Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Land of the Misty Sunglasses

A Rainbow Lorikeet munching on an Illawarra Flame Tree, Queensland
Summer days in Queensland are whacked by a hail of meteoric commotions that arrive without warning and linger for as long as traveling bullets. It doesn't drizzle here, the build up to a downpour takes seconds. A drop or two bedew our panniers, and then it pelts down with the gusto of a power shower. The patter from falling sheets of rain quickly overtakes our voices, and minutes later dies a sudden death as spears of sunlight sear into our rain coats. There’s more: territorial magpies swoop and cockroaches the size of hamsters smash into our head-torches so that nights resound with our yelps which mingle with the screeches and beating wings of fruit bats as prodigious as any of Tolkien's creations. There’s a cacophony of cicadas too and the simian guffaw of kookaburras which explodes without warning from the forest into which the sun abruptly plummets, within minutes blackness consumes the day. Australia has us on tenterhooks, we’re always wondering where the next drama will spring from.

A surprise in the plug socket
I’ve cycled in hotter, wetter, more defeating places, but amid the unrelenting fever of Colombian jungles or Ethiopian deserts concerned citizens didn’t stop to exhort me to abandon my journey and fly home immediately, in Australia scores of passers by do so, indirectly, each day. Partly this might be because Claire exudes a rosy hue - more from exercise than from the sun - but which inspires people to take action. The manner in which we are warned about the perils of a bike ride through Queensland in the summer is akin to the response sensible parents might offer the six year old who demands a Black Mamba for Christmas. The assumptions are clear - you have no idea what you’re doing, say their cautious pauses between probing questions, their sympathetic head tilt. You haven’t done even the most cursory research, have you? They list the tribulations to highlight our folly – always the heat, the rain, the insects, sometimes the dengue fever; they compare Queensland in December to a swamp, and inevitably they finish with the daily lesson : ‘It’s not the heat that’ll get you, it’s the humidity’. Occasionally they dive in with bare faced sarcasm: ‘Picked a nice cool time of year to go biking!’. I return their smirk but with the added sliver of a look which I hope conveys a message of ‘Go away' and perhaps 'I want to hurt you.’

These very Australian ‘One-Line Wonders’ as we’ve starting calling them, can be as welcome as they can be unwanted. A chirpy ‘You doing it the hard way then!’ or ‘good on yers!’ can herald an invitation to camp nearby, and we enjoy having a laugh with those who judge us brave over stupid, suspecting we're probably a little of both.

‘Uhhh! Stephen, I’m broken! I feel like trifle! I feel like a dropped trifle and the dogs licking at it on the floor!’ We’re getting to know each other and I know by now that this is a bad sign. When Claire’s feeling particularly defeated she talks in culinary metaphors, feeling like custard or warm yogurt can be the antecedent to a crumpled heap of human by the road, she’s never reached the trifle stage before and I’m worried, it sounds like it might be worse than custard. But there are ways and means to cope with the ever present heat. Soon afterwards Claire strolls into a gas station, on first glance she appears to be perusing the cold drink selection, but there is something unusual in her adopted posture, arching her back, her midriff protrudes into the fridge, brushing up against a row of Pepsi cans. I join her, feigning indecision in event the staff are watching, gradually extending my thigh to meet the 7UP and catching wafts of icy air up my shorts. Eventually, as I'm busy estimating how much of my ass I could squeeze beside the ginger ale, a staff member is sent on patrol, probably tasked with finding out why two people are behaving so strangely, so we re-enter the furnace.

In the coastal town of Mackay we garnered information about quiet back roads from Peter and Jackie, touring cyclists and our affable hosts. Soon we were riding among flush, sun-dashed fields of sugarcane, massive in scope, which melded with the horizon. The leaves shivered in an idle breeze. Gradually hillocks of forest spotted the crops and were decorated by scrims of cloud. The cane fields were soon overtaken by more forest as we skimmed the outskirts of Eugella National Park. Gum trees were riven by shrubs of pastel pink flowers and raptors circled high above us. We reached Boulder Creek with a couple of hours until the sun began it’s impatient plunge beneath the tropical horizon. Tangled vines and creepers sought ownership of the river, invading the corridor above it, and we plunged into the water to discover shrimps and turtles and then set up camp on the banks. Crocodile free swimming holes are a luxury here.

