The red center
The greatness of bicycle travel lies in its speed. On a bicycle, you can move fast enough to cover significant distances each day, but slow enough to observe the gradual evolution of landscape and people. When travelling overland, slowly, there are fewer culture shocks and surprises. Change is observed and prepared for, voluntarily or passively, many hours or even days before it occurs. Even then, change occurs by degree, meter by meter, minute by minute, and blends into a continuous story.
The reverse of that coin is that you become accustomed to the uninterrupted continuity of your story. Unavoidable, drastic change then becomes even more disorientating. By the time I reached Singapore I was entrenched in my pace of bicycle travel. My last airplane flight had been from Kyrgyzstan to India. Since then seven ambling months had elapsed to bring me to Asia's southeast peninsula.
I knew that arriving in Australia would be one such disorientating, drastic change. Gone would be the lands of indecipherable languages and alphabets, gone also the entertainment such novelties provide. For example, restaurant roulette, the ordering of food and the receiving of something that you neither wanted, nor even knew existed, fried maggots and cow's head soup come to mind. Behind me now was the rich variety of ethnicity, culture and religion which is perhaps unique to Asia. I thought, naively, that ahead was somewhere which, in theory, should be recognisable to me. Britain on the beach. Home with a twist. Brothers from other mothers. How wrong, oh how wrong I was.
I arrived in Darwin early and emerged from it's petit airport into warm, balmy sunlight. Behind me I dragged an enormous, battered cardboard box. I imagine I looked equally battered after a night of few minutes sleep and an outfit of such general raggedness as would make Tom Hanks from 'Castaway' look like he was attending the Oscars ceremony to pick up an academy award for the best dressed nominee.
I was due to meet my host for the next few days on the seafront that afternoon so I had a few hours to kill. I also needed my bicycle to get there. Sitting in the airport parking lot with one eye closed to conserve energy, I groggily extracted oddly shaped, oily pieces of metal from the tattered looking box. After selecting an item, I would hold it before me for some minutes and ponder, with the intensity and manner that a drunkard on the verge on unconsciousness peers at his almost empty bottle to assess the quantity of its contents, before tentatively concluding that the handlebars I am holding should probably be fitted somewhere on the front end of the frame, and the big circle things potentially towards the bottom.
After several hours of such ponderous work I gently rolled out of the airport, fairly feeling like I had just achieved a mechanical feat akin to Turing's construction of the 'Bombe' machine and the consequent breaking of the enigma code.
My initial impression of Darwin was one that, in hindsight, is an obvious reflection on Australia as a whole - that of scale, a large scale. Darwin is the biggest and most populous city in Australia's Northern Territory and yet I was able to ride several kilometers to the beachfront without this ever occurring to me. With no space restrictions, the next city being 1500 kilometers south through sparsely inhabited outback, everything in Darwin is built with ample size and wiggle room to boot. The roads are wide, with plenty more lanes than there are cars to fill them. Stores which in a more compact country would shuffle up alongside each other to form a high street sprawl out over kilometers of wide, yellow lined, sunbaked road which gives Darwin the character of a endless line of highway towns rather than a city. All dwellings are bungalows set into huge pristine lawns. Why build second floors when there is no limit to the size of the first? The sprawl of the city doesn't lend itself to walking and, save for the pickup trucks which coast gently from traffic light to traffic light, there is little movement and less noise. Add to the quiet and stillness a warm, drowsy breeze and the general effect is dreamlike.
I am not a 'beach person' and had not been able to kindle much excitement for Australia's world renowned coastlines. Upon arrival at Darwin's beachfront in the suburb of Nighcliff, I was obliged to eat my own bicycle helmet. East and west stretched a scene of unparalleled calmness and beauty. A deep blue sea lapped against rockscapes with such elegantly chiselled features as would make Johnny Depp's face seem ugly in comparison. Above the rocks curved bands of perfectly mown grass, edged with banks of soft, fragrant pine needles below the swaying parent trees. Cyclists ambled past on sunday morning coffee runs. Here and there couples lay on the grass, half dozing and hands intertwined. In my sleep deprived state it was a scene of total bliss. I lay myself out on the grass under a warm sun and was soon fast asleep.
