Monday, 30 May 2011

Kakadu National Park

After a busy morning picking up our rental car, buying food supplies and changing money, we set off for the 250km drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park. By car we were able to cover in an afternoon what would have taken us three days on a bike. Others were more willing to spend the extra time as we found out when we met Dave, an English cyclist, at a rest stop. He had cycled up from Sydney and was able to give us some advice on what lay ahead. In exchange, we forced some food on him – finally it was our turn to give something back to a cycle tourer, and we were not going to be deterred by the fact that he had just had lunch and wasn’t hungry!||

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We had been hoping to drive up to Ubirr, in the north-eastern corner of the national park. It’s a famous spot to watch the sun set over the flood plains and the escarpment forming the border to Arnhem Land, a fairly traditional Aboriginal area that can only be entered with a permit. However, as we got to the turnoff, there was a sign saying the road was closed due to flooding. Although it was the start of the Dry, this was no big surprise as the Northern Territory had experienced up to 3 times the normal rainfall during the recent Wet which only ended a couple of weeks before we got there.

We saw some 4WDs going through the creek and figured it wasn’t very deep, so we gave it a go. A few hundred metres after this successful crossing we were stopped by a second creek, this one much wider and a little deeper. Of course we had rented the cheapest available car, by no means a 4WD, and it was clearly stipulated in our rental agreement that we were not to go through water, so we succumbed and turned back. (Later we read a newspaper report of a group of German tourists who had got stuck in this crocodile-infested creek with their rental vehicle and had to be rescued from the rooftop by the park rangers).

Back on the main road through Kakadu, we continued to drive through the beautiful bush land until we found a turnoff to a bush camp site. This was an unmanned campsite with basic bush toilets, no drinking water and a little donation box to pay the camp fee. We felt quite uneasy entering the site as there were crocodile warning signs all around, and the campsite was half enclosed by a river. Glen’s parting words rang ominously in our ears: “Crocs venture quite far on land. If you can see water, you’re too close!”

However, we really had not much choice as it was getting dark, and we later discovered that the situation was quite similar at all campsites in Kakadu. So we set up our little tent, making sure there were some other campers between us and the river, and always keeping an eye out for any dark shapes moving towards us through the undergrowth. We cooked our dinner at a little picnic table and were even able to light a campfire. Staring into the fire, we were pretty glad we’d invested in broad rimmed hats and head nets: the flies and mosquitoes were just unbearable. 

 

It was great to wake up in our tent, surrounded by the Australian bush with all its bird life and the fragrant gum trees swaying in the breeze. Our first port of call was the visitor’s centre at Bowalie where our wallets were relieved of the hefty park entrance fee and we visited an exhibition with information about the flora and fauna in the Kakadu area.

Next, we drove to Nourlangie, an ancient rock art site. A loop walk took us past Aboriginal rock paintings of varying ages, depicting various subjects ranging from kangaroos to dancing people and lightning gods. One of the caves had been used as shelter for the last 20,000 years.

 

On we drove to Cooinda. As we had been unable to visit Ubirr, and quite a few of the bushwalks were closed due to flooding as well, we had decided to treat ourselves to a Yellow Water Cruise to experience more of Kakadu. The Yellow Water Billabong is a lake which carries water year-round and is connected to a wetlands and river system.

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As soon as we had entered the boat, we spotted our first crocodile cruising in the water nearby.

 

The crocodiles in Kakadu are mainly of the saltwater variety, which means they are larger and more aggressive than their freshwater counterparts. Whilst the “salties” were endangered a while ago, they became a protected species in the 1970s. Since, their numbers have spiralled up to over 100,000 in the Northern Territory alone. As Glen and Ruth told us, you wouldn’t want to swim in the sea or any rivers up here as crocodile attacks are quite common, only some water holes are safe to swim in.

The bird life in the wetlands was amazing. We spotted many different birds such as egrets, eagles, corellas and jabirus.

We also saw four more crocodiles. Most were sunning themselves on the river banks with that toothy crocidle grin satisified in the fact that they sit ontop of the food chain. One of the regular males (4.5m long) was doing his usual rounds of his territory making sure all was in order.

 

In the evening, we found another great campsite. The campsites here in the Australian bush are so different from the manicured lawns and hedges of Europe. They are more spacious and open so that everyone has a good amount of space, and you can often light campfires in the evening to cook your Roo steaks.

