Australia, Australia! Australia was the largest and most remote country that I have yet to cycle through. My Australian route was to cycle south from Darwin to Melbourne, cycling mainly along the Stuart Highway but coming off the main road to visit Kakudu National Park and Uluru. I was the most nervous about cycling in Australia than I had been about any previous country. Australia is hot, deserted, barren, there are no shops or water stops for hundreds to kilometers. There are snakes, spiders crocodiles, road trains, grey nomads and that guy from wolf creek! I was also on my own, meaning my sanity was going to put under pressure as I travel south with nothing to see and no-one to talk to! My mp3 player was also stolen in Thailand so I had no music! Nervous, you bet I was.
I arrived in Darwin in the middle of April, thinking I would be adjusted to the heat having flown in from Singapore but I was surprised as even though Darwin was not as humid as Singapore, the dry and oppressive 36 degrees heat seem to suck out the moisture in my throat as I re-assembled and re-packed my bike. I want to quickly thank the lovely lady at Jetstar check-in in Singapore who did not charge me any extra even through my bike and baggage was 8kg over the allowed 40kg baggage limit. Asian hospitality extending its smile right to the end. I checked into a small hostel in Darwin city, and this gave me time to rest and stock up on supplies since I had a 400km ride to the main township of Kakudu before I would be able to buy food again. I purchased $40 of dry foods and snacks, hoping this would be enough and after loading the extra food and another 13 litres of water I was surprised at the weight. This must have added about 25kg to the total weight, making my cycling seem slow and cumbersome. My total weight upon leaving Darwin was around 73kg, the heaviest it has ever been!
Out of Darwin there is a beautiful cycle path leading down to the township of Humpty Doo. This extends for 40km and from there the main road to Kakudu begins. Ensure you have all your supplies before you leave Humpty Doo as after leaving here there is nothing until you reach Jabiru, Jabiru is the main township of Kakuku and another 350km away. I was smiling and singing to myself as I left Humpty Doo, with the large open road stretching out in front of me. I was in Australia, I was cycling the outback on my own and I was headed for one of the most beautiful national parks in Australia. But my word was it hot, very hot! I was drinking my water too quickly and found I had to sit out of the heat of day by relaxing in the shade from 12-3pm otherwise it was too much. On day two, I realized how under prepared I had been for cycling the long distances without seeing anything. In Asia there is always a small village or street vendor about every 10km but here there is nothing, just passing caravans and open road. I was starting to struggle mentally and physically especially since my water was running out. My map showed a rest stop where I could camp for free at the end of the day, and I stupidly guessed that I would be able to find water here. Upon arriving at the rest stop I had maybe just two liters left of the thirteen I began the day with and after finding that the rest stop was dry, I really started to worry. I had to save my water so I could not cook or wash that night, since the next place where there was water was another 60km away. 60km would take me around 4 hours cycling on my very heavy bike and there was no way 2 liters was going to last in this heat. I camped that night, with the intention to get up super early when the day is at its coolest and cycle in the cooler morning air, meaning I would not need as much water. I did not have any coffee or oats that morning but set off at 6am with the sun just starting to rise its head. I cycled east towards the mapped petrol station, with the knowledge I could get water there, and I sipped at my two liters to make it last the morning. I did not stop cycling or take any rest that morning and arrived at the petrol thirsty but with a big smile on my face at around 10:00am. I had made it and had learnt my first Australian lesson, never rely on unmanned water sources since you do not know what you are going to find and always fill up on water wherever you can. This is a desert after all!
Cycling in Kakudu was still a learning curve for Australian distance cycling as many of the best spots are located 20-30km away from the main route being it could take a full day to get there and back whilst cycling in the heat. These little turn-offs were also mostly closed due to it still being the very end of the wet season so most of the swimming holes were off limits which added to the dryness of the heat. It was wonderful however to get to camp in the little rest stops dotted throughout the park and meet other people as generally when cycling in Australia you meet no-one. Other tourists would generally share their dinners and beers with me as we chatted into the evenings, sharing stories travel and life on a bike. If cycling through Kakudu, it would be better to go in May or June when all the access roads are open and the weather is a little bit cooler.