Several minutes or hours later, I am not sure which as I put my watch in the washing machine back in Malaysia, I was brought to consciousness by the sound of my name being called tentatively from above me. I jerked upright and was momentarily utterly confused, as one is when they have been sleeping so deeply that a cardiologist may well have pronounced them dead upon inspection. Why I was asleep in a park I had never seen before, being addressed by someone I had never met? After a few disoriented moments my short term memory made a welcome reappearance and I realised that this was Kiyan, and the following introduction to his girlfriend Nirali increased the number of people I knew on this continent by exactly 100%.
Kiyan is a fellow Brit from Sheffield and a touring cyclist. The similarities don't end there. Kiyan also cycled to Darwin from England, but for infinitely more interesting reasons. Whereas the justification for my taking two years to cycle to New Zealand is grounded merely in my really liking 'The Lord of the Rings', Kiyan's expedition was a journey of familial rediscovery worthy of it's own Hollywood movie and a brief retelling here.
Kiyan's grandfather, an Indian Gudjurati, was taken by the British during the colonial era to build railroads in Uganda. His grandfather later resettled in the UK and had a son, Kiyan's father, who then married an Iranian woman, Kiyan's mother, and was consequently outcast from his family. Because of this estrangement and because the remainder of Kiyan's extended family never emigrated from their homelands, by his late twenties Kiyan had never met his family in Iran or India. Three years ago Kiyan set out by bicycle to put this to rights and has since successfully located and reconnected with both sides en route Australia.
I would stay with Kiyan for several nights as I prepared for what I expected to be the last great challenge of my own journey to New Zealand - the 3000 kilometer crossing of Australia's red center. I would be following the 'Stuart Highway', a continuous strip of tarmac running through the middle of Australia, bookended by Darwin in the north and Adelaide in the south. The road was named after John McDouall Stuart, a Scott who in the mid 19th century made the first successful overland crossing of the red center from Adelaide to Darwin and back. The journey cost him his sight and had such a dire effect on his general health, due in part to prolonged scurvy, that he died four years after the expedition.
In the modern day the challenges of crossing the red center by human power are far less severe, but still formidable. The climate is arid which limits natural water sources in the way of rain, rivers or lakes. Human made water sources must therefore be relied on. The highway is intersected midway by the city of Alice Springs, at a few other points by smaller towns and at intervals of between 100 and 250 kilometers by 'roadhouses', basically gas stations which double up as campsites, caravan parks, hotels, petrol stations, bars, cafe's, pharmacies and general stores. A person cycling for ten hours per day in the heat can expect to consume up to ten litres of water in that time, which means that at an average speed of twenty kilometers per hour I would at times have to carry more than 10 extra kilograms of water. The weight issue is exacerbated as, to economise, I would be shopping only at supermarkets which seldom appear at intervals of less than 600 kilometers. Alongside the ten kilograms of water, I would accordingly have to carry four to five days worth of food.
More formidable perhaps than the physical challenge of carrying enough food and water would be the mental challenge that a large scale, solo venture into sparsely inhabited land presents. I hoped to cover 150 kilometers per day, an increase on my usual 100, to reduce the amount of supplies I would have to carry and to avoid prolonging a potentially monotonous experience. Even with the increased mileage the crossing would take me a minimum of twenty days. I was, however, cautiously optimistic in my abilities to handle both the mental and physical hardships having tackled similarly lonely, if not quite such lengthy, portions of road previously on this trip. My mother seemed decidedly less optimistic when she discovered my plans to tackle the red center and sent me a 14 point questionnaire over WhatsApp asking, among other questions, whether I was going to look for a companion to ride with and if not, how was I going to avoid going mad.
Much of my time in Darwin was accordingly spent preparing for the journey ahead but Kiyan and Nirali ensured that there was more to it than merely pouring over maps and stuffing my bags full of porridge. While not famous for its nightlife, Darwin's Mindil beach hosts a night market every Thursday and Sunday. In the muggy, tropical evening stalls along the beachfront display all the quirks and uniquenesses that have evolved from colonising a less than hospitable land, from forging an identity tangibly separate from the motherland of those colonisers and from sharing that land with one of the world's oldest continuous civilizations which is itself utterly incomparable to that of the colonising people.
