When I left London on my bicycle 22 months ago the mission was simple: cycle to Australia. Actually it was never that important a goal. To play an old cliche – it was ‘about the journey, not the destination’. The reason I’d picked Oz as my final stop was because it was the furthest away country (almost) connected to Europe by land. To set such a ridiculous and seemingly impossible target on the other side of the world was perfect: nobody took me particularly seriously (my cycling credentials are non-existent) and I myself didn’t worry too much about whether or not I’d actually make it. There was no pressure at all. I’d just keep cycling as long as I was having fun and see where I ended up.
As I watched my odometer creep higher and higher I began to realise that actually reaching Australia was quite realistic. The further I pedalled from London the more hungry I became about reaching Oz. Eventually the ‘dream’ became all-encompassing and never would a day pass without me imagining the moment I’d step foot on Aussia soil.
I’d barely had a chance to rub my eyes on the early morning flight from Dili before the seat-belt sign was back on and we were descending to Darwin. It had taken just over an hour to fly the last few hundred kilometers to Oz. Stepping of the plan was a feeling I won’t ever ever forget.
Like Timor it was hot and humid but the surroundings were different. The hum of crickets was new, the trees were different and unfamiliar brids flew between the branches. I re-assembled my bicycle and cycled along a creek to the beach. I stopped at a water fountain by the cycle path. Drinking water? Cycle paths? A big smile crept across my face. I was back in a familiar world. Other cyclists rode past me, people were out walking their dogs and driving their cars in an orderly fasion. It was great.
I stayed with Mark, an English cyclist who lived near the beach. My standards of living were so low that everything seemed like another world of luxury: tiled floors, fridges, air-con, drinkable tap water, toasters. I could actually sleep without worrying about mosquitoes delivering me an unfortunate illness in the night. I was only going to stay a couple days but ended up staying 5 nights. Here I could drink beers on the beach watching the sunset and pretend the bicycle didn’t exist.
I was excited about doing my shopping in a big western supermarket again. I was even more excited about seeing the self-service scanners at the checkout. At least, I was until I had to locate the veggies I’d bought for dinner on the machine. The pepper was called a ‘capsicum’, butternut squash was under ‘pumpkin’ and sweet potato under ‘golden potato’. Bizarre. I had to call over the assistant three times for help. She thought it was hilarious.
As I was walking out the shop I cut across a bus terminal. A bloke in a high-vis jacket came running out his office shouting at me: “mate you can’t walk there – can’t you see there’s a sign?”. I looked behind me at where he was pointing. There was indeed a sign. I gave a half-hearted apology, wondering if there was a correlation between countries with self-service checkouts and an obsession with rules. I am back in a different world.
It’s a similar world to the one back home, but not quite. I’d spent the last two years looking forward to a celebratory Fosters upon my arrival Down Under but I’ve never seen a bottle of the stuff here. I grew up with adverts of laid-back Aussies on the beach leaning backwards Fosters in hand but it turns out it was all a lie. When I did go for my first drink and asked for a pint, the bar woman gave me a ‘schooner’ – some strange glass size even more illogical than a pint.
We speak the same language but the Aussies have gotten a little confused by the words beyond vegetables. A chicken is not a ‘chook’ guys, are you for real?. I love the way they shorten words. At first they confused me but now I’ve cracked the logic: they just cut a word in half and add a ‘o’ or ‘ee’ sound at the end. Service station is a serv-o, bottle shop (you have to buy booze in special shops here) is a bottle-o. A U-turn is a U-ee. I’m not Jonathan anymore – clearly my name is a syllable too long for the Aussies. Instead I’m Jono in this country. They don’t even ask if it’s OK to change my name for me, so now I just introduce myself as Jono. He can buy my Aussie alter-ego, out in the bush in thongs and a singlet with a schooner in hand. (Holding a beer in the outback wearing a vest and flip flops, in ‘proper’ English).
The bike did exist. It had just been out of sight in the bicycle shop getting an overhaul. My rear rim was cracked and the headset bearings were worn through. Whichever direction you head from Darwin you must be ready for the vast empty outback and I needed my bike to be happy. A strong new rim to carry the extra weight of multiple days’ worth of food and water and a headset that would actually let steer in a straight line. No more stalling. It was time for the outback.
Within 10km cycling I got my first puncture. Great start. As I switched tubes I got chatting to another cyclist who stopped to say hello. He lived in the bush. Living in a ‘bush’ might be logistically difficult in England but the Aussies just call everything outside of town the ‘bush’ and this chap had stuck his tent up a few miles out of town to live for free. You don’t have to go far out of Darwin before the landscape becomes uninhabited. He’d made simple home and commuted into Darwin to claim job-seekers. Not paying rent, he told me he was saving a load from it. I’ve learnt the Australian word for people like this: ‘long grassers’.
