December had arrived in the desert, bringing with it a crescendo in the temperature. I loaded 25L of water onto my bicycle and wobbled onto the dirt Oodnadatta track both nervous and excited about the lonely stretch ahead.
Occasionally a few trees would cluster around a dried up creek but aside from those respites there was no shelter from the relentless sun. I sat under a small leafless tree trying to force some water down to subdue the headache. The water was so warm that I chucked a tea bag into my mug and had a few cups of tea instead. Lukewarm tea was far easier to drink than hot water. The heat was getting crazy. My plastic bottles had started shrinking in the sun and when I transferred water between them the bottles would smoke up in the process.
I’d been naive and had bought a loaf of bread in Marla. I’ve never seen bread go bad so quickly in my life. By the time I took it out of my bag a few hours later the plastic bag had melted against the inside of the pannier. I’d also bought a jar of peanut butter for spread but that now had the consistency of soup in the heat.
A couple of days before I’d been talking to a cattle station worker. He’d warned me that a heatwave was coming. I’d not paid him any attention, thinking ‘a heatwave is coming? This is a heatwave. It can’t possibly get any hotter than this!’ He was right, of course. We chatted for a little while at a rest area. He’d been in London 20 years ago and said he hated it. I told him I’d rather spend the rest of my life on the Central Line than live out here. He’d been farming cattle for decades in the outback. When I asked him if he enjoyed it he said “you try running 2000 cattle somewhere it doesn’t rain for four years…”
He also warned me against cycling the Oodnadatta in December. “People die out here mate”. He also told me that the track was covered in ‘bull dust’. I had no idea what that was, but I soon discovered that it’s the fine sand that makes cycling dirt roads a real nightmare.
As I knocked back my 5th cup of tea I wondered when the next car would pass. I’d told my mum that there would be loads of cars travelling along the road every day. In reality I thought it would just be a handful. But it seemed there was nobody at all. I hadn’t seen a soul all day and it was unnerving. Even I didn’t think it would be this quiet.
Two cars passed me that day. The driver of the second car stopped to say hello. Snowy parked his car in the middle of the road and said “want a beer? They’re cold…”. Of all the things I daydream about out here, ice cold beers are usually top of the list.
“What the fuck are you doing out here this time of year? It’s 46°C degrees in Oodnadatta today!” Ouch, 46°?
“Yeah… I didn’t realise that summer in Australia was not the same time as summer in England”
Snowy was working on road construction beyond Oodnadatta. While we had another beer he showed me a video of a huge perentie they’d seen the other day. I’d love to see one – they’re these huge lizards that can grow up to 2.5m (they remind me of komodo dragons).
Crack. Another beer.
Then a ‘black fella’ turns up in the video who wanted the perentie for his dinner and proceeded to try and smack the giant animal over the head with his shovel. It got away.
Snowy suggested I stop by his work camp 160km away before driving off and passing me another beer to have with dinner. I got back on my bike and realised that after only 3 stubbies I was drunk. I wobbled a few hundred meters down the track before giving up and pitching my tent at the side of the road.
The emptiness was immense. I have never cycled anywhere so remote in my life and without any cars around I felt very alone. It was both empowering and terrifying.
The landscape was beautiful, not in a ‘wow! Quick get the camera out’ manner in a subtle and lonely way. The kind of beauty you need peace and patience to enjoy. Not the kind of place you can appreciate when speeding along in a 4×4 drowned in a cloud of dust.
I’d spoken to my dad on Skype further north in the country. While we’d been talking he had started looking at the Stuart Highway on Google Street View. He said he’d been clicking forward for a couple hundred miles and said every picture looked exactly the same. ‘Rather you than me’ I think were his words.
But it is only when you are here in the vast desert that you can appreciate the variation in the tiny details. No two spots on this planet are the same. When there are no volcanoes, rivers, oceans etc to distract us it is far easier to appreciate subtlety in a slowly changing landscape. The Oodnadatta track was far from boring.
There was plenty that drove me mad in the outback (the flies, heat and constant headwind) but I also felt a connected-ness with the earth beneath me that I have not done so in any other environment. I was more grounded and aware of the nature around me that anywhere else I have been.
