected to have campsites, shops, or anything else. The riding has been hilly, but I've found a nice place to stay every night. In this more populated area, there's more traffic than I'm used to, but it hasn't been too bad. Since getting off the bus in Coonabarabran, my overnight stops have been Warrumbungles Nat. Park, Tooraweena, Mendooran, Dunedoo, and Gulgong. (Gulgong is about 300 km northwest of Sydney.) I'll be heading west and south next, but taking my time, as I'm way ahead of schedule. I may consider taking the ferry to Tasmania in January, as it looks like I'll run out of places to go down south during the hottest part of the summer.
One night at my campsite, one of those ubiquitous Australian parrots, a galah, flew right into a light pole. I've been wondering if anything limited their population; maybe it's unobstructed air space.
Griffith, New South Wales
6 December 2004
After leaving Gulgong, I've been working my way south and west, out of the slopes of the Great Dividing Range and into the plains. Things gradually flattened out, and got drier. Most of the way, I was riding through grazing and wheat-growing areas, with the wheat harvest in progress. I'm now in the "Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area", amidst fruit orchards, vineyards, and other irrigated crops. This is one of the major agricultural areas in Australia, irrigated with water from the Murrumbidgee River and several other tributaries of the Murray.
After I left Gulgong, the weather started to warm up, and by the end of November they were breaking all the old records. The hottest day was last Tuesday, when it reached 43 C (109F), the day I rode 103 km into the wind. It didn't seem all that bad, but I drank 9 liters of water along the way, arriving in Lake Cargelligo with 4 left. Even the locals thought it was hot. Every time I stopped to refill my water bottle, which was often, someone would stop and ask if I was OK. I'm sure they all though I was completely nuts to be out there on a push-bike. I had learned, though, a couple days before when it was almost as hot, to try to keep my water cool. On that day, the water got almost too hot to drink, which was very unpleasant, and I didn't drink enough. On Tuesday, I kept my water supply wrapped up in clothes in the panniers, and only filled one bottle at a time. I found if I filled two bottles, the second was too hot by the time I needed it. I did stay in a motel last Tuesday, as it was still 38 C at 11 PM. The next day, a front moved through, it rained for a while, and by dinner time I was wearing most of my warm clothes. Since then, it's been quite pleasant, though it's warming up again. That brief shower is the only rain I've seen in a couple weeks. A lot of the rides have been long, into the wind, and hot, so I've been taking a lot of rest days.
I've met lots of friendly people along the way. In one tiny town, I asked about camping in the park, and ended up chasing down a guy on a lawn mower, who unlocked the showers for me. There they also invited me to play at the seniors' Christmas party that night, but I decided against it. That evening, another local invited me to have breakfast with his family in the morning. After breakfast in the back of their food shop, they offered me all the free food I wanted to take. (They won't be in business long if a lot of cyclists start showing up there!) Then, in another town on one of my rest days, with nothing much to do, I asked around about doing some volunteer work and met Jenny and Joe. I helped Joe for a short while work on his garage, and they invited me for dinner. Before they retired, they had a farm a ways out of Hillston, 6,500 acres which, I gather, isn't particularly large around here.
When I take a rest day in a small town, by the second day everyone in town knows I'm in town. In Condobolin, a reporter for the local paper interviewed me, and my picture ended up on the front page. In the next town, the clerk in the grocery store recognized me from the picture. I guess it's big news in these little towns when a cyclist passes through.
For a while, I was riding through clouds of big grasshoppers. Cars pulling into a town were just completely covered with them, and the road was littered with dead ones. Not much of a hazard at cycling speed, though one wouldn't want to ride without glasses.
Griffith is the largest city I've been in since leaving Brisbane, so I've done some of the usual shopping. It was designed by the same American architect who designed Canberra, about 90 years ago. It's the first city I've ever been in which sprawls by design. I must admit, I'm not crazy about it. All the streets seem to be main thoroughfares, with no quiet side streets, and everything is a long ways from everything else.
From here, I'll head southeast, eventually up into the mountains of eastern Victoria, before returning to follow the Murray river towards the west. With lots of time, it looks more likely I'll go to Tasmania, but we'll see about that.
20 December 2004
Wangaratta isnŐt all that far from Griffith, from which I sent the last report. However, I didn't come the short way. From Griffith, in irrigated river country, I rode southeast, again toward the mountains of the Dividing Range. I crossed the Murray River into Victoria east of Albury, followed the river upstream a bit further southeast, then headed south through the mountains to Omeo, then north over Mt. Hotham to Wangaratta.
