Australia: Adelaide to Sydney


I kick hard out of the saddle and shoot away from the peloton. Don't look back, eyes front, don't betray the effort and the burning legs. The gradient steepens. Three kilometers to the top. Laboured breathing from behind me, someone followed my wheel. I glance back and see the bobbing gait of Richie Porte close behind. Richie is king here. No one has won the tour of Australia more times and he has never been beaten on Willunga Hill, the short, punchy climb south of Adelaide that is the setting of our gladiatorial one on one. We have a gap now to the peloton. Just me and you now Richie. Who will crack first?

We pass the 'one kilometer to go' marker and the hillside drops sharply away to our left.  Lush green hillscapes appear bright in noon sunlight. Richie's form is slackening; he is cracking but my screaming legs are almost spent too. First or last. I kick hard again and give it everything. Lactic acid floods my legs as a large 'king of the hill' icon flashes by on the tarmac beneath. The fans lining the road are going mad. Richie has cracked, gone, dropped. The stage win and the tour of Australia is mine for the taking. I take the summit and throw a fist into the air, simultaneously letting out a garbled yell of victory.

I pull over onto the gravel drive of a run down looking gas station and collapse forward onto my handlebars. My rasping breathes can't come fast enough and my heart hammer like a field mouse on a coke binge. I look back down the tranquil, empty road from which I had just emerged and congratulate myself on my fictional triumph.

I had left my warmshowers hosts in Adelaide that morning and was heading south to the coast. From there, staring out into the Southern Ocean, I could either turn west across the barren vastness of the Nullarbor plain towards Perth or east into the fertile and heavily populated lands of Victoria and New South Wales.

I would go east, to Melbourne first and Sydney second, and last. This seemingly easier option wouldn't be without its challenges. Between Adelaide and Melbourne I would have to tackle Australia's exposed southern coastline in a cold and wet winter. From Melbourne I would leave the coast and head inland to attempt a potentially tricky crossing of the Australian Alps rise before Australia's east coast. One comfort was that I had a full two months left on my visa to reach Sydney, about the same distance that I had covered in one month from Darwin to Adelaide.

After an uneventful first week reaching and crossing the 'Coorong National Park', a 150 kilometer band of coastal wetland stretching south east from Adelaide, I took my first rest days in the village of Dartmoor, Victoria. I would stay with Mick and Elly, warmshowers hosts who are regular bicycle tourers themselves and have frequently ridden through Europe to raise money for 'Medicines sans frontiers'.

I realised during my first meeting with Mick that I was amongst spiritual kinsfolk. When I arrived near Dartmoor he cycled twenty kilometers on an unpaved road in pouring rain and hurricane force winds to guide me to his farm. Mick is a fifty-something year old cattle farmer with a wry, Australian sense of humour. In a blasting, soaking headwind we struggled side by side back towards his house and I thanked him enthusiastically for coming out in such conditions to find me.

"Well…" Mick paused and laughed wryly, "it weren't fuckin raining when I left mate!"

Four nights with Mick and his wife Elly, a design and technology teacher at the local primary, would introduce me to a few quintessential details of Australian life. Mick owned the cattle farm which had been his parents before him. Set amongst flat, green fields of grazing cows and intersected by rows of red gum eucalyptus trees and pine forest plantations, I thought the surroundings of Mick and Elly's bungalow to be something akin to Britain's Norfolk where I spent much of my childhood.

Mick's farm, Dartmoor 

The farm in the evening

Mick generally worked the farm alone and my dislike of being 'bubble wrapped' as a guest meant I quickly volunteered to lend a hand around the farm while I was there. Mick didn't need asking twice and the morning after I arrived he came into my room with a pile of heavy cotton work clothes and a hi-viz fleece.

The task for the following days was to finish constructing a half kilometer long fence which spanned the length of one of Mick's paddocks and bordered the road I had arrived on. Our first job was to insert a ten foot log halfway into the ground at one end, from which the wires would be tensioned. We set to work digging a five foot hole into which the vast end post would be dropped. While I didn't lack enthusiasm, I soon realised that seventeen months of cycling makes for decidedly paltry upper body strength and Mick was infinitely more effective despite my age advantage. There now exist machines which will bore out fence post holes in a matter of seconds but Mick preferred to dig his by hand. He was meticulous in his work, often pausing to bend down, eyes squinted along the line to make sure each post was set at the angle and precise height of its neighbours.

"I always like fencing" he said. "It's one of those jobs that when you do it properly, that fence'll be there for fifty years or a generation; me and my dad put in the (older) posts we're digging out here."

