A journey in its own right, the last two weeks have been unforgettable – 2500 cold kilometers heading eastwards across the Australian outback. The supposed westerly tailwinds turned out to be quite the opposite, yet, the journey from Albany to Adelaide gave me much more than I had ever anticipated. Yes, I spent many nights surprisingly cold below -5 as the tent flysheet would freeze up, many dark mornings fumbling about packing up with numb fingers, and almost every day swearing at the wind as it blew me backwards across the treeless plains, but there was something unique about the outback that I have never experienced before. A sense of riding through somewhere that’s truly wild, a place where you can explore without sensing man made boundaries, instead you come to terms with your own.
I said goodbye to Keith and Anne in Albany after what had been a week of constant rain. They were all prepped for their own adventure up to the northern tracks and parks of WA, whilst I was to ride to Esperance – the last real town before the outback. They’d recommended a quieter road that threads between the Fraser Range before joining the only road that bares east. It was a beauty. Riding through the forested national park between peaks, I immediately felt at home in the quiet wilderness. The forest wasn’t to last; I knew the following three days would be spent riding through the bush.
During those days, I bedded down a camping routine that would bookend almost every day for the following three weeks. Although they weren’t filled with any high octane adventure, I slowly made my way through the bushland, soaking in the sunsets and basking in the beauty of the odd Radiohead album (Kid A is definitely my favourite).
One morning I was cooking up the usual serving of porridge, banana and Nutella, when a kangaroo jumped out from behind a bush directly in front of me. I’d been told not to scare them, so I stood completely still, but completely still had me squaring up to this roo with a big pot of sweet Nutella in my hand. After spotting my bewildered face, he did a 90 degree hop to get a better look at me. What ensued was the strangest 30-second stare off of my life. I didn’t fancy taking a mean right hook from a kangaroo, yet, I couldn’t work out if that was worse than watching it eat all my beloved Nutella out of my hand as I looked on helplessly. Thankfully, a big gust of wind rolled in, blowing my drying tent flysheet around which freaked out the roo, ending our strange stare off and any nightmare scenarios of sacrificing my morning porridge.
Apart from this funny escapade, I enjoyed rolling through the small settlements that ran along the road every 100 odd kilometers. The pace of life was slower than a snail’s, and a welcome reminder that I was starting to ‘get out there’. Ring a large cow’s bell at the supermarket checkout to have somebody serve you, check out ‘what’s on in town’ calendars to find the numbers had all fallen to the bottom, or a white line marking out the road which had been sprayed over a large stick – it was great. A particular favourite was an advert for ‘Sheep Poo’, asking the customer to call ‘my Dad or my Nan’. These places may consist of vacant streets and a single road leading in and out, but I couldn’t fault their character and small-town charm.
After 4 dusty days cycling and camping without a shower, I arrived in Esperance, where Abby had offered me a place to stay. I’d dropped her – the only host in the whole town – a message on Warmshowers and she’d invited me to join her mates in having a Mexican dinner party that night. I stopped off at the supermarket for a resupply for the coming days, and low and behold, I bumped into to Abby also buying food at the checkout. I guess it’s not too difficult to spot the muppet wearing cycling shorts to complement a muddy complexion…
As is the beauty of Warmshowers, I found myself welcomed into a new group of mates chatting about cycling and life (my life is mainly cycling right now so there’s not much to separate) where a few hours ago I had been ‘Billy-no-mates’, munching on a stale cheese sarnie I’d put together in the hard shoulder. I felt right at home amongst what was a group of strangers only a few minutes ago, and was kindly invited to stay another night, where Abby had another group of friends arriving for a different dinner party. I was going to be spending the next couple of weeks on my own in the outback, so some more time spent being social seemed like a good idea.
The following day I spent out and about exploring the town, its unreal coastline (apparently the best beaches in Australia – Queensland eat your heart out) and local Thai for lunch. I grabbed a couple of packs of beer from the bottle-o, strapped them to my bike before making my way back to the house, where Abby’s mates were due to arrive fresh off a flight from Perth.