 

In the morning we were keen to drive back to Darwin to tackle our final chores. We were full of nervous energy knowing we have a big ride ahead of us and were trying to get our heads around what lay in front of us.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Darwin: the Top End of Australia

On arrival at the airport in Darwin at 4:30am a power-hungry customs official ripped open our lovingly arranged bike boxes to check for specks of dirt on our tyres and panniers. Our hard work in Singapore paid off, nothing was found and we were given the green light.

We had arranged to stay with Glen and Ruth through the Darwin Cycling Club, and to our astonishment Glen had offered to pick us up from the airport, yes at 4:30am! ||

Walking out off the airport and into the eucalypt fragrant morning air we loaded our kit into Glen’s pickup and drove the 20km to their house. Ruth was already up and warmly greeted us with their lovely little pooch Miss Muffett. They showed us around their lovely home and the areas we had sole use over. To our amazement this consisted of a luxurious caravan for our sleeping quarters, outside table and barbeque area for reclining, undercover area to work on the bikes and a fridge packed with “a few things” so we “don’t have to rush out.” Imagine our amazement when we opened the door of the fridge bursting with all those delicious foods we had been craving during our time in Asia: bread, cereal, cake, cookies, orange juice, milk, bacon, eggs, fruit etc. We were in heaven.

Glen and Ruth's home   The fridge

As we lay down on our bed resting we couldn’t believe our luck, it was the perfect start to Australia and felt really good to be back.

Our generous hosts even offered for us to use Ruth’s car to drive into Darwin (Glen and Ruth live about 20km out of the city), so we went into the city and began reinstating our lives in Australia. We registered for Medicare (the national health service), picked up a parcel from Guy’s parents at the post office, bought a SIM card, investigated opening a bank account and purchased a few odds and ends from the local outdoor store.

By chance some friends from Germany were in Darwin too, having just completed their travels through Western Australia. We gave Jessica and Hendrik a call and managed to meet up for coffee and cake before they flew out the next day. It was great to see them again and share tales of our respective adventures.

With Jessica and Hendrik

On our first evening, Ruth and Glen invited us for dinner and cooked a delicious Asian style prawn dish. In the tropical north of Australia, life mainly takes place outdoors, so their living room is pretty much outside, fully set up with sofas and a TV. We were lucky to arrive at the start of the dry season (“the Dry”), which is warm but not too humid, whereas “the Wet” is very hot and humid with a lot of rain and kicks of by intense storms known as “knock em down” storms.

Darwin, situated at the very top end of Australia, is a really long way from anywhere else and still feels a bit like a frontier town. The population of the greater Darwin area is around 120,000, and the closest city is Denpasar in Indonesia, 2 hours flight away, so Darwin is in a way closer to Asia than to anywhere else in Australia. The Stuart Highway which connects Darwin with Adelaide and which we are planning to cycle on, was only fully paved in the 1980s, and most other roads in the Northern Territory are still unpaved dirt roads which are often only passable by 4WD and frequently closed in the Wet due to flooded rivers.

Glen and Ruth   Miss Muffett

Darwin is home to a population of Aboriginal people that are obviously facing many of the social problems that exist in many of the other Northern Territory towns. It is evident in the way they loiter around the shopping malls, sometimes looking quite listless and sitting under trees near the roads. As a counsellor and having grown up in a remote Aboriginal community, Ruth was able to explain some of the social problems amongst the Aboriginal people to us. These are often caused by alcoholism (later on we came through several Aboriginal areas that had prohibited liquor in their area to combat this problem). Teenage pregnancies are quite common and unemployment is high. This problem is exacerbated by what is called “sit-down money”, which many Aboriginal people receive from the government and which seems to discourage many of them from working.

Around half the land in the Northern Territory is owned by Aboriginal clans or is currently under claim (the “traditional land owners” have to prove a lasting connection to the land or the existence of sacred sites for their claim to be accepted). Glen has an intimate knowledge of these issues as his company works with Aboriginal land owners to assist them in business ventures and developments such as road houses, fuel stations and helipads. Whereas there are few Aboriginal communities left in the south of Australia, the issues around traditional land rights and the social problems that come with the uprooting of the Aboriginal’s traditional life style are very real in the north of the country.

Sunset   At Darwin beach

After a couple more days sorting out chores and putting the bikes back together, Glen and Ruth took us out to the Mindil Night Market which takes place in Darwin every Thursday and Sunday night. We set up our chairs on the beach to watch the sunset. We were very lucky as the Arafura Games happened to take place while we were there, so we were able to watch a couple of running events on the beach right in front of us, without even getting out of our seats.

The Mindil market is very diverse, with lots of mainly Asian food stalls as well as a handicraft section. Even though we split up to get food from different stalls, we all came back with exactly the same thing, and it wasn’t even Asian: Souvlaki!