It took us most of the three days to do but by the time I left Mick and Elly we had finished the fence. I understood Mick's satisfaction in the work. I felt proud to have built something that would be an integral part of Mick's farm for him and his children over the years to come.


Mick fencing 

When I first messaged Mick to organise my stay he had been excited by my arrival falling over a weekend; on Saturday we could catch a local game of 'footy'. By then I had realised that Mick wasn't talking about the beautiful game of football as I knew it. Rather, Mick meant 'Australian rules football', or 'aussie rules' or most often just 'footy'. This hybrid of football and rugby is Australia's national sport and generally practised more than religion and discussed more than politics throughout most of the country.

In Mick's 'Ute' (AKA utility vehicle, AKA 4X4 truck) we drove towards the Dartmoor oval. The sports oval is an egg shaped sports ground which, in every Australian city, town or hamlet, seems to be next on the list of essential commodities after running water and electricity. Mick ran me through the rules as endless, dense pine plantations flashed by the window. Each team fields eighteen players and at each end of the oval, four vertical posts make three 'goals'. If a team can kick the small rugby ball between the opposition's central pair of posts they score six points; either of the peripheral pairs will reward one point. Like a football match, players roam and kick or volleyball punt the ball to teammates in order to navigate it up the field and into firing range of the opposition posts. Like rugby, the game is full contact. In rugby, however, offside rules mean that teams attack and defend in opposing directions as units. Therefore, bone crunching collisions at least occur in a regimented, predictable manner. In 'footy' there is no offside so crippling tackles may be launched from any direction and at any moment, regardless of whether the receiver is aware of the imminent collision or not. Think American football without the pads.

We reached the edge of the oval and paid the entry of $7. Mick had a season pass and used to be the coach for the local team, the 'Dartmoor Giants'. I took a seat on the rickety wooden bandstand while Mick went off to the clubhouse for meat pies, an essential part of the footy experience. Groups of bearded men in dusty caps and black, military style sunglasses stood around in groups clutching bottles of beer, or 'stubbies', in foam sleeves. Skinny kids in oversized footy singlets sprinted around on the pitch punting a ball to each other before the game started, shrieking in high voices.

Dartmoor and the opposition team from the nearby town of Colleraine spread themselves over their respective halves of the pitch. Each wore a tight fitting singlet and shorts that were only marginally longer than a pair of y-fronts. The odd attire extended to hair styles. There were more mullets present on that pitch than I had previously seen throughout my entire life. A thick moustache seemed likewise essential and when worn in conjunction with the mullet, the singlet and the short shorts produced a look that seemed satisfyingly and quintessentially Australian. This is what I had come to see.

A whistle from the referee signalled that kickoff was imminent. A concentration of ten or so players clustered near the referee in the center. Mick leaned in and informed me they were preparing for a 'ball up' where the referee hurls the ball into the air and each team attempts to claim it. I soon realised that a 'ball up' was a pretty accurate description of what followed. On cue, the whistle blew sharp and the ball flew high. It reached the peak of its arc, rotating gracefully in the firm wind, then started plummeting back to earth. Simultaneously, everything fell into utter chaos. Several players from both teams desperately launched themselves skyward to meet it. Bodies collided, heads clashed and rolled, one player almost did a full 360 degree airborne spin at the height of his leap when another player blindly clattered into his legs. Hands scrabbled at the ball and it fumbled, disappearing down into the melee. The earth itself began to churn up as bodies hurled themselves upon it in a frantic writhing mass of twisted limbs. Eventually the ball was caught by a stray boot and pinged out of the scrum, followed by the raging stampede of moustachioed, mulleted youths. I tentatively ventured to Mick that neither team ever seemed to *win* the ball ups. "Yes…" he replied as one gangly, pale teenager was violently sandwiched between two onrushing man-mountains and almost jettisoned into orbit, "it's a bit of an imperfect science."

The Dartmoor Giants

My final quintessential Australian experience with Mick and Elly occurred the following day. In chill wind and sleety rain we drove down to the Dartmoor town hall which was hosting a 'christmas in July' dinner to fundraise for a new toilet block. I could only guess that in the stiflingly hot and humid Australian December the early European settlers struggled to stomach their dense stuffing balls, turkey and brandy lathered Christmas cake and so simply decided to move Christmas to a season with more appropriate weather. 'Christmas in July' is now a common tradition across Australia.

The other guests were mostly retirees and young families. I sat down next to a girl of roughly my own age whose lithe form and clear, hearty complexion suggested time spent outdoors. Sure enough, I learned she had recently represented the state of Victoria at bronco lassoing. What else, of course?