The dry weather I mentioned from Griffith didn't last a day. What followed was a solid week of rain and storms, usually a couple thunderstorms every day. Fortunately, I didn't get caught out on the road in much rain. Farms are few and far between, but one afternoon I miraculously came upon one just as a storm caught up with me, and had a nice visit with a friendly farm couple on their porch while it blew over. Another day, I was all ready to hit the road, but another storm rolled in every time I was just about to ride off, so I just spent another night there. I had lots of time for oboe playing under shelters in the rain. The farmers aren't happy, as they don't want the rain now, during harvest time, and the cherries are exploding on the trees. Then it finally dried out, and it's been pleasant ever since, with no hot weather. Some nights in the mountains were quite cool.
During one hailstorm, I found myself sharing a shelter with a genuine Australian swagman. We'd call him a hobo, I suppose. Claimed he met aliens at Area 51 in Nevada while he was in the navy. I'm a bit skeptical.
The mountains aren't very big in Australia, so they have to make the most of them. Instead of building roads through passes like everywhere else, they build them right over the tops of mountains. So it was crossing the Victorian Alps over Mt. Hotham, about 1880 meters. That's higher than any of the passes I've crossed in New Zealand, even though the mountains there are nearly twice as high as any here. They also make up for lack of altitude by inserting lots of descents on the way up, so you get to climb the whole thing 2 or 3 times. Still, it wasn't that bad. I approached Mt. Hotham from the east which, totally by accident, was the best choice. There was very little traffic and the road had a paved shoulder most of the way. There's a huge downhill ski development on top, eerily deserted this time of year. The road passes right by the TOP of all the ski lifts. Tree line is just below the summit, surprisingly low for this latitude, but I guess these eucalypts aren't really mountain trees. The descent down the northwest side was an exciting slalom. Hairpin turns and lack of a shoulder would have made it poor for climbing, and there was a bit more traffic. It didn't take long to come down, and the temperature quickly went up about 15 degrees C.
Approaching Mt. Hotham, I came upon a construction site where they were moving the road back into the hillside, as it was eroding away under the current roadbed. It looked like an enormous task, and very dangerous with heavy equipment on steep, unstable slopes. The crew was nice enough to have the bulldozer stop pushing rocks down from above so I could pass. I met the whole crew again that night, as they were staying in the same town. Glad it's not my job.
Much of the area I rode through in the mountains was badly burned in the big fires two years ago. Many of the trees are dead but, amazingly, some have survived. Eucalypts may not be good at living at high elevations, but they're superbly adapted to fire. The new growth on the survivors grows right up the trunk, sort of like mistletoe.
Another difference I noticed in the mountains was the sound of the birds. I can't identify any of them, but the sounds are completely different from the low plains. There's also some kind of beautiful black and red parrot I've only seen in the mountains.
As every cyclist knows, tailwinds are very expensive. Around here, the going rate seems to be a week of headwinds for a day of tailwinds. At least the headwinds keep the flies away. Too bad someone hasn't figured out how to do something useful with all that airborne biomass.
Along this route, I found quite a number of really tiny "towns" in which to spend the night. I just ask whoever I can find about camping somewhere, and invariably find a nice spot by the hall, park, etc. The person mowing the grass on any piece of public land is a good one to ask. Failing that, there's always the bartender in the pub.
One of the challenges of a long bike tour is to avoid losing stuff. Much of our gear is so specialized that it's almost impossible to replace along the way. So far, I've only lost a towel, which probably blew off the clothesline just before I rescued the laundry from a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.
Now I'll head west, through the farm country of northern Victoria in hopes of spending Christmas and New Years somewhere other than where the crowds from the cities go. Then about mid-January, I'll take a train to Melbourne and catch the boat to Tasmania, where I plan to spend about a month.
10 January 2005
Since the last report, I've rather extensively explored northern and western Victoria. Overnight stops, for anyone with a really detailed map, have been Yarrawonga, Katamatite, Shepparton, Rochester, Pyramid Hill, Boort, Birchip, Hopetoun, Rainbow, Jeparit, Nhill, Goroke, Edenhope, Harrow, Balmoral, Dunkeld, and Hall's Gap. It's been generally cool, just a little rain, and only a couple warm days. The wind, well, never mind. I've done a lot of short days, to leave time for other things like the oboe, though now I have to keep moving along to catch the ferry I have booked for Tasmania.
I spent Christmas day in Shepparton, a town of 27,000, in hopes there would be a few businesses open, and a selection of nice parks, etc. in which to practice, etc. It didn't quite work out that way, though after searching the entire city I finally found a good spot by the football grounds. Shepparton, like most larger towns here, has most of the businesses concentrated in the center, rather than in the sprawl zone, but there they carry the tyranny of the automobile to its logical extreme. The center of town is absolutely choked with traffic, half of it occupied by parking ramps. Perhaps, in our autocentric societies, this is the price of a vital downtown.
