It’s just inevitable as men get older - they develop a receding sense of humour…
The sound of an engine dies, a car door clicks closed and then two voices fill the night. I walk down the driveway outside my second cousin Peter’s house in Sydney and find Claire lumbering under a bulky cardboard bike-filled box. The three weeks we spent riding through Canada back in June feels like years ago. Champagne seems appropriate, though tea is all we have, so we cheers mugs, catch up and muse about a bike ride half way around the world together.
Remembering vividly how I questioned myself and my reasons as I pedalled away from London in 2010, I wanted to instill some extra excitement about the journey into Claire, enough to eclipse the sense of foreboding and self-doubt that start lines can bring with them. So we met up with a bunch of mutual friends as well as Henry and Jamie, AKA The Blazing Saddles, two fellow poms who had arrived into Sydney a year and half ago after about two years of pedalling from the UK (both met girls within hours of arrival and have been comfortably holed up in Sydney ever since). Alongside our mate Neil and over a round of snakebites we sketched a blobby Asia in my journal and teased out their hard won wisdom. It worked – we walked out of the pub into a world full of promise.
I cycled out of Sydney with a new Rohloff Hub (my third) after a mechanical failure, and our exit was the breezy jaunt that I wished leaving any city would be. A ferry moved us from the iconic surrounds of central Sydney with its venerable Opera House up the coast to Manly to more blooming jacaranda, the visual equivalent of hugging a kitten. It was our first step on a two year adventure together - Brisbane 1000 km to our north, tropical Cairns and some crocodiles a couple of thousand kilometres above that, then islands that ooze mystery and exoticism: Timor, Java, Sumatra and Borneo, before a jigsaw of animated lands in South East Asia, and eventually the Himalayas, terrestrial Gods, chased by the graceful Pamirs. It was this daydream, imbued with sentimentality, which inspired me to throw my arms around Claire as we stood together watching the opera house diminish behind the churning wake of our boat. On the harbour a mob of drunk men responded with a verbal torrent of ‘Go on mate!’ before one of them dropped his jeans. It was a beautiful moment rendered unforgettable by a strange man's penis flapping in the breeze.
The very Australian boat to Manly had a bar, essential since the crossing takes twenty minutes and a captain and crew abruptly descending into alcohol withdrawal en route could be catastrophic. Manly had been invaded by a Saturday night jumble of rakish drinkers and so two sheepish touring cyclists wheeling their way through the high heels and hollering melee felt incongruous, as much as if we were weaving through a Middle Eastern souk.
We planned to stick vaguely to the Australian coastline to Brisbane but our passage jerked inland for a time, through the charred forests victim to recent wild fires that raged untempered for weeks across New South Wales, collectively contributing to some of the worst in recent memory. The gum trees were either black or iridescent rust, their outer bark scorched away, their gleam heightened by the drizzle, and everywhere the stench of charcoal. Signposts along the highway had been torched and the odd patch of earth still smoldered. A petrol station had exploded when the flames licked at the pumps, a huge shrimp adorned the gas station sign and was the only survivor of the blaze, looking comedic in amongst the destruction. Soon though the tranquil and unburnt forests of NSW drifted by our handlebars and wallabies hopped among the gum trees before Australia swiftly killed my buzz with a signpost: ‘koala fatalities this year = 35’.
On only our second night Claire appeared hurriedly at the tent door and told me she’d just been bitten by a spider in the toilets. Knowing we needed to figure out the culprit to know what to do next we trapped the spider inside a Tupperware box. I hoped my soothing words and veneer of calm was working on Claire, but really I was thinking ‘is that a brown recluse?’ as I peered anxiously inside the plastic (later learning these don't live down under!). We called an ambulance. Twenty minutes later we were left feeling particularly foreign and foolish as a paramedic turned the Tupperware up towards the light, reporting back ‘just a Huntsman mate, and only a tiddler’. And then, as if we’d faded entirely from existence, they began reciting a list of the biggest and baddest of Australia’s arachnids and what they could do to you, intermittently adding things like ‘Oh yeah, that one ‘ll bite right through ya boot!’.
Eventually they turned their attention again to our little spider, which was curled up in the corner of the box and looking even more unassuming. ‘No need to kill the little guy’ one of the paramedics told us whilst inspecting the baby Huntsman, an insect we’d just learnt is one of the commonest and least revered in Australia. He tipped up the box releasing the spider not into the dense bush ten metres away but into the short grass on a direct transect between our tent and the toilet. The ambulance then set off, no doubt one of the medics was soon on the radio ‘Just another couple of pomy bastards boss…. yeah just a Huntsman…… no, no, bout a big as a blue bottle……..OK………yeah ‘cause we’ll thrash ‘em in the Ashes’.
