The road south of Marree was the same old: an unsealed dirt road through flat boring desert. There were still no trees for shade and the sun was as menacing as ever. There were still long stretches between signs of human life but I knew the mountains weren’t far off now…
That evening I saw some small grey-animals in the distance as I put my tent up. Strange, I thought, I didn’t know dingos moved in packs. There had been some signs on the a fences I’d rode past warning people to not let their dogs loose as there was poison bait out. Clearly it wasn’t working very well. Then I squinted closer and realised that they weren’t dingos at all – they were sheep! I heard a distant baa and looked down at my feet. The small poo pellets all over the ground did not belong to kangaroos or rabbits. I never thought I’d be so excited about seeing sheep but their arrival marks a dramatic change in the landscape. It looked like a pretty miserable place to be a sheep in but it’s the first spot in Oz I’ve seen any livestock other than cattle. It meant that I’d passed the world’s longest fence (the ‘Dingo fence’ which stretches 5,500km across the SE corner of the country to keep wild dogs out of the fertile lands). That meant that greenery must finally be near.
The road became tarmac the next morning and I was finally able to cover some decent mileage. The wind was still a pain but it was cooler now, blowing up from the sea. The road began to undulate and then mountains began to grow out of the horizon. Big brown marshmallow mounds that faded between chocolate brown to ochre as the sun cast their facades into moving shadow.
Now that we were all back on asphalt the cars could move quicker too. Fast cars = roadkill and I had the pleasure of cycling past dead kangaroos and emus all day. Thanks to the headwind all I could ever smell was rotting flesh. Yuck. I’ve spent too much of my time around the world smelling decaying mammals, especially in this country.
When I reached Leigh Creek I cycled excitedly over to the IGA store – the first supermarket I’d seen since Ayre’s Rock Resort weeks ago. I’d finally be able to stock up and buy stuff at an (almost) reasonable price! To my dismay, it was closed. I checked my watch – it was 1.30pm. The shop closed at 1pm on a Saturday. That’s not fair! I never know what day of the week it is.
I’d have just camped out of town and waited until morning but nothing is ever opened on a Sunday in this country. It’s not the first time I’ve been caught out by weekend closures. In the UK I’d hate to work retail because I’d always be working the weekends. Out here it must be a dream job! God knows when anyone working a 9-5 actually does their shopping…
I’d only bought enough supplies from Marree to make it here. Luckily the petrol station at the edge of town was open and had some pasta to sell me for an outrageous $4.50. I have had enough of the outback prices. Everything costs 3 times what it would in a city.
I sat in the pub waiting for the midday heat to pass. Leigh Creek was a strange place. It was purpose built for the nearby coal mine and as a result the leafy streets were organised and presentable unlike the lifeless outback communities. The government had closed the mine last year and now it was a ghost town. About 100 people still lived there, down from 1,000. Soon the pub would be closed and the woman working there (who’d been there for 5 years) would have to move somewhere else. A bloke I’d spoken to in the Lyndhust roadhouse a little further north had also worked in the mines for years. He was happy to tell me what a bunch of idiots the South Australia government were and how important the coal energy was.
There seems to be a pattern out here of outback communities formed around an industry that suddenly dries up over night. Gold digging, mining, railway track stations etc. Now they are all just shadow of their former selves, glory days reserved for the history books. Leigh Creek is just the latest in a long series of such stories.
I was now passing a roadhouse/village everyday but there were still long stretches of nothing. One bloke stopped his car to get a photo with me and tell me what a madman I was to be out here: “on a bloody pushbike in bum-fuck nowhere!” He then emptied out his car for snacks to give me, for which I was very grateful having discovered Leigh Creek’s supermarket closed the previous day. “Happy Christmas mate!” and for the first time in 2016 I thought of Christmas. It was, after all, just a week away but it’s far too hot for anything to feel Christmassy and there are no people out here to remind me of the approaching festive season. If I were back in London I’d have had to endure 3 months of build up in the high street. I’m not sure I’ve seen a single Christmas decoration this year.
“Here ya go mate, I’ve got a present for ya!” and he pulled out a deodorant/cologne gift set. The kind of present you get from a clueless colleague at the office Xmas party who only learnt your name in the secret santa. The kind of present you give to the charity shop the next day. Christ, do I really smell that bad? I had not had a shower for over a week. “Stick some of this on” he said, “and the sheilas’ll be all over ya”.
“Sheilas? What Sheilas?” It had been almost month since I’d been anywhere I cared about how I smelt. I promised him I’d put some on when I reached Adelaide and he promised me I’d get laid if I did. Only one of those promises happened in town.
I had had enough of the headwinds. It was getting silly now. When a dirt track snaked east towards the mountains I turned off the main road without even thinking twice. I hate headwind. I love mountains. Simple!