After leaving Kakudu the first main town you come across was Katherine. Katherine is located on the junction of east-west and north south roads so is quite a large town with a cheap supermarket and internet connection. Katherine was a perfect place to rest whilst stocking up again, since the next supermarket is located in Tennent Creek, 700km south. Upon leaving Katherine, my bike must have been feeling the strain since my front rack snapped about 50km out of town meaning I had to use cable ties to ties it back together, a temporary solution until I could find a welder to put it back together. This solution was working fine, but only another 30km I heard another bang, this time from the rear wheel and stopped to see that my rear wheel had lost 2 spokes meaning the wheel was buckling around like a rodeo. I had used my last spare so had to improvise using string which I threaded through the hub, tied onto the rim and then tighten the rig up with another cable tie. My bike was falling apart under the weight but luckily I had enough tricks in the tool box to bodge it. I am always surprised of the resourcefulness I find when having to deal with a bicycle problem, I am no mechanic but can always find a solution to get myself back on the road. I rode off south slowly slightly scared of what might brake next and with 700km to the nearest town promised my bike a nice new rear wheel and a wash if it made it there! Rule number two of cycling Australia is to ensure you are carrying enough spares/tools to enable you to fix/bodge your bike if anything brakes.
It was a beautiful road to Tennant Creek. There was a petrol station or rest stop every 100km so I had enough places to pick up water and had some beautiful bush camping spots to stop off at every night. The isolation of the bush was magical at night, with me cooking and camping under the stars, listening to the sounds of the bush and giving me plenty of time to think and dream. I slept peacefully every night since there was very little traffic along the road and my body was getting stronger than ever before. Cycling 100km every day to reach the next water stop gives you a very good incentive to keep going during the day, and with no distractions you start to reach almost a Zen cycling state where I felt at ease cycling for 3 hours at a time without stopping, just watching the bush go by. I would occasionally meet other cyclists going North and we would stop and chat a while in the shade, talk about the upcoming roads and where to get water or where to camp. It was nice to stop and share stories, but I was always surprised at the distances some of the guys do daily. On more than one occasion people would tell me they would cycle 150-200km per day and complete a large amount of this at night. This always surprised me as I found prospect of cycling at night far too dangerous with road trains and animals in the road and also did not allow for enough bush camping for my tastes! I really loved Australian bush camping since the country is so big and isolated it makes it so easy to take your time and pick the best spot for the night.
Upon arriving at Tennant Creek the rain started and I had to dig out my waterproofs before I got soaked. The weather had suddenly turned and I found myself needing my fly sheet on and my sleeping bag out every night from here on. Tennant Creek is a small town with a BP Garage with a wifi connection, a supermarket and a few pubs dotted around. Unfortunately there is no bicycle shop in town so I had to make my string wheel and cable tied rack last another 500km to Alice Springs. I decided to have rest day in Tennant Creek to avoid the rain and to rest my legs which had cycled 700km in six days. It was on this rest day that I bumped into a Dutch cyclist called Henri Manders. Henri was carrying just a backpack and a super light race bike and he was traveling north to Darwin after having worked at the mountain bike world cup. We agreed to meet later in the day for dinner one of the local pubs and it was over dinner Henri told me how he used to cycle professionally. It was only after a few further questions that I found out Henri raced in the 1985 Tour De France and even won a stage at the worlds biggest bike race. I was having dinner with a cycling legend. It was great to share stories with Henri about how his cycling and mine differed and what it was like to cycle in the Tour De France. It is amazing who you meet on the road, and even in Australia when people are few and far between it always good to remember that everyone has an interesting story and that it is important to stop and talk as it is to cycle.
Tennant Creek marked 20,000km and the half way point around the world. I celebrated this with a massive smile and lots of expensive Australian beer! It was great to celebrate a little in the desert and fell asleep that night in my tent thinking how much of an achievement this was and how much more there was to cycle ahead.
Rules for cycling Australia.
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.