Whilst we were keen to hit the road, we also did not want to miss the opportunity to visit Kakadu National Park. It was a decent detour on the bikes, but quite doable in a couple of days by car, so we looked into car rental and eventually found one that did not limit us to only 100km per day – a ridiculously small distance in the vast expanses of northern Australia. We left on Friday morning for Kakadu, planning to be back on Sunday for BBQ pizza night with Glen and Ruth, and setting off on the bikes on Monday.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Australian Outback: A Home Coming Ride

Almost one year ago we wobbled out of suburban London with the seemingly ridiculous thought of cycling to Australia through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. 20 countries later and over 13,000km under our wheels we are now in Darwin, Australia. So we made it. Well not quite, our journey is only 3/4 complete: The final 4,000 kilometres are the “home coming ride”, a chance for us to get under the skin of the country we will call home.

To get back home from Darwin we simply point the bikes south on the Stuart Highway and pedal for 3,000km until we reach Adelaide. From there we turn eastward for a further 1,000km along the Great Ocean road to Guy’s parents’ home in Point Lonsdale, a small seaside hamlet 1.5 hours south of Melbourne. We will ride through several different climate zones from the sweltering tropics in the Top End to the sub zero night-time temperatures in central Australia and the windswept shores of southern Australia.

There are just four main “towns” along the Stuart Highway: Katherine (population: 5,850), Alice Springs (26,300), Coober Pedy (3,500) and Port Augusta (13,500). The Stuart Highway is the only paved north-south road through the centre of Australia, and it was only fully paved 25 years ago. Most tracks off the highway are unpaved and only accessible by 4WD. There will be little shade, the winds will be prevailing headwinds, food will be scarce and when available expensive. Water will often be acrid tasting bore water and at times we may need to carry up to 20 litres of water each to cover some of the more remote stretches.

australia

But we won’t be alone, there will be a cast of millions of flies and mosquitoes, accompanied by crocodiles and kangaroos. Though it will be vast and empty we will still have attractions of sorts, well Outback style attractions, things like a singing Dingo, underground opal mines, road trains, a big red rock, a King’s Canyon, the Devils Marbles, a telegraph line and cave paintings that are thousands of years old...

After Alice Springs we are considering the option of turning off the Stuart Highway and onto a more remote parallel road known as the Oodnadatta track. This unpaved road would take us through to Adelaide via the backdoor, through tiny towns where the population can be counted on one hand and road traffic is almost non existent. After 2,000km cycling on the Stuart Highway we are thinking we might be quite keen for a change in scenery but will have to asses the conditions when closer as rains make the road impassable and we may not be up for the extremely remote territory and tough cycling conditions. This would also mean that we would miss out on two of the four towns between Darwin and Adelaide (Coober Pedy and Port Augusta).

As our budget in Oz is low (we can’t even afford a proper meal out due to the rampant Aussie dollar) we will be camping as often as we can and will have to economise wherever possible. The treat budget will be slashed and we are crossing our fingers that our kit will hold out the final 4,000km without any expensive replacements.

All in all it has the hallmarks of an interesting and challenging ride. Our load will be the heaviest we have ever had and the conditions the most demanding, it will push us to new limits both physically and mentally but step by step we will make our way home.  ||

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Singapore

The roads leading to the Causeway to cross over to the island country of Singapore were quite busy with many slip roads to negotiate but the border crossing was easy. The man at immigration was rather astounded by our plans when we gave him our address in Singapore: “You’re going to cycle all the way to Sunset Way? That’s really far!” It was no more than 15km…

We had arranged to stay with Chuen and his mum through Warmshowers. As Chuen was still at work, his mum let us into the lofty house. We couldn’t believe our luck, we had our own room, space for cleaning and packing the bikes and wonderful hosts that helped us out with everything we could possibly need. ||

Chuen and his bike   With Mrs Chou

We spent the following day sourcing bike boxes. None were available in the large size we usually need for our touring bikes, but we eventually found some shorter, wider boxes which worked fine if we took both wheels off and the racks.

Marina Bay  Freddie packing bikes

Chuen is an engineer who had studied in California and then cycled across the US. He is a sweet and generous guy who took us out for dinner (BBQ’d stingray!) and showed us the area around Marina Bay in the city centre. We admired the futuristic buildings, including one that had a ship set atop three high-rise buildings, and one that looked like a giant Durian fruit. He also took us out for a drive one morning to take us to the city’s tranquil reservoirs, set in parklands in the heart of the city. Amazingly, despite it being a Sunday morning, there was almost nobody there. Apparently most Singaporeans prefer to spend their time in air conditioned shopping malls and food courts.