Our first halt was at the dubiously named 'roadkill cafe', a burger stall specialising in kangaroo and crocodile meat alongside the regulars. I selected the crocodile and found it's taste to lie somewhere between fish and chicken and it's texture between polystyrene and tanned leather. We next visited the local whip cracker, a young chap in knee high boots of what, crocodile burger in hand, I could only assume to be made of koala pelts or something of the sort. Amongst a patchy ring of unconvinced onlookers he worked his hips and his whip in simultaneous, ferocious arcs, the latter snapping over our heads with the report of a pistol shot.
|The roadkill cafe at Darwin's Mindil market|
|Kit and a crocodile burger|
At one end of the beach was a middle aged man who had, for better or worse, combined the loose, guttural groans of the indigenous didgeridoo with a panic inducing drum and bass backing track. A gangly youth in a wide brimmed leather bush hat wedged atop a narrow but voluptuously featured face grinned beside me at the spectacle. "pretty good eh. I've been working at the thai stall back there (he indicated behind him with a thumb over the shoulder) for seven months and have only just got down to see this guy, he's here every week". I commented that he was unique, feeling inwardly jealous that he had managed to avoid such a unique experience for seven months, and I for only two days.
|Didgeridoo, meet drum and bass|
Behind all the chaos the Timor sea lapped placidly, the cool water inviting in the warm, humid evening. "Maybe tomorrow we could go for a swim?" I ventured to Kiyan.
"Yeah we can" he replied. "Probably not too far out though."
"Why? Are there sharks here?"
Kiyan looked thoughtful. "Well there are Bull sharks I think, but they aren't really the problem".
"Bull sharks? Aren't they supposed to be the most aggressive ones?"
"Well, yeah, but there are worse than bull sharks here, you've got a heap of box jellyfish, you know, the really poisonous ones (I later found on the internet box jellyfish to be the most venomous known to man) and the saltwater crocodiles, which are pretty sketchy too, but we can just stay in the shallow areas if you like."
I nodded and pulled the face of a man who was thinking over a close run decision between two equally balanced, reasonable alternatives. To enter, unarmed and unprotected, the natural habitat of violently venomous jellyfish, bad tempered killing cylinders with three rows of teeth and man eating reptiles of such murderous efficiency that they basically haven't evolved since the age of the dinosaurs, or not.
After an appropriately long pause for the evaluation of two such evenly weighted options I answered. "Hmm. Perhaps i'll give swimming a miss this time. Next time for sure."
|Watch out for the box jellyfish|
I set off a few days later, stopping first for one last look along that idyllic, balmy seafront which concealed such treacheries. Crouching at the water's edge I waggled my hand in the surf as one does when, misty eyed, they prepare to set out from one far flung sea to another. Having then accomplished all the aquatic feats I felt inclined to perform on that particular stretch of coast, I turned and began pedalling into an environment which is entirely different and if disrespected, equally treacherous.
The already diffuse buildings of Darwin became progressively fewer and further between as pedalled the initial southerly kilometers on a cycle lane. Signs of civilisation flared up briefly as I passed Darwin's satellite towns, then fell away altogether. What remained was not the vast, flat expanse of fine red dust, kangaroos and cactus plants that I had imagined. What remained, I would later find, would be the landscape and vegetation which would continue almost uninterrupted for the next 3000 kilometers.
The road, two lanes as most Australian highways are, was flanked by head height, scrubby looking bushes forming a sort of unofficial hedgerow. As the bush wall varied in density I was able to peer through to catch glimpses of more scrubby bushes, and more red dirt, and a large number of impressively sized termite mounds, some climbing well above six feet tall. Many of the mounds close to the road had been clothed by pilgrims of the highway and sat like overweight, sunburned holiday makers peering critically at passers by from behind dusty sunglasses. The mounds and the hedgerow are separated from from the tarmac by a red dirt runoff zone of ten meters or so which functions mainly to house the horrifying quantity of roadkill the highway produces, mainly kangaroos and wallabies.
|The Stuart highway|
|Roadhouse on the Stuart highway|
|Alan here treated me to free breakfast and coffee|
|The ceiling of Alan's roadhouse is covered in hanging hats|
Despite appearances, I had been assured that not all of the outback's wildlife was destined to become roadkill and that I should look out for kangaroos, emus and, to my surprise, camels. The camels, I was later told by a park ranger in a caravan camp on the south Australian border, had been brought from Afghanistan by the British to build the Darwin - Adelaide railroad because of their natural suitability to the harsh conditions of the desert. When the railroad was completed, they were released into the wild and have since bred so successfully that at one point their numbers reached almost one million. Unfortunately, of the million, precisely zero ventured anywhere near me for the next month and I never saw one.