We pedalled sections of the old Pacific Highway, fallow now in the wake of the new version and nature had begun to reclaim it, like a world post apocalypse. Off the road were unnervingly idyllic villages where I half expected to be greeted by a bearded figure in an unsullied white robe announcing ‘Friends, welcome to our community!’ before I was invited to sleep with one of his 14 wives. Sometimes it’s useful to know roughly how big a village on our route is so we can guess if it has a shop where we can stock up on supplies. I asked a local man.
‘Hi there. Just wondering about the next town, Kilcoy, is that any bigger than Esk?’
‘Well now, let me think. Jim! Jim! How many pubs are there in Kilcoy?’
‘Three!’ Replied Jim
’There you go. Three pubs in Kilcoy, two in Esk.’ He said, as if that provided the perfect answer to the question.
Between wails of ‘Incoming!’ (code word for a magpie attack) we laughed a lot. We practised our Aussie accents, mine might only just brush convincing but Claire’s attempt sounds like she’s waterboarding a Rastafarian. I chuckle when Claire wanders about searching for her sunglasses, remonstrating, oblivious to the fact she's wearing them. She chastises me for the inaccuracy of my eating or the fact that I call my cap Clive, that I’ve attributed some kind of personality to him and that I haven’t washed him since Peru. Then we ride on, and we suck up the quirks of Australia together.
As we approached Brisbane a series of fierce storms took hold and for days we cycled under the low rip of thunder, heads dipped over the handlebars as if that would somehow lessen the chance of a lightning strike. Torrential rain struck half a dozen times, we biked through areas in which almost 30 mm fell over 24 hours and were almost flooded one night when pools began accumulating around our tent and water seeped through our floating groundsheet. To add to the hardship the Gold Coast and passage into Brisbane was difficult to negotiate by bicycle. Unfortunately anyone intent on riding great swathes of Australia has to resign themselves to the fact that at least some of the journey will be on the busy main arteries where bikers are made to feel particularly unwelcome. And whilst we get waves and smiles from some, there seems to be more anti-cyclist sentiment in Australia than any of the 44 countries I have ridden so far.
Despite a number of rail trails Australia does not have a cycle touring infrastructure on par with the US or many countries in Europe. Roads don’t always come with shoulders, and bike lanes, even in cities, are poorly thought out (in Melbourne for example almost every bike lane I cycled ran immediately next to rows of parked cars - there’s a predictable epidemic of injured riders with more than 100 cyclists getting knocked off by opening car doors every year). Consequently Australia has a death rate three times higher per million km cycled than the Netherlands. Some back roads can offer a break from the melange of aggressive drivers but unless you opt for massive detours you will be forced onto the main thoroughfares eventually. Almost daily in Australia somebody has stopped to shout abuse or come close to running me off the road. It's a mighty shame since Australia has plenty to offer touring cyclists.
Fact: Bikes are great, so why do so many bike lanes in Australia routinely end abruptly leaving cyclists without recourse? It’s as if the town planner was sketching out the cycling infrastructure and at that exact moment had a colossal brain haemorrhage. One driver on the outskirts of Newcastle got a barrage at their window when they were forced to stop at a red light ahead of me, and I don’t regret a word or gesture. I know what you’re thinking – why waste your energy? Don’t let it rile you. That was my mantra too, for about three years. Try being the little guy for that long and not become an enraged and militant biker. Aggressive drivers in Australia, persistent hawkers in Egypt, drunk policemen looking for bribes in Mexico, religious zealots in the US - experiences with these people are exasperating not just in themselves but because they remind me of one irritating universal truth – that there are twats everywhere.
The free tourist information maps in Australia are spangled with the symbols of important places, ones you might need to reach in a hurry – a hospital, a campsite, a petrol station, a liquor shop. The last one is necessary because some Australians are of the mindset that running the kids to school is more fun if you add vodka. So sick of the baleful minority of Aussie road-wankers we delved back into the bush, but first skirting Harrington, a weird little town who’s signpost proudly declared that it had once been the recipient of the award of ‘Tidiest Town in Australia’ which seemed to me the naffest of all awards to win. Tidy means soulless, I want rumpled quirkiness where character trumps order. Then other villages where chirpy locals taught us some local lingo – I can now tell someone they stink in Australian (“You’re a bit woofy under the Warricks”) or that they’re ugly (“you’ve got a face like a dropped pie”) which I am particularly fond of - visually it’s a great metaphor and one that speaks of Australia’s love of pastry based snacks to boot.
Keen for a little more adventure we veered off onto a gravel road that wound towards the rugged beaches and cliffs of Indian Head. My assurances to Claire that we were nearly there probably started sounding hollow well before my 13th attempt, and by the time we arrived the sun was about to elope but we were still determined to claim our reward of a swim in the aquamarine ripples of a swimming hole I’d seen in a photo in some tourist information centre. After what felt like an Iron Man like feat and with the last of the sun’s rays long since vanquished by night, we did an about turn and settled for a cold shower at the campsite. Now though when things don't go to plan, as they often don't, there’s someone to laugh about it with.