Another lovely night meeting more new friendly Aussies, one of which had actually cycled from the UK to Uzbekistan (as is strangely common among bike tourers). What was even more crazy, was that they were best friends with Amy (my Warmshowers host in Freemantle) and we called her up immediately, having a good laugh about how small this world really is. We compared stupid stories, gossip about the road surfaces in various countries (a go to favourite for socially deprived bike tourers) and discussed the beauty of couchsurfing.
The next morning was more of the same, with me feeling slightly reluctant to head out into what would be a harsh few weeks. But I was reluctant because I had met some great people, I’d arrived with nothing but a muddy face and left with a genuine bunch of friends – it doesn’t get much better than that.
Finally leaving the comforts of Esperance, it was time to head to Norseman. Truly the last bastion of a town before the outback, and by bastion I mean a collection of houses big enough to warrant a supermarket. I had originally planned on kicking off the campaign with a big effort to reach Norseman in a single day, but a lazy morning chinwag with the girls and nasty headwind had put those thoughts firmly to rest. It didn’t really matter though, I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that those dinners/mornings are why I’m really riding around the world. I’d have plenty of days to lay down some large mile markers on my way to Adelaide – or so I thought…
Camped up at my first roadhouse in a place amusingly called ‘Salmon Gums’, I had only made it just over halfway to Norseman and already the darkness had completely descended. My legs felt worryingly cooked after battling the wind and already I was feeling the balls of my feet inflaming where I had been pushing hard on the clips. I always like to ride with clipless pedals (rather confusingly ‘clip-less’ pedals are the ones where your feet are actually clipped to the pedal), the extra pulling power you get from them has translated from my time riding road bikes to the tourer, but it was time to ride without them, and pray my feet would heal.
I got chatting to a truckie, who happily informed me that to get his three-trailered beast of a truck up to speed required burning 20 litres of fuel, and consequently he wouldn’t be slowing down for any cyclists on the road. Cheers mate! As I was about to descend onto the Eyre Highway, a highway home to the largest trucks in the world, it was already clear I needed to be ready to hop off the bitumen if fancied retaining my third dimension.
After a morning kefuffel that involved fixing my stove and then finding my water steriliser, which had fallen out of my bag back where I’d camped in the woods, I decided that I should cook myself a decent breakfast of four scrambled eggs on toast to boost my morale. Clearly today wasn’t about to be a 200 km epic, especially as my old friend the wind was back in town.
Later that afternoon I reached Norseman, packed 10 kilos of food onto my bike to supplement the 8 kilos of water, before following the eastern road out of town. The sign read Adelaide – 1947 km’s, here we go I thought. By this time it was pitch black, I’d switched all my lights on, and like a lonely glow worm, made my way into the darkness. Excited – for sure – nervous – definitely. I’d known about this road long before leaving London; crossing the Nullabor plain was always a feature of anyone’s bike journey who had tackled the region. Far fewer people ride this road than the Pamirs; from Perth to Adelaide it’s around 3000 km’s, notorious for strong winds, scorching temperatures in the summer and freezing one’s in the winter. There are no epic passes to pose for summit snaps, just you, a bike, and whole lot of straight road. I wondered whether I’d prefer to be starting the Pamir Highway again over in Tajikistan, but decided that the unknown is always where the fun lies. I’d suffered riding across Uzbekistan – the only real long flat, desert road beforehand – so I wasn’t looking forward to this, but Australia had already exceeded any expectations I had previously, so I rode with a hint of optimism that night.
Pitching up for my first night in the outback it was bitterly cold. The lady at the checkout in Norseman had said -5 and it damn well felt it. I hastily put up the tent with numb fingers, hopped into my sleeping bag fully clothed and drifted off.