On the my third morning from Darwin my luck improved. Having risen just after 4am to attempt an ambitious 200 kilometer day, the hiss of my wheels on the tarmac in the cool morning light was accompanied by a grassy 'thud, thud, thud' to my left. I looked up to find my movements being tracked by a chest height Kangaroo bounding along with me through the undergrowth. It looked to me as strong, relaxed and natural in its environment as I imagined I looked thin, tense and out of place to it.
The wildlife of the outback became a source of company and almost continual entertainment for me on my southward journey. While sightings of kangaroos are common only at dusk and dawn, and emus I saw just once shortly after my first kangaroo sighting, I soon realised that the magnum opus of Australia's wildlife is its birds. As birdlife was more active in the day time, I would continually monitor the tree tops for explosions of brightly coloured parrots as I approached. Almost every colour combination imaginable was stretched across the graceful wingspan of some species or another, deep green, white and yellow, white and red, black and yellow, or rainbow coloured as if they were wearing a tie dye cloak.
My spirits were also kept buoyant by the comforts that the evenings brought. As I progressed south away from the tropics and into the continent's epicenter the Australian winter became increasingly chilly. Dusk approached soon after five and gave way to long, cold nights of unpolluted darkness. Some evenings I spent in the free campsites dotted along the highway, used primarily by the self termed 'grey nomads' - middle aged caravaners spending their winter vacations migrating north towards Australia's northern, tropical climes.
My most enjoyable evenings were those when I broke away from the society of humans altogether and pitched my tent alone in the vast and silent wilderness. Secluded spots were not hard to find. The population density of the Northern Territory is 0.16, which equates roughly to a stray arm or leg per square kilometer. A fiery sunset would kickstart proceedings followed by an equally fiery moonrise which was stained red near the skyline by a layer of hanging dust. Each night I would wrap myself in every piece of clothing I had, sit on a tarpaulin and bear out the cold as long as I could, staring upwards at a night sky that, untainted by light or chemical pollution, was unfathomably bright and clear.
|Early morning on the Stuart highway|
|camping on the Stuart highway|
|Sunset on the Stuart highway|
The last town I would pass before the highway's halfway mark at Alice Springs was called Tennant Creek. Like Darwin, not a second story could be seen as I rolled into the quiet highway town to complete some essential restocking tasks. I wouldn't see another town for 600 kilometers and needed food, phone charging, and the holy grail of good coffee.
I had an unexpected stroke of fortune that afternoon in Tennant Creek's "The top of the town" cafe, where I me Ed from the Philippines. Ed had worked there as a barister for seven years and wasn't as impressed with my effort to cycle the Stuart highway as I might have hoped, given that he related to me the story of one of the cafe's patrons several years earlier who had passed Tennant creek whilst traversing the highway on a skateboard. Still, he was impressed enough to score me a free night and a very welcome rest day in a cabin in the nearby caravan park. I joined him and his friends for dinner that evening and was treated to my first taste of Phillipine food. Ed was a self professed 'bird man' and called Australia 'the land of parrots'. After dinner we were introduced to a few of his winged companions. My favourite was Sian, a large blue macaw who, despite Ed's repeated assertions that she took her toilet exactly every half hour, seemed to relish continually disobeying him and shitting down the back of his chair during the dessert course.
|Sian and I|
Soon after leaving Tennant Creek I came across one of the highways most prized landmarks, the 'Devils marbles', huge freestanding boulders of granite precariously balanced in unbelievable ways due, I am told, to differing rates of erosion in the rock layers.
