It somehow felt like the Australian adventure was already over as I pedalled out of Adelaide. Melbourne was still 500 miles away but the hard part was over now, surely. There were no more long stretches without water, no more outback heat, plenty of towns en-route and apparently there would be less flies along the coast. Fantastic. Some easy cycling was just what I needed. New Year’s Eve was 11 days away and I wanted wrap to up 2016 in Melbourne.
Once over the Adelaide hills suburbia sprawled through the forests. Occasional gaps revealed fields with grazing sheep moving slowly over the undulating greenery. I could almost have been back in the UK. Even the place names were familiar: that day I cycled past Aldgate, Macclesfield and Wellington.
I stopped for lunch by the cricket pitch in one village park. Even the parks make me feel at home but perhaps the eucalyptus trees are a little un-English. A lady came over to say hello to me. If strangers are doing that then I’m definitely not in the UK.
“I was just taking my dad out for lunch. We were looking at the koala up in that tree.”
“WHAT! A koala? Where??”
She looked a little alarmed at such an enthusiastic response.
“Sorry, it’s just I’ve never seen one before!”
She pointed it out and sure enough, there it was way up in the high branches of a gum tree. Australia is far cooler than England. Squirrels? Yawn…
I got lured into a false sense of security thinking that the Australian adventure was ‘already over’. There were still long water-less stretches and when I finally reached Wellington (where I caught the boat across the Murray river) they told me in the shop that the mains water wasn’t drinkable and tried to sell me a flask of extortionate h2o. Getting drinking water from people has never been as much of a nightmare as it has been in Oz. I found a tap around the corner but the liquid that ran our of it was a dirty brown, sucked straight up from the river. Unlike in the outback, people actually live here and they all have rainwater tanks (another Aussie obsession). I knocked on a door and filled up my bottles. The shop owners may be a pain with water but the rest of this country are a very generous and friendly bunch.
I rode a short way up the road and set up camp. Just as I was falling asleep some animals woke me. I climbed out my tent, flicked on my head-torch and saw two possums crawling around the tree above my head. I crawled back into my sleeping bag very content with my first day back on the road – I’d added two new Australian animals from my ‘to see’ list. Who needs Pokemon Go! when you have a bicycle and a passport?
The landscape along the coast was strange. The trees disappeared and the hills flattened, leaving vast empty fields beside long lagoons that sepearated the land from the ocean. Even between cities I was already somewhere remote!
The mosquitoes were back. That night I set up my tent by a lagoon and got bitten to shreds. I’ve not met any mozzies for quite a while. In Oz they are big and fat – easy to squish but as sneaky as anywhere in the world. The flies had not gone anywhere. I swear some of those cretins hopped on my back in Darwin and have hitch-hiked on me all the way across the country. There was an awful 10 minutes when the flies still hadn’t gone to sleep but the mozzies were already out for their dusk-dinner. Oh – and there were ants everywhere. The ground was covered in them. In the time I stood still for a wee they’d crawl up my legs. When I went for a poo I had to abort mission half way because they’d already made it up to my neck. Ew.
Australia had a new evil to deliver the next morning. Huge black clouds of tiny flies covered the air I was cycling through. They perched on the edge of the road and when I rode through I’d get covered in them from head-to-toe. I had to get my head-net out for them. Seriously. What is wrong with this country? All the bugs are a pain in the arse and anything bigger wants to eat us humans. Sharks, crocodiles, poisonous jellyfish, snakes, spiders… The list goes on. Even the magpies tried to kill me up north! Now I understand why we sent all the convicts over.
Riding through Coorong National Park was gorgeous. Once again I was back on the dirt road and had the world all to myself. Salt flats blinded me in the sun and deep blue lagoons sat perfectly still, ready to ripple when the next pelican splashed down for a feed.
I cycled past some charming seaside towns. They all had a supermarket, public toilets and a park with picnic benches where I could sit and eat my lunch like a civilised human being. The only problem was the flies. I couldn’t sit still for more than 5 minutes before they’d drive me mad so I scoffed as much food into my mouth as possible in that time frame and got back on my bike under my head-net. I have lost too much weight because of those wretched flies.
