Friday, 17 June 2011

An Entertaining Night

Barrow Creek – Alice Springs

We were planning to fill up with water at Barrow Creek road house and push on to free camp, but the chatty owner convinced us otherwise by promising to show us his German football memorabilia in the bar. The campsite was cheap but very basic, so we decided to stay for the night. ||

A telegraph station had been opened at Barrow Creek in 1872. It has a gruesome history as a station master and a linesman were speared by hostile Aboriginals in 1874. In retribution, the government ordered for 50 Aboriginals to be killed. This is where the name of a nearby creek originated from: Skull Creek.

In the 1930s, shearers began the tradition of pinning a bank note with their name on it on the wall of the pub so that they could have a drink when they passed by again. Some also left hats behind, and there was even a horse saddle. They are still displayed in the bar, along with a huge collection of other paraphernalia left behind by tourists in more recent times.

Barrow Creek telegraph station   Pub full of memorabilia

We noticed that the water coming from the taps tasted quite disgusting, the same as the water we had picked up in Wycliffe Wells the previous day. Other cyclists had warned us of the strange and salty taste of the bore water in this area.

“I wouldn’t drink the bore water from the taps anywhere between Wycliffe Wells and Coober Pedy,” a miner told us. “It’s full of uranium and salt.”

We trusted the miner’s opinion as his company was mining gold and uranium in the area. His group of miners was staying in basic accommodation at Barrow Creek while exploring the mining potential of the area. They had a Geiger counter and had measured 30 times the normal radiation levels at Barrow Creek. We gave in and bought water from the bar instead, at $10 for 10 litres. (Later we decided to just go by the taste and only buy water if the tap water was really undrinkable).

The only other people staying at the campsite were two couples from the Murray River area in Victoria who were driving up to the Roper river to fish barramundi.  One of the men introduced himself by donating four fresh oranges to us, a much appreciated gift, particularly as they were home grown.

The two brothers were true blue Aussie blokes – the real McKoy from their Akubra hats, ultra short “stubby” shorts and cow hide Bluntstone boots (“with steel caps, for kicking shit!”). They were quite interested in our trip (“You’ve come all that way on bicycles? Fair dinkum!”) and invited us to share their fire, as well as giving us a home made trail mix with dried apricots and almonds from the neighbour’s garden.

Around the fire, much manly bragging ensued and Guy felt a little inadequate when asked what his trade was. He felt like a real city boy when he admitted to working in “Information Technology”, a far cry from the wild-boar-shooting-pig-slaughtering work of these rugged Outback men. It didn’t help that they took it for granted we would carry a weapon (just as they had guns tucked away under their car seats) and Guy was asked “so, what sort of blade do you carry?” Erm, Swiss Army vegetable knife…

Though from different worlds we enjoyed each others company and promised to look them up next time we were in the Riverine area.

Back on the Stuart Highway we passed Central Mount Stuart, which John MacDouall Stuart calculated to be in the centre of Australia, equidistant between the most northerly and southerly, and easterly and westerly points of the land mass. In the afternoon, we suddenly felt very tired and were glad when we arrived at the Ti Tree roadhouse after 89km.

The campsite was lovely and good value, with soft grass and lots of wildlife. Peacocks wandered around and pink and grey galahs screeched as they flew from tree to tree. This time we had taken more food than we needed, so we decided to take a day off and catch up on some blogging.

Washing at Ti Tree   Peacocks at our campsite

Many people had warned us about the plagues of mice and rats terrorising campers south of Alice Springs. Apparently the ground is literally covered in them at night. One cyclist we met had told us that a mouse had eaten a hole in his tent. We hadn’t encountered any mice so far, but in the morning we discovered mouse poop around the tent, and a mouse had squeezed into one of our panniers to nibble on our bread and flour.

Refreshed, we had a good day’s riding and managed over 100km quite easily. We found a beautiful bush camp. Usually we make a fire when we free camp. There is nobody around for miles anyway and it is so cold at night that we would be in bed by 7pm if we didn’t have a fire. We had been experimenting with making damper, the traditional bush man’s bread that is baked in a camp fire. Having tried different versions with raisins and chocolate chips, we baked a really nice loaf of damper with pumpkin and raisins. Yum!