The following morning brought me right back to the start of my trip – riding across a freezing eastern Europe. My fingers and toes stung just as they did then, and I clenched and unclenched my fists for a while to try get some blood flowing again. Riding along with my full winter gear back on was not how I had anticipated tackling the Aussie outback! My thirst from transporting three bottles of newly frozen water on the bike a warning that maybe the Nullabor wasn’t to be only a mental game.
I cycled onwards through the bush, and as the sun warmed the outback, I settled in to laughing at the emu’s running alongside me between the trees. The road undulated as I followed it eastwards, coming to terms with what would be my landscape for the next few weeks.
The next day brought about another surprise in the form of heavy rain, luckily, just as I reached my first roadhouse. The Balladonia roadhouse has a small replica space shuttle inside to commemorate the falling of a US space shuttle into the local area. Probably the only exciting thing that has gone on here in its history. So I hoovered up some warm food sat next to a space display which felt about as alien as the rain falling outside. I was in the outback, and so far I’d had a morning of negative temperatures and another of rain – was I in the right place?
The next hurdle came in the form of a straight road. A very straight road. At 146 kilometers of arrow straight bitumen, the 90-mile straight is Australia’s longest straight road and one of the longest in the world. I coped a picture with the famous sign, before resigning myself to the fact that I would be battling a headwind through each one of its 90 miles. Before the trip I had watched videos of Mark Beaumont (the fastest man to cycle around the world) and Ed Pratt (the first person to unicycle around the world – absolute nutter!) as they tackled this crazy road. It’s nothing hard on paper, but after that horrific day riding a long-straight in Uzbekistan, I was ready for a day spent deep in the mental trenches. Secretly I had envisioned myself tearing along, pushed by those strong westerly winds that I’d been told flow across at this time of year, but it wasn’t to be. A few passing drivers wished me good luck; offering the incredible insight that it really was a very straight road…
I spent the afternoon riding along, camped on the road that night, packed up the following morning, and still had a further five hours before I finally saw a bend in the road. It was a tough day, but I wont ever forget riding along that funny old road. Unfortunately for me, as the road turned, it turned directly into the wind, and with the trees that had helpfully lined the flanks of the 90-mile straight now gone, I was run ragged like kite in a twister. I pushed hard on the pedals for hours, but counting down the kilometer signs stationed on the road, I was only going along at 10 kph or 6 mph. I decided on going with the metric measurement, as the bigger number made me feel as though I wasn’t working my arse for such a farcical speed. But in fact I was, 10 kph on flat, tarmac road is rubbish and I knew it. Yet I knew there was also nothing I could do.
The roadhouse that looked so tantalisingly close on the map could well have been in Samoa at the speed I was going. Eventually I decided to wait for the sun to set, hoping the winds would drop before riding the last kilometers to where a sub-par pie awaited me. Out in the outback, the nights are something else. When you turn off your headlight the world really does turn to a shade of black seemingly deeper and darker than that of nights anywhere else. Before the moon pops over the horizon, illuminating the land with its bright white reflective glow, you are left in limbo, limited to cone of light from the headtorch and your own thoughts. Occasionally a roo will hop across the road, but they’re not much of a problem, it’s the thundering road trains you need to be scared off.
A quick glance over the shoulder, lights in the distance, the distance maybe one mile, it may be five. In the treeless plains of the outback, perceived distance becomes subjective – another reality distorted by the enormity of the land. You can talk quantitatively about the place – the numbers are mind-blowing – but for me that’s missing the point. There were more stars in the sky than I’d ever seen before, the milky way was visible and the air still. As the wind had thankfully dropped, I could drink it all up, before stealing a second glance over the shoulder. The lights were brighter now, and looking ahead, there was another coming the other way. These beasts carry loads of up to 200-tonnes, speeding through the straight roads at over 100 kph with the finesse of a bowling ball barrelling through a bitumen mogul field – I just didn’t want to be the human pin.