25km out of Darwin I passed Palmerston where I’d been a couple days before. Dani had messaged me through my blog and invited me to talk at the local school. I suddenly found myself in front of 300 kids talking about the last two years of my life. It was a slightly terrifying experience but I reminded myself that if I could cycle from England to Oz then I probably shouldn’t be nervous about talking to a bunch of kids about my riding…
It was an insightful afternoon as I was forced to reflect on my trip from a new perspective. One thing I told the kids that I thought worth repeating was this: if our seats had been switched and I was in school listening to someone who’d cycled from Australia to the UK (or even if I’d met that hypothetical person a couple years ago) I’d have thought they were some sort of super-human athlete with outdoor credentials far beyond anything I’d ever have. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d never cycled long distance before leaving, new nothing about bicycle maintenance, wasn’t particularly fit, suffered from asthma and wasn’t exactly an ‘outdoors’ person. Patience and stubbornness are far more useful attributes than survival skills when you’re cycling the world.
Past Palmerston things began to look very empty. It didn’t look like the outback I’d been expecting: it didn’t feel like a desert at all, spacious forests lined the side of the road and the occasional creek was still full of water. It was very different to anywhere I’d cycled before.
Not realising that the crocodiles go hundreds of miles inland up the rivers I went for a dip in one of the creeks. Fortunately I’d just put my clothes back on when a car pulled up and the driver passed me a leaflet. Jehovah Witnesses. There is no escaping them.
I’d literally just been thinking about how nice it was to be back in a secular country where people wouldn’t ask me my faith every 5 minutes. Things hadn’t changed. ‘Do you believe in God?’ he asked me. None of your business mate. I shrugged and told him I wasn’t sure. ‘The universe is pretty amazing don’t you think?’ That’s an unfair question to lure someone into a conversation about God. Everyone thinks the universe is amazing. So instead I told him that I didn’t think it was particularly interesting at all and he changed the conversation. ‘Do you suffer from depression?’ That is also none of your bloody business! I said no and he said he did. Pointing at the berries he was picking from the tree beside the creek he told me that they helped with it. It’s nice not to have a language barrier but I am certainly meeting some odd people in this country….
The landscape was incredibly empty but occasionally I’d pass a roadhouse or mango farm. I remembered picking mangoes fresh from the road-side trees in Myanmar but here the orchards are siphoned off behind barbed wire fences. Picking season is already upon us and big fruits dangle from the branches begging out to be plucked and eaten.
For the first time in months I didn’t need to worry about camping. When I was tired I stopped and pulled off the road in search of a potential pitch. It wasn’t much of a search – there’s no one around so you can camp anywhere here. I’d seen dozens of termite mounds from the road but out in the scrub I saw a ginormous one and set up camp right next to it. I’ve never anything like it.
In the morning there were kangaroos jumping around at the side of the road. I was terribly excited despite the fact that they were half the size I’d imagined them to be. When I told some people this they said: ‘those are wallabies you idiot, not kangaroos!’ Now I know what a wallaby is…
The puncture I’d received on my first day ended up being a real pain in the arse. It kept on returning as a meddlesome slow puncture and no matter how hard I looked I simply couldn’t find it. It drove me mad. It was only on the third day that I actually found it it – a tiny thorn wedged inside the rubber that only poked through when the tyre was pressed hard against something. The winds had also been nasty, as expected. As a result it took me 4 days to cover the first 320km to Katherine.
Katherine is a small outback town with less than 10,000 inhabitants. I took a day off to recharge, my Aussie ‘warm-up’ complete. I now had a better idea about how much food and water I needed to survive out in the open.
I stayed with Dean, who was working as electorate officer for the local parliamentary representative. Labour had recently won the Conservative stronghold by a narrow margin of 33 votes.
We drove out to visit Katherine Gorge but on the way an animal jumped out onto the road and smacked into the front of the car. A wallaby lay half-dead in the middle of the road. They’re not that small, those things. It had made a large dent in the front of the car and smashed a headlamp. We were all OK but the animal wasn’t. The poor thing was trying to get up but bleeding from the mouth. Neither me nor Dean had the balls to put it out of its misery but Jenny (who was visiting the national park with us) was more man than either of us. She dropped a big rock on its head and dragged it by the tail off the road. It was a grim start to the day.