After Christmas day, the tourists come out it swarms, so I spent the next week trying to avoid them. I rode generally west, hoping most of them would be traveling north from Melbourne. I stayed in some very small towns, which worked out great except for Boort. Boort has a "lake" which I assumed would be dry like all the others I've passed. It turned out there was actual water in it, along with every power boat in Victoria. (This is a lake less than 2 km in diameter.) They kind of turn lakes on and off here, like filling bathtubs, depending on how much water is available. (Not much at the moment.) The campground in Boort was packed with a particularly obnoxious crowd, so I shared a hotel room with about a million mosquitoes.
North-central Victoria is an intensively farmed area, with lots of irrigation. Further west, the irrigation ends and there is mostly grain and grazing again. Apparently, I got ahead of the locusts when I crossed into Victoria, but they've been waiting for a north wind just across the border. While I was heading south, there wasn't much chance of that.
By far my best overnight stop so far was in the tiny town of Goroke. The first person I saw was a woman sweeping the walk in front of her shop, so I asked her about camping somewhere. A few minutes later, she had it all arrange for me to stay in the clubhouse at the football grounds. I had the whole place to myself, with showers, kitchen, and a very larger indoor oboe practice room. They wouldn't accept any money, but I donated some supplies from the grocery store.
After riding almost to the South Australian border, I turned back to the southeast. Yesterday I rode through a small mountain range, the Grampians, but didn't camp there this time. I turned back north, which immediately provided a tailwind to the locusts in NSW. Now I'm on a schedule, as I have the ferry for Tasmania booked in 4 days. After I get done here in Stawell, I'll ride another 40 km or so east, so I can get to Castlemaine by Friday morning. From there I'll catch the commuter train to Melbourne and then the ferry to Tasmania. I tried to talk a couple friends from Madison into meeting me there, but it seems airplane tickets are very expensive at the moment.
1 February 2005
It's been a while since the last report from Stawell. I'm not all that far from there now, but I came the long way.
After passing through Stawell, I spent a few more days in the gold fields north of Melbourne, stopping in Landsborough, Maryborough, and Maldon. In Maryborough, I met two couples on bikes, one from Belgium and the other from the Netherlands. After leaving Maldon, I rode to Castlemaine to catch the train to Melbourne. On a busy sidewalk in Castlemaine was a young flutist. I just happened to have some duet music along, which we played for a while. The audience seemed appreciative, as quite a few coins seemed to land in her flute case while we were playing.
That same day, I caught the train to Melbourne, negotiated downtown Melbourne, and got on the overnight ferry to Tasmania. It wasn't far from the train station to the ferry dock, but it's no place to be on a bike. Fortunately, there's a bike path much of the way. Finding it wasn't easy, though. Once on the path, I met a local cyclist, who led the way.
The ferry trip was uneventful and not too rough. (Bass Strait is notorious for rough seas.) I rode just a short ways from Devonport to Latrobe, where I was allowed to camp in a beautiful recreation reserve just outside the town. I spent two nights there with the platypuses. From there, I rode east to Bridport, intending to ride down the east coast of Tasmania. I expected traffic to thin out further from Devonport and Launceston, but that was not to be. From there, I rode south to Scottsdale, and caught a bus west to Deloraine, on the other side of Launceston. It was a nice town, so I spent a couple days there. After 3 months on the road, my clothes were all falling apart, so I spent much of one day mending. I even found a local seamstress to do one of the harder jobs. I met a few other cyclists in the campground, include a Dutch couple with a toddler in a trailer. From Deloraine I rode north to Sheffield and finally back to Devonport.
Tasmania is a mountainous island. It's very expensive to build roads in such terrain, so they only build them where they will be heavily used. While Tasmania is popular with cyclists, the traffic was way out of my comfort range, so I decided to cut my visit short. It's beautiful, though; I think it would be a great place to go walking.
Back in Victoria, I took the train back to the gold fields, this time to Ballarat. I spent two nights in Clunes, one of the oldest gold mining towns. There's not much left now, making it hard to imagine that the place once had 40 hotels. Then I started south towards to coast and the Great Ocean Road. Coming into Lismore, I had a race with a very slow retrograde thunderstorm. (It was moving from northeast to southwest.) I got to town just ahead of it, where it dumped the first real rain I'd seen in weeks. Then on to Camperdown, Cobden, and finally Port Campbell. I decided to skip riding the Great Ocean Road itself, due to the traffic, but there are some great views of the coast at Port Campbell. There are also some serious hills in the area. The campsite was about a kilometer from the coast, but still I could hear the surf crashing all night. While the weather there was great, there was a major storm approaching from the south, hence all the waves. Port Campbell is a tourist town, and I think there were more Europeans than Australians there. Since I'm generally avoiding the popular tourist routes, it's always kind of a surprise when I come to one.
