15 February 2007—23 March 2007
‘The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn’t seduced by it.’
I spent a month with my sister and family in North Bondi, Sydney, tying up loose ends. On 15 February I left homely comforts behind once more. The coastal roads north vary a lot and, unfortunately, there’s no perfect bike route. I marked up my maps based on a Lonely Planet cycling guide someone had loaned me, but it was pretty obvious; head north more or less along the Pacific Hwy picking out all the possible detours and back roads for the purpose of avoiding the Pacific Hwy, and the Pacific Hwy should be avoided wherever possible.
This is not a ride I’d do out of choice and I was feeling pretty miserable as I was clocking up the kilometers without any real reward, concentrating constantly on the activity around me as the crummy shoulder on the road would disappear at any given moment. Australian highways aren’t designed for cycling—though alternate routes on minor roads are often more dangerous—and most truckers seem to care as much for a cyclist as they would for a cockroach, so pay attention, and get a big mirror if you don’t want to become truck fodder.
The road through the Great Lakes Marine Park is cut off by a channel and mostly traffic free. I caught the ferry across from Newcastle and for the first time in 1,500kms, enjoyed pedaling without having to keep my wits about me. Just east of the road, beyond the salt scrub, lays a great expanse of pure white dunes. I pulled into one of the National Park camp areas at dusk. A couple of Dingoes were sniffing about and my spirits were on the rise. In the morning I crossed the dunes. The beach was endless and the surf big, and there was no one to be seen. I waded out into the steep ocean and let my body loose to ebb and flow with the surf. This was a pivotal moment; the tension, which had been building within me, was released in an instant, as if the first 1,500 km of hot, dirty tarmac were currency for that moment. Suddenly everything, the journey and the silence, made sense.
When I made my way back to camp, two Japanese sisters were preparing breakfast: eggs and prosciutto on buns. A Kookaburra was lingering. There’s always one. It had become accustomed to being feed and I had the feeling the girls had been throwing it scraps too. Then in a blink, the mangy bird launched into the air, the Japanese girl screamed, and the bird landed by her feet with a long slither of prosciutto hanging from its beak. That piece of prosciutto had been dead for a long time but just to be sure the Kookaburra slapped it senseless.
‘When does he realise it’s dead?’ I enquired.
‘When it stops moving,’ the French guy said.
Whatever the case, the Kookaburra had its own agenda and it wasn’t going to swallow the meat until it was good and ready, long after I’d left camp.
It was dusk in Gosford and I was cooking Kanga-bangers on a public BBQ by the inlet when two drunks approached me: one in his 20s and the other a bit older. They were speaking rubbish mostly and swearing a lot, asking the usual questions and advising me to be careful where I camp due to local thugs.
‘Where ya goin’ mate?’ asked the younger of the two.
‘Papua New Guinea.’
‘Is that past Mackay? I’m from Mackay.’
‘It’s north of Australia,’ I said, but he was confused.
‘But…is that past Mackay?’
I was taken aback discovering an Australian that hadn’t heard of PNG let alone know north from south. ‘Well, if it’s north of Australia, what do you think?’
‘It’s north of Aus mate. It’s a different country!’
They eventually let me be, but poor education, I’ve learnt, can lead to bad behavior. This guy’s warning was the first of several that I’ve received in rural areas. Mostly they can be taken with a grain of salt, although some are quite specific: ‘don’t camp there’; ‘don’t go there at night’; ‘there are Koories there. They’ll bash ya and rob ya’.
I don’t know how relevant these warnings are, although, on a daily basis I experience at least one act of unprovoked aggression. The most common is the hick in the V-8 super car with a huge Bundaberg Rum sticker on the rear windscreen, that rolls up silently beside me as I’m pedaling along and usually deep in thought, then slams on the horn, occasionally screams something obscene, and burns off into the distance. These guys fall off trees in regional Australia. I can’t help jumping out of my skin but I’ve learnt not to react, just to smile. Scattered, roadside memorials—about as common as dead Roos—indicate that for some of them at least, their days are numbered.