A ranger stopped us as we were hiking to the gorge to check we had enough water. He said it was 45 degrees and 10 warmer up on the ridge. Dean had been there a few weeks ago and had to rescue an elderly German tourist who’d had a heat stroke up there. The heat is hard to deal with but it’s not what I’m struggling with the most out here. It’s the flies that are really driving me mad.
The bush flies are a plague out here. I had been warned about them and I did take the advice to buy a bug net before leaving Darwin. To be honest, I doubted it would really be necceseary but it ended up being one of best fivers I’ve ever spent in my life. The further south I got the worse the flies got. “Yes, they’re very friendly aren’t they” the locals would say when I complained about them. Friendly? They are the most horrible things in the world. In any other country the flies just go away when you wave your hand at them but in Australia the little buggers just keep on flying back into your eyes, nose, ears and mouth. They want the protein from your sweat and seeing as I’m permanently sweaty out here I’m very popular with them. I put the net on before I get out my tent in the morning and don’t take it off until I get back into my tent in the evening. It is awful.
The flies may well drive me to insanity in the outback. But that will take a while. There’s a more immenant threat to my life out here: road trains. I’d heard so much about these things that I was actually excited when I saw the first one. The novelty wore off pretty quickly. Road trains are these motorised monsters that carry 3-4 trailers hurtling down the motorway. They can be three times longer than anything legal on British roads.
I met a Kiwi in Indonesia who worked as a road train driver. He proudly told me a story of how he’d run over three cows in the outback. With the amount they carry those trucks can’t stop easily at all. The Kiwi told me he didn’t even bother trying to stop when he saw the cows on the road in front of him. He’d just held on tight, flattened them and not even stopped. I’d rather not end up like one of those cows.
I’m not quite sure what they are doing on the roads. I know the Australians get confused about a lot of English words but this one seems pretty simple to me: Roads are for cars and trucks. Trains go railway lines. Don’t put them together! The ones carrying the cattle are the worst. They stack two levels of cows into three trailers – they can probably get a hundred cows in. They are big, ugly vehicles that hit you with a wall of cow-smell when they pass. Most of them are heading up to Darwin to get put on a boat and ferried up to Darwin. There was scandal recently where an undercover investigation exposed the Indonesians’ brutal treatment of the cows and exports were halted but things seem to be running as normal now.
The day after I left Katherine I passed the small village of Mataranka. All these outback settlements are strange places. The park was full of aboriginal people just waking up having slept out on the grass. I think they probably just come into town for some kind of appointment and just slept rough.
Just after Mataranka I reached a junction where a road headed east towards Queensland. I stopped to look at my map again. The original plan had been to leave the Stuart Highway and follow this road but my plans had recently changed. The Savannah Way heading east is very remote. There’s one section of a few hundred kilometers of nothing out there. But that wasn’t my main concern. It’s a remote dirt road that has plenty of river crossings. In rainy season it becomes impassable and I’m dangerously close to The Wet now. It’s the crocs that scare me. One guy I met told me about a river crossing he was driving over there – a two meter crocodile had jumped up on his bonnet in the middle of it! I don’t fancy meeting a crocodile wading across a flooded river.
I continued south along the Stuart Highway. My new plan is this: bomb it down tarmac until the middle of the country. Then – if the heat isn’t too bad – follow more remote dirt roads to the South Coast. If I move quick I’ll escape the rains and be across the Tropic of Capricorn in a fortnight. I’d really messed up the seasons: up here in the Top End it’s the ‘build up’, which is the hottest and most humid part of the year just before the rains arrive. I’ll be arriving in the Red Centre just as summer arrives. The dry heat will be a welcome change but I don’t want to take any chances. Better to see how my body is coping before heading to more remote areas.
At the village of Pine Creek I’d chatted to an aboriginal guy who clearly thought I was bonkers to be cycling here at this time of year. Everyone goes out of their way to tell me how badly I have chosen my seasons here but actually it’s not that different up here to the rest of humid SE Asia. I am well acclimatised. He told me about how Pine Creek still floods when the rains come. A few decades ago (before the road was sealed) the village was cut off in The Wet. “So you could be stuck here for a few days?” I asked him. “A few days? If you didn’t have your food stocked up by mid-Oct you’d be very hungry come January…”.
It’s not the same these days. The rain comes late and there’s not as much of it. “Live here if you want to see climate change in front of you” he told me. Or just cycle around the world. People across three continents have told me how their environment has changed drmatically around them over the last few decades.