Before setting off on this trip I had watched a documentary on the Indian Pacific Wheelrace. The race runs from Freemantle, Western Australia, to Sydney. It had boiled down to a fierce battle between Belgian school teacher and a British aerospace engineer for the win. Mike Hall, a seasoned rider from the UK and winner of the round-the-world unsupported bike race, was hunting down Kristof – himself a Transcontinental and Trans-Siberia winner – along this very road. I thought of them riding stupendous distances under the same stars, just three-times quicker! That race was eventually cancelled before either could finish, as Mike was tragically killed by a passing truck. I had seen first-hand how it easily this could happen, with vacant-minded truckies bored of the straight roads, not paying attention to the flashing lights and reflective gear of a small cyclist.
As the bright-lights behind slowly began to illuminate me, I couldn’t help but think of Mike. The overpowering roar from trucks front and back had combined to form deathly crescendo, and I took the decision to veer off the road as they passed each other and me with a foot spare. I’ve ridden in a lot of bad traffic in countries with crazy driving; entering Amritsar one Friday night springs to mind, as does Lahore, Pakistan in a heavy monsoon, Baku and Ho Chi Minh, but something about these trucks on this road felt more sinister. 10 or 15 more trucks passed in the time I rode in the dark that night; each time I would roll onto the dirt flanks, riding along before re-joining after it had passed. I wasn’t going to become another statistic, not today. I want to say that I didn’t ride at night after this, but I did. The tough wind conditions meant I would look to the darkness to provide a few further kilometers, and, for me I love to ride my bike in dark. I just made sure I was a bit more visible with what I wore; also becoming content to stop and wait for them to pass.
I arrived at the Cocklebiddy roadhouse a couple of hours before it shut to find a nice guy behind the counter who served me up a tepid pie and then a free cup of tea and some fruit. We was a cyclist too, and talked animatedly about the Indian Pacific Wheelrace riders stopping off here each year. I left with a new rejuvenated, but with a respect of those passing trucks, their loads often stretching back 50m (no joke, 50m is the limit of the largest trailered truck I saw on the road [it had 4 trailers], and often they will have ‘oversized’ trucks still, requiring a pilot car to drive in front with flashing lights and all traffic to move slightly off the road to allow them through – it’s mad).
I camped up behind a pile of sand used for construction, a little way away from the roadhouse and somewhat out of the returning wind. I treated myself to a shower from the public conveniences, got chased about by a fat, manic chicken that was after some food, then laughed at the ‘population census’ of Cocklebiddy as I left. The sign read: Population – 8, Budgies – 25, Quails – 7, Kangaroos – 1,234,567 – probably not far off.
Another day brought more headwind to fight both physically and mentally, although the outback did treat me with a hill. A large cliff edge just appeared out of nowhere, giving way to incredible views of the plains below, before they too gave way to the sea. I was not expecting any kind of descent today, so savoured the few minutes of non-pedalling bliss. Although, surely this meant I would have to go back up at some point, or perhaps a whale could tow me to Adelaide? I’d heard there were many about at this time of year.
A night under the stars after a gorgeous sunset, and I was back on the road. I was excited, the wind was slightly with me this morning, could this be the change I had been waiting for? Suddenly riding became much easier, I was cruising along to sunny guitar symphonies from Skeg and Circa Waves with a big smile on my face. Australia had never looked so good. Riding across the sunny outback in a t-shirt, the wind sort of at my back, this was what I had dreamed of for the whole year. The absurdity of it all, cycling from my little village outside of London to this vast open plain in Aus just came to me then – this is nuts!
I spent the afternoon riding along the plain, eventually riding back up the ridge over the Eucla ‘pass’. Riding up the hill I could once again see for miles over the land and across the sea. I carried on for another hour after Eucla, finally reaching the border. I was now in South Australia, the clock went forward and a celebratory fish and chips was consumed. Being one time zone away from Sydney felt somewhat significant in a country 5000km’s wide.