Tully is the wettest town in Australia – one year almost eight metres of falling water splashed onto it’s streets and shops and residents, twelve times the annual average of London. As we cycled through the town the air was so muggy it weighed upon us like gravity. We stopped under trees, cowering in their nets of shade, wiping off old, hot sweat that refused to join the sodden, cloying air, and swiping away the harassing marsh flies - harbingers of rain. It’s a predictable pattern : the wind quickens from a murky horizon and the fuzzy hills, a drop or two splash us though overhead the sky is a broad, unbroken desert of blue - the drops have been wrenched by gusts from the maw of a traveling storm, still kilometres away. We make eyes at each other now. The sky is soon mussed, building clouds are scattered among leaden fractures which in turn wrestle with half a rainbow and become lost in a clump of pale and distant cumulus. Then it’s on us, and the rain falls in sheets. The patter eclipses the rustle of the sugarcane, and the dulcet wafts of cut cane and fetid stink of fallen mangoes are drowned out too. Sometimes there’s a bus stop or a gas station where we can huddle inside, where someone will saunter by, pausing just briefly to tilt their heads, narrow their eyes and remind us: ‘Not a good day for a ride, is it?’. 

But it’s over soon and we’re off again, the sliding air shedding rainwater from our clothes as we pedal, warm water splashing up between my toes. Trucks surge past trailing comet tails of spray. Two shaggy and sodden emus amble through the scrub. A troop of grey kangaroos just watch us, ears pricked. The trials of summer biking here are assuaged by these wild spectators, by the familiar tailwinds that rush at our backs and rear panniers like tiny hands propelling us through the puddles, and by the exotic fruit on offer – the mangoes, passion fruit, melon and lychees - from roadside vendors. Just as suddenly as the rain comes and the sun departs and some wild creature bays, croaks or trills comes a realisation just as acute and just as intense - that biking in Queensland at any time of year is fantastic.

With our arrival in the tropics road signs forewarn our new enemies – cyclones, crocodiles, dengue. Australia can’t hide from its disaster-ravaged history – we passed logs wedged high in trees and sprawling riverside debris from the unprecedented floods near Gayndah, past the scorched forests of NSW and the flattened ones near Cardwell in the wake of the category five Cyclone Yasi three years ago. It all helps bring a feeling of unease, of being hunted, augmented by the locals who warn us about gimpi gimpi (or the less imaginatively titled ‘stinging tree’ which invites a circuitous conversation 'What's it called?' 'The stinging tree'. 'Yeah, whats it called?' 'The Stinging Tree') an innocuous looking shrub which injects pain inducing neurotoxins into anyone who brushes past it. There are crocs too, so we cast our eyes down to the turbid waters of creeks as we ride over bridges, hunting for those lambent eyes, and lest we forget the centimeter sized jellyfish called Irukandji which lurk off coast and boast venom 100 times more potent than that of a cobra. On one occasion we left a tourist information centre trembling with cyclone preparation kits in hand and advice to camp in somewhere called Alligator Nest Picnic Area. It would be funny, if it wasn’t all so terrifying.

Townsville meant that Cairns, our last stop in Australia and the end of a 4000 km ride from Melbourne, was in spitting distance. Having paid for accommodation only once in three months of traveling Australia (a campsite) we decided one night in a cheap hostel was in order, a very minor splurge so we could physically and mentally reboot. Cycle touring breeds a deep appreciation of what you might otherwise take for granted. Showers, beds and roofs are now all a little unfamiliar and indulgent. We set off the following day towards Big Crystal Creek - a swimming hole we plunged into, greedy for relief from the heat.

Insects rule the tropics. There are ants, lots of them. We camp on them, sit on them, and find them milling about our food which is enclosed in impenetrable ant-proof panniers and boxes. There’s a cadence to the trolling thrum of cicadas that waxes and wanes as we ride through pockets of them and I will never forget Claire’s manic dance around the road with Lycra around her ankles - it was the day I learnt that going for a pee can be complicated by a centipede in your pants. Nights are spent sweating more than sleeping – lying motionless on our backs, adhered to our sleeping mats, wincing as we listen to the shrill buzz of a solitary mosquito intruder. We are in a world of sweat rash, of smelly feet, of misty sunglasses, of moldy food. And it's times like this, hard times, when I wonder whether the joy of cycle touring is actually just imagined, or relative, that it’s just a sequence of discomforts chased by a more memorable recovery which feels good only because the unpleasant thing has stopped - like taking off a tight pair of shoes – not really enjoyable, just relief. But the hard times never last and soon I’m optimistic enough to realize I was just being grumpy.

The region west of Cairns is known as the Atherton Tablelands and seemed an enticing adventure before unhealthy amounts Christmas pudding rendered me immobile on someone's couch. We climbed up in shadows cast by Cedar and Walnut, beside us a dense and titillatingly mysterious under-story of orchids, cycads and shrubs which could hide all sorts of extraordinary beasts. We dodged Wait-a-wile, a barbed vine which droops down to the road and threatened to snag and then wrench us off our bikes. I like too it's other colloquial name : Lawyer Vine. Once this thorny plant becomes attached it will not let you go (until it has drawn blood).

We took a day off to relax in a campsite and mosey through the patches of rain forest near Malanda, primed to catch glimpses of platypus, pythons and tree kangaroos but instead just finding scores of brush turkey. Then a night of gabbing away to Neil and Claire and their family over wine and a Sunday roast before pedaling through rolling hills, and I pondered the misleading analogy of the region to a table. I wonder if coming round for dinner at the home of whoever came up with the epithet would be an adventure – passing the salt might be more complicated if you have to negotiate peaks and crevasses of mahogany.