After two nice days in Port Campbell, a "southerly change" was due to arrive. I got about 20 km west before the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped, the wind came up, the rain started. This was the first really nasty weather I've seen on the trip. Arriving in Warnnambool soaking wet, I rented a cabin. The bad weather is supposed to stick around for a while, so I'm spending a couple days here. It seems to be a nice coastal town, though the beach isn't too pleasant today.
I'll soon wander west into South Australia, but I have plenty of time to kill before heading north.
Mount Gambier, South Australia
1 March 2005
Last report was from Warnnambool, about 200 km east of Mt. Gambier. As usual, I came the long way. Much of the way was at a leisurely pace, as I was running out of places to go in Victoria, though the last week became a sort of a race to the coast to arrive ahead of the next cold front. I'm also spending ever more time sewing my clothes back together, as they show the effect of 4 months on the road. Yet another endeavor, along with playing the oboe, at which it's fortunate I don't have to earn a living.
The storm I was waiting out in Warnnambool turned out to be even worse than I reported. Melbourne had 120 mm of rain, which flooded part of the business district, and the coldest February day on record. 500 sheep froze to death in Victoria. The ferry to Tasmania had to turn back, after the waves broke windows on deck 7. (I'm really glad I wasn't on that boat!) It rained on and off most of the next week.
All that convinced me it might be a good idea to head north again to dry out. Persistent southerly winds added encouragement. In just two weeks, I was back across the Murray River in New South Wales. I spent a couple days in Hamilton, then went back through the Grampians. This time I camped in the park, where I shared my campsite with a wallaby who was a professional beggar. (He didn't get my bananas this time, though.) In Horsham, I met yet another couple Dutch cyclists, 2 young guys who were just getting on the road. I must say, the Dutch school system does a great job of teaching English. Nearly to NSW, in Kerang, I noticed one afternoon that the manager of the campground had a garage full of tools. The knife I use for making oboe reeds needed some work, and I was able to borrow a large whetstone, as the little one I'm carrying wasn't up to the task.
Near Barham, I crossed back into NSW, to an area I had been in 4 years ago, and rode a ways further north until I crossed back into Victoria at Swan Hill. Along the way, still in NSW near Moulamein, I came upon an area of commercial salt production. All over Australia, there are areas where the water table is rising after the trees were cleared for farming, bringing salt to the surface. Apparently, someone tried to lower the water table by pumping ground water, and found there was a market for the salt. There also was an experimental fish farm, raising salt water fish. It was a strange place to see pelicans.
Things were pretty well dried out by the time I got to Swan Hill, so I turned back south. I planned to watch the weather forecasts before deciding whether to go all the way back to the coast. I got as far as Kaniva, and made the decision to go for the coast. That led to many days of slogging into the south wind, but it really looked like I might finally see the coast in decent weather. At the little village of Harrow, where I had planned to spend 2 nights, I learned of another cold front moving up from the south, and the race was on. I got to Nelson, on the coast, on a hot afternoon, about 33 C. However, by the time I got my tent up to dry, unloaded the bike, and rode the 4 km to the beach, the clouds had rolled in, the wind was coming from the south, and it was much cooler. There was no storm, though, and the evening was pleasant enough. The next day was cool and cloudy, but mostly dry, so I had a pleasant ride along the coast into South Australia, before turning north towards Mt. Gambier with a nice tailwind.
Mt. Gambier, a city of 23,000, is built on the side of an extinct volcano. There's some interesting geology, with a limestone aquifer underground. One of the crater lakes changes color from gray in winter to deep blue in summer.
There's nowhere to go but north from here. I'll probably work my way back up to the Murray River, before turning west towards Adelaide and the valleys east of the city. Before too long, if it isn't too hot, I'll have to start thinking about starting the ride north towards Alice Springs.
The days have been getting shorter, of course, since late December. Nights are getting distinctly cooler, though the days can still be hot. One interesting effect is that the sunsets haven't gotten much earlier, though the sunrise is much later now. That has to do with my westward progress, but to a greater extent because this time of year, the sun runs late compared to the clock. In fact, the sun is about 18 minutes later now than it was in December. It's going back the other way now, so sunsets will soon get earlier quickly. See analemma.com.