A school dinner-esque but hearty Christmas meal was brought out on paper plates. Wielding a flimsy plastic knife I attacked my slab of grey chicken meat with all the effectiveness of dissecting damp leather with a flexi ruler. I soon gave up on the meat after concluding that even if I clamped it between my jaws and committed myself to a full dose of electric shock therapy I would be unlikely to penetrate it's tough hide. The Yorkshire puddings provided easier going and I worked my way through several, then several dozen sugar laden tray bake slices.

Sated almost to discomfort, I sat back as a local farmer took to the stage and directed all the guests to check beneath their chairs. One guest per table would find a printed image taped to the underside. Those lucky few would be taking part in an impromptu nativity performance for the benefit of all involved, except probably those involved, and I suspected, any witnesses to the following nativity at all.

I suspect everyone in life has at some point  experienced a moment of prophetic knowledge when they were able to foresee the outcome of a seemingly unpredictable event with infallible sureness. So I reached beneath my chair in complete assurity that whatever token of participation existed was at my fingertips. Sure enough, I grasped a laminated piece of paper and withdrew it to behold a clipart image of a turbaned shepherd staring back at me.

My fellow performers and I were ushered into the porch amidst a general hum of anticipatory laughter and babble for the upcoming show. Scripts for a recreation of Jesus' birth were handed round. I scanned mine quickly to assess the damage. I was the humble shepherd. My outfit and prop, A wide brimmed bush hat and coiled leather whip, were thrust into my hands. My flock comprised of three ladies who shared a combined age of at least a couple of centuries, a toddler of about four and an enormous, grinning ranch hand who had outgrown me by at least a foot in every visible dimension. In the third act, following the arrival of the three kings, my flock of geriatrics, toddlers and farm hands would re enter the dining hall in a specifically 'unruly' manner. I would follow and attempt to 'round them up' in what I am sure was intended to be the comedic climax of the evening.

Our moment came and my flock burst into the hall. I gulped down my pride and followed. My more aged sheep were covertly blending in amongst the diners while the toddler had crawled far out of my reach underneath the desert table. That left me only the swarthy ranch hand who stood uncowed in front of the congregation, staring me down with a mischievous glint in his eye. The gauntlet had been cast and the wills of the hunter and hunted must now clash until one of us had emerged victorious. I fingered the leather whip in my right hand. His eyes flicked between mine and the whip and in their movement I saw the hot blooded calculations of the downtrodden who realise they need no longer be subservient. My sheep let out a bellow which would have better befitted a grizzly bear, and charged. I yelped and tried to dive out of the way behind a bank of paper crowned pensioners but it was too late. Burly, muscle bound arms dragged me back and hoisted me effortlessly into the air. With me slung over his shoulder like a sack of apples my sheep marched victorious back to the stage. He span around several times to display his victim to the cheering onlookers who applauded the overthrowing of a tyrant by his subject. Dizzy and hatless, I was eventually returned to earth to a pitying applause. My authority broken, the ewes emerged one by one from their hiding places to join the other performers and make the final bows.

Mick and Elly at the Dartmoor Christmas dinner 

A few days after leaving Mick and Elly I reached the western end of Australia's most famous coastal drive - 'the great ocean road.' The road would take me most of two days to ride and spit me out just south of Melbourne. Exposed, windy and with little shelter I pushed my way along rolling gradients with dramatic limestone cliffs dropping away to the right. One of Australia's busiest tourist attractions, the road is regularly dissected by walkways to the most dramatic rock formations such as the 'twelve apostles', although now several of the apostles have crumbled into the surf.

The Great Ocean road 

The Great Ocean road 

As I neared Melbourne the road dropped to sea level and high, jungle clad cliffs rose high above me inland. I passed a Dutch mother and daughter parked up against the road's outward crash barrier, peering with binoculars into the choppy grey sea. I followed their line of sight and in the fading evening spotted a patch of commotion in the vast, uniform greyness. A flock of white birds were circling and plunging repetitively under the surface. I peered closer and spotted the cause. Camouflaged in the surf were the rising and falling fins of a pod of dolphins. Apparently the dolphins and birds hunt in cooperation. The birds attack from above and the dolphins from below; the fish are trapped, panicked and vulnerable at the surface. Every few seconds a dolphin would boisterously explode from the breakers in a graceful arc before plunging down again. I was told that further down the beach were a mother a daughter sperm whale. I cycled back but didn't see them.

