24 March 2007—22 April 2007
Gladstone stinks! I don’t mean that as a derogatory remark. It’s a fact, and I couldn’t figure out whether it was emissions from the aluminum smelter or the coal plant or the mass of coalmines around the joint. The locals couldn’t shed light on the situation as they didn’t seem to smell anything and I didn’t make a habit of telling them their hometown is a bit on the nose. Even if you can’t smell Gladstone you can’t escape the industry; giant smoke stacks from the coal plant, coal trains that seem to run kilometers long, the smelter, and the loading docks dispatching budget fossil fuel to India and China are so other-worldly and out of proportion, they’re impossible to miss from any view point. As someone pointed out, ‘Gladstone is a living advertisement for Greenpeace’. Beyond the lure of inflated industrial salaries, it’s a mystery to me why anyone would choose to live there, yet people do. And oddly enough Gladstonites are proud of their city.
I had business to do. I needed to find a yacht out of Australia and Gladstone is a harbor town, so I knocked around the marina for a few days placing postcard size photos of my bike and myself with my announcement scribbled over the top. Although Gladstone is situated in a dust bowl the fields surrounding the marina are well watered and lush. I camped down there for several nights, just past the sign that says: CAMPERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. The real problem, however, are the sprinklers which are buried in the ground like landmines. About 2:30 a.m. one night, up popped a sprinkler 30 cm from my tent and blasted me square on through the entrance—the sprinklers are industrial strength, of course, to match the surroundings. Within seconds my tent was converted into a pond. I spent the next half hour standing among the Cane Toads, cranking the sprinkler head around every time it approached the tent. The next night I camped elsewhere and zipped up.
I stayed with great people in Gladstone. I’m often asked how I meet these people. Often they meet me; the odd question leads to a conversation and occasionally I’m given directions and a phone number. It’s as simple as that. In this case I was parking my bike in the entrance of the supermarket when Prue introduced herself. She mentioned she was a keen cyclist and invited me for dinner. I stayed three nights. It turned out she was more than a keen cyclist; she was a triathlete and a pretty good one. The following weekend she competed in the Australian Ironman at Port Macquarie, completing it in 10:13 h.
I didn’t intend to stay but I was having no luck finding a boat and in a week’s time 60 plus yachts were scheduled to arrive following to the Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race. I met Kerry and Charmaine in the yacht club and subsequently Kerry offered her roof to say under while I was waiting around. The yacht race, however, proved to be fruitless as well.
When I was pedaling through the northern out skirts of Rockhampton, I hit a car. At least I thought I did. When I looked up from my handle bar I saw a bloke hanging from the rear left window of a white sedan with a big cheesy grin and something that resembled a heavy rubber object. It could have been something used after hours, I’ll never know because they didn’t hang around, but the fact of the matter was I got whacked and it was no accident, but I was lucky. A few days later I met a Canadian cyclist that had had a beer bottle thrown at him from a speeding vehicle. It hit him on the leg and the painful bruise lasted months.
That kind of incident can ruin an afternoon, but despite the hazard, I felt no resentment at all towards the guy that hit me. In fact quite the opposite, any negativity I quickly shook and I felt good, even empowered. The way I have reacted to certain situations has occasionally concerned me, and for good reason. Once I chased two guys down a dark street in Madrid, jumped one of them and chocked him purple until I reclaimed my stolen property. I’m not violent at all, which make that reaction seem even dumber. I just did it without thinking—there was no time. But somehow, I’ve felt myself adapting to a reality that can be hostile at times. I need to be able to take control when it counts. In that sense, I’m glad I’m doing this journey now and not seven years ago when I first conceived the idea. In any case, it was only going to turn out to be a mundane, unmemorable, truck-battling day.
The further north the greater the distances between towns, sometimes 100 km. At one point I ran out of food and had to scavenge a couple of pieces of bread and a banana at a rest area to keep going. The environment changed daily, from bone-dry plains to mountainous, brilliant-green oceans of sugarcane and then drought stricken land once again. I loved exploring the sleepy little settlements.
My next harbor town was Mackay. I camped in a large park by the coast. At some stage in the dark hours of the night I half unzipped my tent to take a piss and the first and only thing I saw through the darkness was the lit end of a cigarette. I froze. I was drowsy so for a while I was unsure if it was, in fact, a cigarette. But then the glow flared up as it was drawn. Someone was about ten meters away facing my direction. What the hell was this guy up to? Was he casing me? Was he on drugs? He got up and walked towards me stopping about three meters short and peering through the entrance of my tent. I could only make out a basic silhouette, then I recalled a conversation I’d had a few days earlier in Rockhampton; I was warned not to camp in the park there because a backpacker had recently been bashed and robed doing the same. I got spooked and zipped the tent shut in order to avoid a confrontation. But that was worse because now I couldn’t see what was going on outside. I heard his foot steeps move around slowly right beside my tent and then silence.
I have my gear sorted so that at night I only need to access my rear right pannier and my saddlebag. This allows me to make and break camp quickly. So my bike remained mostly packed and was locked to a bench beside the tent. I felt around for the few items I had with me that I could use for self-defense: my pump (it has more than one use, which is why I always carry the solid metal type for this kind of situation), an aluminum water bottle and my knife. Although I felt really lazy the thought of waiting for this guy to make his move or return with mates to finish the job was unbearable. Screw this, I thought, if there’s going to be a confrontation then so be it but I can’t spend the night like this. I put the water bottle by my feet, slipped the pump into my pants and knife on my belt and got out taking a quick scan around. I couldn’t see anyone although it was too dark to see beyond a few meters. It took no more than a few minutes to have camp packed and strapped to the bike. I was safe, walked about 300 meters away and slept badly on a bench in a well-lit area.
In Gladstone, in addition to placing my notices I applied for various crew positions on the net. One of them was to crew a 58 ft schooner called Seawanhaka, built in 1925. I also received a response via one of my notices to help crew a double-handed catamaran from Brisbane to Darwin and then on to Indonesia. This was definitely a second choice because visiting PNG is a priority and I won’t have another opportunity to sail the South Pacific until the end of the journey—which, at this stage, just seems like forever. In the end though, I didn’t need to visit the Marina in Mackay as my position on Seawanhaka was confirmed. I legged it up to Townsville in three days; pleased I didn’t need to spend any more time in Mackay.
My correspondence with Bill (the skipper) has been via a few brief emails. I have a rough idea of our route through the South Pacific via New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and PNG, although, I have no idea where and when I’ll depart this oceanic stage to continue my journey on the continent of Asia. I’m riding with an open ticket and the options are endless.