Clare, South Australia
16 March 2005
Clare is about 100 km northeast of Adelaide, in a valley famous for its vineyards and wine. I left Mt. Gambier on cool southerlies, which held out until I was about 400 km from the coast. The weather seems to have settled into cycles of cool and hot. For about 5 days, cool winds blow from the south, with temperatures 20-25 C, gradually warming. Then the southerlies die out and it gets hot for another 5 days or so, up to 38 C, with the wind eventually picking up from the north. Then another "cool change" comes through, and the cycle starts again. In the past two weeks, there has been rain on only two days, and not much of it. During the cool cycles, I have to zip up my sleeping bag; during the hot ones I have to leave the rain fly off.
I've made the decision to try to go all the way to Darwin, and the accounting shows I have just enough time to make it, if I keep moving. This may be my last rest day for quite a while, and there won't be as much time for playing the oboe and other diversions. I may change my mind, though, when I get to the Stuart Highway, the main road north through Alice Springs. It doesn't sound like the traffic is bad, but I'll judge that for myself when I get there.
I'll admit I'm growing weary of Australian "Caravan Parks". These are the only places to camp in most towns. While the showers and toilets are always fine, the tent campsites are usually terrible. As the name implies, they really cater to caravans (house trailers) and camper vans (RV's), which always get the best campsites. They sometimes have decent tent sites with power outlets, but unless you're willing to pay extra for electricity you can't use, you're stuck in the "unpowered site" area. This is invariably grassless, bare dirt if you're lucky, weeds with thorns if you're not. There's never anything resembling a picnic table at the site, but if you're lucky there's a tree to lean your bike against. Near rivers, these sites are often under the river red gums, which have the habit of dropping large limbs without warning. Some caravan parks have some tables and/or shelter somewhere other than at campsites, but many have nothing at all to even sit on. Often I just put up my tent, and get back on my bike and ride to a park to spend the evening. This is getting less convenient as the days get shorter, as I now sometimes end up coming back in the dark. That has already cost me a tire. Far preferable is camping in the towns which don't have caravan parks, where I can usually get permission to camp in a park or sports ground.
The ride north from Mt. Gambier included overnight stops in Penola, Naracoorte, and Bordertown. In Bordertown, unfortunately, there was a car racing track just across the road from the caravan park, and it was Saturday night. A good night for ear plugs. The next day was supposed to be a long one to the next town, but about the 80 km point I came upon a campground in a nature reserve. Really in the middle of nowhere, it had picnic tables and a full rain water tank. Pertendi Hut, it was called. The hut itself was a restored hut built in the 50's. It was completely empty, but the acoustics made it a great oboe place. The next day, I went on to Pinaroo, an easy day. Before I got to the next major town the next day, I came to Paruna, a tiny place. They let me stay at the football grounds, which was great once the caretaker turned off the irrigation system. There were about 20 houses in the town, the streets were dirt, and there was just one store/cafe/pub/gas station, but the library at the school had broadband internet. Priorities.
I went on to Loxton the next day, where my route joined the Murray River. It's really the only major river in Australia, and only about 150 M wide even this far downstream. By the time the cotton and rice farmers upstream take what the want, there's not much left. In many places, the banks are lined with dead red gums. Like the Colorado in the US, it's a much over-used river. Much of South Australia, including Adelaide, gets its drinking water from the Murray, but it's better to drink rain water.
I followed the river downstream west and south a bit south for a few days, stopping at Barmera, Waikerie, and Swan Reach. There is a series of ferries crossing the river, all of identical design. They run on cables across the river, on which I'm sure the power boaters ruin a lot of propellors. (If they cross at the right time, when the cables are slack, there isn't a problem, but some of them clearly haven't figured that out.) It was a pleasant ride along the river on quiet roads, though those days happened to be in one of the hot parts of the cycle. The river valley looked like it was about 50 meters deep by the time I got to Swan Reach, so the route was fairly hilly. Much of the way is through fruit orchards and vineyards, all irrigated by the Murray.
Somewhere along the way, one of my heavy-duty tires was cut by a piece of glass, probably walking back to a caravan park in the dark. I was able to order smaller tire from a shop in Adelaide, which I'll pick up at a post office further along next week. I hope my lightweight spare holds up until then. Though the damaged tire is still usable, I don't want to risk a blowout during a descent.
From Swan Reach, I turned west and visited a ham radio acquaintance near Mt. Eden. I had met John in 1994 when, wandering around a town one evening, I happened to spot his antennas.
From there, the journey north began in earnest, with an overnight stop in Kapunda. Traffic turned out the be very heavy, no doubt due to proximity to Adelaide, just 70 km to the west. I rode much of one day on gravel roads, just to avoid the traffic. It thinned out after Kapunda, though I was fortunate there was a rail trail the last 24 km into Clare yesterday, as the road was very busy. I'll have to ride on that road a ways tomorrow, but then I think traffic will drop off quickly.