On a cold, sunny morning three days later I arrived in Alice Springs, eleven days after leaving Darwin. Alice Springs, or just 'Alice' as the locals call it, was originally a telegraph station connecting Adelaide, Darwin and the motherland Britain. It humbly continued to this purpose until gold was discovered nearby which promoted an influx of Europeans and a train line from Adelaide. I can't put my finger precisely on the wild west type ranch that I imagined Alice Springs to be before I arrived there. Probably something dusty, with swinging shuttered doors on the watering holes and grizzled men drinking warm whisky out of dirty glasses. If my mental image was ever accurate, which it likely wasn't, it has been buried under the modernisation which followed increased accessibility and Alice could now be any provincial town in any western country.
|Arriving in Alice Springs|
The discrepancy between my wishes and reality initially disappointed me. However, after a long recovery soak in the plush bath of my complimentary hotel room which Tennant Springs Ed had swindled for me, I found that Alice Springs does indeed have at least one unique and special feature, that is the people who live there.
I had made contact previously online with a Brazilian cycle tourist who was living in Alice and we met up that evening for an open mic at the Jump-in hostel bar. I arrived early, ordered myself a pint of Australian pale ale and settled down in the beer garden to enjoy the first musicians. The standard was, I immediately realised, of distinctly high quality, as you would expect and hope for in a paid gig. Around me milled a mix of people of all ages and creeds, young alternative types, the adventure crowd in dusty, hole ridden hiking boots and groups who were clearly locals, aboriginal families and older folks. All were out together in high spirits for what was clearly a regular evening of good entertainment.
Perhaps I was too quick in my judgement of Alice Springs. Over the following days I found another few features of interest, one being the cosy aviation museum, tucked into an airplane hangar on the edge of town. I had heard about this little gem several days before, while listening to Bill Bryson's 'Down Under' to pass some repetitive hours on the highway.
Bill had also travelled the Stuart from Darwin to Alice and upon arrival had likewise come across the spectacular achievements of the greatest explorer you have probably never heard of, Charles Kingsford Smith.
Kingsford-Smith was born in 1897 in Brisbane and during the first world war served at Gallipoli before joining the Australian flying corps, where he served in Europe. He was ambitious and recognised the potential benefits of air travel in a country as vast as Australia. Returning down under, he embarked on a series of exhibition flights after his pitch for an Adelaide-Perth mail service was rejected. He first completed the first round-Australia trip in just ten days, and with a consequent grant of £9000, completed the first trans-Pacific flight from California to Brisbane in 83 hours.
With plenty of money and fame, Kingsford Smith looked to capitalize and put in an order for four aircraft from England to start an intercity Australian air service. Naturally, he would fly to England himself to pick up the aircraft. Then disaster struck.
Kingsford-Smith and his crew set out in March 1929 from Sydney in his plane 'The Southern Cross'. Twenty-eight hours later a short and final radio message was received over western Australia - "we are about to make a forced landing in bad country'. Within 24 hours, a full aviation search was launched. Anyone who knew the Australian outback knew that the chances of survival were slim, let alone the chances of a rickety, wooden four seater airplane being spotted in its dry vastness. Kingsford-Smith and his crew's prospects were grim; the nation waited on tenterhooks.
In reality the situation, though dire, could have been worse. They had landed in the mud flats of the 'Glenelg' river and so had access to water. Their food provisions would last them several days. There was even room for luxury. Kingsford-Smith brewed a coffee laced with brandy and joked grimly about a 'Coffee Royal'.
Meanwhile two of Kingsford-Smith's close friends and occasional aviation rivals, Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock, decided that the search parties were scouring the wrong area. In a hastily prepared rescue attempt, they set out from Sydney in a wooden two seater which had been purchased by the means of a generous gift from Kingsford-Smith himself, the 'Kookaburra'. After successfully crossing eastern Australia to Alice Springs, they set out again from the runway alongside the very hangar I was standing in at the aviation museum. Anderson and Hitchcock followed the telegraph wire heading north towards Darwin before turning to make a beeline for Wyndham. The Kookaburra soon developed engine problems and the airmen had to make a forced landing. Unfortunately they had landed in much harsher terrain than Kingsford-Smith and though Hitchcock was able to fix the engine, they were unable to take off again due to the thick scrub. The airmen had hastily left Alice Springs with just three litres of water, one serving of sandwiches and some cake between them. Both perished and were never heard from again.