Bush camp   Damper

Unexpectedly, it started raining the next morning. All day it drizzled and rained and we felt cold as it was only 11°C. When we reached the rest area at the Tropic of Capricorn, we decided to make a few cups of tea and wait until the worst was over. After a couple of hours it was still raining, but we were keen to get to Alice so we decided to push on.

Ever since leaving Darwin, we had been steadily climbing. Just before Alice Springs, we finally reached the highest point of the Stuart Highway, 728m above sea level.

Rainy day   Welcome to Alice Springs

We had heard that the Finke Desert Race, an offroad motorbike race, was taking place a couple of days later, but we hadn’t expected the campsites to be booked out because of this. After asking at a couple of campsites in Alice Springs, drenched in rain, we finally found a camp. We were cold and wet but happy to have arrived bang smack in the middle of central Australia.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Devil’s Marbles, a UFO Centre and a Friendly Dingo

Tennant Creek – Barrow Creek

Tennant Creek had a strange feel to it, with its barred windows, closed-down shops and most shockingly a street cafe that was encased in a cage. The insightful Nyinkka Nyunyu arts centre with its tranquil garden and attached café felt like a ray of light in contrast to the town. We had an interesting encounter with the Aboriginal man running the gallery who also teaches youngsters horse riding skills to help them get work on farms.||

Three days of eating, resting, blogging and meeting interesting fellow travellers at the well-equipped campsite passed by quickly. To our relief, the wind also became weaker while we were there. Apparently the last week had been exceptionally windy, so we were hopeful that the headwinds might be a little kinder to us for the next 500km to Alice Springs.

After our recent experience running out of food, we left town with all the food we could carry and camped after 90km at a rest area. Overnight camping is allowed at most rest areas in the Northern Territory, though many are not really suitable for tents. At this rest area we were lucky to have a spot to pitch the tent, complete with a picnic table and water tank. We shared the area with five groups of grey nomads in caravans, as well as a local guy sleeping in a swag in the back of his pickup.

Guy at rest area

The following morning we cycled to the Devils Marbles. These amazing granite formations have been rounded over a billion years of harsh desert weather and hang precariously at all angles giving the impression that even the slightest touch could send them rolling.

Rainbow serpent eggs   Devils Marbles

Aboriginals believe that the stones are the eggs of the rainbow serpent, and the Devils Marbles are a powerful Dreaming place associated with the Dreamtime creation story.

Split neatly down the middle   Freddie at the Devils Marbles

After a stroll around we were about to move on when we spotted our first dingo. Many Australians feel apprehensive about these wild dogs who sometimes attack flocks of sheep and have been known to attack small children in isolated incidents. We had heard dingoes howling near our campsites on some nights but hadn’t actually seen one yet. This dingo was not shy at all and almost seemed keen to pose for our photos as he warmed himself in the morning sun.

Our first dingo   Dingo sunning himself

Our next stop after lunch was the UFO centre at Wycliffe Wells. This roadhouse lies on an intersection of ley lines (energy lines) so that apparently any UFOs in the area will pass directly overhead. Indeed there had been an unusually high number of UFO sightings in this area. We wondered if it had anything to do with the funny taste of the bore drinking water. The bar was covered in newspaper clippings about UFO sightings. However, we did not linger long. Freddie decided to have a quick shower, and then we moved on to find a bush camp site.

On the way, Guy spotted a guitar lying in grass near the road. It was in pretty good shape, only a couple of strings had snapped. Guy attempted to ride with it but it was proving too difficult so he left it balanced upright on the side of the road. A few 100 meters down the road we noticed a car stopped, no doubt a little baffled then a passenger got out to pick up the guitar.

IMG_2470     Bike is too small for the guitar 

We found a bush camp spot near the turnoff to Ali Curung, the Aboriginal village Ruth (who we stayed with in Darwin) grew up in. When we woke up in the morning, something was missing: the wind! For the first time since we arrived in Australia, it was very quiet with only a weak headwind in the afternoon.