From here, I'll ride straight north towards the Flinders Range. In about a week, I'll start the Oodnadatta Track, a gravel road some 700 km long, with three stretches of over 200 km without water. I'm hoping that will be during one of the cool cycles. Then I'll be on the highway to Darwin. The next report will probably be from Alice Springs.
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
7 April 2005
It's been just under three weeks since I sent the last report from Clare, but it seems a long time ago. Perhaps that's because, the way I came, it was 1,664 km, about 700 of them unpaved. This will be a long report, so sit back in your comfortable, air-conditioned computer chair, and be thankful you aren't bouncing down a rocky, corrugated road with a cloud of flies buzzing around your head.
I started the northward trek on southerly winds, but that cyclic weather pattern got stuck on "hot", with high temperatures getting up to near 40 C eventually. I left behind the relatively lush agricultural land, and all the little towns it supports, had a taste of the true outback, and learned how much I miss those little towns.
The route from Clare went almost directly north, with overnight stops in Jamestown, Ororroo, and Hawker. All are a comfortable day's ride apart and large enough to at least have a decent grocery store. Along the way, it gets drier and drier, and the soil starts to take on the color of the famous "red center". Traffic drops to almost nothing, though one day a convoy of 16 caravans (house trailers) went by. At Hawker, I again met the friendly caravaners and picked up my new tire at the post office. (It was to replace the one with the cut.) Next came Parachilna, still on the paved road, but really nothing but a roadhouse with camping, which would be the only kind of civilization I would see for many days.
Somewhere around there, I started seeing lots of "Adventure Tours", small busses with trailers and camping gear, whose customers seemed to mostly be young women. Sometimes they had their own private facilities at the roadhouses. The few men in the groups seemed to be having a great time.
Next up the road was Leigh Creek, the last real town before Alice Springs. It's a "company town", built to serve the workers at a huge coal mine nearby. All the coal is shipped to a single power plant on the coast, which apparently burns a large trainload every day. There was a nice shopping center, where I stocked up on food and shipped the oboe to the other end of the Oodnadatta Track. (I didn't want to subject it to that dirt road, and I needed the room for water.) Just a short ride north of Leigh Creek is the end of the pavement at the Lyndhurst roadhouse, where I spent the last night before starting the long stretch of gravel. I think it was the last place on the power line from that power plant down south, as every place else had local generators. At dinner at the roadhouse, I met "Talc Alf", who lives just down the road and has been making his living for 30 years carving sculptures from talc, which is mined nearby. I stopped by his place in the morning, but talc sculptures are way too heavy to carry on a bike. He had some bizarre, and extensive, ideas on the origins of words. I believe he was what is often called a "character".
For the gravel road, I decided to put back on the damaged tire, which was larger than the replacement, figuring a blowout at gravel road speeds couldn't do much damage. It held up all the way.
From near Lyndhurst, the road starts following the route of the "Old Ghan", the old railway to Alice Springs. It's been replace by a new line on a different route, and the last train ran 25 years ago, but there's still lots of evidence. I would follow it all the way to Oodnadatta. The "towns" along the track owe their existence to the railway, and they're barely surviving now on the tourist trade. The roadhouse in Oodnadatta, however, seemed to be making plenty of money selling tires to tourists. Apparently, the track is pretty hard on auto tires.
The real fun started north of Lyndhurst. The first stretch was a relatively easy gravel road of about 90 km to Maree. Maree is a bit more than just a roadhouse, but not much. The rest of the Oodnadatta track consists of three stretches of about 200 km each between roadhouses, with no water in between. I left Maree with about 25 liters of water, and made it about halfway the first day, to an abandoned railway siding. It actually had artesian bore water, undrinkable but good for washing up. There was an old building, which once must have been housing for railway workers, which served as a good windbreak while I cooked dinner. The only problem with the place was that it was a sea of broken glass, out of which I had to clear a small spot for the tent. I rode on to William Creek the next day, arriving there with about half my water left. There's a pub and a cafe there, each with a diesel generator pounding away all night. (The price of cold beer.) The road was getting worse.
Near the middle of the Oodnadatta Track, vegetation really gets sparse, with hardly even a bush except in the washes. A barren place. Still, there are a few cattle out there. Some of the stations (farms) are larger than Belgium, but I suspect they don't feed as many people as a few acres in Iowa. I asked one local when it had last rained, and he told me they had a "pretty good rain" just back in October. He didn't say which year.
With another 23 liters of water, I left for Oodnadatta. I rode 140 km the first day, mainly because it was too hot to stop before the sun went down. That took 10 liters of water before I stopped at a roadside campsite. It was a fairly easy ride the next day into Oodnadatta, with 5 liters to spare. (That didn't seem a huge margin.) By most definitions, Oodnadatta is a real dump, but a dump with food and water is a welcome sight out there. I decided to spend the next day there, as well. The woman at the Pink Roadhouse told me that about 10 bicyclists come through every year, and that I was the first in 2005. The rest, no doubt, are smart enough to wait for cooler weather.