That evening I stayed with Andrew – a bloke I’d met a couple weeks back by Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges. He’d been driving a tour bus of backpackers up to Uluru and said that if I was cycling along the coast before Christmas I could stay with him at his family’s holiday home.
Their beach shack was by Nora Creina, a beautiful and secluded bay ringed by perfect white sand. He had some mates over to visit and we paddled out in sea-kayaks to try (unsuccessfully) and catch some fish. Andrew went spear-fishing in a wet suit but I was too scared to go out in the water that deep. Earlier that day I’d seen a newspaper headline reading ‘Sharks spotted by public beach!’. I’d rather watch the shark attacks from my kayak, thank you very much.
The beach was gorgeous but like everywhere in this country it was ruined by bush flies. A couple of them even followed me out into the sea on a kayak and continued buzzing around my head a hundred meters from shore. Apparently they are ‘never usually this bad’. People have been saying that to me everywhere I go in Australia. Perhaps I have just been fantastically unlucky on this island. We cooked a BBQ but had to eat inside because the flies were so bad.
Christmas Eve had arrived. I put in a big shift and reached Mt Gambier in the late afternoon. James hosted me via Couch Surfing (amazingly that was only my second CS host in two months here) and I treated myself to day off. It seems pathetic to complain about, but my hay fever was killing me. It’s hard to maintain so many hours of cycling everyday when you feel like shit. Christmas was a good excuse for a day off and Mt Gambier certainly deserves an afternoon.
Last Christmas I was lonely and homesick. I was having a tough time in China and the festive period reminded me of how far from my friends and family was. 2016’s Xmas was far better. James wasn’t going home to Adelaide because he was working both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day and neither of could be bothered to celebrate a ‘proper’ Xmas. Besides, it didn’t feel like Christmas with the temperature up in the 30s. You’re supposed to be opening presents by a fire (or radiator), not under the air-con unit.
I Skyped my folks and then went for a cycle around town. First I visited the Umpherston Sinkhole which was once just a limestone cave. One day the roof collapsed and now there’s a rather beautiful garden inside.
I also cycled up to the Blue Lake which was quite a spectacle. The huge crater lake lies in a dormant volcano beside town and its water is a incredible colour. During the winter months it’s a boring grey but come summer the lake transforms into a rich cobalt blue.
I was halfway to Melbourne and had used up my ‘day off’ card. If I wanted to reach the city in time for NYE I had to keep pushing. I put my head down and burnt the miles. It rained all day, there were flies everywhere and the road was boring. I passed a few small towns but only stopped if I needed something from the shop. Outside Port Fairy a sign said ‘World’s most livable town’. As I bought my groceries in the IGA supermarket the cashier turned around, revealing a dozen flies perching on his shoulder-blades. Livable my arse. No where is livable in this country outside of the city. Even if you gave me a free house here I wouldn’t live in it. I’d rather spend £500 a month on a box room in London than live in this fly-filled hell hole.
After a wet day I was very glad to have a warm bed again with some more Couch Surfers. I watched Aussie rules with my host Heath and tried in vain to understand the rules. He then turned to me and said: “fancy shooting a gun?” And so I shot my first ever pistol, aiming at a beer can in the garden which I missed every shot. It was far too noisy for me. At least now I’ll be an expert when I arrive in the US.
The rains persisted the next day. It was cold and miserable. I tried to be excited about reaching the Great Ocean Road (with a name like that how can you not be at least a little excited) but I was struggling to find motivation. The weather forecast had accurately predicted rain storms all day and I wondered if I shouldn’t just be taking the main road in land. The flies were doing my nut in and the hay fever wasn’t helping. I felt groggy all the time, my nose kept running, my eyes were burning, my tonsils swollen and my head was throbbing. No matter how many pills I swallowed I still felt like crap.
I’d been warned that the Great Ocean Road would be horribly busy this time of year. It was. Every lookout was a scrum. The road was narrow and chock-a-block. I couldn’t believe where all the cars had come from – I’d been on such quite roads the whole way across Oz. It seemed everyone from Melbourne had gotten into their cars between Xmas and NYE to go for a coastal cruise.