It was a Friday night in Kyogle, a small town of inland northern New South Wales. I stopped by the hotel for a drink and parked my bike in the side entrance by the staircase. There was a fair group outside at closing time and one guy (intoxicated) was hassling me, shoving my helmet on my head. ‘There are cops over there mate, better wear this…’ He said.
It didn’t bother me much. But then the barman came up to me. ‘Are these yours, mate?’ He held out his hand. My odometer had been ripped of my bike, my shoes taken and one of my aluminum water bottles smashed. I couldn’t believe it; nothing had been stolen, just vandalized. My bike had never been touched before in any of my travels and now it happened in my own country.
My experiences are mostly positive though, as there are far more kind people around. That night, just before I discovered my bike had been vandalized, I’d met Victoria and her friend. As things began to heat up, Victoria moved in and invited me to stay; concerned I may get into strife if I camped down the road.
‘I have a son in South East Asia,’ she told me, ‘and people have looked after him so you better come and stay with me.’
In Nana Glen (about 2kms from Russel Crow’s mansion), David, a keen 62-year-old cyclist, flagged me down in the late afternoon. I hadn’t put my lights on yet and he was about to give me some assuming I didn’t have any.
‘People can’t see you at this time of day,’ he told me, and then invited me to his house. He had a dog-called Ned, the common type of mongrel (part blue-heeler) you see around in the country—solid and smart. David really wanted to talk and offer his kind hospitality; though I got the feeling he was a bit lonely. He looked like a gnome and walked with a limp due to a chain sawing accident in which he tore his Achilles tendon—not with the chainsaw, of course. Though it didn’t stop him buying expensive bikes. He owned two titanium Bianchis worth about $10,000 a piece.
Generous hospitality is not uncommon, even when I’m dirty, smelly and have a week’s growth, which is most of the time. Between Port Macquarie and Gladstone, I’ve spent more nights staying with people I had never met, than I did camping. Being invited into the homes of complete strangers is a great privilege. Experiencing snapshots of people’s lives and attitudes, if for a brief time, is not only educational and fascinating, but one of the big perks of bicycle travel.
I strolled around the marina at Hervey Bay, looking for a yacht north. It was the first marina I’ve visited, although I knew it was a long shot—I was about a month early as cyclone season is tapering off—but at least, I thought I might score a day out sailing. It was a perfect Sunday, perhaps a little gusty, but still no yachts were going out. The piers were virtually lifeless.
I got chatting with an old salt. He was sitting on his weathered 38 ft sloop, under a broad canopy, reading the paper. He must have been about 65. It was hard to tell. He didn’t look to be in the best shape: he had a red complexion, his skin was severely speckled and sun damaged, and he was overweight. But he had a positive demeanor, as you would if you’d been sailing around the country for seven years.
‘I was diagnosed with leukemia and bought the boat to go away and die on.’ He told me. ‘I contracted malaria years ago, still get it today, it caused the leukemia’. (An expert on parasitic disease has since told me that this is not possible.)
‘You look like you’re doing ok.’
‘It hasn’t killed me yet.’
‘It’s probably done you a hell of a lot of good,’ I said, referring to the voyage.
‘I’m sure it has.’
‘That reminds me, I’ve got to remember to get my shots and malaria pills.’
‘It’s a really good idea.’
He told me he was just about ‘sailed out’ and was looking to convert to a motorboat.
I bummed around on Fraser Island for a few days—kind of an R&R between long stretches of highway. Further north, civilization has become sparser. Accordingly, the traffic has reduced and in the last week the north easterly winds I’ve been battling most of the journey so far, have converted to south-easterlies (tail winds!). Good news for both cycling and sailing. Recently, I have felt more content with the journey. This is only the warm-up after all. There is little mystery here and in a way, it’s felt more like I’ve been commuting north to get into position for Asia. I’m excited by future possibilities.
Thanks to Maria and Dieter of Rohloff Australia, who I stayed with for two nights. With their generous help, some ingenuity from Dieter and a welder, my bike is now spinning perfectly. Thanks also to my sister Emma and her family, who now claim to be an expedition sponsor for putting me up for a month in Sydney.