The next day I arrived in Melbourne in darkness and pouring rain. The city felt crowded and frantic so I made a hasty escape the following morning for the Yarra valley, a wine region of smooth green hills sixty kilometers northeast. I had organised two weeks volunteering on the farm of Pieter and Tinne, an old couple from South Africa and the Netherlands respectively. Since their adult children had left Pieter and Tinne ran their cattle farm with the help of a continuous string of short term travellers through the 'workaway' platform which exchanges casual work for board and accommodation. For me, it was an opportunity to quell my 4000 kilometer motion sickness, digest what I had already achieved and mentally reset before taking on the mountains.

Pieter and Tinne were direct in their speech, cheerful over dinner and approached life with an originality and energy which couldn't help but make lasting memories. On my second night my hosts' grand children visited and I was introduced to an unusual but entertaining family tradition. Every three weeks a mound of scrap wood and foliage would build up at the bottom of the garden as the farm was cleared and maintained by the volunteers. When the mound was sufficiently large it was burned. The unusual tradition was that the fire was never started in the same way twice. Pieter and Tinnes' son was the captain of this endeavour and showed me videos of previous ignitions including a rocket attached to a zipline and a flaming arrow shot from a longbow. Tonight something different was in store. A plastic can of petrol was nestled into an alcove in the mound and behind it a small fire lit. With preparations complete, we returned to the porch of the house 250 meters away where Pieter's son sat cradling a sniper rifle to his eye, the barrel resting on the balcony handrail. We were directed to cover our ears as we counted down from three. The crack of the rifle was muffled by the roar of a thirty meter fireball punching its way into the evening skyline. Cheering ensued as we all bundled onto the back of a 4X4 trailer with beers and boxes of pizza to warm ourselves beside the bonfire in the cold night.

Clearing the lake on Pieter and Tinne's farm 

Pieter and Tinne's farm

Between Melbourne and Sydney lies the tail of the great dividing range, the world's third longest land based mountain range which runs parallel to Australia's east coast from the north of Queensland state to Australia's southern coast in Victoria. To reach sydney I had two options. I could follow the coast road which skirts around the mountains at low altitude but also bears the brunt of the traffic between Australia's two largest cities. Alternatively I could push inland through the Alpine and Kosciusko national parks which each have mountain passes of almost 2000 meters, smaller than the European Alps but not inconsiderable in winter.

I began asking almost any Australian I met about the viability of taking a bicycle over the mountains in winter. The feedback put the likelihood of my success somewhere between very unlikely and utterly impossible. The national parks had received a snow dump the week before and when I visited the department of conservation I found out that every single road in the Alpine National Park had been blocked bar one. Cars were required by law to carry snow chains. I didn't have studded tyres, my road front tyre wasn't even treaded and the rear was now worn smooth over thousands of kilometers from Tajikistan where I had fitted it. Alongside concerns over snow, ice, and blockages, with wind chill temperatures above 1000 meters could also drop below minus ten.

Unfortunately for my mum's peace of mind, being told I can't do something only increases my determination to do it. I had resolved to attempt the mountain route since landing in Darwin, although back then I had no idea at all of what that might entail. Deciding against it felt a little too much like chickening out of a commitment. It had to be the inland route.

The first challenge would be the alpine national park's 'Great Alpine Road' a 308 kilometer strip of bitumen beginning on Australia's south coast in the town of Bairnsdale and running northwards, up and over the great dividing range. It tops out at the Mount Hotham ski resort just under two thousand meters elevation.

I planned to tackle the pass over two days. The first day I climbed gently uphill for eighty kilometers following the windy 'Tambo river'. The Tambo was charming in the cold winter sun and the gradient gentle enough to climb almost a kilometer in altitude with little effort.

The Tambo river dropped me off at the town of Omeo sitting below the steeper thousand meter climb to the pass. Omeo would be my springboard to the heavens. I camped in the garden of a local hotel and mentally and physically prepared myself for the forthcoming challenge with a large glass of red wine at the bar.

My father is something of a veteran when it comes to traversing mountain passes, having walked from Portugal to Istanbul via a chain of mountain ranges and also taken a bicycle over the Himalayas from India to Tibet. Saying he is a useful reference to have on the other end of a phone call is something of an understatement. Over my wine we had a tactical planning session for the coming summit attempt. The forecast for the following day was bad. Fifty kilometer head winds at the top would be exhausting to ride in and would be savagely cold at that altitude. The day after was better. Twenty five kilometer tailwinds would carry me to the summit in bright sunshine.

Omeo was suitably interesting for an unplanned rest day. The town had birthed following the discovery of gold nearby in 1851. In 1908 large scale mining had stopped but motorcar access offered the possibility of sustaining a living from tourism, which the town has done since. In 1926 Omeo even opened a public swimming pool. The pool's opening ceremony was notable for the boy's duck chase where the bird escaped and ran up a nearby hill, followed by some of the spectators.