It’s a good thing I enjoy people watching. Especially with all the flies out. Winds had been blowing down from the north and they had reached plague level once again. Every conversation I overheard was about how awful the flies were. Everyone was walking around with one hand flapping across their face and trying multiple times to get a fly-free photo. Everyone looked like they were having a an awful time. I sat down with my head-net on and enjoyed the “you’ve got the right idea”, “where did you get that?” “genius!” comments from passers by admiring my net. I was now a veteran in the art of looking like a stupid and pathetic tourist. At least I could keep my eyes open to enjoy the sights without the flies trying to lay eggs in them.
I started skipping the viewpoints because there were simply too many people. I only forced myself off the bike to see ‘The Twelve Apostles’ – the Great Ocean Road’s most iconic cliffs. The problem was that most of the tourists were Chinese. I like Chinese people but I do not like crowds of Chinese people. Or rather, I do not like crowds of Chinese people when they are trying to get to the same destination eg. through a door, to a cashier or to a photo-spot. It’s ‘elbows up’ and every man for himself. I spent 4 months in China avoiding crowds. It seems they have followed me all the way to Australia.
The Great Ocean Road was fantastic cycling. The problem was the weather. It just wouldn’t stop raining. By the time I started climbing into the rain forest hills I was soaked through. I put my tent up on a wonky path and prayed for some better weather the next day.
There were two small passes to climb. It was the first time I’ve climbed a mountain ‘pass’ in Oz and my legs protested hard. I should thank the flies and mosquitoes for getting me up them so quickly. Every time I stopped they’d congregate around me and so I barely paused. With a few more mozzie bites than I’d have liked I rolled back down to the coast in a far better mood.
The sun finally returned when I reached ram-packed Apollo Bay. It was impossible to be in a bad mood in a town screaming ‘vacation’. Big green hills dropped abruptly into the sea where the road curved around busy beaches.
Suddenly I wasn’t the only cyclist around. Millions (and I mean millions) were racing up and down the coast in head-to-toe lycra. By the time I reached Lorne I was exhausted from having tried to keep up with the sprinters. All I wanted to do was overtake one racing cyclist and eventually I picked one off. I took him out as we climbed a gentle hill. He was in his fancy cycling gear on a 5kg carbon frame with clip in shoes and I was on a squeeky (my bike was falling apart once again) steel bicycle with 30kg of luggage. Sucker!
Maturity eludes me still..
Some of the other cyclists invited me for a coffee in Lorne. I’ve never thought I’d cycle for recreation (as opposed to a means of travel) but this road was now very beautiful. The surface quality was good and I could have happily cycled right back the way I’d just come. One minute it would be across rolling English-looking fields and the next cutting across sharp cliff lines. Australia had saved some of its very best for last.
In Torquay I got to visit someone I was very excited about meeting. But – this episode needs a back story, so bare with me. It’s a small world story that stretches across a year and a half, from Turkey to Australia via both Tajikistan and Myanmar. It’s a story I’ve told parts of before but now they all slot together in one crazy series of coincidences…
In late September 2015 I cycled into Karakol village which sits beside a lake of the same name at an altitude of about 4,000m. I saw some cyclists setting up camp by the shore and went over to say hello. They were Marco and Tiphaine, an Italian/French couple. Marco had broken his arm a fortnight back and they were now hitch-hiking across the Pamir Highway. They invited me to camp with them but I politely declined. I’d arrived in the high mountains completely ill-prepared and my cheap sleeping gear was inadequate for the night time temperatures. Instead I cycled over to the village’s homestay where I met two more cyclists…
Paul and Lesiet (from Australia) had actually been riding together with Marco and Tiphaine when Marco had had his accident. They were trying to get down to an ideal campsite. Paul reckoned he’d persuaded Marco to try and push his bike down, Marco had slipped and broken his shoulder in the fall. It could have been far worse.
Later that evening we sat together drinking tea. Out of the blue Paul asked me:
“Were you in Turkey last May?”
“And did you apply for your Uzbekistan visa there?”
“I think we met you at the embassy in Ankara!”