We knew we were coming up to the spot where the English backpacker Peter Falconio was tragically murdered in 2001. He and his girlfriend had been stopped by a man who pretended to have car troubles and proceeded to shoot Peter while his girlfriend escaped unscathed.

It felt a little creepy as we approached the place of the murder. Just then, we noticed a pickup slowing down behind us and following us for a little while. In our rear view mirrors, we could see it pulling level with us. It was the first time a car had slowed down next to us in Australia. Too scared to turn our heads and look at the driver, we heard a cheerful voice spurring us on: “Keep pushing, you’re almost at the top!” Relief swept over us when we realised it was just a fellow tourist and no murderer after all :-)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Desert in Bloom

Dunmara – Tennant Creek

It was almost like someone had flicked the temperature switch to “winter mode”. The nights were cooling off quickly and we found ourselves seeking out the sun rather than the shade during our snack stops. The chilly mornings saw us cycling in full winter gear, complete with long johns and thick gloves. We were seriously wondering how we would cope with the even colder temperatures around Alice Springs.

Wattle avenues

On leaving Dunmara we noticed the scenery changing from the fertile, tropical forests to low scrub, announcing the start of the arid zone or dry centre. However thanks to the recent strong wet season, the desert was in full bloom. We cycled through avenues of yellow wattle bushes, admired the spiky pink flowers by the roadside, stepped over white blossoms on creepers covering the ground and marvelled over the gum trees that seemed to be blossoming all around us.

Pink desert flowers   Desert in bloom

Most of the creeks were still full of water and sometimes we happened upon a serene billabong complete with an assortment of birdlife and once a family of wild ducks frolicking in the shallows.

We see evidence of snakes most days, unfortunately most are mangled on the side of the road. We have seen a few brown snakes, about 1.5m long and even a rattle snake. A brown snake was sunning itself on the road but quickly slithered off into the bush as we approached. Displayed in glass tanks in the zoo they can look fearsome but in the bush, in their natural environment they are placid and beautiful. Even though Australian snakes are famous for their deadliness, they are also very shy. Staying away from long grass and making some noise as we walk into the bush is all that is needed to make them scatter.

Tranquil billabong  Snakes in the NT 

We gently climbed all day, cycling towards the hamlet of Elliott. Many people we met had warned us against staying in Elliott. “It’s just got a really bad feel about it,” they said. “The shops windows are barred up even during the day. I wouldn’t stay there if I was you.”

Elliott would have been a convenient overnight stop, but we also needed a reason to finally start wild camping so we looked for a campsite 10km before Elliott. It was quite tricky as the vegetation was very thick. It was hard to get in, and with cattle fences on either side, the options were limited. Finally we found a clearing, it wasn’t far from the road so we could hear the odd Road Train roaring through at night but it was covered enough so that we were even able to make a fire.

Wild camp   Spiky flowers

In the morning, the legs were feeling heavy, but the beautiful scenery kept us going, together with the hope of finding some food in Elliott. Some travellers find the scenery here monotonous, but at our gentle speed we see constant changes in the landscape as the beauty is often in the detail from the wild flowers, butterflies and birds to the subtle variations in soil colour in this ever changing landscape. Of course we are very lucky to be here during such a strong wild flower bloom.

Amazing colours   Butterflies

We were almost a bit disappointed when we arrived in Elliott. All was quiet on this Saturday morning. Sure, the fuel station windows and doors were covered in mesh wire, and a few hung-over characters were loitering about, but otherwise we did not see much suspicious activity and felt perfectly safe.

Elliott was the only hamlet on our way and our only real hope of getting some food supplies, but the shop was very basic. Everything was 2-3 times the regular price. Of course it must cost a lot more to get food items into these remote communities, but $5 for a loaf of bread that expired 3 days ago is still a lot for a poor cyclist!

The over priced campsite at Renner Springs was right next to the road with poor facilities so we decided it was better to bush camp more often moving forward. The grocery store was virtually empty except for a few cans of mushrooms and peas which cost us an arm and a leg.

At lunchtime, Freddie had another puncture. We soon discovered a gash in the back tyre. The puncture resistance is now low as our tyres are reaching the end of their life (after 10,000km) but the tread is still good so we hope to nurse them through to Adelaide where we have new tyres awaiting. For the moment, we swapped her rear tyre out for our spare tyre and fixed the old one with superglue.