As Kingsford-Smith and co. sipped their coffee royal they had no idea of the misfortune of their two friends and would-be rescuers and even less idea of the strife which awaited their return to civilisation. The Southern Cross was discovered after several days grounded in the outback, crew unharmed. Celebrations over the rescue were tampered by the loss of the Kookaburra and her pilots. A grieving nation and scepticism about Kingsford-Smith's love of the spotlight led to allegations that the whole affair had been a publicity stunt, later dubbed the 'Coffee Royal Affair'. After an official inquiry however, Kingsford-Smith was exonerated.
It was not until 1978 that the bodies of Anderson and Hitchcock and the wreckage of the Kookaburra were reclaimed. Anderson was given a state funeral, Hitchcock buried in Perth at his wife's request. The wreckage of the Kookaburra, after restoration in Darwin, was returned to Alice Springs, the location of its final ascent. The wreckage was placed in a small circular building with a curving entrance passage like a coiled shell. Inside is a viewing platform and a small recreation of outback foliage where the Kookaburra lies as it did when it crashed in 1929. I stood looking at it for some time. Its small, crushed frame seemed melancholic and weary, but proud, like a fatally injured bird which fell defending its nest.
The tale of the Kookaburra reminded me of the awesome remoteness of the Australian outback. It took 49 years to locate and retrieve Anderson and Hitchcock's machine in this vast unknown. It took me just eleven days to pedal a bicycle halfway through it, 1500 kilometers from Darwin. Even so, I couldn't quite get my head around having covered such a distance through something of a mono-environment and still have 1200 kilometers still to come.
As I rolled out of Alice a few days later, I did benefit from the psychological boost of having broached half way. I also had the guarantee of an enforced rest day to see Uluru, earth's largest monolith, which lay some 250 kilometers down a separate road to the west of the Stuart highway.
A round trip of 500 kilometers to see what is effectively a big rock was more than I was willing to add to the already dizzying mileage ahead of me. Instead I arranged to leave my bike for a night in a roadhouse at the Uluru turning and would hitchhike to the rock and back, hopefully in less than 48 hours. Uluru's popularity amongst foreigners, Australians, and the numerous grey nomads plying the highway over the winter meant that I was confident a lift would be forthcoming.
Within ten minutes of sticking my thumb out in the dusty runoff beside the roadhouse I was picked up by a young South Korean named Chan who, after working for a year in Melbourne, was doing a solo 'round-Australia drive' in his Kia sedan. By late afternoon we had reached the rock and in the evening sun I set out on a circumnavigation, a hike of several kilometers.
My impression of this important aboriginal landmark before I arrived had likely been similar to many who have never seen it up close - the postcard image of a gargantuan sleeping giant, blazed red in the evening light and superimposed over a sunset sky of a dazzling variety of colours. To me such a postcard image was beautiful in the way that Myanmar's temples of Bagan or Turkey's rock cut cities of Cappadocia also are.
Like both Bagan and Cappadocia, though, it is only upon closer inspection you realise that the beauty you see from afar is merely the physical form. Up close you see, feel, smell, hear and sense the minute imperfections and alterations which follow hundreds or thousands of years of human involvement. You realise, in a spiritual sense, they are not made of stone at all, but stories, passed down from generation to generation, twisted, embellished, worshiped, hated, revered, changed and changed again, until stone and story have grown and evolved together like the gnarled and tangled tree roots of a dense forest and are inextricable.
Uluru, according to Aboriginal lore, was formed during the creation period, the 'Tjukurpa', by ancestors, or 'Tjukuritja' who walked the earth in the form of plants, animals and people, forming the land as we know it. Walking the perimeter of the monolith is the only way to get an idea of how inseparable the physical stone is with it's spiritual connection to the aboriginals who live here. Caves of undercut rock and seemingly unintentionally scattered boulders form vital shelter from the elements for making and storing food, sheltering and resting after foraging and looking after infants. Across the walls of the caves are paintings, indecipherable to me but perhaps this is one way the history and knowledge about this place is passed through the generations.