As per, I found a slightly dingy spot behind some bushes to pitch my tent out of sight of the aptly named, Border Town roadhouse. The next morning was a real cold one. A thick mist engulfed the road, making the passing trucks even more terrifying than usual. Thankfully they were few and far between – most drivers opting to wait for it to burn off before moving. I spent a lot of time following small tracks off the road and down to the cliff edge. The views of the rock cliffs protruding from the turquoise water was breath taking, and not something I had anticipated. At the end of my fourth track of the day, I made myself some lunch perched right on the edge of one, just as a whale breached the surface, venting out a load of air which sprayed up water with it. This was magic and I was left buzzing. I stayed down by the cliffs for a good while, just taking it all in – this was so much more than I’d ever hoped for.
By the time I left the spot it was already past four, and the next roadhouse was 75km’s away. I decided it had been such a good day, that I should treat myself to a cooked dinner there this evening if I made it that far. The tunes were turned up as the sun began to set, and I found my rhythm in the saddle. Despite being bitterly cold again, it was a beautiful time to be on the bike. Somewhere between pedal strokes I lost myself in some old Underworld albums, the soft synthesizers beautifully scoring the otherworldly landscape. I think I’ve decided they’re my favourite producers after that; ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’ from start to finish took the evening to a whole level, but still had the firepower to see me pushing on. After finally arriving at the roadhouse, my GPS said I’d ridden 188km’s – not bad after considerable whale watching.
Now I was truly in the Nullabor Plain. Null = no, and abor = tree. Dead simple. Of course this meant the headwind whipped my face harder than it had ever done, as I began what was becoming a daily slog eastwards. Kilometre signs crawled by yet again, leaving me with the difficult task of trying to distract my mind from cycling. When there’s absolutely nothing around, it was easier said than done. Eventually I reached the edge of the plain, where the trees provided some shelter once again. As the day progressed, the road curved around slightly, lessening the effect of the wind and allowing me to ride like a normal human again. What started as a hellish day in the saddle, slowly turned into a beauty. The bush land was now mixed in with flowing grassy plains, illuminated by a warm evening sun. The sky lit up orange and purple in every direction, producing a crazy 360-degree sunset. The road was smooth, empty and quiet, leaving me to once again marvel in awe of the place. It was one of the most special rides I’d had on this trip – probably my favourite sunset.
I’d reached the Nundroo Roadhouse that evening, where I got chatting to two antique dealers from the east coast. John was the more talkative of the two and bought me a beer as we talked about our travels. They’d just sold 100K worth of antiques a few days previous in the mining town of Kalgoolie, so drinks were definitely on him! It made for a nice evening though, and he invited me to crash with his family on my way to Sydney. ‘Ask for Antique John, they’ll know where to find me…’. See you soon pal.
After leaving the following morning, the bush turned to farmland as the wind returned to taunt me. I just put my head down, slowly making my way. That evening I pulled up a quaint church sitting on top of a hill. It was hilariously called Denial Bay Church. Riding up to the door, I found it was open so I looked inside to see if I could find anyone. Nobody was about, so I decided against sleeping inside, instead opting to put my tent up around the back. With a graveyard for company, I watched with a piping hot cuppa as the stars came out, catching up with my diary under their white glow.
As I packed my stuff up before setting off, I witnessed the best sunrise I think I’ve ever seen. The sky looked like it was on fire – the clouds an inferno on the horizon ranging from bright oranges to deep red. I’ve seen a good few so far but that one really takes the biscuit. From here it was a couple days of cycling to reach a small town called Kimba. The highlight was sleeping on a horse drawn cart I found in the a small village park. A famous sign in the centre of town proudly said that this was the halfway town between the West and East coast, bloody hell, only halfway…?! I was flat out of power, so I called it a day just after lunch, deciding to charge up my powerbanks in the petrol station café. The place served a mean Indian curry and was frequented by locals. I got chatting to a friendly old chap called Brendan, who asked me where I was planning on sleeping that night. After explaining what I was doing, and asking if he knew any good spots to camp in the bush, he invited me to stay around his. I didn’t need inviting twice!