As forecast, the sun shone for the summit push the following day. So balmy were the lower slopes that I had pushed on bare chested for the first hour, relishing the contact of the frigid air on my hot skin, warmed from the inside out.

Thick snow covered all unsealed surfaces as I neared Mt Hotham. Riding through a ski resort with exuberantly coloured snowboarders whizzing by beside me was a surreal experience. The back side of the pass was craggy, dramatic and worthy of the self proclaimed 'greatness' of the road.

The great alpine road 

The alpine national park 

The alpine national park 

Mt Hotham ski resort

Mt Hotham ski resort

The alpine national park 

Crossing Hotham left me with one challenge to overcome before putting my legs up in Sydney. To reach the east coast I would have to cross the great dividing range again, this time west to east. Again snow had blocked many of the available roads. The road I hoped to use, the 'alpine way' had recently closed for several days due to a snow related landslide. This 121 kilometer road runs around the base of Australia's highest mountain, the 2,228 meter Mt Kosciusko and tops out at 1580 meters at the worryingly named 'Dead Horse Gap'.

Several days later I camped at the base of the climb, again intending to tackle it over two days. The forecast was dire. Strong winds with driving rain and snow for days to come, days longer than my patience would last this time. I set out in pouring rain the next morning for a campsite called 'Tom Groggin' eighty kilometers down the road. Dense rainforest overhung the road on both sides of the climb, gloomily cutting out almost all daylight. The little daylight which seeped through was quickly smothered by a thick, freezing mist which saturated my clothes and turned to ice on the descents.

The alpine way levels briefly 25 kilometers before Tom Groggin at the 'Geehi flats', some level paddocks historically used as a base by mountain farmers. The farmers have gone and the flats are now home to a huge number of wild wallabies. The farmers were clearly used to the inhospitable conditions I was suffering as they had built a large, comely mountain hut on the flat to shelter in. The mountain huts in the Kosciusko national park are now only to be used during emergencies, but given how cold I was and the brewing of  murderous storm clouds overhead I deemed my lot an emergency-in-the-making and piled in for the evening.

Mountain hut at the Geehi flat

Seeking heavy duty shelter was the right decision. The rain overnight was furious and deep puddles formed in front of the hut which threatened to flood inside. Freezing rain continued to fall as I packed up my gear the following morning. The wallabies seemed unconcerned and hopped around in front of the hut, their coats glistening and camouflage in the grey morning light. Despite the rain I had to push on. With the nearest shop 65 kilometers back the way I had come, a day waiting at the hut would be a day on sparse rations. Salvation lay ahead, over a thousand meter, snow whipped mountain pass.

The temperature dropped continually as I heaved out of the saddle up the steep, forty kilometer climb to the Dead Horse Gap. Soon I was in cloud which blended seamlessly with white snow which lay thick on every surface. I alternately puffed into my hands and rammed them into my armpits as I climbed, constantly battling to keep them from going numb.

The Dead Horse Gap was a chilling and barren scene. It found its name because 'brumbies', Australian wild horses, frequently got trapped by unexpected snowfall there and died. The road dropped sharply down a valley on the eastern side of the pass and the wind was consequently funneled through the gap. The ground itself seemed cold and unforgiving and I half expected to see the frozen flank of an expired mare rising out of one of the snow drifts which lay about me. I frantically stripped off my sweat sodden clothing and dug out dry layers for the descent. Mountain passes are bad places to be caught napping. At such altitudes the weather can change almost instantly.

The alpine way 

But as I dropped down the eastern side of the great dividing range the worst of the weather and the mountains were behind me. Several days later I blasted through the royal national park in the outskirts of Sydney, belting out 'Don't stop me now' by Queen as loud as possible. I had reached another milestone, another 'London to …' to add to my palmares.

Arriving at Sydney 

But reaching Sydney was different to previous milestones. Australia had provided the complete experience. Over nearly six thousand kilometers I cycled through tropical jungles, arid deserts, lush green farmland, precarious windswept coastal roads and high, snowy mountain passes. I had waggled my fingers in the oceans of three of this huge continent's coastlines.

Australia was also the penultimate chapter in my journey. I couldn't go any further east by land and would have to fly again. Ahead now, across the stormy Tasman, was this stories' long anticipated conclusion, Aortearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand. I had my flight home booked but first three months to explore a land long sought for, a land just about as far from my home as I could get on this planet. It was nearly time to go home, but not quite yet.


Comments

  1. So... you actually did get to New Zealand ... incredible... ... congratulations...

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