Strict but fair  Singapore reservoir

One evening we met up with Tze-Ern and Ben. They had become friendly with Guy’s parents when they stayed in their B&B in Australia and picked us up from Chuen’s house to take us out to their favourite dinner spot. The restaurant specialised in Chicken Rice, a dish Singaporeans take quite seriously as it must be prepared in a very precise manner. It was delicious, and with the side dishes of oyster omelette, silky bean curd and fried vegetables, we had an amazing meal with this lovely fun couple. As Tze-Ern is a psychiatrist she sometimes comes to Melbourne for conferences, so we might see her again soon, though it is not always easy for Ben, a GP, to get the time off to come along.

Ben and Tze-Ern   Beancurd any style you like 

On our second-last day, we arranged to meet up with Thomas, a Danish cyclist who had been cycling on a similar route as us since Bangkok. We went for dinner and bike talk at a food court near Marina Bay. It was great to meet Thomas and we are looking forward to reading his stories about his upcoming travels in Indonesia and Australia.

Food choices   Thomas

Following our dinner, we then headed across town to go to the famous Singapore Night Safari. This was very cool, with a walk and tram ride through the animal park. The Singapore Zoo is an open concept zoo, which means the animals are mainly kept in their enclosures through natural barriers such as motes. Most of the animals were very close to the tram, about 10m away, so we felt we could almost touch them. We spotted elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, leopards, hippos, rhinos, buffaloes, deer and many other animals. A walk in the bat enclosure was quite an experience, with fruit bats the size of cats whizzing around our heads and bombarding us with excretion! The night safari was an early birthday treat for Freddie as we would be busy on her actual birthday with packing and getting to the airport.

On our last morning we saw Chuen off on his way to work, finished packing, had one last ice cream at the local parlour and awaited our airport taxi. It was hard to believe that our time in Asia was finally coming to an end, but at the same time we were really looking forward to getting to know better the country we will call home: Australia.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Farewell Asia

(Germany) - Klang – Melaka – Singapore border

By the time we returned to Klang, our 10 day break in Germany already felt surreal. We had had a fantastic time oohing and aahing over our little nephew Felix and catching up with Freddie’s family and some of our friends. We visited her grandma and saw various aunts, uncles and cousins. Freddie’s dad took us out for a great day in Hamburg, visiting the world’s largest model rail exhibition and Russian spy submarine now anchored in Hamburg’s port. The day ended with an hour’s sailing on the Alster lake. The rest of the time was spent hanging out with Freddie sister and mum, not doing much at all except going for walks and chatting. The culture shock we had expected after all this time spent in Asia was actually a positive experience as we relished our calm and orderly surroundings and marvelled at all the produce available from the local supermarket. ||

Freddie with her parents   Maike and Denis with baby Felix

We were therefore a little sad to be back in Malaysia, knowing we would not see Freddie’s family for quite a while now. At the same time, the excitement about our upcoming bike ride through Australia was mounting, and with the return of Boris, our tent, the whole team was finally complete again (he had spent the winter in Germany as we didn’t need him for India and South East Asia). Jetlagged and sleep-deprived we set out the morning after our arrival for our final week’s cycling in Asia – the stretch between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

As we turned our first corner, Freddie almost ran down an elderly, slightly scruffy looking Chinese man on his rusty bicycle who was travelling in the other direction. After a chat the man, Bobby, insisted on inviting us for a coffee. Soon we were sitting in a local cafe, joined temporarily by his doctor friend, drinking ice tea and eating flaky roti break with egg filling. “Next time you come, you must stay in my hotel,” Bobby said pointing to the nice hotel we had just emerged from. It turned out that, despite his impoverished appearance, he was actually the owner of the five-story building. He also ran a fruit shop and filled out bar bags with oranges before he let us proceed on our way.

The road south of Klang was quite busy, with a lot of truck traffic and, as usual in Malaysia, no shoulder to ride on. We struggled a little due to our jet lag, but also due to the fact that we each had an extra 5kg of camping kit on our bikes. We stayed in a hotel in Port Dickson, which looked like quite a pleasant place except that it was totally booked up as it was National Day weekend.

The scenery was more varied the following day, with more hills and fewer palm plantations. The thing to do on National Day weekend seems to be to get a group of 30-50 friends together, each armed with a small backpack and a motorbike, and then drive down the coastal highway in mob formation terrorising everyone and everything on the roads. Ideally you want to impress your friends by pulling a stunt such as lying down flat on your motorbike, lifting your legs in the air, and then zooming past a couple of foreign cyclists as close as possible while giving them the thumbs-up sign.