Riding across the Flinders Ranges was gorgeous. The dirt road was a steep workout but easily worth it. I had missed the mountains a lot. A thin creek flowed across the road at times and feral goats scrambled down for an occasional drink. It was the first time I’d ascended more than 1,000m in a day in Australia.
On the other side of the hills was Blinman – ‘South Australia’s highest town’. Every settlement has to have an attached superlative in this country. I wish they’d learn that a little hamlet of a dozen houses is not a town but I don’t doubt the altitude claim (albeit at a rather pathetic 600m). Blinman was the first place I’ve seen in this country that had any real charm. As I was admiring the brick buildings that looked like they could have been built in England I realised that I was reaching the part of the country where people had been living a good while before the first forays through the outback were ever made. There was history stretching back to and past the mid-19th C.It was still an ex-mining town – but surely the farm-able terrain was close now.
It was beautiful cycling over hills that glistened in the afternoon sun. Grain was shining a wonderful warm yellow and I remembered the day I arrived in Armenia many months ago. I’d been amazed that a landscape could be so golden.
There were kangaroos everywhere. A sign in the national park said there were ‘unnaturally high’ numbers of them. No kidding. The first day I cycled south through the mountains I saw more roos than I had done the last two months in Oz. There were hundreds of them. At one point a couple ran across the road and got stuck between me and the fence. I was rolling downhill and we locked pace at 30km/h (the speed of an olympic sprinter). They easily kept up my speed for a couple hundred meters until finding a gap in the fence. Impressive little things.
I made a detour over to Wilpena Pound – a naturally enclosed area between the mountains. I was saved the temptation of a longer stomp up to the ridge because the more strenuous hikes were closed due to the high temperature. Wimps. The stroll through huge red river gums was more exciting than the actual Wangarra viewpoint.
The daylight hours have been getting longer and longer as I’ve cycled down Australia. By the end of that afternoon I’d cycled 6 hours and hiked 2.5. I thought I’d been taking it slow! I have to remind myself to take breaks so I don’t pedal more than 8 hours a day. Perhaps I’m just too fit – putting in that many hours of exercise consistently day in and day out should be killing me and yet I feel fresh every morning when the sun hits my tent.
The first signs of civilisation were nearing. Sheep fences lined the road and wheat fields stretched out in an orderly fashion, glowing in the late sun. For the first time in the country I’d actually worried for a moment where I might camp. In the end I had to climb down into a dry creek just past Hawker to find a secret spot for the night.
The outback was finally behind me. The next morning I found the local library in Quorn and sat down under the air-con with free WiFi to plan my next movements. The life of luxury! I wanted to have a Google about the bike trail I’d noted down ages ago. The Mawson Trail meanders 900km from the Flinders to Adelaide and so I downloaded the GPS route and quickly left the asphalt behind.
The Mawson Trail was fantastic cycling. Spacious hills curved under miles of wheat and the bike route meandered through them away from all the traffic. Occasionally a farm house would poke out from the fields and a rusty old tractor would chug past on its way home.
Again I found myself stuck for a place to sleep. Everything was fenced off and there were no trees for cover. It’s so long since I’ve had to ‘stealth camp’ as everywhere else on this island I’ve just put my tent up anywhere when I felt tired. I reckon stealth camping is like riding a bicycle – once you’ve learnt how to do it you’ll never loose the 6th sense that finds you a potential pitch anywhere. I dragged my tent into the undergrowth through a gap in the fence and assembled my portable home in the very last light.
It pissed it down the next day. I had to ditch the Mawson Trail in favour of the asphalt to escape the mud and I cycled the whole day with my head down in the rain. It was miserable cycling but at least I didn’t have to end my day in the tent – Andrew hosted me via Warm Showers in Laura and so I had my first proper bed since leaving Alice Springs a month ago!
It rained for 30 hours straight. I haven’t had weather like this for a very long time. It dropped down to 10 degrees in the night – I was freezing!
The rains finally cleared leaving behind them the beautiful smell of damp eucalyptus. My nose was not enjoying life today – it was too busy running. I’d been feeling groggy the last few days and I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t had a day off in a month but my legs felt fine. My head, on the other hand, didn’t. My tonsils were swollen and my eyes were burning. It was only when I saw a tractor driving past with a pile of haystacks that I remembered the curse of my British summers – hay fever.
I haven’t been in an environment where hay fever has caught me since I left Europe 18 months ago. I’d forgotten I even had it. My anti-histamine pills had been thrown in the bin a long time ago so I pulled up to the next chemist to buy some drugs.
As I asked the bloke inside what pills he sold I had a flashback to Tajikistan. I’d been trying to get some imodium for diarrhea and thanks to the language barrier I’d had to squat in the shop and mime the illness. Miming diarrhea to a chemist is a very embarrassing experience, trust me. In the end the pharmacist had sold me some pro-biotics that were not at all what I was after.