Australia’s wildlife is still one of the highlights of travel here and the forests in this region were home to three and four foot long Lace Monitor lizards which meandered through the campsite and under toilet doors, scattered startled tourists. I’m in a near constant hunt for snakes and big spiders, when I find one I can feel Claire shooting me daggers because she’s predicted my coming and inevitable hunt for a stick so I can poke the thing. ‘Why?!’ she demands. I shrug. How to tell her I’m hoping for some kind of attack on the poking device or other show of ferocity?
|Our first koala in a roadside tree|
Another gravel road led to the beaches around Crescent Head, and the home of Bob, a local man who reeked of booze and not just in the olfactory sense. ‘I’ve cycled all around Australia you know’ said Bob, stroking his pseudo-pregnant paunch, quietly reminiscing. ‘Oh yeah, how was it?’ I enquired cautiously trying to imagine Bob not only on a bike but also younger, slimmer, less alcoholic and let’s face it, less Bob. ‘Dunno. Gave up after three days!’ he quipped. We pedalled to the beach and our bikes were soon lost in a whirlpool of ageing surfers who peered and pointed and muttered to each other and then unleashed an interrogation, Bob amongst them, chipping in with tangential lines of enquiry ‘Nice rims. Hey, did I tell you about the time I got a tick?’
Civilisation returned, and the small towns had shops whose signs boasted ‘Australian owned’. Well thank God. There’s nothing worse than being served by one of those revolting foreigners, they’re the ones who don’t have faded AC/DC singlets, mullets, missing teeth, the stink of stale Victorian Bitter and names like Bazza. The towns were joined by serene country roads and when we were enjoying a tailwind, sunny skies and no traffic I mused aloud ‘This is great Claire. Cycling doesn’t get much easier than this’. And then my back wheel collapsed.
After a local shop rebuilt it we continued to Brisbane where we stayed with Dion and Pune, two mates I stayed with back in Buenos Aires. It turned out the Ashes were just beginning (that’s an Anglo-Aussie cricket match and a century old rivalry to my American readers). I gave a few radio interviews outside the Gabba stadium admitting I didn’t know the match was in fact on at all until two days ago and taking some gentle abuse from Aussie sports commentators who liked to call me a freeloader, though one of the stations gave us free tickets to the first day of the test, before England got annihilated. The next night we spent in the company of musicians after Claire scored free tickets to a salubrious gig on the southbank which she writes about here.
We pedalled north through an ever more sizzling Queensland, a touch inland now, away from the busy coastal highway. After stopping outside a small grocery store I began to feel quickly unwell. Claire looked concerned as I rolled about moaning and complaining of nausea. She tried to get to the bottom of it. With a doctorate in psychology there was something of the therapist in her steady, careful patter.
‘Stephen, tell me what’s the matter?’
‘Dunno. Oh it hurts!’ I moaned, initiating a stagy clutch of my belly
‘Stephen, did you eat something?’
‘Tell me what you ate’
'Just a banana?'
'No. A banana, and last night’s extra hot Tikka Masala'
'All of it?'
'Pretty much. AHHHHH, my stomach!'
'Stephen, tell me what else?'
‘A litre of Molten Caramel flavoured MAX milk’
'Claire make it stop!'
‘Food panic’ – it’s the art of consuming an ill-advised combination of food in less time than it took to purchase it.
Cutting a route north through Queensland’s forests where tangled silhouettes of branches dappled the stony tracks, where the all-pervasive birdsong rang out, where we grew accustomed to the rustle of foliage as unseen creatures rushed from the road. Picking our way through villages we swam in creeks and camped in lay-bys sometimes alongside twenty something Europeans in camper vans here for the financial rewards of fruit picking. Over the last few days we’ve been treated to all manner of luxuries from local heroes: Joanne, Mark, John, Jan and Anna amongst them.
Our first foray together through Australia has been lots of things - eventful, waggish, tough too. We're adjusting, physically for Claire, mentally for both of us, as we learn to cope with the fast oscillations of a life travelling together. In some respects things have been stacked against us – I mentioned spider bites, collapsing wheels, storms and bad drivers but there were a host of other tests too - an infected leg, a common cold (Claire), a severe case of man-flu (Steve), sore knees, a cut foot, a sore arse, joyriders and heat. No doubt there will be more to come as we pedal north into an ever more humid Queensland and beyond, but as I found out four years ago - the hardest part of any challenge is starting it in the first place, and I hope that's true for Claire too.
Thank yous – Dylan (the hero who runs the sensational bicycle touring company Ride and Seek), Peter O’Driscoll and family, Dermot and family, Tommy Moore, Joanne, John, Steve and Liv, Dion, Pune and the gang, Kearon the camera dude, Jan and Anna, Lyndsey, Mel and Eddie, The Royal Geographical Society of Queensland, Mark, ABC and 4BC Radio stations, Saba, Ben and Joel, Neil Scott, Henry and Jamie, and a bunch of others – you know who you are. Next stop – Cairns for Christmas.