 Another puncture

At Banka Banka station, we managed to scrounge some water from the chirpy owners. We are really in quite remote territory now. The stations here are huge – Banka Banka station is small by comparison, covering “only” 2,000km², on which they are planning to put 2,500 heads of cattle. To count the number of the water holes they have on the property they needed to charter a helicopter. The largest station in Australia is larger than Israel at 24,000km², 8 times the size of the largest station in the US.

Outback windmill   Remote highway

15 km down the road we struck gold, well not real gold but a lovely bush camp spot near an old quarry. The more sparse terrain is now much more bush camp friendly as we have enough cover and clear ground to pitch on. We were surrounded by wildflowers and young gums giving the impression of a little garden with an almost perfect circular clearing amongst the tall spinifex grass. In the morning we woke to the sounds of a kangaroo jumping around our tent, obviously curious as to the nature of our presence.

On our final day cycling into Tennant Creek we had the last crumbs of instant coffee, the last peanut butter and jam and the last slice of bread. At lunchtime, we dived into the emergency food supplies and cooked some instant risotto. We arrived at the Threeways roadhouse, 25km before Tennant Creek, starving. Some overpriced muffins gave us the energy to push the final distance to Tennant Creek where we planned to spend our time eating and resting.

Amazed by the amount we ate over the last 8 days on the road, we went straight to the supermarket to buy some items for dinner and breakfast. However, to our horror, the supermarket had just closed. We got a takeaway from Red Rooster and dejectedly pitched our tent at the local campsite.

Beautiful rock in the sunset   Yum, hairy kangaroo tails

Our supermarket visit the following day led to two discoveries: Firstly, everything in the supermarket was much more expensive than in the rest of Australia – bad news for two hungry cyclists - and secondly, they had hairy kangaroo tails in the freezer, yum!||

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Road Trains and Outback Pubs

Larrimah – Dunmara

It was inevitable the time would come and we were sure what it was, no other vehicle on the road could be heard from over a kilometre away: a Road Train. These beasts are 4 times the length of a regular truck (hence the name) and are infamous within the Northern Territory cycling community for throwing cyclist off and even pulling their bikes under as the they thunder past at up to 130 km/h, pulling two or three trailers along the narrow highway.

We watched the massive truck loom closer in our rear view mirror. We knew what to do, we must jump off the road to a safe distance and let it pass. As we watched it approach we were amazed to see it pull out of its lane, it was clearly giving us, a couple of wee cyclists, a wide berth! Nonetheless we stuck to the edge of the road and braced ourselves for the thunderous backdraft as it passed. The cabin passed then the first trailer, and the second, till finally the third trailer passed us and nothing, no lashing from side to side, no sucking draft.

We later realised that riding into the strong south-easterly winds had some advantages, we were upwind and as a result the backdraft from the Road Trains was minimal. Still we knew we had to be vigilant as not all the drivers are able to pull out, as after all, the Stuart Highway is no bigger than a country lane in parts. Luckily, most of the Road Trains seemed to be north-bound and we only had about 5 per day actually overtaking us.

Coming into Daly Waters at dusk, we spotted a road train carrying fuel parked on the side of the road. The driver was busy fixing some pressure cables and we went over to find out a little bit about these men responsible for such incredible loads.

“We don’t understand how you do it, driving on these narrow windy roads with such a massive rig,” we admitted to the driver.

“Well, I don’t understand how you do it,” he replied. “Cycling all day in the middle of nowhere with no shade, water or food!”

The driver, Footie, told us that road trains only exist in Australia, Namibia and Canada where they cover the vast distances between towns. The drivers can drive up to 14 hours a day and  need to have the skills to fix the road train if it breaks down. This particular road train was supplying fuel to the roadhouses along the Stuart Highway. They are the lifeline of the Outback and without them these remote communities could not survive.