A couple days before turning onto the Oodnadatta I’d passed the border between the Northern Territory and South Australia. I paused for a while trying to work out what the time difference was between states – did only one of them observe daylight saving? SA was either 30, 60 or 90 mins ahead but I wasn’t sure which. It suddenly occurred to me how trivial time is out here. I have no appointments to make!
I wake up when the first light hits my tent and stop half an hour before the sun sets. The sun always rises from the same direction and as there’s rarely a cloud in the sky I always know what time it is. Even when I’m sleeping (I usually only use the mesh layer of my tent) I can tell exactly what time it is should I wake up simply by looking at the stars above my head. Because I’m always sleeping somewhere new I often can’t remember where I am when I first wake up. There’s something comforting about knowing which way is North just by looking at the stars. I’ve never been able to do that before. I took my watch off and put it in my handlebar bag. It did not matter what time zone this was.
I reached Oodnadatta on the third day of riding from Marla. There was a sign up reading ‘Australia’s hottest town’. I can agree that it is the hottest (it certainly isn’t a pleasant place in December) but it is not a town. It is a village. The Aussies call anything with more than one resident a town. Oodnadatta has a couple hundred inhabitants – that is not a town.
After spending an outrageous amount in the extortionate community store I went outside to begin stuffing my supplies for 5 days into my bags. I am tired of these outback shops – everything costs such stupid money in them. Everything is at least double what it would be in a supermarket.
I bumped into Snowy again. He’d nipped into ‘town’ to get some supplies and, of course, make a visit to the pub. I was invited to join Snowy and his colleague, got a bought a few beers and wobbled off on my bike once again.
Their camp was just 5 miles down the road. Snowy opened a spare container, showed me the bed I could sleep on and pointed to the air-con controls. “You have a shower and I’ll start up dinner”. I was in heaven!
The room was a lifeless white box full of dead bugs and the bed was just a plain mattress. It was paradise to me. I had been in my tent every night since leaving Alice Springs three weeks ago and I’d not had a shower for longer than I’d like to admit. I even got to wash my clothes! Snowy suggested I chuck them in the washing machine after eyeing my ripped up trousers and saying “you’ve warn the cunt out of them, ain’t ya?”.
Australians are disturbingly liberal with the c-word. They are also incredibly creative with it. I’ve heard it used as a verb, an adjective and a boring old noun. I don’t have the cleanest mouth in the world but the c-bomb is a word I use colloquial very occasionally among people I know well, or reserve for those I really don’t like. I would certainly never think it appropriate to write in this blog. But in Australia… everything is a cunt.
Here we were in the desert, miles from anywhere with everything we needed. A generator was pumping away noisily in the background, fueling the operation and providing power for the air-con units, the lights, TV and fully-furnished kitchen. A huge water tank was full of clean(ish) water from the bore in Oodnadatta. Snowy served up pork chops, pulled some more cold beers out the fridge (a seemingly endless supply) and I went to bed pondering how amazingly ‘developed’ the developed world really is.
We were hundreds of miles from the nearest town and yet life was easy out here. I thought back to the villages I stayed in in East Timor where resources seemed so readily available – people could farm and fish, the trees could bear fruit, trees would provide wood for building and burning – and yet people lived in poverty and hardship. If these air-con units in the middle of the desert were not a victory over nature for men of the ‘developed world’, then I don’t know what could be.
For a couple of days thick cloud had provided cover from the sun. I’d appreciated their company but now they looked dark and ominous. The last thing I wanted was rain. Rain is never fun on a dirt road. Big black clouds lined the track ahead of me, lit up every few seconds by a flash of taunting lightning daring me to keep cycling nearer.
I couldn’t figure out why large chunks of the clouds were orange but then the storm hit I realised why. Those were huge dust clouds where the sand had been swept up into the storm. I tied my raincoat hood tight and covered up my entire face to keep the sandstorm off my skin. It was so windy I was blown over twice.