Had he not said it I’d never have remembered them, it had been such a fleeting meeting 4 months earlier. But now he mentioned it I remembered clearly – I’d offered to watch their bags because the miserable bloke behind the counter wouldn’t let them take their panniers inside the consulate building. After they got their visa they’d had to run to catch a bus out of town.
Conversation now turned to altitude-sickness. All of us were feeling the effects of exercise at 4,000m ASL. Then Leiest said ”the morning sickness probably doesn’t help”. I had to think for a moment to remember what gave you morning sickness… “wait a minute – you’re pregnant!?”
When I asked them if they’d told their families Leiset said “Not yet, we only just found out. We don’t minding telling someone like you though as we’ll never see you again!” Never mutter those last four words to somebody cycling the world!
I cycled with Paul and Leiset towards the border the next day but pushed on so that I could get lower down the mountains quicker. I did meet Paul & Lesiet and Marco & Tiphaine a couple times across Kyrgzystan and Kazakstan. Marco had to fly back to Italy from Bishkek to get his shoulder fixed so I pounced like a vulture and bought all his winter gear off him.
In June 2016 me and Marco crossed paths again in Myeik, down in the south of Myanmar. We were heading in opposite directions but ended up in town at the same time because the police had forced Marco to take a bus up. We spent a day together before continuing our separate ways.
And now, in December 2016 I got to see Paul and Leiset again as they are living in Torquay! And most importantly, I got to meet their 7 month old son Soroush. It’s a crazy world.
New Year’s Eve was around the corner so I could only stay a night. It wonderful to see some old friends but it would also be wonderful to see even more old friends in Melbourne that evening. A new commuter ferry had just started running from Portalington over to Melbourne, so instead of cycling 100km and arriving shattered in the city I caught the boat and sailed right into the centre of town.
Once upon a time I’d have called that cheating. Actually, I still call it cheating. The difference is that I don’t care now. I have cycled into enough cities to know that it is never fun. I have also cycled enough 100km days to know that too many miles cycling make it hard for me to party beyond midnight.
I’ve not seen a friend from the UK in 9 months. Suddenly I’m in a city where I have many pals. Melbourne is the perfect place to end this chapter of my life and wrap up another incredible year. A lot will change in 2017 – I need a break from the saddle and I need a job. Hopefully I will find both without too much difficulty.
Never say never, but I don’t think there will be anymore cycling in Oz. I know I have whinged plenty in these blogs but there is also so much I love about this country. Being back in the English speaking world is wonderful and I have no plans to leave here anytime soon. That said – I have struggled with the pedalling at times. For only one reason… can you guess? FLIES. I wouldn’t change the last 10 weeks but there are plenty places around the world for me to cycle where I don’t need to look through a head-net. Every other country I’ve cycled I would happily go back to on my bicycle. Excluding Tasmania, I’m pretty confident in saying I will never come back here on a bike. Sorry Oz. I have experienced landscapes here unlike any I have ever encountered, I’ve pedalled roads far more remote than anywhere I’ve even seen on a map before, I’ve spotted many new animals and I’ve met such wonderful people. But those flies were worse than all the positives put together. I know that I’ve done it all wrong by crossing the outback in summer but still… no more Australian cycling. Ever!
My mate Jonny met me at the Docklands. He bought with him some pals and I had a hero’s welcome to town. Melbourne – the city at the other side of the world – is yet another huge personal milestone. Mainly because, for the first time, I have no idea what comes next. My plan ends at 12 ‘o’ clock tonight.
Jonny’s mates were English. I asked him, teasingly, if he had any actual Australian friends. I thought he was joking when he said no. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a group of 14 Brits in a BYOB Chinese and it was a blast. I drank more wine in one night than I have done in 2 years.
I celebrated last new year in China with a couple of Australians, so perhaps it’s fitting I’m in the company of Poms while I’m Down Under. I’ve met so few Brits recently that I was very happy to be around my countrymen. From this trip I have friends all around the world but there is always a piece of the cultural-backdrop missing when you are with people from another country. Australians are wonderful people – I’ve been so impressed by their friendliness over the last 10 weeks. They are certainly more generous and far less reserved than us. Those are both very good qualities.
I have plenty more time to hang out with Aussies because I ‘ain’t leaving anytime soon. It’s time to find a job.
More on that next time!