We had a hilarious evening watching ‘would I lie to you?’, which I had no idea was big in Australia and telling stories from previous travels. Brendan had been head of the wheat association in the area during his days as a farmer, and travelled all over the world as part of his role. The next morning he drove me up to a vantage point looking out over the hills, then over to a series of huge grain silos that have a beautiful mural painted on them. Because the days are so short here, I was initially itching to get going, but I reminded myself that these little things are what the trip is all about, the kilometers can wait – it wasn’t like I had a busy afternoon planned…
The highlight of the afternoon was passing through a place called ‘Iron Knob’, I happily chuckled at the sign and watched the heavy machinery move about from the seat of the saddle. The land had turned from fields to bush, to scrubland again. It was nice to feel back in wild. I had a great afternoon riding the plains between small rocky mountains; knowing I was only 30 miles away from Port Augusta and the end of the Eyre Highway I started to realise what an adventure riding this one road had been. It’s strange to reminisce about things that happened just days ago, yet re-running through me leaving Norseman in the dark already felt like a lifetime ago. I could have put in a big shift and cycled to Port Augusta but decided against it, I wanted one last night here in the outback. One last truly wild camp, sunset and rise. It was the right decision, leaving me amazed that when I actually put my glasses on I could see about three times as many stars as I had previously…
That night I sat outside for a long time in the dark with my headtorch switched off, happily cooking away to the sounds of a recorded Giles Peterson show. It was a time to reflect on the whole trip, tomorrow I would complete the last big ‘barrier’ between me and Sydney. I can remember the mental checklist: the desert in the Stans, The Pamir Highway, The Karakoram highway, The Nullarbor. Sure there had been many mountain ranges, miserable days and beaurocratic nightmares between them, and I’m sure still many challenges to come before Sydney, but I had made it across the most remote section of Australia. I decided to meditate in the darkness for the first time in years – I have no idea why, but everything about that night seemed special. I wrote in my diary that I would never forget this place, given the amount of time I’ve spent cursing the wind or oogling at the stars, I think that’s a given.
It was a cold night to send me off from the outback – my tent froze solid, remaining stuck in shape after removing the poles and pegs. A nice dusting of ice was one way to send me off through the final hours of the highway. It looked like Kazakhstan, which soon gave way to Port Augusta and a big McDonalds sign indicating the start of civilisation. From here I rode hard, knowing that one more big day could see me to Adelaide, where a bed and a warm shower awaited. I hadn’t slept in a bed in nearly three weeks now and the thought was enticing.
With the bed in mind, I spent a few hours riding in the darkness along the A1 to a place called Redhill. I camped up in non-descript woods, going about the usual routine before receiving a video call from my best mate, Kieran, from back home. By this time it was 1am, but I answered to see him and his girlfriend Eryn bathed in sun beside a gorgeous lake. ‘Ped mate, are you there? It’s a bit dark your end’ he said. ‘It’s 1am pal, -5 and and I’m wrapped up in my sleeping bag, everything all good?’ I replied. ‘Yeah, more than good, meet my new fiancée, we’re getting married I just popped the question!’. Wow! There it was, my best mate was getting married. I offered my congratulations to them both, promising to be back home for the wedding before we laughed how he was due to be wed, has a mortgage, cat and car, whilst I was living in a tent. Neither of us would want it any other way and I was genuinely so happy for him.
No with a little spring in my step after that call, I rode hard the next day, clocking up a decent 175km to the outskirts of Adelaide, riding up into the hills where Irene and Jim welcomed me into their lovely home. Now it was complete and I could relax with them both. The last two weeks had been a true epic. 2200km’s across the outback, through Western and deep into South Australia in environment I’d never experienced before. That’ll be a story for the Grandkids.