Road Train

The Daly Waters roadhouse is one of the most famous Outback pubs and the most popular stopover between Katherine and Tennant Creek. Daly Waters used to be a telegraph station and in the 1930s, there was an important air strip near the pub: Qantas aeroplanes on flights between Sydney and London used to stop in Daly Waters to refuel. Passengers would disembark and be helped across a small creek with the option of taking a Flying Fox across for those wanting to take the express route! They would then visit the pub while the plane was being refuelled. Modern airlines take note.

In those days, the tradition of leaving something behind at the pub began, so there are lots of memorabilia on the walls that were collected over the years, from photos, badges and T-shirts to bras and stubby holders.

The campsite was very crowded, there must have been well over a hundred caravans, and most people had booked the Beef ‘n’ Barra BBQ with comedy entertainment. Even though we planned to celebrate our year on the road here, our budget did not stretch that far. Instead, we treated ourselves to our first meal out in Australia, a delicious Barra Burger.

Barramundi, or “Barra”, is the most popular freshwater fish in the Northern Territory and is on offer almost everywhere. We had really not expected to eat fish in the desert, but it was absolutely delicious. At the time we did not realise it, but in hindsight we were very glad we had this meal out to save our dwindling food supplies.

Daly Waters Pub   Barra Burger

We had miscalculated on a few food items and were already running low on some things such as milk powder, bread and snacks after only 3 days of cycling. In the hope of restocking our pantry we stopped at the nearby Hi-Way Inn, which according to our map was supposed to have a shop. Imagine our disappointment when we found that the shop only sold souvenirs, cold drinks and a few snacks. We did find a loaf of 3 month old bread in the freezer, which saved us momentarily as the next shop marked on our map was still 2 days away.

Wide open spaces

Back on the road we met another cyclist, this time from the Netherlands. He was a lucky chap who had enjoyed sunshine and tail winds all the way since Sydney, frequently covering over 200km per day. “It’s like sailing,” he beamed, “you hardly have to pedal.”

“Oh yes, we know exactly what you mean…” we replied, trying to fight back the tears as we pushed into the ferocious headwind.

We’d planned to take the afternoon off at Dunmara, 52km away. It was a nice campsite in natural surroundings. With our food pantry diminishing fast, a full rest day was not an option unless we found a decent shop somewhere. Otherwise the name of the game was to get to Tennant Creek, and fast. ||

Monday, 6 June 2011

14000km Photo

Somewhere a couple of days north of Tennant Creek and almost exactly one year after we started our bike trip, we hit our 14,000th kilometre. We were cycling through an area with fragrant yellow wattles flanking both sides of the road. With all the wild flowers and Eucalypts in bloom it’s certainly not the “desert” we had imagined.

14000km photo||

Hot Springs and a Pink Panther

Katherine – Larrimah

It’s nearly 700km between Katherine and the next small town, Tennant Creek (population 2,000), with nothing much in between apart from a few roadhouses and a couple of hamlets.

“Many cyclists turn back and take the bus,” said Coco, the hostel owner in Katherine. “This time of year, the headwinds are so strong you might only manage 50km per day.”

We left Katherine at 7am with a week’s supply of food in our panniers. We expected to take 8 days of cycling to get to Tennant Creek, and maybe take a rest day in between if we were feeling too tired. It is very difficult for a cyclist to carry enough food for 9 days (we eat a lot!), so we hoped to resupply at one of the roadhouses along the way.

The bikes were heavier than ever, though Guy’s wasn’t quite as heavy as it should have been: 5km out of town he realised he’d forgotten to fill up his water bottles! An emergency stop at a creek solved that problem temporarily, and we knew there was a rest area with a water tank about 50km further on. The rest areas in the Northern Territory are great as they allow overnight camping for free and usually have toilets and water tanks. Even though it says on the tanks that the water may not be suitable for drinking, it tastes, looks and smells fine, and when in doubt we filter it.

Long way to go   Water tanks

The next settlement is Mataranka (pop 425), 112km from Katherine, and we planned to get there in the evening. The direct headwind was pretty strong but we were fresh after our break in Katherine.

The terrain was undulating and the landscape beautiful. We love the strong colours of the Outback with the classic red iron oxide rich soil offset against the bright blue sky. Metre high sun tanned grasses lap at the gum trees with their twisted branches and jagged termite mounds jut out every so often. Each termite mound is different from the next, some are 1 foot high others towering to over 2 meters.