Once again, I loaded up with water and started the last stretch, with another roadside bush camp. The next day, I rolled into Marla, another roadhouse, where the Oodnadatta track ends at the paved Stuart Highway. I'm glad I did the Oodnadatta Track, but I won't feel the need to do it again for a while. It wasn't really dangerous, as at least a few vehicles went by every day, but it certainly gives one the "feel" of the outback that you don't get any other way. There were, of course, many hours of tedious riding through soft gravel, sand, very rough surfaces, and over corrugations. Like all gravel roads, the condition varies enormously. One day, when it was mostly smooth, I averaged 19 km/hr; another only 13. There was some sand but, with one exception I was able to ride through it. The exception resulted in an exceedingly ungraceful dismount. The wide, soft tires helped, but they could have been wider and softer.
Reunited with the oboe in Marla, I decided to spend a couple nights in a motel room. I had ordered some lighter tires for the ride up the Stuart Highway but, alas, the Australian Post Office failed to deliver them in time. Turns out, it really didn't matter, anyway. After making an effort to clean 700 km worth of dust off the bike, I put on the other replacement tire and left the damaged one in the rubbish bin. Despite the damage, it survived the entire Oodnadatta Track.
The Stuart Highway was certainly a contrast to the Track. It's the main road up the center of Australia, through Alice Springs and on to Darwin. Traffic wasn't heavy, averaging about 40 per hour, but there were road trains. For those who haven't met one, road trains are very long trucks, up to 53.5 meters with as many as 4 trailers. Their drivers generally give cyclists about as much consideration as they do the kangaroos, the remains of which litter the roadsides. When one overtakes, the only sensible thing to do is to get off the road and, unless the shoulder is in unusually good shape, to stop. That only happens about 6 times per day, but you have to keep a close eye on your mirror, especially if a headwind makes it impossible to hear them coming. Those going the other way aren't a problem, though there can be some turbulence.
After a nice break in Marla, I started up the highway towards Alice Springs, 450 km away. The first night was my last "bush camp", as it was 180 km to the first roadhouse. After a tough day into the wind, I camped at a rest area. That night, a cold front went through, as predicted, and it actually rained. Not much, maybe 1 mm, but that was the first rain I'd seen in over two weeks, and probably the first they had had there since October. The next day was an easy ride with a tailwind to the Kulgera roadhouse. Along the way, I met two young German cyclists riding south. Their average speed that morning was about half mine; no doubt the reverse would have been true the day before. After nights at the Erlunda and Stuart's Well roadhouses, I rode the last tedious 91 km into the wind to Alice Springs.
After a couple weeks in the outback, Alice Springs is a culture shock, a city of 28,000. Riding a bicycle here certainly gives one a better feeling for the isolation of the place than arriving on the train, as I did in 1994. It has the usual city traffic and noise, of course, but I was completely out of food, so it was great to find real grocery stores again. It's economy must be largely based on tourism, and there are tourists everywhere. Also everywhere is evidence of the sad plight of Australia's indigenous people.
Somewhere along that last 200 km stretch of the gravel road, the long ride up the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Darwin started to seem less attractive. There are only a couple towns the whole way, just a long string of roadhouses. I realized how much more enjoyable cycling is when there are towns along the way to break up the journey, as there are in much of Victoria, NSW, and, of course, my home state of Wisconsin. Riding between roadhouses, which tend to be about 100 km apart, there's often not even a spot to stop for lunch, and almost never any shade. Many days, my lunch stop is simply a matter of straddling my bike on the shoulder long enough to eat a few muesli (granola) bars. In any case, I lost interest in another 3 weeks of that and decided to end the ride in Alice Springs and come home a couple weeks early. So, I'm having a relaxing week in Alice, though I'll ride out to the east for a couple days before returning to catch my flight to Brisbane. There are the usual logistics of the bike box, etc. to deal with, but that's all under control. If things go according to plan, I'll be home 18 April. That's the same day I leave Brisbane, cashing in that day I've had in the bank ever since I crossed the international dateline back in October.
End of the Road
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
14 April 2005
Well, this is it. Here in Alice Springs, I'm just another tourist. Just a couple weeks ago, on the Oodnadatta Track, I was a tourist ATTRACTION, appearing in photos and videos taken by tourists from around the world.
I have found some interesting diversions. Alice Springs has a "Desert Park", along the lines of the Tucson Desert Museum, though much smaller. Most impressive were the free-flying hawks trained to fly in and put on a show. The wedge-tailed eagle must be as large as the North American bald eagle. (I saw many of them along the way.)