On arrival in Melaka, we were very lucky to get the last room in a cheap and central hotel. The town was packed with weekend visitors and we squeezed through the night market along with everyone else, being tempted by an array of oriental foods and Chinese lanterns.

Melaka street

In the morning, we had a long sleep-in as we were still very tired from our jet-lag. The afternoon was spent wandering around town, admiring the antique shops, Chinese temples, flower-filled town squares, a Portuguese church overlooking the Melaka Straits and the old Dutch town hall. But mostly we spent our time hanging out in a coffee shop called The Geographer.

 Chinese lantern Chinese temple 

In the evening we had a knock on our door. “I see you also have the Rohloff hub,” fellow cyclist Marius from Holland introduced himself. With that, the scene was set for an evening of bike talk. Marius is a retired teacher who cycles somewhere in the world for a couple of months every year and had many tales to share.

Funky Melaka cafe   Bike taxis

As we were now only 2° north of the equator, the temperature became even hotter. We struggled with our 104km the following day and were quite tired as we arrived in Batu Pahat. We decided to skip the usual hawker stalls and treat ourselves to dinner at a chain restaurant called “Secret Recipe”. 

During the night Guy found out what the secret was. He was feeling decidedly queasy. After a sleep-in and a bit of deliberation, we decided to push on anyway as our timings were now fairly tight in view of our flight from Singapore to Darwin. Needless to say it was quite a hard day, but in the evening Guy felt better, and to add to this we were even upgraded to a seaview room in Pontian.

The following morning we had “last-day-cycling-in-Asia” buzz running through our bodies, it was now only 75km to the end of the road in Singapore. Mid morning we stopped in a little cafe for an ice tea and a coconut. A guy from Singapore who had travelled all over the world started chatting to us. After he left, we found out that he had cunningly paid for our drinks.

Goodie bag   Well deserved break in a drain

Shortly afterwards, we had lunch at a small food court, and once we had finished a man called Albert came by for a chat. He is a member of the local Lions Club and was quite interested in our trip. Before he left, he bought us a big bag of goodies including peanuts, cookies, crackers and cold drinks. We were really touched, it was such a friendly end to our stay in Malaysia.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

13,000km Photo

To celebrate our final day cycling in Asia we decided to dine at the illustrious “Secret Recipe” restaurant. Unfortunately Guy found out the hard way why it was all such a secret. We spent the day limping from one bus shelter to the next as his dinner kept reappearing.

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Monday, 2 May 2011

Kit Review (Part 2)

Over the last year we have pushed our kit hard, its been tested in a variety of demanding situations and terrains. Some items have excelled whilst others have fallen short. Below we talk about our experience with some of our essential items and attempt to give a unbiased performance review.

Like any kit, regular care and maintenance is essential for longevity. On the road it's not always practical to keep things in tip-top condition but we have tried to adhere to the manufacturer's advice as much as possible. If we have deviated from this we have noted it next to the particular item.

We would love to hear your comments if you have had any experience with any of the items below.

Brooks B17 Saddle  
Brook B17 Saddle Rating: 9/10
The first thing you notice about a new Brooks B17 saddle is the firmness. It's hard as rock. Everyone seems to have different experiences during the "breaking in phase", some feel...

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Ortlieb Back Roller and Front Roller Classic Panniers  
Ortlieb Back Roller and Front Roller Classic Panniers Rating: 9/10
Our Ortlieb panniers never let us down which is remarkable considering the number of times we pull them on and off the bikes and drag them about the place. They really are very durable and 100%...

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Schwalbe Marathon XR Tyres  
Schwalbe Marathon XR Tyres Rating: 9/10
With their deep tread and thicker tyre walls they look quite bulky but are surprisingly sporty for their size. They feel rock solid on the road and have brilliant grip on lose and wet surfaces giving you that...

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Thermarest ProLite 3 Sleeping Mat  
Thermarest ProLite 3 Sleeping Mat Rating: 7/10
We find the Thermarest ProLite sleeping mats comfortable as long as you tend to sleep on your back or front. If you tend to sleep on your side it's probable your hip will touch the ground. They provide...

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Western Mountaineering Versalite Sleeping Bag  
Western Mountaineering Versalite Sleeping Bag Rating: 9/10
Having used the Versalite sleeping bag frequently for 6 months, we are very impressed with them. For the majority of our tour the weather has been mild, but we did have some freezing nights in Iran...

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