Termite mounds

In the late afternoon, we rolled into Mataranka, quite exhausted but proud that we made it. Mataranka is famous for its natural hot springs, just what we needed after a long day on the bikes, so we headed directly there. We reached the springs by cycling through a swampy area with water bubbling up and steaming on either side of the road. The springs were set in their natural environment with just a walkway and a wooden pontoon for access.

The water wasn’t too hot, just a little warmer than body temperature. We spent a relaxing hour soaking away the tiredness and soothing our aching muscles.

An early night was had at a nearby campsite. We have found the facilities at Australian campsites to be top notch. They often have a camp kitchen so we can leave our stove packed for the night, and sometimes supply a kettle, toaster and even a fridge. The showers are always hot, and there are washing machines and clothes lines. They are a little more expensive than the campsites in Europe though (around $10 per person).

Sometimes it’s difficult to get going early, as Australians just love a chat. Our fellow campers are mostly in their 60s, often on a long-term trip through Australia with their caravans. These “Grey Nomads” love to come up to us and ask all the usual questions – often it’s great as we can learn a thing or two about the road ahead from them, but sometimes we do get a little tired.

Apart from the Grey Nomads there are also a few younger people on the road, mostly on fishing trips. Almost everyone is going north towards Darwin. As we see about 50-100 caravans a day heading north, we are really not sure where they will all stay once they actually get to Darwin. There is not much traffic at all going towards the colder south, which is good for us as we have a more relaxed time on the road with not many cars having to overtake us.

Kangaroo danger   The Grey Nomads

In the morning, we had a few chores to deal with as this was our last chance for phone reception for the next week or so. By the time we got going, it was nearly noon and we still had 80km of cycling to do. Of course we could have free camped in the bush, but we were not ready yet to carry the extra 4-5l of water we would have needed to camp as we were still getting used to the weight of the bikes.

Our bodies felt great though. The hot springs really seemed to have cured our aches and pains, at least temporarily. The downside was that Freddie developed a funny rash on her arms and legs, which might have been caused by the sulphur in the springs.

Since landing in Darwin there is rarely a moment that goes by that you don’t hear at least a few birds around. The Northern Territory is really a birdwatchers paradise, and on a bicycle we have much more opportunity to observe than in a car. Unfortunately we don’t know much about birds and can only identify a few of them. There were egrets enjoying the overflowing billabongs, wedgetail eagles circling above us, screetching cockatoos and white and pink galahs. As we cycled through the bush, a tree trunk suddenly moved and turned out to be a huge vulture which flew off into the forest as we approached, its wings spanning close to 2 metres, and coming to a stop near a dead kangaroo on the road behind us, ready for its feed.

Unfortunately there are many dead kangaroos along the Stuart Highway. Some have just been killed, others are reduced to a little pile of bleached bones, picked clean by the vultures. They frequently hop into the way of passing cars or trucks, especially at night time. This is why most of the cars here have “roo bars” – metals bars that prevent the car from being smashed when it hits a kangaroo. The worst though are the dead cows we see once in a while, having been killed by road trains unable to stop or swerve.

It was our anniversary day as we had set off on our trip exactly one year ago. As we are both partial to a good scone with jam and cream, we had been looking forward to visiting Fran’s Devonshire tea house in Larrimah, our next stop (despite the fact that we had been warned about the overpriced coffee). However, with all our extracurricular activities in the morning we were too late: the tea house was already closed when we arrived. The celebration would have to wait.

Cycling through the forest   Pink panther

Larrimah (pop 20) was an important WW2 base with 6,500 army personnel stationed in the town and a big air base nearby. Nowadays however, there is not much left of the town, apart from Fran’s and the Pink Panther roadhouse and campsite which featured – you guessed it – a statue of a pink panther out the front. The people running the roadhouse were friendly but looked like they had been there for about 120 years. The main attraction in our view was the free zoo behind the roadhouse which featured a lot of native birds as well as a friendly pet wallaby. It also housed three fun loving emus who entertained themselves (and us) for hours by poking their heads into an open motel room window and yanking at the curtain drawcord!