I needed to charge my stuff so pulled into one of the roadhouses by the Stuart Highway. I usually pass one every day so I can get a hot meal if I want but instead I cook the food I’ve bought with me – it’s too expensive out here. Australia is an expensive country and in these remote places everything costs twice as much. It’s pretty painful for me to adjust after so many months living like a king in Asia.
On this occasion I stopped for a sandwich. I’d only spent $3 in 4 days. That $3 had been on a chocolate bar. That’s why I don’t spend money out here! My steak sandwich didn’t taste that good having spent the last week watching those cows getting carted around for slaughter. Maybe I’ll stick to kangaroo (hunted as game meat rather than bred for slaughter) from now on…
I stocked up water in the village of Elliot but when I went to top-up my bottles I noticed, to my dismay, that my new bladder was leaking. Uh oh! This was not good: water is the most important thing to me out here. I bought that bladder in Darwin to help me carry enough. On some of the more remote section further south I may need to carry 20+ litres. At the moment there are stretches of 100km and I still need 10l in this heat. It’s up in the low 40s at times and out in the sun the heat is tough. I met some road workers who told me the bitumen road was 75! My poor tyres on that…
Fortunately I could strap enough bottles onto the bike to get me to Alice Springs. Water wasn’t my only concern – the wind was being horrible to me. As I neared Tenant Creek it picked up into a hellish headwind. I stopped for a break at the Renner Springs roadhouse – it had taken me 90mins to cycle the first 16km. The owner asked me where I’d cycled from today. I told him from just up the road. “You camped in the bush!?” I nodded. “You Poms are fucking crazy.” I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been called a Pom in my life. I thought they just said that in the cricket.
Next thing I new I’d been offered a job as an air-con repair man. Perhaps only my father will know what a useless ‘handyman’ I am but I took the job as a ‘mechanic’ anyway, despite the fact that the last mechanic thing I had to fix was my disc brakes – and they took me half a year to figure out!
I was very grateful to be out of the winds and by the end of the day even more grateful to have $115 in my back pocket. I think I wrangled a pretty good deal there. With my first paycheck in nearly 2 years I went straight to the bar and bought a couple beers (the first I’ve bought since Darwin).
When I woke in the morning I found that one of the girls at the bar had left a water bladder for me outside my tent after hearing me complain about my broken one the night before. I was meeting some very generous people in the outback. Shame the wind was being so unpleasant. The next day I had the worst headwinds I can remember since Iran. It took me 8.5 hours to pedal 90km. I could barely stand up in the blasting wind, let alone cycle straight into it.
I cycled late into the afternoon as the winds finally dropped. That last hour of light is my favourite time of the day. The low sun gives the bush a golden tinge and everything seems a little more peaceful without the winds. Suddenly something smacked into the back of my helmet. Before I even had a moment to wonder what it was I saw a bird swooping down towards me. I panicked and tried to defend myself with my arm while braking with me other hand. I didn’t have the co-ordination for a such a manoeuvre and as the bird dived upwards at the last-minute I fell over off the side of the road.
I picked up my bicycle and squinted at the bird now perched on a branch across the road. Had it really just attacked me? Perhaps I’d imagined it. I started riding again but the same bird squawked and dived for me. After dodging another swoop I eyed it more closely. It was a magpie. I’d heard stories of magpies attacking people in Australia but a) I didn’t really believe them and b) I thought I’d missed breeding season (which is when they go territory mad).
Apparently they’re a real pain in the cities down South. I met some people from Canberra who told me you’ll see people cycling around with eyes drawn on the back on their helmets or zip-ties pocking out from them in defence of magpie attacks. I was also shown this video and now I will live in permanent fear of magpies….
Until then, the birdlife had been amazing in the outback. I’d seen more birds than anywhere else I’ve ever cycled. Huge birds of prey would circle me when I’m away from any other traffic – they are beautiful animals. It’s only when I see the occasional one dead at the side of the road that I realise how big they are – many have wing spans far wider than a meter. There are so many dead wallabies at the side of the road that they’re just grazing on the roadkill. Perhaps that’s when they get hit themselves…
After one last struggle into the winds I was finally at Tenant Creek, the first town in nearly 700km. It was only a little place of a couple thousand people but I found a lovely couple to Couchsurf with and was happy to be back in a bed after a week in the bush.
I’ll wrap up this blog with some frogs in a toilet. Apparently this is a thing in Australia. A girl in a roadhouse told me that she had a couple of tree frogs living in her loo and at a tourist information centre there was a sign saying ‘don’t be alarmed if you find the two frogs living in our toilet!