The surface of the rock, which looks smooth from afar, is pitted and scarred. Looking at these clefts, cracks and streams your head tells suggests thousands of years of erosion according to the universal principles of nature. There is, though, a feeling of an extra dimension under that great rock which is so inundated with the history of the planets oldest civilisation. It is hard to resist your heart, which tells you that there is no randomness or universality to the form and erosion of this rock. It has been molded to perfection by the stories of it's guardians, each crevice representing a teaching or moment of history to be passed on.
My one disappointment was the disregard of some tourists for the cultural sanctity of Uluru and their insistence in climbing it. While perfectly legal, the practice is disrespectful to the traditional owners, for whom the rock is sacred. Furthermore, 35 people have already died in the attempt. After years of uphill battling the Uluru land was handed back to its traditional owners, the 'Anangu', in 1985, but then leased for a further 99 years back to the federal government. Consequently the climbing has continued since. Thankfully, the climb will be closed permanently in October this year. This move, while commendable, has backfired. There are now record numbers of climbers trying to beat the October deadline.
|People climbing Uluru|
With Uluru dispatched, there was nothing to stop me continuing directly to Australia's south coast at Port Augusta. By this point I had become routined in my outback habits, rising early, riding all day and spending the evenings in the company of Austen's 'Mansfield Park' or, when dog tired, regressing to the escapism of 'Sherlock Holmes'. The days were so repetitive that I struggle to differentiate their events which suggests that little of importance occurred. I will simply relate here that it was hot in the day, cold at night and I did a lot of cycling.
My memory returns with a bang upon my arrival in Port Augusta where the scenery changed so suddenly and drastically that the transition was unforgettable.
|Arriving in Port Augusta|
I had been on the Stuart highway for almost a month and, within the brackets of a large inhospitable, red landscape, little had changed in the way of scenery. So the land looked as I pedalled into Port Augusta from the north. When I emerged south of the town, however, an utterly incomparable scene unfolded before me. Pedalling along the bottom of the Clare valley, which I would follow south to Adelaide, I found myself flanked by lush green hills which rolled on and off each other as far as I could peer southwards. The road was gently shaded from a muggy midday sun by the watchful arms of tall, aged red gum eucalypts and ran intermittently alongside quiet rivers. There was a feeling that the place was paused in time, in a gentle moment on a warm summer day just before one drifts off to sleep in the grass. Water is said to be the elixir of life and the valley's proximity to the coastline seems to have infused it with a life and vitality that I hadn't realised I had been missing so sorely.
|Bike lane in the Clare valley|
The towns of the Clare valley were equally charming and likewise seemed to be stuck in a sort of time warp. Now a prominent wine region, the valley townships appeared originally in the 19th century to take advantage of the fertile soils for wheat farming and mineral mining. The towns I passed through seem little changed. Many of the buildings were original and bore time stamps from the 1800's which gave one the impression of riding through a film set.
|Town hall in town of Melrose, Clare valley|
|North star hotel, Clare valley|
The time warp of the Clare valley which entrapped such gentle and benevolent conditions was, as I feared and suspected, exclusive to the Clare valley. Borderline gale force winds and driving rain accompanied my arrival into Adelaide and my replication of John Stuart's epic return from Darwin to Adelaide.
Fatigued as I was, I spent only a few days in Adelaide enjoying the hospitality of Rosalie and Ian, cycle tourists who have themselves toured extensively across Europe and Australia. I longed almost immediately the solitude, quiet and unpredictability of road life. I have spent much of the past two years in the world's 'between places', the lands which connect our planets vast cities, rather than I the cities themselves which as a solo traveller I find to be lonely and shy-making. In the between-places the people are fewer but I find the personal connections greater and I was keen to get on.
|Rosalie and Ian in Adelaide|
I wasn't, thankfully, wanting for kilometers ahead of me. Having already pedalled three thousand kilometers over this vast continent, I was only half way to my eventual destination, and looked toward the following months with relish. Between me and Sydney lay more of Australia's great landscapes and roads, among them the 'Great Ocean road' along the coastline to Melbourne and after that would come the high passes of the Australian Alps. Since leaving the arid center, the weather was closing in and winter was biting. I felt a breeze at my back. The Australian 'westerlies' where pushing me east, ever further.