Funny emus   Pet wallaby 

Word spreads pretty quickly down the Track and often people know of us before our paths have crossed. Some of our Grey Nomad friends had been mentioning two cyclists coming the other way. They were from Argentina and cycling on an ultra low budget. They were very care free and adventurous young chaps. They carried a guitar, didgeridoo and drums as they did street performances to fund their travels. One cycled barefoot and had some backpacks hanging off his bike instead of panniers. They had no tent and must have been very uncomfortable in the freezing night time temperatures further south. It was quite inspirational to talk to them and to see how little you need to cycle tour and made us realise how much luxury we have compared to them.

A little later we ran into another cyclist from Taiwan. He was cycling on a folding bicycle with little wheels so could only manage half the speed that we could do and as a result had to take twice as much water. But little by little be he had come all the way up from Melbourne; another inspirational encounter.

Frank from Argentina   Taiwanese cyclist

The wind started up earlier every day now, we could hear it lashing against the tent in the wee hours. While in the beginning there had never been much wind before 9am, now it already started up around 4am so that we really had no “free” kilometres in the morning any more. We often found ourselves doing as little as 10kmph on a flat road, switching positions every 2kms so one person got a little rest whilst the other pushed directly into the head wind.

We were now only 3 days into the 8 day ride to Tennant Creek and we could already feel the exhaustion setting in, it was going to be a long haul.||

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Warm-Up Ride

Darwin - Katherine

On our return from Kakadu we dashed to the supermarket to stock up on food for the next 4 days of cycling. Katherine, the next town along the Stuart Highway, is only a little over 300km from Darwin, and we knew we would be able to buy more food there. After that, the distances between food supplies would increase dramatically. The ride to Katherine was a good warm-up ride for us to get used to the conditions of cycling the Australian Outback.


We returned our rental car and enjoyed one last evening with Glen and Ruth. Early the next morning we packed up, waved goodbye to our gracious hosts and pedalled our ultra heavy bikes towards the Stuart Highway. In Asia we had got used to much lighter bikes, without camping kit or food as accommodation and restaurants were available regularly. Now we were additionally carrying our heavy food supplies, 4l of water each, camping kit and a more generous supply of spare parts.

The Stuart Highway follows the route of John McDouall Stuart, the first explorer to traverse the continent south to north. He achieved this on his third attempt in 1862, having turned back because of illness and “hostile natives” on his previous attempts. Later, a telegraph line was built along the route, connecting the Australian colony with the London headquarters.

1464km to Alice Springs   On the Stuart Highway

Once we had got the hang of handling the heavy bikes, our progress was good, despite a light headwind. The “highway” turned out to look just like a small country road, set amongst scrubby bush land and tall Eucalypts. Not far out of Darwin’s suburbs we soon found ourselves immersed in nature and were quickly reminded of how beautiful the Australian bush is. Cockatoo’s screeched at us from the tree tops as wedge tail eagles soared above. In the afternoon wallabies and kangaroos hopped through the long savannah growth and lizards darted across the road as we passed.

On our first night we camped at Adelaide River, a lovely green campsite that felt almost like the lawns of Europe. The campsite was part of the road house which amongst other things featured a huge stuffed water buffalo named Charlie who had become famous in the movie Crocodile Dundee.

In WW2, the Darwin area was the largest Allied operational base in the south west Pacific. Darwin suffered numerous air raids by the Japanese in the early 1940s, and 487 servicemen were buried in Adelaide River. The cemetery was beautifully maintained and is the largest Australian war cemetery.

Whilst cycling through the Northern Territory, we would often pass reminders of the war, including campgrounds for the various battalions involved in the fighting, as well as air strips. Now that these areas are covered in bush land once again, it is very difficult to imagine that the Northern Territory was so key to Australia’s defence in WW2.

Charlie the water buffalo   Adelaide River war cemetery

On Glen’s recommendation, we detoured off the Stuart Highway to take the scenic route between Adelaide River and Hayes Creek. As most cyclists will know, “scenic routes” often involve numerous hills, and so did this one. It was a beautiful ride, quite undulating and with not much around at all except for bush land.