I was glad to be back in the English-speaking world where I can nip into a shop and skip the tedious charades that permanently feature in foreign-country shopping. It comes at a cost though – the Skikh chap behind the counter tried to sell me $15 of pills, $15 of nasal spray and $15 of eye drops. I cycled to the nearest supermarket to get some own-brand anti-histamines. Hay fever is an expensive hobby in Australia.
Slowly the gaps between villages became closer and closer. I managed to stay with Warmshowers hosts the last three nights into Adelaide which was fantastic. Kirsten (who hosted me in Gawler) invited to watch her team’s basketball match in the evening. As we were driving we almost hit a wombat crossing the road – it was huge! Seeing yet another new Australian animal reminded of something I’d seen earlier in the day:
“This might sound really crazy and maybe I am going mad… but I saw a couple of animals today that looked very… well, weird. It was like a cross between a sheep and a donkey and a camel! It looked a bit furry and had a long neck… but was much bigger than the sheep it was stood next to.”
“Ah – I think that was an alpaca!” Kirsten told me.
“What! Like a llama? In Australia??”
Apparently they help stop the foxes from stealing the sheep. I didn’t even know they had foxes in Australia. The Brits took them over to hunt (I guess Pictionary wasn’t a good enough pastime) and now they’re a feral pest. I’ve never heard of foxes attacking sheep, though. Perhaps all the farmers back in the UK are missing a trick…
I wished Kirsten good luck in the game and said I’d be rooting for them. She suggested it might be more appropriate for me to cheer instead – apparently rooting means having sex in Australian. What a strange country.
Just outside Adelaide I met up with Mark – the very same Mark who had hosted me in Darwin when I first arrived in the country two months ago. He’d flown to Perth a couple weeks after I left Darwin and had spent the last 6 weeks cycling east. By extraordinary coincidence we were reaching Adelaide the very same day and so met up to pedal the last 30 miles together.
I have only been in two cities across this empty country – Darwin & Alice Springs. Their populations are about 50,000 & 30,000. Tiny, in other words. Adelaide was the first city with a million people in it I’ve visited in months and I was excited as we pushed through the urban sprawl that rings any big metropolis. It was tedious slog through miles of outer-city factory stores. Most of which were selling caravans. They are so weirdly obsessed with those things in this country.
Neither of us knew anything about Adelaide so I dragged Mark to the only spot I’d heard about in the city. The Oval – the cricket pitch that crops up on my radar every few years when The Ashes takes place Down Under.
Gary, a South African kindly hosted us a few nights while we were in town. Adelaide was brilliant – small enough to easily cycle around and big enough to feel like a proper Western city, at last! I deserved a couple of days off: the day I arrived in Adelaide was my 35th consecutive day of cycling. My riding days had been big too – averaging 6-8 hours in the saddle. I would never usually cycle anywhere near that long without a day off but there simply hadn’t been anything to stop for in the empty outback and everywhere was full of flies. I hit the 35,000km mark on the way into town and it was time for a break.
For the first time in 2016 I was somewhere were the weather was perfect. At the start of the year I was getting beaten by that awful winter around the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau. I had about a fortnight of pleasant spring when I dropped down from the mountains before crossing into the tropics and begging the next 9 months of hellish humidity. When I left the tropics in Northern Australia I was welcomed into summer in the desert which was far from amiable. But now I found myself in the high 20s with a gentle breeze coming in from the sea. It was delightful. It felt like England in the summer and for that brief month of decent weather in London there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be.
Adelaide was a very clean city. We cycled 35km around town and I was amazed not too see a single ‘nasty’ suburb. I know that there are poorer areas at the edge of town but we didn’t pass anywhere that made me think ‘ah – here is the working class corner of town’. I’ve never been in a city where you can cycle that far and not see houses/flats that look sub-standard compared to the rest of town.
Gary had some extra cinema tickets so, living the ‘big city dream’, we headed over for a movie night. The film was decent but my favourite part were the adverts. Half of them were international high-budget ads whilst the other half were for local businesses. One minute you’d have George Clooney starring in a Nespresso advert and the next minute you’d have some gormless, awkward-looking cashiers from the local pharmacy featuring in a low-budget ‘come visit your local chemist just across the road’ ad that looked like it had been filmed on someone’s phone. I saw commercials with better editing in East Timor, and that’s saying something.
I was happy to be back in civilisation with the supermarkets, cinemas and ginormous caravan stores but it was time to crack on. Christmas was just around the corner but I now had my sights firmly set on Melbourne for New Year’s Eve. Making it by the end of the year was a pipe dream two months ago but after my race across the country it looked quite do-able from Adelaide.