The road was a mess the next day. The clay soil that covered Australia is a disaster when wet. It’s not compact enough to stop the tyres sinking but is sticky enough to clog up everything. My mud guards have nowhere near enough clearance and I had to stop every few metres to scrape the clumps of red mud out so I could continue cycling. It was painfully slow. Fortunately it was colder so I didn’t need as much water but I had food with me for just 5 days and didn’t fancy adding any hungry hours onto the end of that.
The road closed behind me and the rain stopped. I was on my own again. There was only the very occasional station worker passing, one of whom told me about the road closure. The peace and quiet was fine by me. I’d stick my tent up right next to the road, get all my sweaty kit off and spend the evening butt-naked. Clothes seemed very trivial in that heat with no-one else around.
In the morning I didn’t even bother putting my clothes back on. I hopped on my bike starkers and pedalled for a couple hours until the sun began to sizzle my pasty skin.
The sun was out properly by the time I reached Algebuckina bridge. It was constructed to service the Ghan railway in 1892 and was the longest bridge in South Australia until just recently. (The Oodnadatta Track follows this old railway line the whole way). A huge waterhole was alive with bird life. I’m pretty sure I saw a pelican as I arrived but it flew away as soon as it saw me approach. I’ve never seen one in the wild before and it was bloody huge. If pelicans are around it means fish are, too. These outback waterholes are quite extraordinary places.
The station guys who passed me were all the same: filthy from head to toe, dressed like Wild West cowboys, foul mouthed and completely lovely. They’d always stop to check I was OK for food & water and scold me for being out there in December. A couple of guys were driving cattle road trains to a town in the Flinders. They passed me 3 times as they traveled those couple hundred miles from the farm! I overtook them only once as one of them crawled under the truck to fix a blown tyre. I am not jealous of their jobs…
One of the station blokes hopped out. “What the fuck are you doing out here mate? Sure you don’t wanna chuck the cunt up in the ute and get a ride?” (I do not like anybody referring to my bicycle as ‘the cunt’). I’ve now figured out what a ‘ute’ is.They’re the utility vehicles with a storage trunk and the Aussies love them. They love them almost as much as they love their caravans (and that’s saying something). I even see these shiny sports car utes when I’m in a town. Seems the Aussies prefer having the option of transporting a kangaroo home than giving a lift to more than one person at a time. These station guys chucked me an orange out the window and said ‘bet you’re too tired to pull ya dick at night ain’t ya?’ before offering to leave a tin of biscuits by the turn off to their homestead 20 miles down the road.
They also suggested I stop in William Creek for a night to try and bag ‘a sheila’. When I got there the next day the only soul in town (it’s just a roadhouse) was indeed a sheila, but at least 30 years too old for me. She kindly filled up my water bottles from the rainwater tank (after the last couple of days they couldn’t say there wasn’t enough water!).
The road behind me was still closed but a couple of other tracks had joined the Oodnadatta so now there was the odd car passing by every few hours. Mostly it was just me and the animals. There were no more wild horses or camels but now there were many kangaroos out in the bush. I saw rabbits for the first time darting out of the huge sand dunes and emus waddling along comically through the scrub.
Past William Creek I skirted the the edge of Lake Eyre South. Every few years the lake fills with water, turning it into Australia’s largest lake. The Lake Eyre basin is about 1 million acres and when rains from the NT and Queensland eventually get down here it can transform the lake into quite an extraordinary place. Even when it’s dry it’s quite a spectacle. The southern section of the lake is the smaller part the size of it is mind boggling. The lake is 144km long! Check out the pictures on Google images – it’s quite something.
The clouds had now cleared and the sun was out with it’s usual menace. I was growing tired of the headwind that had been slowing me for days but it showed no sign of relenting. The wind pressing into my face was hot and unpleasant. It reminded me of being too excited about getting a pizza out the oven, sticking my face far too near the door and getting blasted by hot air when opening it.
I was inching along at 10km/hr but on the 9th morning I finally reached Marree. The wind had made things take half a day longer than I’d hoped and by the time I reached town I was starving and thirsty. The village used to be an important railway stop (as were all the other places around here) until the train stopped running. Now it depends on a trickle of tourists and is probably only an exciting place when the annual camel race takes place.
I had survived the Oodnadatta track.
From here it was just a little push south to the coast and civilisation. There just happened to be some mountains in my path…