As it was our wedding anniversary, we were quite delighted when we passed a little creek named Anniversary Creek! Of course we could not resist the photo opportunity.

Anniversary Creek

For lunch, we had a lovely picnic in a shady spot by the side of the road, surrounded by gum trees and wild flowers. To celebrate the day we got the stove out to make a cuppa.

Towards the end of the day we were pretty tired, not being used to the hilly terrain with our heavy bikes. Hayes Creek campsite was a lovely place with a beautiful view over a steep ridge. To our surprise, another cyclist rolled into camp shortly after us. Kerry had cycled up from Geelong, near Melbourne, in 30 days with only one rest day. Her goal was to get to Darwin the following day for her graduation. She was very inspirational, a single mum full of boundless energy and the grit she needed to achieve her ambitious goal.

It seemed our ride along the Stuart Highway was not to be the lonely adventure we had foreseen: the next morning, we met a Dutch couple cycling the other way, as well as a chap from Perth on a recumbent bike.

Cyclist from Perth   Kerry from Geelong

At this time of the year the winds are prevailing south easterlies, so we were a little jealous to hear their stories of huge distances covered in a single bound. We only managed 56km that day. Freddie’s knee was aching, the hills and head winds were taking their toll. We stopped at Pine Creek, a small village with a tiny shop stocking mainly canned, dried and frozen goods.

Pine Creek is a classic Gold Rush town, having enjoyed a 20 year gold rush starting in the 1880s. Even now, there are still some gold mines around. When we stopped for a loo break near the town, we actually spotted a guy with a metal detector walking around in the bush looking for precious metals. A little later, we met a retired couple of sapphire miners from Queensland at a campsite. They explained that you could still just peg a claim, get permission from the government and then mine the area, just like in the good old days!

Smoke and fire on the horizon became a common sight as controlled burning was taking place to clear out the undergrowth in preparation for the bush fire season. The Aboriginals for centuries and even today still use burning off techniques in the early dry season to avoid bush fires later on in the year and promote re-vegetation.

Pine Creek  Bush fires

We made good progress in the morning of our last day’s cycling to Katherine and had 50km done by 11:30am, despite the head wind. The afternoon however was a struggle. The heat did not bother us too much as it was quite a dry heat, although it was 36°C, but the wind really picked up in the afternoon. For the first time on our trip we actually found the motivation to get up extra early (5:30am) to beat the afternoon winds.

Stuart Highway

At first glance, Katherine looked a little rough around the edges, mostly with local Aboriginals loitering around and looking a little menacing (later we found out there is little to worry about as much of the shenanigans are directed within their own groups). We pulled into an inner city Backpackers which we had been told had a discount for cyclists to camp in their yard. Coco, the owner, was quick to greet us and made us feel really welcome. Coco was very active in the Art scene and promoted Aboriginal Art through his attached gallery. As an ex buffalo herdsman by trade he knew the Territory as well as anyone. He told us tales of remote areas in the Top End that are so unbelievably beautiful you would think you were in paradise.

Once we had settled in our first job was to find the nearest supermarket and replenish our depleted food stores. Woolworths, the first supermarket we had seen since Darwin and the last one we would see until at least Tennant Creek 700km away was luckily around the corner.

The main attraction of the Katherine area is the Katherine Gorge, a series of 13 sandstone gorges carved out by the Katherine River as it heads from Arnhem Land towards the Timor Sea. The Jawoyn Aboriginal people regained ownership of the land as late as 1989 and now lease the land to the Parks and Wildlife Commission. Aboriginal traditions such as hunting and spiritual ceremonies are still carried out in the area.

The best way to see the gorge is to hire a canoe, but unfortunately this was not possible at the time as the unusually rainy wet season had only just finished. There were still some saltwater crocodiles lurking in the gorge, which meant it was not safe for swimming or canoeing until they were relocated. Due to budget constraints (a common theme in Oz) we could not afford a cruise, so we decided to do a bush walk that wound up onto the ridge overlooking the gorge.

Freddie at Katherine Gorge   Katherine Gorge

Once we got back to Katherine we prepared our food supply for the next section and hoped our calculations were correct as it was 700km until the next decent town and the riding was only going to get tougher.