The road to Cairns was a fun-filled slalom as we negotiated the 263 descendant turns of the Gillies Highway. We rolled into Cairns just before Christmas, Claire as fit as Cadel Evans and often leaving me behind straining for oxygen, to Ian and Sarah and their two year old champion swimmer and future Wallabies scrum half William. Ian and I worked together in Whiston Hospital as first year docs many moons ago and shared a flat, he now works for the flying doctors but has begun the process of Australianation by freaking out visitors to the country, in my case with tales of kangaroos that disembowel people and other on the surface unlikely, yet in the context of Australia, immediately believable calamities. This was my forth Christmas away from home and my first traditional Christmas feast complete with Roast potatoes and Yorkshire Puddings. I'm still recovering.

I usually offer up a polite but firm 'no thank you' when I meet people on days off my bicycle who invite me out for a bike ride, relishing the prospect as much as a bath of Irukandji, but when Ian, a connoisseur of the world class mountain bike trails that twist and bound through the nearby mountains, offered to take me and Claire out on bikes without panniers, with suspension and that weighed about as much as my tent, we jumped at the chance. Despite some teething troubles which involved skidding around preternaturally tight corners emitting squeals which carried equal measures of prayer and blasphemy, I surpassed my primary ambition of mere survival and bloody loved it.

Australian drivers still fill me with rage as they shout ‘Get off the bloody road!’ or ‘You should pay rego!’ (the Aussie version of a road tax – these people are too dim and inbred to understand the concept of rego not to mention the unquantifiable health, social and environmental effects of fuel guzzling vehicles). It must be that tailgating and side-swiping pedestrians and bikers has been incorporated into the Australian driving test, I think, after another truck belts past, a hair’s breadth between us, sucking me helplessly towards the wheels. I muse too about the driving habits of serial killers and wife beating misogynists. It’s not bad driving that’s the problem, I decide, or a brief lapse in judgment, it runs deeper than that. These people are devoid of empathy, their bolshy over taking maneuvers speak volumes about exactly how much they give a shit about fellow humans. There is good news on the horizon though – a new law in Queensland will soon penalize drivers for getting within 1 or 1.5 metres of a cyclist and when it comes into force I hope all cycle tourers in this part of Australia set the Go Pros rolling and deliver SD cards to local police stations.

Our plans have been in flux of late but one has finally come together: I’ll spend the next three weeks walking solo the length of the pacific island of New Caledonia with a bare minimum of kit in search of a story and magazine feature. Claire will be traveling to Tasmania where she will be riding around the island. We will meet back in Cairns towards the end of January, fly to Darwin and then to Dili in East Timor before hopping to Java and Sumatra and Borneo.

Finally my good friend Oli who you may remember from this guest blog post, needs your help. He's made it to the semi-final of the Spontaneity Champion competition which slammed into his life and left a trail of destruction in its wake. Now an entire family's Christmas is in danger of being obliterated by this hideous phenomenon. Oliver, a once 'normal' individual, has been reduced to a grotesque state by his obsession with an online voting process. He remains constantly glued to the screen of his laptop and smart phone and is consuming paracetamol packets at a time, in a futile attempt to stave off the crippling headaches brought on by excessive screen time. His mind is fragmenting under the strain of this process and his family feel helpless. Christmas is descending into mania for the Davy family - but you have the power to help. Follow this link and click on the pink button to give Oliver Davy some respite. Enjoy your New Year in the knowledge that you have contributed to the rescue of someone else's.

Thank yous this month – Mad Props go to Ian, Sarah and William (for an awful lot, but especially the his and hers boxer shorts emblazoned with cartoon santas), Neil, Claire and family, Peter and Jackie, and of course Australia - you have been a joy-filled playground, a worthy adversary and a cuddly, endearing, slightly pissed and eccentric friend. Cheers mate.

A Christmas present from Claire


  1. What a contrast with Alaska. Going for it and getting it. Way to go Steve, take no prisoners.

  2. Awsome post Steve, I'm now slightly more afraid of cycling the length of Australia than I was before. I'm sure it'll be fantastic when I evetually get there, at least I now know what to expect from the drivers.

    Good luck with your adventure walking the length of New Caledonia - I look forward to reading all about it.


  3. Glad you made the Tablelands. Also glad you went down the Gillies, rather than down the main road (Hwy 1) through Kuranda, like I did. That was hairy, competing with the truck and bus traffic on the hairpin bends! But I don't think Aussie drivers are any worse than Texans!


  4. Good to hear you're still rolling, thanks for sharing your adventure, cheers.

  5. Heat rash seems a world away as sleet batters my window. Your adventures continue to delight. Looking forward to your expedition on foot.