Alice Springs also has a fancy new arts center where, it turns out, a fine Australian pianist was performing, so I got to hear some Mozart and Brahms. That was a pleasant change from my home-made music.
Not quit finished riding, I then took a three-day trip east along the McDonnell Range to Traphina Gorge National Park. It's an easy ride of 80 km each way, and I have pleasant memories of the place from 1994. There's good water there, so I didn't have to carry it all with me. Unfortunately, it wasn't as pleasant this time. I knew it would be hot, but I didn't expect swarms of feral honey bees. Desperate for water, they swarm any possible source, which includes sweaty mammals trying to read in the shade. The day after I arrived, I did a hike in the morning, planning to relax in the shade all afternoon. It wasn't very relaxing. The dingoes did put on several great performances that night, though. The next day, I left early to ride back to Alice Springs.
Now starts preparation for the trip home. I rented a cabin for a few days, mainly to have a place to practice and make reeds. Soon the bike will be back in the box and all the gear packed.
Now for a summary:
The total distance on the bike was just over 9,000 km, about 1,000 on gravel roads. I had just 4 punctures, 3 caused by thorns, one unknown. I know there are those who scoff at factory-built wheels, but mine are still true, with no adjustment. On the worst of those gravel roads, the bike carried as much as 130 kg. (That includes the bloke turning the pedals.)
(Those who aren't interested in the technical details of the bike can skip a couple paragraphs.)
The bike is a Novara "Safari", modified for 22/34 gearing and dropped handlebars. It's really a mountain bike frame with a rigid fork. The components are mostly mid-range Shimano. The geometry doesn't quite fit me, so I never really got comfortable on it. (It will be interesting to see how my old road bike feels when I get home.) The rear rack mounts too high, and the frame isn't stiff enough, so the rear panniers wobble around a lot, but the bike was always stable. Most important, though, nothing broke. I replaced the chain twice, adjusted the front hub once, and re-aligned the brake pads as they wore. And, of course, oiled the chain many times, though I made little effort to keep it clean. (It's hopeless, anyway, on a tour like this.)
The tires were Schwalbe Marathon XR's, 26 X 2.125. They're very heavy, and slow on pavement, but obviously durable. They're wide enough to run at 30 psi (2 atm) on gravel roads, which helps a lot. One sustained a 1 cm cut, probably from a piece of glass, which didn't quite go all the way through the fabric. It survived the Oodnadatta Track that way. (I had two spares at that point.) Even wider, softer tires would have been better on the gravel but, of course, would have been still slower on pavement. The way it turned out, I could have switched tires, but I expected more gravel stretches interspersed with pavement.
A few notes on bicycle touring in general in Australia: By my standards, the most enjoyable touring is in the farming areas of NSW and Victoria, where there are lots of quiet roads and the towns aren't too far apart. Elsewhere, long distances between towns often mean there is no sign of civilization all day, and sometimes for a couple days. (That means no ice cream, cold drinks, or shade.) Near the major cities, even the farm roads get quite busy. Conversely, in very remote areas even the major highways may carry less than 40 vehicles per hour, which I find quite tolerable. (Watch out for the trucks, though.) In Australia, as elsewhere, the combination of good roads and light traffic is fairly rare, so you have to carefully select your route, and avoid some areas entirely if you dislike riding in heavy traffic. Except for Queensland, where it was too hot during most of this trip, I think I've pretty well explored the bicycle touring possibilities in the eastern half of Australia, at least by my standards. I'll have to leave Western Australia for another trip.
Finally, I want to acknowledge those who helped along the way. Dave McLeod in Queensland sent me all sorts of maps and other information, and we had great fun exchanging email before I left home. Peter Gordon has given me a base of operations in Brisbane, as well as providing lots of advice and information. He also stored the travel gear I didn't want to carry, and shipped it to me in Alice Springs. It was a pleasure to meet both Dave and Peter when I arrived, and I look forward to seeing them again when I get back to Brisbane. I'm also grateful to all those friendly, anonymous Australians I met along the way.
Grace New haven's web site,
has lots of useful information, especially about South Australia. Grace also has a link to Rick Park's excellent description of his ride on the Oodnadatta Track. (Those guys need to drink more water, though!) Finally, thanks to my partner Bonnie and all my other friends, who through email and the telephone helped keep things from getting too terribly lonely along the road. Thanks also, to all of you who have told me you enjoy reading about my travels.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
19 April 2005
Just 33 hours after leaving Peter's place in Brisbane. I hope Peter isn't still stuck in the traffic jam we saw on the way to the airport!